Mauritania v AQIM in Mali: Summary of a report on part of the weekend raid

Taqadoumy has published an account of the events around the Mauritanian Army raid against AQIM in Mali this past weekend (though fighting continues). The account is interesting and worth Arabic-speakers reading. It is based on the testimony of an unnamed source (“from northern Mali”), possibly military (see below). For non-Arabic speakers a snap rendering of the highlights are below (hopefully they can be compared with other accounts soon; readers are encouraged to link or post similar information in the comments section): UPDATED

  1. The operation began after the arrest in Mauritania of a Malian from Araoane with connections to AQIM’s Yahiya Abu Hamam Brigade. This man told the security forces that the group had a presence 30km from the local military post. Based on this information, the Mauritanians moved on the camp. (Note: another report states that the Mauritanians were in northern Mali on a reconnaissance mission when they took the Araouane man into custody.)
  2. The source says that, based on this information, the Mauritanians engaged AQIM on early Saturday near or at Ras al-Ma, AQIM forces hit and ran, ambushing Mauritanian Army vehicles and inflicting heavy losses. AQIM also lost trucks. The source claims that the Mauritanians suffered “heavily in life and gear.” Dead soldiers were stripped of their weapons.
  3. Regarding the fighting at Ras al-Ma, the source describes the combat as having been “in populated areas, for it was within the coverage of communications companies” (cellphone networks?). The source also says that Malian Tuaregs found the bodies of three naked Mauritanian soldiers, which they gave to the Malian authorities. The source says that the Mauritanians suffered heavy losses at Ras al Ma — more than 10. He also reports that AQIM suffered losses. (According to the other report mentioned above, among the AQIM killed are said to be an Algerian, a Moroccan, a Mauritanian and three Azouadis. The same report also says that AQIM’s brigade leader was killed in the fighting.) (Also: Aerial attacks hit 3 of 7 trucks in an AQIM convoy; more on that below.)
  4. 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).
  5. The source denies French involvement and that the operation had anything to do with the recent kidnapping in Niger. This suggests the source is Mauritanian or French (or even Malian) and operating in some semi-official or official capacity. Were it a local or non-affiliated source would probably not have commented on the raid’s intentions regarding the Niger business.

Recent development regarding France’s deployment of air power from Niger over that country and Mali are summarized well by Le Monde. Keep in mind the following important developments:

