RE: Mauritanian raid against AQIM

Mauritania is on high alert after a major military operation against AQIM near (and across) the country’s border with Mali. The Mauritanians are said to have “enveloped” a column of twenty AQIM vehicles on its way to Mali through the desert near Hassi Sidi close to the Malian border late last night (others say Areich Hindi in Mali).¹ Early reports had the objective as the capture of two (unnamed) AQIM commanders. The Mauritanians managed to killed at least 12 AQIM fighters while suffering as many as fifteen deaths of their own. Reuters is quoting security officials as saying “The operation was launched because the opportunity presented itself. It was not planned long in advance.” Mauritanian reports have said that President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz himself directed the five hour battle from army head quarters in Nouakchott. Later reports have it that Deputy Chief of Staff Mohamed Ould Mohamed Znagui ran the operation on the ground. It was reported in Mauritanian newspapers that France and the United States provided intelligence and logistical support for the raid; France has denied involvement in the Hassi Sidi operation. Another engagement is said to have taken place following the Hassi Sidi fight, in towns nearer to Timbuktu, Mali (80 km away) and launched northeast from Nema. The Mauritanians bombed AQIM positions as the fighting reached a lull during the early morning hours, after which fighting resumed (it is unclear what equipment was used for this; probably helicopters, possibly of Chinese origin or possibly fixed wing craft from elsewhere). The Mauritanians are reported to have used “heavy weapons” though news reports did not specify what this means (in Mauritania heavy weapons could be high caliber machine guns or possibly artillery). Military planes are reported to have landed at Timbuktu to retrieve the military dead.

The raid has left tensions high in Mauritania especially because it comes on the heels of two recent events: the discovery of an active AQIM cell in the capital and the arrest of two of its members (milkmen), one of whom escaped from custody; and the recent kidnaping in Niger. Adding to popular anxiety is the fact that the AQIM brigade fighting the army (the “Yahiya Abu Hamam Brigade”) is close to 80% Mauritanian (local media reports frequently say “more than 70%” security sources put the figure higher). Many worry that the large numbers of combatants killed on both sides could have negative implications at a tribal level. The army has sent reinforcements to the east, via Nema (the target of August’s suicide-bombing attempt), a build up unseen in recent Mauritanian history. Al-Akhbar is reporting that thirty military vehicles were seen advancing from Nema to the front on the Malian border and that the military aircraft that landed in the town yesterday included “a large number of French troops.” Sources say two modules were used in the raid, meaning about 300-400 soldiers all together of whom 100-120 were combatants.

Like previous raids, this one has caused some controversy in the region. Algerian sources have fed information about the raid to AFP commenting on the large number of Mauritanian casualties and terming calling the operation a “failure.” Mauritanian security officials fired back, praising the Malians for at least not protesting the raid and opening their airfields to Mauritanian transport planes while analysts asking “is this our war alone, and what do our neighbors want? And where do all the conventions and agreements stop at photo-ops and newspaper articles?” The tension comes from Algerian perceptions of Mauritanian (and Malian) incompetence and possibly from other political motivations in the deep state or related to recent prisoner amnesties. While Mauritania-Malian relations are on a relative ups (the Mauritanians finally sent their ambassador back to Bamako last week) dynamics in the relationships between the three “front” line states — Algeria, Mauritania and Mali — again seem to be hindering effectiveness and unity. Mauritanian officials were especially incensed that the Algerian source released information about the high number of deaths in the military (15) while the Ministry of Defense had still only made 6 public.

After reports of the fighting surfaced, France issued a travel warning to its citizens in the country covering the east and northeastern parts of the country, vital to both tourism and mining. Mauritanians concerned with uranium and gold mining (projects still in their preliminary stages) expressed a worry that the warning would do grievous harm to their work. And this illustrates the real danger of groups such as AQIM: the damage they do to the image of these very poor countries, scaring of the foreigners with whom locals do so much business with to the point of dependency, thus sucking much needed cash out of the economy unpredictably.

Expect updates as more information becomes available.

UPDATE I: Conversations with Mauritanian politicos and high-ranking members of the opposition shed light on two concerns.

First is with respect to outrage among some opposition forces over the presence of French troops in Mauritania. These sources complain that the parliament has not been consulted on major cross-border raids or on the presence of a secret French base in northern Mauritania widely believed to be located in Atar. These opposition personalities link the ruling party’s statements urging the opposition not to “avoid political rhetoric” (i.e., raise the foreign bases issue) the recent military operation (the government made a similar statement following the 22 July raid) to the large numbers of French intelligence and security personel in Nouakchott and the large towns and the high likelihood (in their opinion) that Atar is hosting a French base. The government continuously denies reports that the French have any military presence in Mauritania.

Second is Algeria’s negative reaction to the raid. Similar sources to those above link this to the participation of foreign forces in raids which Algeria sees as going against the regional cooperation and the command structures set up at Tamanrasset. The Algerians increasingly see the Mauritanians as acting as a platform for French action — the opposite of the object of Algerian policy in the region (which has been to move outside powers out in favor of African (e.g., Algerian) security alliances).

