New World Politics Review Piece

This blogger published a brief piece for World Politics Review on vulnerabilities and risks in light of the re-election of Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz in Mauritania, and continued western support for his government. Aziz is seen as a reliable counterterrorism partner in much of the west and Algiers. There are many things at work that make him an effective regional ally and leader and others that expose Mauritania, his leadership, and the region at some risk. All eggs are best distributed in multiple baskets. It was shortened at publication for word count purposes; the full original will be posted on this blog shortly. Comments and feedback by email are welcome. Readers who need to hop the pay wall may contact this blogger for the piece at: nourithemoor @ gmail.com

 

Book Review: Prêcher dans le désert: islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie

Prêcher dans le désert: islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie (Karthala, 2013) by Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, the preeminent scholar working on political Islam and religious social movements in Mauritania, chronicles the history of Mauritania’s Islamist sub-cultures and political trends from the time of independence through the present. It brings together two decades of work in the most understudied area of the Maghreb. There are few comprehensive treatments of Islamist politics and actors in Mauritania and Prêcher dans le désert provides scholars, researchers and students with a clear and eloquent tour of the sociological, cultural, intellectual and historical setting that brought Mauritania’s Islamists from the bare margins a generation and a half ago to being a relevant social and political category worthy of independent analysis and contemplation. It argues for a re-conceptualization of Islamic ‘radicalization’ militancy as one of several possible pathways resulting from a long-term series of negotiations over Muslim identity, agency and efforts to grapple with a wide palette of complex problems around statehood, ethno-racial and caste identity, rapid socio-environmental change borne from climate change, poverty, the struggle against slavery and the shari’ah. Prêcher dans le désert covers these topics in expert fashion, as expected of Ould Ahmed Salem, whose writings on most of these subjects should be considered essential to achieving a grasp on contemporary Mauritanian society and political culture. Broken into six sections, rationally and judiciously divided and providing readers with a well structured understanding of the arguments put forth later on. It provides a deep take on the emergence and political role of Haratine religious leaders in the abolitionist movement and in Haratine urban life, including fascinating case studies based on in depth discussions with the first Haratine imams in Mauritania. (The subject has been covered in several dissertations but in this case it is related to a number of interrelated trends and placed in a more accessible format giving it a unique value. Ould Ahmed Salem also touched on the issue in his chapter ‘Bare-foot activists: Transformations in the Haratine movement in Mauritania,’ in Movers and Shakers: Social Movements in Africa, Brill, 2009.) It additionally provides the most detailed discussion of the emergence of Mauritania’s Muslim Brotherhood (Tewassoul) and a unique presentation of the role of Islam in the Mauritanian public sphere. In studying the rise of political Islam in northwest Africa or the Sahel and Maghreb there is no substitute for this book, despite numerous monographs, white papers and articles. Few texts in recent years approach its breadth and granularity. Because the space for ‘Mauritanian studies’ is limited, especially in the west, it is a milestone and cornerstone in the literature on the whole and should be a first stop for those seeking answers to questions about political Islam, radicalism and radicalization in the Sahel, Islamist movements in the Maghreb, . Aside from prose that can sometimes be denser than preferable, there is little criticism for this volume. As yet the book is only available in French, though efforts for an English translation are underway and will hopefully bring this important volume to an even wider audience beyond scholars of west Africa and the Maghreb.

A Mauritania Outlook

SUMMARY: In December this blogger spoke to small audiences about some of the issues facing Mauritania going into 2013. This post is built on the bullet-point notes prepared for these presentations, which were open to the public and represent only his views. This blogger is often more pessimistic than others (bias, admitted) and anticipates an eventful year in Mauritania. Protest movements are likely to grow in size and intensity. In thinking about Mauritania at this stage it is important remember that in trying for the best case it is possible to produce the worst. Much depends on whether fair elections are held and if the government fulfills its responsibilities to fill constitutionally mandated offices. At the same time, elections or appointments regarded as suspect by opposition currents may reinforce stalemate and gridlock. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that increasing western support for Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz will feed into existing opposition sentiments that regard the current regime as illegitimate and the international community as more or less complicit in its exploit and excesses. The strong likelihood that Mauritania will be drawn into the French/ECOWAS-led intervention (this construction is deliberate) in northern Mali increases this possibility as Ould Abdel Aziz is likely to continue be seen as a basically reliable partner in regional counter-terrorism efforts (for a summary of this view in the American press see here; for a Mauritanian rebuttal of this line of thinking see here). Furthermore, the president’s reputation and relationship with the military may be a source of further instability emerging from potential war casualties, internal personal and political disagreements and potential shifts in the political scene. Trouble can be avoided but outsiders have serious challenges to ponder and should not assume away or downplay the very significant risks in the country stemming from basic qualities in its leadership and political system.

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Early Perspectives on the Mali Crisis from a Jihadist Forum (I)

SUMMARY: The following is an excerpt from a longer write up from summer 2012; it comes from the same write up as the post ‘Creative Responses to the Rebellion in Mali: A Look at the Forum Poetry‘ (06 July 2012). This post is one of two; a second excerpt will be posted in the future. The longer paper surveys posts dealing with the Mali criss on the Ansar al-Mujahideen Arabic forum, a top tier jihadist Internet forum. The focus is mostly on user-produced content — essays, columns and debates, as opposed to content posted by the Islamist groups in northern Mali (AQIM, Ansar Ed-Dine, MUJWA, etc.) or their media groups. It describes posts on the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum from January through early August 2012 by summarising and analysing three general categories of user/member-generated content (essays, articles, discussion threads, etc.):

  • News and Analysis of Northern Mali and Its Jihadis
  • Northern Mali and Jihadi Strategy in Africa
  • Creative Responses