  • The names of dead Mauritanian soldiers have been released. Among the dead are two officers, a lieutenant and a captain. While hoping to avoid unnecessarily dramatizing tribal grievances, it will be interesting to consider the tribal origins of the soliders killed and the AQIM fighters killed (when the later information becomes available) in terms of (potential) future escalations in AQIM recruitment and public grievance at the local level and in the military. A post on the role of tribalism within the Mauritanian military might be worth putting out in this regard. At the same time consider that two or more confrontations in which the military suffers similar losses could result in less, rather than more, support for the regime in the ranks and in the provinces. The opposite is also possible (though somewhat less likely without important structural and political maneuvers).
  • Mali-Mauritania relations, I: The Malian deputy speaker of parliament has condemned the Mauritanians for “killing civilians” during their aerial attacks on an AQIM convoy — and several Malian civilians have been reported killed or missing (with the Mauritanians boasting of having captured 6 AQIM fighters; the Mauritanians deny targeting or hitting civilians). Reports say 4 Malian civilians were injured and two “very young” women were killed (at least one of whom the Mauritanians claim is the “wife of a terrorist” which has its own implications if it is true.). Their bullet riddle car is reportedly in the court yard of the main Timbuktu hospital. As with previous raids (22 July, for instance) the violence has caused nationalist and moral posturing by Malian politicians and understandable anger by local leaders and their people. This problem is likely to be compounded by the French fly-overs (and almost certainly in the event of bombings or conspicuous troop deployments) currently underway.
  • Mali-Mauritania relations, II: Relations between Mali and Mauritania are on the relative ups. Mauritania returned its ambassador to Mali last week (after removing him over a Malian prisoner swap) and Mauritania’s president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is set to attend Mali’s independence celebrations this week. This is significant as well because there are known and somewhat severe tensions between Ould Abdel Aziz and Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Touré. The AQIM positions in northern Mali have become a part of escalating sub-state tensions in the region and could be deeply destabilizing for that country. Popular and elite criticism is understandable and in some ways desirable, given the political circumstances because it gives locals a voice. But if the raiding and killing and disappearances go on these counter-terrorist operations will likely contribute to a deterioration of relations between the northern Malian population(s) (Tuaregs and Arabs) and the central government (thereby offering AQIM a terrible opportunity to graft onto preexisting tribal or ethnic grievances though it is not certain that they could be successful in this). Rapprochement between Ould Abdel Aziz and Touré does not necessarily mean that Malians in the affected area will react happily to further violence in their lands. Increased violence — contra-AQIM or otherwise — could set off deeper and more dangerous tensions between the local people in northern Mali, their government, the Mauritanians and AQIM. These are concerns, some more or less remote or relevant, that must be kept in mind.
  • The perspective of the local people is most important here. If they and their leaders see themselves under attack from France, Mauritania, Algeria and the Malian government as a result of these kinds of raids (and internal Malian problems) then these incursions are useless to the purposes of western players. If not deliberate and targeted at specific characters, leaving out the local people and keeping them oriented away from AQIM’s narrative and commercial appeal further raids will be thoroughly destructive to these countries’ development and a boon to AQIM. In both previous raids by the Mauritanians locals have reported missing persons, some who have been released and others who have not; these people have been called terrorists and complaints thought of in terms of a conspiracy between the tribes and AQIM. While this is a distinct possibility it is quite clear that on the non-military front far from enough is being done to alienate let alone disloge AQIM from the smuggling and trafficking networks or to offer a serious alternative form of employment aside from illicit trading in that region. Given the region’s humanitarian and economic woes there must be something done more broadly than kinetic responses, parachute training and summit meetings (Touré has said as much himself — “the solution is sustainable development”). Where that will come from, this blogger does not know, things are not so easy (please salute Captain obvious, here).
  • Another factor is also the control of oases and various desert outposts. Control or non-control of these positions heavily influences the mobility and range of a group like AQIM — the oases posses water, fuel, resting places and potential recruits, human cover and intelligence (for governments and AQIM). The space-travel analogy is fun though a comparison with naval warfare is perhaps more similar (this is desert warfare, after all; Mauritanian papers have compared the recent events to the Sand War and the Sahara War, the later of which Mauritania was involved in disastrously). AQIM benefits from the region’s geography yes, as many write, because there are vast, open swaths of terrain, but also because governments do not have a permanent, year-round (or slightly less) presence on the key oases and trading routes. The same environment that enables criminal smuggling enables terrorist smugglers. It is difficult to establish control over so wide a space with as few resources as the states in the region have. This cannot reasonably be done by relevant outsiders (Americans, the French, etc.), though the French had measured success (and non-success) with it through brutality and other means during the colonial period. Non-kinetic, economic and political solutions for local people will be key to resolving the AQIM problem and are more desirably at every level than engagements like this past weekend’s which can perhaps make matters worse rather than better.

UPDATE: AQIM has issued its version of events. The text is here. The highlights are as follows:

  1. Statement begins by declaring the operation a “defeat, an awful and painful blow suffered by the Mauritanian Army suffered at the hands of the heroic Saharan mujahideen.” It promises details of the battle later on.
  2. After saying it was “surprised,” by the aerial attack, AQIM accuses the Mauritanians of having “targeted innocent and defenseless Muslims, killing a Muslim [woman] named ‘Najiha’ and a little girl named ‘Silka’ and well as wounding a man from among the victimized people.” It calls the attacks the work of a “criminal and cowardly client army and a bitter defeat at the hands of men who rushed to avenge the women and children,” saying it was carried out “in order to bully the innocent and defenseless following the example of the Crusaders in their shelling of the Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.” It accuses the Mauritanian Army of “resorting to lies and fallacies in claiming that the woman killed is the wife of one of the mujahideen and that the innocent people taking flight from its aerial shelling last night were members of the mujahideen.”
  3. It makes three points following this: (1) it offers its “condolences to the families of the martyrs/dead.” In the same point it specifically states its solidarity with the “Oulad ʿAmrane, Oulad Ayesh, Oulad Idriss and all the Berebeche tribes and the proud/free Tuareg of Azouad,” vowing to avenge the blood of their kinsmen and “sheild our nation” saying that their “blood are not shed in vain.”‘; (2) it accuses Ould Abdel Aziz of “fighting a French proxy war” and vows revenge on France (the Elysee “Insha’allah”); and (3) it appeals to “‘ulema and  people of virtue and wisdom in Mauritania” to condemn and reject the Mauritanian regime and army for fight a war for France, killing Muslims, innocents and so on.
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12 thoughts on “Mauritania v AQIM in Mali: Summary of a report on part of the weekend raid

  1. Criminal interests are high in the Sahel, spawning an important economy of its own. Such smuggling can only strive in insecure areas with a thin presence of authority and with porous borders.