1. One should factor in the strategic value of a place such as Hassi Sidi for AQIM: it has water, or at least its name implies as much (“Hassi” means well). See the comments for more information on the vicinity of the fighting from Tommy Miles who is familiar with that part of the region.

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16 thoughts on “RE: Mauritanian raid against AQIM

  1. Re: Hassi Sidi. If the location given is accurate, it’s just a well west of the Araouane route, but there are seasonal encampment areas throughout the neighborhood. It should be roughly halfway between Tombouctou and Araouane. Ras el Ma, where the Friday fighting took place is a bit more inhabited, on the extreme west of the Lac Fagubine basin. One of the sources said fighting was in the town itself (a hamlet, but it’s administrative purpose means there is a small year round presence) which suggests a more formal relationship between whoever the Mauritanians are fighting and local Arab notables. Things get more populated south and east towards Goundam, and hence ethnically more mixed.

    The number of targets also suggests the Mauritanians have a list, or are just striking out at whole tribal groups.

    Note of this gets anyone closer to the Kidal group.

    This whole thing also doesn’t speak well to Rhissa Ag Boula’s faction, who were paid to guard the French quarter in Arlit. Paying off tribes only helps if you’re worried about them attacking you. If its complete outsiders, well that throws a spanner into the whole power structure.

    • Source said Ras el Ma fighting was Saturday, no? Agree w/ respect to connection with locals. Mauritanians claiming Hassi Sidi is on their side of the border.

      Hoping to get a list of locations for the fighting soon. Would not be surprised if someone has a list but the way they’ve gone about it make it look less coordinated.

      • Saturday, correct. Hassi Sidi (and the variations thereof given in the press) could well be much nearer Mauritania, but that throws out the ~100km number. There’s nothing permanent east of the Araouane road.

        One can only hope this is targeted and not just hitting a bunch of berabiche encampments or “businessmen” (smugglers). With the dissatisfaction of the Peul and Songhai groups (expressed in recent communal violence) along the Niger bend, and the more discussed Tuareg insurgencies, the north doesn’t need a new set of ethnic grievances with Bamako.

        Temoust has an editorial arguing this can be an opening for Tuareg (and Maure) groups to push for more autonomy as a solution to the security dilemma.

        http://www.temoust.org/situation-securitaire-au-sahel-la,15142

        This seems to me like playing with fire. While Malian and other “outside” elites bear much responsibility for the crime, guns, and lawlessness of the area, local elites are just as directly involved. The creation of a whole new political culture in these communities (and the integration of previously non-free communities who are still voiceless in many places, Faguibine/Goundam a classic one) is a precondition of such a change. And that will take hard work, political empowerment, and the incentive of sustainable development: things hard to imagine without tremendous state intervention.

        Is Mali willing or able to do this? One can only hope they are being offered support from the west, because that’s the only way this area will ever be “governable” in the sense which demands consent of the population, and not by an occupying army or a purchased proxy.

        Returning to Rhissa Ag Boula: he’s a good example of an traditional elite paid off by Areva and Niger. And they got only what they paid for. It looks like someone out bid for at least some of his men, with the very money the West paid to get their earlier hostages back.

        Until there’s money to be made in something other than smuggling, kidnapping, and banditry (Malian papers had a bit about trucks being held up on the Kayes-Diema-Bamako road recently, so it’s as bad in Mali as it is in much of Niger) this will just go round and round. And no number of drones will fix that.

  2. AM not convinced the Malians have the resources to make a resolution to these issues, certainly not on their own and it does not look like the other players — French, Mauritanians, Algerians, etc. — are interested in that kind of effort. The tribal angle has potential but beyond that it looks like there will be more destabilization before really productive solutions start getting any support. The western countries, frankly, don’t seem to be interested enough in the kinds of economic projects that will do this stuff over, at least not yet. There is also of course that the magic answer to this becomes the same magic answer that’s already around which could lead to even more of the same: dig up the minerals and oil and nothing else.

    This is the problem with the way the Mauritanians and the French have gone about all of this: it has more to do with their politics than with the actually “problem” that feeds AQIM. In Mauritania it feeds autocracy and undermines solidarity; in Mali its exacerbating ethnic and tribal tensions and making the system as a whole wabble.

  3. Kal and Tommy,

    Where are the US and the Flintlock stuff in all this? They have not abandoned the area after the Flintlck of the other day. It is obvious that Ould Abdel aziz could not venture in this without France’s blessing and I agree that France military is involved.

  4. I am afraid the current French government is having only one policy in the area: crush anything vaguely threatening for the French interests, militarily. French authorities also support mostly private development initiatives in Mali (North included). But I suspect all of the actual ground work (well drilling, sanitation systems, schools and so on) is done by international NGO’s. There are several Dutch and French projects in the area. But this is a drop of water in a sea of corruption, and I am fairly convinced that the local gangs are more annoyed at the French than anything else.