This post addresses several threads representative of key narratives emerging among jihadist forum users regarding the conflict there. Generally, forum members view events in northern Mali as reinforcement for their existing political and religious views. Posters appear to percieve events in the region — from the arrival of Islamist armed groups in Timbuktu and Gao to corporal punishment for violations of shari’ah – as evidence of an unbridled ‘awakening’ to jihadism in west Africa in an international context. Some debate over the origins and legitimacy of the Islamist groups in northern Mali does take place, largely due to a lack of propaganda material released through conventional jihadist Internet media outlets; late in the summer of 2012 this began to change, as both MUJWA and Ansar Ed-Dine began posting more content to the jihadist forums in the form of videos and newsletters. Continue reading

Mechanizations in Mauritania: Reports

After a month with President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in hospital in France, members of Mauritania’s ruling party, opposition and military appear to be growing impatient. Early November saw the first mass protests since the president was shot in early October and Mauritania’s generals met on 17 October in a reportedly tense meeting during which the Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mohamed Ould Ghazouani came under pressure from some attendees to take a more assertive political role, which Ghazouani reportedly resisted. Articles in Essirage and al-Akhbar, two Mauritanian Arabic-language news sites, recently published reports describing parliamentary mechanizations that might lead to major changes in the political landscape in coming days and weeks. The report discusses efforts by members of parliament to find a way ‘out of the constitutional vacuum’. One should note how some external analyses of the situation in Mauritania over the last year have elided or ignored its constitutional dramas, set in motion largely by the president with the help of parts of the opposition (through passivity or inertia), not least the failure to hold parliamentary elections on time which has meant that the political system has been more or less extra-constitutional since about last October. Continue reading

RE: The ‘Accidental’ Shooting of the Mauritanian President

Summary. Some confusion exists around the shooting of the Mauritanian president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. The post speculates about the possibility of a coup or assassination attempt on the basis of a number of rumors about potential motivations and scenarios behind the incident based on the current political environment and does not claim to offer a conclusive judgment. However, it is unlikely that the current situation does not present ambitious men with opportunities to take action and take what they want. Or not. Continue reading

Index I: El Djeich and the Sahel, Jan.-Sept. 2012

It is well known that in Algeria lines of decision-making and even the broad outlines of specific foreign or military policies are generally opaque to outsiders. Finding and making sense of various official statements and interviews and reports about the activities, orientation and intentions of the Algerian government toward political change and instability in Libya, Tunisia and the collapse of Mali and the domination of its north by the armed Islamist groups is both time consuming and difficult; rumour and conjecture and disinformation from all quarters mingle with, distort and even illuminate the ‘truth’ for those seeking answers. What the state presents and says can hardly be taken entirely at face value but is of as much use as anything sitting in public or in the shadows. For sometime, the Algerian military has used official journals to publicise its ideological, strategic and political intentions for both internal and external audiences; these must of course be taken in context and for what they are and are not, as all sources must.

El Djeich is the premier journal for these purposes, to say nothing of technical and bureaucratic journals and bulletins. El Djeich is also relatively accessible: it is published in print and online (though issues before 2010 are harder to come by than more recent ones); most issues mentioned here can be obtained for free from the Algerian Ministry of National Defence’s (MDN) website. This monthly (published since 1963) provides the official rhetoric of Algeria’s general staff as communicated to an internal audience frequently (it is policy relevant); it also provides information on meetings between the Algerian armed services and foreign military and civilian delegations, military exercises and operations, training regimes and other elements pointing to the personnel and disposition of the moving parts that make up its armed and civilian element. It also provides context for major political decisions (for example, the February 2011 issue includes a long section detailing the rationale and implications of the lifting of the emergency law in place since the 1992 coup d’etat) and frequently provides the text of speeches, letters and messages from senior Algerian officers and diplomatic officials on various issues. It also includes interviews and articles by military and civilian subject matter experts from Algeria and abroad on various technical fields.

The spreadsheet linked below is an index of direct and indirect references to what might can be generally called the ‘Sahel Crisis’ (or crises) brought on by uprisings, rebellions, narco-trafficking and destabilising corruption in the Maghreb and the Sahel during the last two years in the journal of the Algerian armed forces, El Djeich. The first installment of the index includes the January -September 2012 editions of El Djeich, with titles (in French) and subject, section (in French), page and ‘key word’ references; the second installment will include the January December 2011 editions. These are meant to help the reader find articles by category and supplement his research. Several feature stories on criminal-terrorist activities on Algeria’s borders, humanitarian aid operations in Mali and other border regions (including Libya) give insight into the way the Algerian official discourse continues to juxtapose Algeria as a guarantor of stability and a bastion of stability in north-west Africa both to the public at large and to its own personnel; indeed the crisis in the Sahel was the cover story in October 2011, and the subject received heavy attention in the January 2011 issue as well. In the 2012 editions, comments, statements from Abdelkader Messahel, the minister delegate charged with Maghreb and African affairs are frequent and conspicuous, as are meetings between Messahel and foreign military delegates.There is an obvious emphasis on humanitarian operations within Algeria and in its immediate vicinity; at the strategic level emphasis is placed on the African Union, multilateral-regionalist ‘solutions’ and on bilateral military-military activities.

Since El Djeich habitually dedicates a large part of its articles to military sports (both within Algeria and on the continent), this section is ignored; thus in some issues one can find articles about Burkina Faso or Nigeria or some other such country of interest only in this section. These are omitted.  El Djeich is published in French and Arabic (as many official things are in Algeria); this blogger assumes readers will have as easy a time or an easier time with the French version and thus the index refers exclusively to the French language edition.

[2012 El Djeich stories RE%3A Sahel Crises - ED12 (1), PDF]

UPDATESee this sheet for 2012 El Djeich Stories on the Sahel – January – December 2012.

Guest Post: Change is in the Air: Mauritania’s New Roads

Oasis road in Awjeft, Adrar, Mauritania, July 2012. Photo Credit: Erin Pettigrew.