    Although AQMI certainly has its feet in related criminal dealings and its head in salafist-jihadism, there is a undeniable tension existing: criminals want to be able to maintain a low profile (i.e. no-eye-in-the-sky please) in an insecure, but not too volatile environment, while AQMI is interested in showing France ‘the gates of Hell’ – with all the military repercussions it entails.

    Is there a possibility that the criminal elements might be strong enought to tone down the AQMI jihadi ambitions to enable them to continue business as usual? Or is the Sahel vast enough to accomodate a counterinsurgency and prosperous smuggling side by side? Or will the smugglers just find another route…

  2. Good point, KRS. The eyes in the sky are there now (a Mirage F1C-200 and a Breguet Atlantic, which gives justice to Kal’s sea warfare comparison, plus most probably some satellite imagery). The question is: are the French going to share this imagery with the Malian and Nigeran? It might well be their part of the deal.

    About the fight in Ras Al Ma, reading Kal’s report, I would dare an interpretation: the whole thing was an AQIM ambush. The Mauritanians conveniently took a guy into custody, who conveniently gives them intel in time to mount an assault before AQIM can move… Fishy. Then the AQIM guys slaughter the Mauritanians (because they are waiting for them). But then the proverbial shit hits the fan, because AQIM wasn’t expecting close air support on the Mauritanian side… I might be awfully wrong, but that’s what it looks like to me.

    • Hey guys, great post and great discussion. I have a question – and this may be remedial, but I think it bears asking. Something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time. What does AQIM want?

      I assume that there isn’t one AQIM and it doesn’t want just one thing. But what are the different groups’ goals? They can be as simple as self-perpetuation – the goal of the group is simply to continue to be a group, or more complex – to genuinely rid the Sahara of non-Muslim influence (does anyone believe this interpretation?) And a whole bunch of stuff in between – eg, to use salafism to recruit for criminality.

      The origin of my question is how do we get above the reportage level into the analysis realm? What’s really transpiring in the Sahel? The rise of criminality? Capitals trying to assert their control in areas that they historically haven’t? The evolution and mutation of long standing grievances?

      I don’t know the answers, but figured that this forum was the best place to discuss them.

      Thanks,
      Geoff

      • Hi Geoff,

        (I’m going to dump here, so bear with me, I’d post more reasoned comments if had a little more but I’m getting a little busy this week…)

        I think that’s an important question. Regarding what AQIM is looking for, I think it varies from grouping to grouping and among the membership. There are parts that especially interesting enhancing the criminal side. I think this is reflected in their recruiting: we know from testimonials and bios of folks now (and previously) in custody that the group deliberately recruited people involved in smuggling and in other illicit activity (guys who worked as mechanics and/or car thieves, or with other special skills). We also know that people have been recruited out of the religious movement generally — people who were criminals who found religion and were then brought in because of their backgrounds. There are reports aboute AQIM budding up with smugglers for commercial ends — probably to get materiel and other supplies. Then there is also the greed and power side of it which I think has been growing in its leadership and in the ranks recruiting out of the desert. These people probably would like to take advantage of situation as best than can — after all its a better option than most.

        Survival is probably at the top of the list for its leadership, and making money probably attracts a lot of recruits and makes finding local collaborators easier. The religious/ideological component is probably strongest with urban recruits and people taken directly out of the religious movement in Mauritania, the coastal west African countries, Algeria, Morocco, etc. The guys going to the camps from far away basically. These are the ones driven but the religious idea in the first place.

        Like KRS writes, there’s probably an ideological point where AQIM woud, hypothetically be opposed to the nature of smuggling in principle but I’m inclined to think they’d be accommodating in that sense (as they have been). For now I think they want to be able to take advantage of the smuggling routes and culture and select points to engage the local governments at will to make their point and to embarrass or humiliate the armies in the region as they go without really spectacular responses. Presumably they’d like to topple the governments in the area, especially Algeria and Mauritania.

        The ethnic/cultural/economic problems in Niger and Mali are also big. That’s where you see people doing contract kidnappings and collaborating with AQIM for pragmatic, economic reasons or because it serves communal interests against the governments from the capital and foreigners (French, AMericans, whatever). I don’t think ridding the Sahara of non-Muslims is what these guys are about; its about land rights or communal rights relative the government and making use of what leverage they can find. I don’t think this is as extensive yet but I think AQIM would love to be able to graft onto this in anyway it can and their statements seem to go in that direction. Tommy Miles can probably give a better and more detailed assessment on those issues.

        Other views probably differ hopefully were useful; may other readers can give their thoughts.

    • Kal,

      Been on the road the last week and finally got a chance to check back in here – thanks for the helpful comments.

      Geoff

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