Alex Thurston at the Sahel Blog notes news reports of military exercises being held on the Mauritanian border with Mali. Mauritania’s armed forces have been on heightened altert since at least last November, with increased patrols and excercises on the border in response both to kidnappings and the rebellion in Mali. During last week’s exercises ‘a heavy artillery bombardment could be heard outside Bassiknou for two days. Meanwhile, military aircraft carried out sorties over the area and bombed virtual moving targets as part of a training drill supervised by French experts.’ These sounds caused some local residents to believe there was actual fighting going on, between the Army and AQIM or ‘the Tuaregs’ according to sources. The Mauritanians have been especially active against AQIM in northern Mali, launching several air and land raids across the border in the last three years. In March 2012, the Mauritanian air force bombed convoys in northern Mali, killing what it claimed with AQIM militants, Malian sources told wire services civilians were killed. The Mauritanians retain an aggressive posture. In 2010 and 2011 AQIM had taken to claiming its dead — posting statements and obituaries on jihadist forums for example, following up on their own accounts of the fighting — or attempting to exploit civilian casualties by claiming the victims of such raids were civilians and not their men. The Mauritanian raids were relatively lethal, causing what were probably embarrassing casualties for AQIM; this coupled with AQIM suffering heavy defeats in northern Algeria during the same time period made it more difficult for the group to put consistent effort into Internet propaganda following more recent raids. Thus there are fewer accounts of the fighting (at least from AQIM’s perspective) for more recent raids and relatively few obituaries for members killed. The fighting has continued and the Mauritanian military and intelligence services undertook offensive measures aimed at intercepting and interdicting AQIM operatives and uncovering its plots in the country (which include plans for kidnapping soldiers and an attack marking the anniversary of Usama Bin Laden’s death), due to increased monitoring on the border and in the refugee camps there as well as apparently, if Algerian media reports and the recent killing of an alleged Mauritanian spy at the hands of AQIM are any indication, a relatively aggressive intelligence gathering activity which may have included the penetration of AQIM itself. These actions were made possible by Mali’s unwillingness to confront AQIM and Mauritania’s perception of northern Mali as a strategic space where AQIM’s presence made the country vulnerable to the group’s emphasis on armed action against the Mauritanian state. The collapse of state control in northern Mali contributes to the sense of urgency on the Mauritanian side of the border.
While Mauritania’s internal politics have brought the legitimacy of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz into question since his disputed election in 2009 (and those disputes appear to be coming to a head this year) there has been relatively little controversy over the army’s raids into Mali (though members of the opposition did attempt to paint Ould Abdel Aziz as reckless early on, the raids did not appear unpopular in Mauritania and most political parties tended to back them). Ould Abdel Aziz is far more controversial for his internal policies (while range from corruption in financial management and resource allocation to his stalling of the electoral process to what many see as open contempt for the opposition), which continue to provoke agitation and controversy.
The March raid was reported to have resulted in at least a few civilian casualties; the Mauritanians have also killed civilians in previous raids. On one occasion, AQIM used the opportunity to express is sympathy and solidarity with the tribes in the surrounding region (in Timbuktu) in subsequent statements; it is unclear as yet what wider result civilian casualties have had or might have in the future on AQIM’s ability to hold onto control in Timbuktu together with Ansar Ed-Dine. The border zone is an area to look, especially in terms of any potential ECOWAS (of which Mauritania is not a member) intervention in Mali.