Below is a guest post from Erin Pettigrew, a friend of the blog and a PhD Candidate in African History at Stanford University. She has been doing field work in Mauritania for the last several months and has long experience there. She offers her insights and thoughts on change in Mauritania from the ground level.

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Some Things We May Think About MUJWA

SUMMARY: This post is a general description of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA, also known by the English acronym MOJWA and the French MOJAO)[1], following on previous posts on the group’s origins and activities in northern Mali. It discusses the group’s origins, activities, leadership and relationships with other armed groups in northern Mali, including Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Ed-Dine and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It also points to recent analyses of the group’s origins. Unlike previous posts on this blog dealing with MUJWA, which deal with competing explanations for the group’s origin it is preoccupied with its activities and recent comments by its leaders. Among the strongest formal descriptions of the group in English (such as they exist) comes from Dario Christiani for the Jamestown Foundation, published in Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 10, Issue 7 (6 April 2012). Mauritanian journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali has dealt with the emergence of the group in overviews of the Islamist armed groups for al-Jazeera, first in Arabic and now in English (PDF). Though relatively little is known about MUJWA with certainty and any analysis of the group must cautious to stress this, more information has become available with time and certain observations and even claims can be about the group. Continue reading

Three Brothers

ATGM points out that a trial on appeal confirmed a death sentence for Mohamed Abdellahi Ould Ahmednah (and a three and twelve year prison term for Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Khouna and Didi Ould Bezeid, respectively) for the 2009 murder of American aid worker Christopher Leggitt. Ould Ahmednah is one of three brothers who were recruited in AQIM, sons from a relatively wealthy family but whose father died when they were young. Momhamed Abdellahi Ould Ahmednah’s brother, Abdelkader was killed in combat by a Franco-Mauritanian force in northern Mali in June 2010. A third Ahmednah brother is also in Mauritanian prison; the two of them identified Abdelkader’s body to the authorities after his death. Those clashes and Ahmednah’s death were covered in this post.

Rolled Up in Azawad

Al-Akhbar recently published a video of a man in his forties, according to the write up, confessing to a number of acts of spying on behalf of Mauritania in northern Mali. He collected names, phone numbers, positions and other information about AQIM in the region. He says he was hired by the head of the Bureau d’Etudes et de Documentation, Mauritania’s foreign intelligence service, Gen. Mohamed Ould Meguet, to work with a commander Hbibi Ould Delloul and a captain Kheiry in collecting intelligence on AQIM in Mali. The write up quotes sources close to Ould Meguet the Mauritanians have not investigated the circumstances of his capture or death and did not attempt to negotiate or otherwise obtain his release. He was eventually executed, according to the report. According to the report his family has received ‘modest compensation’ from the authorities. The article describes the military’s handling of the affair as ‘cynical’.¹

He also worked at the service of the walis (governors) in the eastern provinces bordering Mali scouting for the military, traveled in northern Mali tracking the movements of AQIM and monitoring westerners traveling on the Rue d’Espoir (the Brazilian-build high way that links eastern and western Mauritania, the Highway of Hope). The al-Akhbar report places the video in the context of AQIM’s leaders’ reported purges of Mauritanians accused of spying for the Mauritanian intelligence service, which has been reported on in the Mauritanian and Algerian press; in late 2010 and early 2012 Algerian papers began reporting on paranoia in the AQIM command (mainly Abu Zaid’s katiba) about penetration by Mauritanian intelligence and more recently there are reports that there has been an effort to diversify the southern katibas’ ranks which for some time were dominated by Mauritanians (estimates are that at as many as 70% of AQIM recruits/fighters to particular katibas in the Sahel were or have been Mauritanian).

This comes amid the dispatching of gendarmerie counterterrorism units to the military garrison at Bassiknou as part of an effort to beef up security on the border after plots linked to AQIM were discovered at a border check point; the article describes Mauritanian gendarmes’ efforts to seek out AQIM operatives traveling in civilian clothes, searching for possible operatives in the camps housing refugees from the conflict in northern Mali. “Mopping up operations on the border began on 12 May 2012, according to Sahara Media.

(1) Last month the Mauritanian press reported that AQIM captured a Malian Arab who had been spying on the terrorist group in the Timbuktu region; he was held out in the city as an example and taken off to the outskirts by the group who at the very least beat him severely, according to rumours. He was accused of scouting and relaying information on the positions of AQIM targets in northwestern Mali to the Mauritanian military, in support of their cross border operations there.

Links and Reports on Mauritania Islamism and Security

In the last couple of months the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put out two reports on Mauritania:

Both are substantial and worth reading, even if one quibbles with specific parts of either. Both will be added to the next iteration of the Mauritania Bibliography.

The Algerian newspaper El Watan also recently published several articles on the Salafist trend in Mauritania, including a brief interview with Nouakchott Info journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali (whose long article on the situation in northern Mali was discussed here).

Magharebia also has an article on a meeting of shaykhs at Aleg last month on the role of mahadhras (religious schools; these are discussed at some length in the Boukhars report, and should be looked at in ) in promoting moderation, sponsored by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Mauritanian Association of Religious Scholars.
A post on this blog on President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is forthcoming, going back to the broader domestic politics in the country and his handling of foreign affairs and crisis situations, which will hopefully be relevant as far as current events in the country are concerned, the protest, democracy and labour movements especially. Stay tuned.

Opportunities Taken in Mali: Ethnic Dimensions & Additional Explanations on the Emergence of MUJWA

Readers should check the TMND Twitter account for news updates on the situation in Mali, Algeria and Mauritania, where links are posted, along with occasional analysis or comments. The feed is hosted on the sidebar on this blog and also here, on Twitter.