  5. OK, looks like there is more happening on the other side of Mali. According to Le Monde, French recon plane (most likely some Mirage F1C-200) have been used heavily above mali from Niger air bases.

    http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2010/09/20/combats-dans-le-nord-du-mali-contre-aqmi_1413332_3212.html

    Everyone seems to deny that there is any link between the action in the North-West of Mali and the one in the North-West of Niger, but I simply can’t accept that this is just some kind of coincidence. All fits just too well. From the Algerian reaction (after all, they can’t be happy if the French succeed in capturing or killing their own national in charge of AQIM in the area), to the sudden use of Niger bases while at the same time Mali becomes more pliable to Mauritanian requests. Somebody applied a LOT of pressure on Mali and Niger and that same person is clearly controlling the Mauritanians, at least from a military perspective.

  6. Alphast,

    What if the French arranged the kidnapping of the 7 hostages to justify their attacks with the Mauritanians? Possible as I read some news conveying the high likelihood for the liberation of the hostages taken from a likely very secure compound of AREVA in Arlit. You can never be sure. Moreover, we don’t hear from the famous Flintlock. I am not certain if the US is in this with the French. Algeria is out and Burkina is in.

    • I doubt this very much. I am all too aware of the possibility of foul play from the French (being French myself). But they would not abduct other country nationals and French personnels from a private company to justify a covert operation. They absolutely don’t need to. Ockham razor applies here. The most likely thing is that all of this is tit for tat between AQIM (obviously playing the Touareg card in Northern Mali) and the French and their local allies.

      • I am not sure, but these infos below led me to believe that the French were aware of the movement of AQIM’s troups near the AREVA compound in Arlit (after le letter from the Prefet of Arlit – second link). Hardly belieavabble that AREVA security so lax that AQIM comes in from 1 a.m to around 2:30 a.m with no problem. As a hardcore conspiracy theorist, I still believe that either AQIM was tricked into this or the French have their own AQIM of some sort. Getting the hostages in one day from Arlit to north mali in one day is difficult to understand if not allowed to go there straight. Also the time between the abduction and AQIM’s communiqué was too short compared with the other abductions (canadians, austrian, spaniards, italians, etc..). Thi operation was too easy in my opinion. Moreover as soon as I see an info through SITE IntelCenter, I become very careful.

        http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2010/09/21/la-direction-d-areva-au-niger-avait-ete-prevenue-de-la-menace-d-enlevements_1414302_3212.html#ens_id=1411819

        http://medias.lemonde.fr/mmpub/edt/doc/20100921/1414308_5ad7_lettre_prefet_arlit_areva.pdf

        Le JDD.fr (France)

        Niger : Le rapt facilité par l’armée française ?
        mardi 21 septembre 2010

        L’Observatoire du nucléaire a assimilé lundi l’enlèvement des sept salariés d’Areva et de Vinci au Niger, jeudi dernier, à une manoeuvre tactique de l’armée française, destinée à conserver voire renforcer la mainmise de la France sur les mines d’uranium nigériennes. Dans un communiqué, l’observatoire développe l’hypothèse selon laquelle l’Etat-major français aurait volontairement facilité l’enlèvement des Français, du Togolais et du Malgache, en abaissant son seuil de vigilance, pour ensuite donner l’impression de sévir, et ainsi conserver le monopole de mines convoitées par la Chine. “Bien sûr, personne ne peut penser que les autorités françaises soient elles-mêmes à l’origine de la prise d’otage. Par contre, les faits poussent à se demander si tout n’a pas été fait pour que cette prise d’otage si prévisible puisse se dérouler sans encombre”, expose l’observatoire. “Areva et les autorités françaises ont en effet été averties par différents biais que des menaces pesaient sur les salariés des mines d’uranium au Niger. Or, non seulement les mesures nécessaires de protection n’ont pas été mises en oeuvre mais, au contraire, Areva semble avoir refusé l’aide des autorités du Niger”, lit-on plus loin. “On ne peut dès lors que noter que cet enlèvement permet à la France d’intervenir militairement dans cette zone et de protéger ainsi son accès aux mines d’uranium. Il faut rappeler que la majorité des réacteurs nucléaires français sont alimentés par l’uranium du Niger. Or la Chine, elle aussi avide d’uranium, a intensifié sa présence au Niger et concurrence la France pour l’accès aux réserves d’uranium”, raisonne aussi l’Observatoire du nucléaire, qui plaide pour la fin de l’hégémonie de l’énergie nucléaire en France.

  7. [...] The source says that locals report “Salafists” (presumably referring to AQIM) “passing them in the villages, firing shots into the sky celebrating what they considered a victory against the Mauritanian forces.” There is no comment on whether locals participated at all in the fighting in favor of either party. That the fighting took place in populated areas might suggest some level of collaboration between locals and the militants (also see Tommy Miles comments here). [...]

  8. [...] These latest kidnappings have roused others to greater activity as well. Yesterday Saharan countries’ military and intelligence officers met at Tamanrasset, Algeria, the regional anti-AQIM center, to strategize. The meeting follows diplomatic activities having to do partly with AQIM, including a continued warming in Mauritanian-Malian relations and the nomination of a new US ambassador to Mauritania who has “vowed stepped-up US support as the north African nation presses its fight against Islamic militants.” Meanwhile, Mauritania has been fighting AQIM directly. Kal has summaries of those events here, here and here. [...]

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