AQIM claims to have defeated the Mauritanian Army in last weekend’s series of clashes in Mali. The Mauritanians, of course, deny any such defeat. AQIM claims to have killed close to 20 Mauritanian soldiers while the Mauritanian Ministry of Defense has announced only 6 of its own fatalities while killing 12 AQIM militants (AQIM acknowledges this) and taking 6 as prisoners. More contentious, perhaps, are AQIM’s claims to have spooked the Mauritanians so badly that they caused those they did not kill to flee, leaving their vehicles and equipment behind. AQIM’s version of “the Battle of Hassi Sidi,” complete with a summary has been posted online (there is no link here for the same reason as in the previous post on AQIM KIA; the information comes from the same forum). Highlights are below. Following this are some thoughts on a report that Mokhtar Belmokhtar was found dead in Mali.
- The report writes that “information available to mujahideen intelligence reported that arrival of Mauritanian Army units wanting a war with the mujahideen at the behest of France and to humiliate and intimidate the people of the region and others vulnerable to other forms of corruption and injustice, prompting the mujahideen to launch a preemptive attack on these clients”.
- At 3PM “the two side began to clash using heavy, medium and light weapons and within minutes the mujahideen were drawn into the ranks of the enemy race (العدو يتسابقون) with one of two goals: either victory in battle or martyrdom”. It says that after the daylight fighting the militants were “still hunting them [the "enemy"] down and following their remainders/left overs [of the Mauritanian forces] even in the darkness of night.” It goes on to note, boastfully, that “the mujahideen went out to devour those at the scene late into the night, searching for dead enemies, collecting loot, burning stalled trucks (thanks to God)”.
- It lists the booty they to have collected and their battlefield victories: (1) “killing 19 and wounding dozens of Mauritanian soldiers, and the militants managed to photograph the bodies of five of them”; (2) “the remaining soldiers fled with their skin and left behind: 8 SUV trucks, five of which the mujahideen took and two of which they burned after they were disabled after being stripping for parts; (3) several of the weapons captured by the mujahideen were 8 Kalashnikovs, 2 Pikas (Kalashinkov PK/PKMS), 2 RPGs with their sights and 32 shells, 3 G3 sniper rifles with large sights, 3 military binoculars, 4 pistols, 9 cases of lead bullets, multiple types of ammunition, and many other materials such as uniforms, hats and bags…” It goes on: (4) “there are many other trophies: the computer of a Mauritanian military commander, containing some important information and important maps, about 580,000 ouguiyas (1700 Euros), cameras, 5 advanced radios, 5 Magellans (GPSs) and other equipment.; (5) important documents, information and images; (6) the information in the documents obtained by the militants shows that the military units participated in the battle were special units selected from various elements”.
- It notes that a military vehicle carrying Mauritanians and “a limited number of French troops” was hit at the beginning of the battle had to “swing” until the men inside could be rescued by four other armored trucks; it also says that the militants noted the “distinctive presence of French forces” in the battle.
- It says Mauritanian aerial attacks consisted of “shooting a Pikka gun randomly” and that it hit no militants but “took revenge by hitting innocent civilians in the region and killing two Muslim girls [. . .] the cowardly crime that was uncovered in an earlier statement”.
- It accues Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (Mauritania’s President) of waging a proxy war for France and that the clashes last weekend were “preemptive and defensive” on AQIM’s part after Mauritania “launched a war to protect the interests of France, fighting with them to satisfy Sarkozy”. It says the attacks at Turine and elsewhere in the past were “in response to such attacks” and that “the Mauritanian regime has willingly in a crusade in the region.”
- It urges “members of the Mauritanian Army” to desert and says that Ould Abdel Aziz “will send you to hell and sacrifice your lives for France” calling their service “apostasy”.
- It re-iterates its previous call to religious figures in Mauritania to “turn [your] backs on those who befriend the Christians and the Muslims now fighting with the infidels side-by-side and shoulder-to-shoulder”.
Many of these claims sound sensational; the claim regarding the computer, for instance could be designed for psychological affect as well as could the claims about having found “very important documents and information”. The account itself is not especially detailed but, as such things tend to be, a list of glorious and terrific feats and achievements. It mentions the names of only a couple of the twelve militants killed by the Mauritanians and it does not make any mention of any serious losses on the AQIM side (this is propaganda after all). Much of the statement could be mere gloating rather than an accurate summary of events. At the same time, though the photograph below depicting the war booty lends credibility to a least some of the report.
The Mauritanian Ministry of Defense denies these claims, as mentioned above. According to the Defense Ministry’s Department of Communications “all the information included in that [AQIM] statement is unfounded and completely unrelated to reality.” It also contested the claims regarding the trucks saying that “the Mauritanian state, not the terrorists, were able to recover this material.” The Ministry also rejected AQIM’s claim to 19 kills saying that two soldiers died on the battlefield while four other died later from their wounds. During the course of the the battle Mauritanians further claim to have killed Abu Yahyia Abu Hammam, a head of the El Moulethemine Brigade and important AQIM figure in general.
The military has remained tightlipped even to the families of soliders involved in the operation (some have yet to hear about the status of their relatives) but did release a list of those killed earlier in the week. Soldiers have allowed brief contact with their families. The military has begun to redeploy forces to the border region, after early reports about “unusual” levels of air traffic in the town.
Further north at Lemzareb, the Mauritanians are in pursuit of three vehicles following “clashes“, having already captured one driven by Algerians and Nigeriens (who are being interrogated), which came into the country from Mali and are head toward the Algerian border. The area is where the Mauritanian military engaged AQIM in the past and is a major smuggling zone.
Perhaps most interesting are recent reports that the body of the infamous AQIM Emir and cigaret and weapons smuggler Mokhtar Belmokhar/Khaled Abu Abbas/Belaouar (also Dr. Marlboro) was found dead near Timbuktu yesterday, supposedly killed by his AQIM comrades after they accused him of working for the Mauritanian military. (The report is from ANI, the Mauritanian news agency and quotes “local” sources but no official ones) Belmokhtar was key in arranging the GSPC’s affiliation with al-Qaeda and in its focus toward Mauritania and was deeply involved in the jihadist movement in Algeria, having fought in Afghanistan, in the GIA, the GSPC and AQIM. Belmokhtar has been rumored to have died, surrendered, sought amnesty from the Algerians and so on in the past. He married into Tuareg families and helped pioneer AQIM’s use of local intermediaries and mercenaries to carryout kidnapping and gain safe passage and access to the smuggling networks and stations. If the report is true it will interesting to discover who the killers were from within AQIM. Droukdal is said to have feared (or fear if the report is false) Belmokhtar’s success and popularity in the south and this is believed to have influenced the promotion of Hamidou Abu Zeid; there is said to be competition between these two cohorts as a result. But the potential for an inside job resulting from this tension is low. Skepticism of this particular report should be strong until additional confirmation is made.