New Armed Groups and Changing Ethnic Politics

A new militia in northern Mali, the Front de libération nationale de l’Azawad (FLNA) has emerged, opposed to both shari’ah (promoted by AQIM, Ansar Eddine and MUJWA) and independence for the Azawad in northern Mali (promoted by the MNLA); the group is being described as an Arab armed group, drawn from members of the Arab militia that fled Timbuktu following the advance of the MNLA, Ansar Eddine and associated forces; the group is led by a Mohamed Lamine Sidad (also transliterated as Mohamed Laime Sidat). The Arab ethnic focus speaks to distrust between Arab and Tuareg residents in the Timbuktu region especially. Historically, smuggling groups were often run by Arabs and Tuaregs separately and many Arabs in Timbuktu have feared being dominated by Tuaregs, and losing access to trade routes, during the course of the uprising. This highlights an increasingly important ethnic dimension to the evolving situation in northern Mali which has been ignored in some reporting that takes a macro-level view of the MNLA-led rebellion, although this is becoming less and less the case: Tuaregs are one of several ethnic groups in northern Mali and themselves are divided along tribal and caste lines; not all ethnic groups in the “Azawad” support the MNLA or Ansar Eddine; not all ethnic groups or castes support the rebellion at all. Individual members of one ethnic, tribal or caste group may support secession whilst others may not. The Songhay, Arab, Tuareg and other ethnic groups in northern Mali have not all rallied around the rebellion or any one faction. Many things remain in play.

An article worth reading, or summarising, from Al Jazeera by Mohamed Mahmud Abu al-Ma’ali, a Mauritanian journalist who also has worked with ANI sheds some light on this. “A Salafist Emirate in Azawad….Has the hour of its birth come?” the article discusses the relationships between the main armed groups in the area and the possibility of a “Salafi emirate” being established in northern Mali. The article provides interesting details on the relationship between AQIM, Ansar Eddine and MUJWA, and fits with some other reports about these groups working closely together, overlapping in objectives, personnel and even leadership. The recent announcement that Iyad Ag Ghali, who leads Ansar Eddine was naming Yahya Abu el Hammam (an AQIM man) as the leader of the Timbuktu region also fits into the basic narrative provided by Abu al-Ma’ali. Because there is suspicion of Ag Ghali and Ansar Eddine among many Arabs in Timbutuku, the group has probably allowed AQIM to take a leadership role, since the group has stronger commercial and tribal links there and its membership is more heavily Arab. Other reports have AQIM or MUJWA taking a leadership role in Gao as well.

Abu al-Ma’ali’s article begins with an overview of three of the main armed groups operating in northern Mali: The MNLA, Ansar Eddine (or Harakat Ansar ed-Din al-Salafiya) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The essay analyses the social and ideological background of each group, as well as its ideology.

The article describes the MNLA as a grouping of “secularists and independents” whose ideological orientation is not well understood among the general population of the Azawad. Although the MNLA claims to represent all tribal and ethnic groups in the Azawad its recruits and leadership are limited to the Idnan Tuareg.

The writer describes Ansar Eddine as a “popular Salafi-jihadi movement” (without commenting on its size), and describing Iyad Ag Ghali’s transformation from a secular leader of the 1990s Tuareg rebellion and nobleman of the Ifoghass Tuareg  into a Salafi-jihadi leader after spending time as the Malian Consul General in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. It does not mention specific religious scholars, leaders or movements associated with Ansar Eddine or Ag Ghali. “Under the eyes of the al-Qa’ida and with blessings from it, Ag Ghali founded the new organization ‘the Ansar Eddine Movement’. The writer claims that the new movement attracted “hundreds of people from the Ifogass tribe [. . .] and other Tuareg tribes’. Further, “it has become clear that Iyad Ag Ghali took advantage of his social status and the intellectual direction of Salafism to reap the fruits of ten years of work done by al-Qa’ida in this region, who have clearly been spreading the call of  Salafism among the population during that period”. Although the writer believes that al-Qa’ida “planted the seeds of Salafism in the virgin soil” of the Azawad, h writes that Ag Ghali has successfully made the population “respond to [his] call by meeting the dismensions of tribal separatism, Tuareg nationalism, and brining it harmony with the call to jihad”. The article goes on to describe the attacks on  Agelhok and Tassilit, saying that Ansar Eddine established shari’ah in these areas, “preventing women from going out unveiled…making men wear beards in the streets and with people started to talking about life there as they did about life in Kandahar on the eve of the Taliban’s victory.”

The author describes MUJWA as a dissident faction of AQIM, which emerged when leaders refused to take advice from sub-commander about setting up a separate katiba made up “especially from the sons of the Arab tribes in the Azawad”.  The writer says that AQIM’s leaders, “having learned from their experience with internal fighting in Algeria” decided to led the MUJWA men leave the organization while continuing “coordination with them, as a separate movement, allied in direction and goals.” In addition to former AQIM subcommanders Mohamed Ould Lamine Ould Kheirou (Abu Qaqa) and Malian Sultan Ould Badi, the writer claims MUJWA has “attracted dozens” fighters from the tribes in northern Mali and “the interface between jihadi groups and the Arabs of the Azawad just as Ansar Eddine has become the interface of jihadist groups and the Tuareg.”

A previous post on this blog, speculating about varied explanations for the emergence of MUJWA look at only three ways of thinking about the group. Abu al-Ma’ali’s is somewhere in between two of the three (see here). These developments also recall some of the arguments about AQIM’s appeal among Moors, Saharan Arabs, in Mauritania and northern Mali some time ago. This writer and others have speculated that Ansar Eddine would probably seek to use AQIM as a means of making headway in Timbuktu for these ethnic and tribal reasons (see this post) and Andrew Lebovich (see here) have speculated that Ansar Eddine and AQIM would seek to leverage AQIM’s links to the Arab Berabiche communities in Timbuktu and Abu al-Ma’ali’s analysis points in this direction as well.

The next section in Abu al-Ma’ali’s article, “Al-Qa’ida: ‘The Official Sponsor of the Emirate of Azawad’”, describes the evolution of AQIM and its predecessor groups in northern Mali and the Sahel from 2003 onward in terms of changes in strategy in waging jihad against the governments of the region. It describes how members of the organization’s affiliate groups in Mauritania made truces with the government there, setbacks for AQIM in northern Algeria and how it “enhanced its military arsenal and organization” in Libya in 2011. The author then declares that the group has prepared with MUJWA and Ansar Eddine to “announce” the establishment of an emirate in the Azawad.

This is followed by “Preparation for Military Control,” which describes how the the three Salafi-jihadi groups in northern Mali have plotted to control the three main cities in the Azawad. It describes how the group took towns by besieging them or by negotiating with local leaders. Ansar Eddine “waited to pounce” on the Tuareg majority city of Kidal, the author writes. Meanwhile MUJWA and AQIM moved on Gao and Timbuktu, because the groups’ connections to Arab tribes would help allay tensions between Arabs and Tuaregs that might arise “as a result of the chaos that defined Mali after the coup” of Captain Sanogo.

Opportunities — Presented and Seized

This writer has repeatedly stressed that AQIM is not fated, destined or predetermined to be the key actor in northern Mali or the Sahel generally. A particular set of relationships and power relationships between the MNLA, Ansar Eddine, their tribal and ethnic support bases and  the decaying Malian state and its leaders, agents and constituents offered AQIM and MUJWA the opportunity to engage in a new kind of activity and to assume a degree of direct they had not previously in northern Mali.

The MNLA, reportedly the largest of the armed groups in the north (and according to some accounts the better armed) was played by Ag Ghali’s faction, which kept its cards and intentions close to its chest before springing once events began to move more rapidly. They were out politicked and in the course of this phase of the struggle in northern Mali, they have been set back. AQIM, by far, is the winner at this stage in the rebellion. It leaders now stand poised to enter governing positions as opposed to marginal, criminal ones. AQIM is in a different position as a result of the rebellion, perhaps stronger than ever in northern Mali, more deliberately provocative and confident than ever — and surely more visible. This also makes its leaders more vulnerable and open to perhaps the kind of arrogant mistakes that make some men resentful, jealous or wrathful. There are still other armed factions forming and operating in northern Mali; the equation has not been worked out and already regional forces, whose capacity to roll these problems back is unclear, are prepared to enter the fray, adding new variables and uncertainties. If the men speaking confidently with the chests puffed out on Al Jazeera were targets before their “conquest” in Azawad, they surely remain so and offer ever more incentives to their enemies.

Where this group had been a parasite, feeding on state corruption and weak will. There is a view that was held and is probably still held by many that regardless of what name armed or criminal elements in northern Mali went by they were all seeking to exploit the security vacuum in the region; in the autumn of 2011 and winter of 2012 the MNLA seize the opportunity to pursue political objectives, profiting from an arms windfall, desperate socio-economic conditions and crumbling legitimacy in Bamako. This also presented other opportunities for the armed groups, in the way of exposing tribal and ethnic differences and creating a crisis scenario that also produced a race for control, physically and ideationally. Ansar Eddine and AQIM and MUJWA have been the main victors in this phase of the rebellion. AQIM’s Salafi-jihadi ideological framework was given an opportunity — as a result of Ansar Eddine’s need to fill ethnic and military priorities as it moved south and as it competed with the MNLA — to become manifest at a political level. The first step in that direction has been their active participation in taking populated areas during the advance south. This was a group whose origins had largely been as a financing operation for AQIM’s northern operations; it is now in a position to apply a political program. As their relationship with Ansar Eddine is clarified by means of deeds — the application of shari’ah, their dealings with local elites and the MNLA, the handling of the hostage situation with Algeria and so on — the area will become a target for regional militaries and their allies. As things stand there is probably no going back to the way things were before the rebellion, particularly the tolerance allowed to AQIM’s operations (and other groups involved in illicit trade, particularly those linked to the extremely lucrative drug trade) from by the Malian state which allowed the group to fester and grow. Things might have been different if at various points Malian or external actors made different decisions about AQIM, about the Tuareg file, about how to address “root causes” and in which contexts they addressed them. Such things do not just happen, they are made to happen.

A Few Good Articles

Some articles worth looking at given the rapidly deteriorating situation in Mali, from the last couple of years (not intended as an exhaustive or complete list in any way; readers are welcome to share but, please do not post such things as “this list needs to include…” or “this list is incomplete because it does not have such and so”; yes, it is short and incomplete — please share good articles, though!).

Merret. “Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb: A ‘Glocal’ Organization,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 31, No. 6, 2008.

Filliu. “Could Al-Qaeda Turn African in the Sahel?” Carnegie Middle East Program Working Paper No. 112, June 2010.

Taje. “Vulnerabilities and factors of insecurity in the Sahel,” Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat (SWAC/OECD), No. 1, August 2010.

Guidere. “Al-Qaida au Maghreb Islamique: Le tourant des revolutions arabes,” Maghreb-Machrek, No. 208. 2011.

Lohmann. “Who Owns the Sahara?: Old Conflicts, New Menaces: Mali and the Central Sahara between the Tuareg, Al Qaida and Organized Crime,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, June 2011.

European Parliament  Committee on Political Affairs. “Working Document on the impact of the Libyan conflict on neighbouring ACP and EU states,” 24 October 2011.

Marret. “Al-Qaida au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI),” 11 January 2011.

Fabiani. “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): Implications for Algeria’s Regional and International Relations,” IAI Working Papers 11/07, April 2011.

Oris and Arenas-Garcia. “AQIM and Mauritania: Local Paradoxes, Regional Dynamics and Global Challenges,”  IECAH, 2012.

More General Thoughts RE: Mali, AQIM, armed groups, etc.

Events in Mali are developing rapidly; for the moment, readers may refer to this blogger’s Twitter feed and those of others better informed (for example: Martin VoglMartin Plaut,Peter DorrieHannah ArmstrongTommy Miles, and Andrew Lebovich, and the articles here). Media reports have AQIM and MUJWA operating together with Ansar Eddine in Gao and Timbuktu; reports are mixed and the situation continues to be fluid. The MNLA appears to have been sidelined in some areas by Ansar Eddine, which is reported to have a heavy presence with members of AQIM in Timbuktu, and in others to be operating in proximity to MUJWA and/or Ansar Eddine. At present it is clear there are at least partial divisions in that Ansar Eddine may seek to expand beyond the Azawad, while the MNLA is more likely to attempt to hold territory in the north toward its goal of establishing a state there. Ansar Eddine (and the other Islamist/Salafi groups), though, look ready to try and extend their reach further south. In such a case they may find themselves at an even greater cross purposes than they did early on. The MNLA, highly media conscious, may attempt some kind of manoeuvre  to take some of the initiative from the Ansar Eddine and other armed factions. Ansar Eddine appears much stronger than previous reports suggested, and it may have come to an agreement or understanding with AQIM or MUJWA as a result of a common worldview or revenge politics directed toward the MNLA or a need to find ins at the local level in Timbuktu, for example. But there in particular if reports about AQIM having established itself there with the rebels moves beyond the group’s usually more low key and more pragmatic style; a prominent role there exposes it to targeting by the Mauritanian air force or others. This is especially true if reports about AQIM leadership figures showing up in Timbuktu or returning to Mali from neighbouring countries are true (including Yahya Abu al-Hammam and Belmokhtar; they are reported to have taken control of some military bases/installations in the area). The heavy hand in Timbuktu or Gao could also instigate pressure from ethnic militias in the area and with tribes. At the same time such figures may also help Ansar Eddine, whose leader Ag Ghali draws much of his support from Kidal, cement control in the area. From the distance and without more reliable reporting and definitive accounts from locals questions remain numerous and assumptions and contingencies must be reconsidered and interrogated vigorously.

Back from a minor hiatus

Your blogger has been absent from this space for some time. This is unintentional; other projects have taken up much time. This post tries to touch on something the things this blogger has been considering in the interval since the last regular post went up — on Algeria, Mauritania and MUJWA in very general terms. It is incomplete, more posts will continue on a more or less regular basis from now on.

Since the last post, which drew many comments because it was incomplete and was written more or less on a time crunch. The comments left by readers are worth reviewing as they clear up confusion on some important points on what were then recent events in Mauritania. That post was trying to get at something that still stands: Mauritania is facing many structural political problems at several levels and these almost certainly take first place when compared to issues like the terrorism file (which is important on its own and in its own way and more so when added on to these other troubles). The last two months saw impressive and in some cases unprecedented manifestations of popular protest; this week Nouakchott saw what was perhaps the largest single demonstration in its history, numbering, depending on what source one looks at, 40,000 people (and possibly more) a number which speaks for itself in a country of roughly 4m people, close to a quarter of whom live in or near the capital city. The discontent mentioned in the last post and several others before has grown over the last several months, owing to  the standard inequalities and injustices suffered by Mauritanians and others in north-west Africa, not to mention the relatively dire food security situation, the upsetting of grazing patterns in the eastern part of the country brought on by the conflict in Mali, the not so special style of corruption preferred by the current president and leadership which is more narrow that in the past and less satisfying to key parts of the tribal and business and social fabric. This blogger has more thoughts on the last part of this and has written about it before (and will put more on the blog soon); in the meantime there are multiple fine resources for some of the recent events in the way of protests. The youth movement, which looked as if it were going to petter out a few months ago has increased its online presence and has put up much in the way of images and videos on Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social media board. The trouble likely to come from the election fiasco will be a key flash point soon enough (probably more so than in Algeria, for some comparison). It used to be said that nothing ever happened in Mauritania (aside from coups), that it was a “quiet” country. This idea is less and less appealing. Great coverage of recent events, including Nasser Weddady’s recent posts herehere and especially here where he has posted the opposition coalition’s 43 page manifesto demanding a national unity government (in Arabic), on the grounds that the government has been essentially extra-constitutional since the government pushed back last year’s elections (this situation sort typifies the kinds of challenges facing Mauritania this blogger has tried to emphasise in the last several months) and Lissa Hunt’s recent tweets and posts. Right now is a critical time for Mauritania.

Your blogger no longer agrees with himself in whole when it comes to the Algerian elections. He wrote a piece for Fair Observer at the end of December (which was published at the beginning of January) regarding the prospects for Islamist parties in the May elections there. The view was the elections do not particularly matter; at that point it was difficult to say what “might” happen other than that one can say it is likely few Algerians will vote with relative confidence. It is now clear the consensus in the regime is that some iteration of Islamists, be it the MSP-led coalition of Islamist parties taking seats from parts of the FLN and RND or some of the small secular parties or the several recently formed Islamist parties getting seats on their own and thus making up a divided but more numerous stake out for the religious trend generally. Whatever the case the lower house less important than much foreign press coverage and commentary has made it out to be — do not forget the upper house, the Majlis al-Ummah, a third of which is appointed by the president and which has veto power over the lower house. What will come out of the constitutional reforms that are being ginned up for this year may change this, though it is doubtful. And if “Islamists” perform in line with the trend seen elsewhere in the Maghreb the outcome will probably look more like Morocco, with palace Islamists (the MSP, which as this blog and many, many Algerians have noted, has been in government for close to a decade and its members still serve in the cabinet in important and lucrative posts such as public works; meaning there are probably thick files on them held by the security services which may help regulate them if they attempt to get out of line as has happened in the past), than Egypt or some such. There are plenty of other trends more interesting than the elections to watch in Algeria and to take as indicators of the mood in the country; some of these overlap with the elections (or will do so) and some of them stand on their own. The succession issue at the top of the regime and in the deep state probably matter more than how the lower house get rearranged. There was the notable resignation of Sa’id Sa’di from his post as the chief of the Rally for Culture and Democracy which has earned a bum rap from many for various reasons — its more or less supporting for the military, its aggressive secularism, its ideological direction, whatever one wants. This blogger wrote about its (ex-)leader’s links with the head of the security services last spring and its participation in the February protests. That well known relationship is yet another dingy point on Sa’di’s reputation with many Algerians who pay attention to him. Rumours after his resignation, though, suggest he probably suffered some pressure from the regime as a result of his activities and rhetoric in 2011; realignments and subtle shifts look likely for small factions and cosmetic elements supportive of or tolerated by the regime.

The Movement for Unity and Jihad (MUJWA) has been described in various ways: a “splinter” from AQIM, a reorganisation of the group’s southern front, a victory for Algerian or some other intelligence service in infiltrating and splitting up AQIM, and other things. There is not enough information available on the group or its membership to assess the validity of such claims. One has to start up with certain assumptions in order for most of these theories to work out. Some of these have more support based on what is known of MUJWA’s leaders and recent AQIM activities – or rumours and reports of AQIM’s activities – other have less support. As yet not many of them are particularly convincing based on the available information about the group.

The narrative in the group’s initial (and thus far only) propaganda video does not jive easily with the theory that the group is a “reorganisation” of AQIM’s operational structure and that the group is not really a splinter faction — it announces a break with AQIM, and essentially rephrases and reframes AQIM’s narrative against western powers and jihad for its own purposes. The group’s first operation, the kidnapping of European aid workers in October 2011, and its first announcement in December suggest it may have formed in the early autumn or that the group’s members went rogue from AQIM after the October operation. Relatively little is known about the key individuals associated with the organisation: Virtually all of them, from the group’s reputed leader, Hamada Ould Mohamed Khayrou to Sultan Ould Badi appear to be Arab Mauritanians or Malians from the Azawad (from north of Gao especially). And their attacks thus far, the October 2011 kidnapping of European aid workers and the recent suicide bombing at Tamanrasset, suggest a north-ward orientation, not surprisingly done in a fashion similar to AQIM itself. At present the group’s objectives and trajectory appear contradictory and even confusing. This blogger is not prepared to make conclusions as his friend Andrew Lebovich has in terms of the group’s true motives or nature based on such little information at this stage, though his analysis has important points, for example on possible coordination/communication between MUJWA and AQIM make some sense and are compelling. His point on both groups demanding the release of Major Abderrahmane Ould Meidou is also worth considering; and as he reocognises in the update to his original post on the issue, social and personal relations between the group are somewhat inevitable given MUJWA’s genealogy. This is one of the more important elements — Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou (also Khayrou/Khayri/Kheiry) is an individual whose background and relations with AQIM’s leadership is worth considering and comparing with other Mauritanian leaders of late such as Khaled Chinguitti, who was promoted at some point in 2011 and had taken on important operational leadership roles and was reportedly killed some months ago fighting with MNLA men in Mali, though his death was reported by only one source (ANI; though readers may be aware of other reports that do not rely on the ANI account, if they exist). As more information stacks up a more or less clear picture may materialise. Or it may not. At this point this blogger does not agree or disagree with any particular analysis of the matter per se.

The group presents interesting questions: What tensions exist in the relationships within and between AQIM’s southern katibat and suryiat in terms of their ethno-national composition? Much attention goes to supposed tensions between two of AQIM’s southern commanders, Belmokhtar and Abu Zeid; what about tensions at lower echelons? What personal factors would contribute to driving a group of Mauritanian and Azawadi Malians out of AQIM into a new group oriented southward (at least in its rhetoric)? (This could speak to their area of operation and potentially their relationships with other groups operating in the area.) What kind of longevity will this group have in a competitive environment where it must compete with groups such as the MNLA and Ansar ed-Din in addition to AQIM? What will AQIM’s ultimate response to MUJWA be? At present there are more questions than answers.

Just a Note on Mauritania

These are some general thoughts on the political situation in Mauritania as they stand now. The country is divided in significant ways and the economic situation leaves much to be desired for the average person, a situation many can attest to. The  Some of this is economic — owing to drought, mismanagement, unemployment, food insecurity and the like — some of it is the result of distinctly domestic or external factors. The violence related to the census protests (remember the ‘Don’t Touch My Nationality’ campaign) in September and October was notable in that the government’s response was to cancel the census, which also meant the legislative elections — which had already been pushed back to October from earlier dates — had to be postponed for the spring (also creating the potential for a constitutional crisis). The scheduling of the municipal and legislative elections will be a major point to watch in the next few months. Some of these problems were worked out during the dialogue between parts of the opposition (led mainly by the APP and a few smaller parties, El Wiam, Hammam, and Sawab; the RFD, UFP and the rest of the COD, boycotted the dialogue; the process left the opposition bitterly divided) and the UPR, especially the provision of an independent electoral commission. As interesting is the fact that there have been so many generalised and organised expressions of economic and political dissatisfaction in the last three to four months. Strikes, threats of strikes, sit-ins, youth and opposition demonstrations have gone on with some regularity. There was a rally for the ruling UPR at Nouadhibou not long ago where very few people showed up aside from functionaries and there are signs of cracks in the party (one commentator called it ‘a giant with feet of clay‘). The fall of Qadhafi deprived President Ould Abdel Aziz of an important source of largesse and external rent which helped him buy allies and build his political base; a number of big mining and energy deals came through this year which probably helped balance this off but this was probably (though not surely) the best performing part of the economy. There is an impression many of the mining deals that went through in the autumn and early winter were part of an effort to raise money, rent-seeking; and in the general sense there are reports of widespread nepotism from members of the president’s family, getting a stake in this company or that one, putting pressure on banks for their own benefit. Even at SNIM there have been reports about top level scrabbles where professional engineers have complained about family ties getting the way of work; earlier in the year there was a scandal over interns who never showed up to work but were give large stipends regardless. Agriculture and other critical areas were hard hit by bad weather; the Red Cross/Crescent recently said about a million Mauritanians will go hungry in 2012 unless something is done to avert it — that one million number is out of just under four million people. So things are hard in Mauritania and that is not new. How this will impact how things in Mauritania play out in 2012 is worth pondering. This blog has focused on the AQIM and security element but there are problems the country faces that are in some ways more serious and potentially more (or as) destabilising than terrorism or banditry; this should not be forgotten. The country continues to suffer from ‘rent-driven underdevelopment’, which Mamoun A. Ismaili discusses in a recent essay in the IPRIS Maghreb Bulletin (Autumn/Winter 2011). Ismaili’s essay is a good primer on Mauritania’s political economy and its background, and puts the current government into historical perspective. It also sums up some of the recent episodes described in this post.

  1. Ismaili, Mamoun A. ‘Power Devolution in Mauritania: The Chasse Gardée of a Rent-Seeking Elite,’ Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security, Maghreb Bulletin, No. 12 (Autumn/Winter, 2011), pp. 3-7.

AQIM Link Roundup

A short roundup of links related to al-Qa’idah in the Islamic Maghreb from the last few days. In the main these stories deal with relations between Mali and the Polisario (there were reports of a deterioration in relations and Bamako withdrawing from ties with the Polisario and then that Mali had agreed to allow the Polisario right of pursuit into its territory), the issuance of arrest warrants by the Mauritanians that includes alleged AQIM leaders but also an individual called Mustapha Ould Limam al-Shafe’i who is an important figure in regional politics and an opponent of the Ould Abdel Aziz government,¹ reports on developments within AQIM (leadership changes and divisions on national lines) and the breakaway MOJWA group (‘ ‘ on ethno-national divisions), the relationship between AQIM and Boko Haram and new reports of al-Qa’idah recruitment efforts and emplacement in Libya. As many have said recently, these are interesting times in northwest Africa. Additionally, the rift between Nouakchott and Rabat was a continued point of discussion in Mauritania in particular, where the Foreign Minister told parliament the expulsion of the MAP correspondent (see the last update) had contributed to improving Mauritania’s relations with Morocco. The Algeria angle also got attention in media. Also on the list is a piece this writer wrote for the great blog Al-Wasat (30 December) on the promotion of Gen. Bachir Tartag to head the DSI within the Algerian intelligence service (DRS), looking at the media coverage of the appointment and putting it in political context.

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Who Misses Saddam?: These guys

Readers will recall this blogger’s interest in the Ba’thist trend in Mauritania, which is mainly dominated by the Iraqi/Saddamist strain. Mauritanian Ba’this (as well as a few of the other, small Arab nationalist or nationalist-Islamist parties) had gravitated toward the Qadhafite trend while Libya spreading largesse in the country, in the last few years mainly after the 2008 coup. CRIDEM has a very short summary report of a conference on 29 December where Ba’thists and other fans of Saddam commemorated the fifth anniversary of the death of Saddam Hussein with discussions on the state of the Arab ummah (community) and Arabic poetry readings; portraits of Saddam Hussein were distributed to attendees. The CRIDEM link is also interesting for reader comments, whose tone shows the kind of sentiments Saddam’s image calls up for some Mauritanians (especially non-Arab Mauritanians) given the country’s diversity and history in the last twenty or twenty five years as it relates to race and ethnic politics. At the same it shows the extent to which Mauritanian Arabs are integrated into pan-Arab trends and political discourses,¹ how Mauritanian political culture in general has been de-territorialised over the last few decades in terms of pan-Arab and pan-Islamic and Islamist narratives and ideologies (the difference between the latter two is especially important; and in terms of ethnic differences, the way ‘Moors’ and ‘Afro-Mauritanians associate and disassociate religion from identity politics is also important (Mauritanian Ba’thists include many religious references in their propaganda and programmes; the same is true for some of the other Arab nationalist parties; also among some of the Haratine movements Arabism and Islamic identity have been used to legitimise anti-slavery and anti-discrimination efforts for the descendants of slaves), while also keeping in mind that Islam is an important part of official or semi-official Mauritanian nationalist narratives in any case — the place is called the Islamic Republic of Mauritania on purpose not by coincidence; a similar trend can also be seen in black Mauritanian ethnic politics, too, where ‘African’ as opposed to ‘Arab’ identity and pan-politics have been somewhat prominent, especially in exile). In any case an interesting event that coincides with similar such commemorations elsewhere in the Arab countries.

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Mauritania: Earth’s Bulls-Eye

If readers ever get into space, they may  find themselves looking for Mauritania, or its enormous Richat Structure, sometimes called ‘Earth’s Bulls-Eye':

“This prominent circular feature in the Sahara desert of Mauritania has attracted attention since the earliest space missions because it forms a conspicuous bull’s-eye in the otherwise rather featureless expanse of the desert. Described by some as looking like an outsized ammonite in the desert, the structure [which has a diameter of almost 50 kilometers (30 miles)] has become a landmark for shuttle crews. Initially interpreted as a meteorite impact structure because of its high degree of circularity, it is now thought to be merely a symmetrical uplift (circular anticline) that has been laid bare by erosion.”

This prominent circular feature, known as the Richat Structure, in the Sahara desert of Mauritania is often noted by astronauts because it forms a conspicuous 50-kilometer-wide (30-mile-wide) bull’s-eye on the otherwise rather featureless expanse of the desert. Initially mistaken for a possible impact crater, it is now known to be an eroded circular anticline (structural dome) of layered sedimentary rocks.

See exciting NASA satellite pictures here.