AQIM-Mauritania: Quite Saharan, in fact

Thanks to a well placed Mauritanian friend, I have been able to look over the interrogation transcripts of Sidi Ould Sidina, Mohamed Ould Chabarnou (along with several other AQIM operatives in state custody during January 2008, before Ould Sidina’s escape; both are presently in prison, and Aziz, Ghazouani, and Ould Adde take credit for their processing). I will post observations periodically over the next month or so. A note on the main elements in this posting:

*Sidi Ould Sidina (aka Abu Jandal“): fmr. local “Emir” of the Mauritanian AQIM cell, a Mauritanian Army deserter;
*Mohamed Ould Sidi Ould Chabarnou (aka “Abu Muslim“) a member of Ould Sidina’s entourage, described variously as former army or police, though he says that he is former police officer during his interrogation;
*Maarouf Ould Mohamed Habib (also Maarouf Ould Hiba): AQIM’s top car thief, involved in several car thefts that were arranged to finance AQIM activities.

A reading to page 50 [-ish] yields a few interesting points:

  • Firstly, though this comes later on in the transcripts, Mohamed Salem Ould Mohamed Lamine al-Majlissi, who is billed as an AQIM ideologue, told his interrogator that he was “shocked” to learn about the Aleg massacre (he considered it an abomination). He thought Mohamed Ould Chabrnou to be “balanced” and that Sidi Ould Sidina was “agitated,” and unstable. Majlissi, for his part, denies having supplied any logistical support for AQIM and condemns the organization’s methods.
  • According to Chabarnou AQIM had recruited 10 Mauritanians, 3 Algerians willing to carry out suicide bombings, at hotels, restaurants, airports, military HQ, state owned industries with car and suicide bombs, as a means of disrupting the national economy and causing spectacular carnage. The “volunteers’ ” names were placed on a list, which was sent to Algeria, so that the candidate could be called in for action “at any time”.
  • Ould Sidina states that one of the primary goals of the Aleg massacre was to obtain EU passports or two reasons: (1) using the passports to perpetrate identity fraud and (2) to post the identities and information of the victims on the internet as a means of building prestige among other AQIM branches. He narrates their escape into Senegal, which appears to have gone quite smoothly; It took less than 12 hours for the culprits to make it through the southern stretch of the country, into a Senegalese village and from there on to Dakar, much of this journey taking place in taxicabs and without serious difficulty. He further mentions that the cell member who was sent to retrieve to get the passports from them (by the AQIM leadership) was a Wolof-speaking black African, indicating that AQIM has been recruiting from Senegal or at the very least in southern Mauritania (though Chabarnou refers to this individual as being “Malian,” it is exceedingly unlikely that he would have happened upon a Wolof-speaker from that country). He says that the operatives only had one magazine (and a few left over bullets from a mostly expired one) for the AK-47 they used in the attack, because they blew through two other magazines while they tested out their weapon in the hours before the attack. This should tell us something about their arsenal in Mauritania.
  • He estimates the size of the AQIM camp in northern Mali to have included 170 men, 40 of them Mauritanians. The men in the camp, he says were for the most part already well and familiar with the group’s ideology on arrival, and were sent to the camp primarily to learn the ins and outs of combat. The picture that both Ould Sidina and particularly Chabarnou paint of the Mauritanian recruits indicates a great deal of personal competition for leadership positions, which hold the prospect of financial gain. They seem to hold only nominal or loose ideological fidelity and minimal operational proficiency, leading to rivalries and multiple botched plots (many involving numbers of men in the single digits), and as a means for men with criminal pasts to “rebuild” their reputations and personal savings through righteous combat, though that doesn’t mean they’ve ceased stealing cars and running drugs simply for profit. Chabarnou describes a picture in which Mauritanian AQIM foot soldiers steal cars when they cannot kill people, and dividing the proceeds 50/50 between themselves and the AQIM Emir in the Sahara (in this effort, they enlisted the help of Maarouf Ould Ould Mohamed Habib (aka Maarouf Ould Hiba), a criminal specializing in car theft). As a rule, the highest AQIM Emirs are Algerian. It is explained that Mauritanians face somewhat of a ceiling, meaning that the only way for a remotely autonomous Mauritanian AQIM branch to emerge would be for a large independent cash flow to emerge. The Mauritanian cell’s cash flow is controlled by Algerians, and Mauritanians hold leadership roles only at local levels, and it seems to be policy of the Emirs to keep them from gaining their own monetary funding. This indicates that the AQIM presence in Mauritania is basically a GSPC colony whose operations and finances are controlled by Algerians and carried out by Mauritanians. They are less bin Laden’s franchise as they are El Para‘s. When asked what the organization hoped to gain by recruiting suicide bombers, Ould Sidina responds that it was his understanding that Mauritanian youth were being recruited for use as suicide bombers in Algeria, not in Mauritania. He claims to have left AQIM because they started to sell drugs to help finance themselves, which should help us to understand AQIM within its wider strategic environment in the Sahara: as I and others have said, its existence is critically tied to the smuggling routes in the south-western Sahara, even more so than it is to jihadi ideology.
  • When asked about the groups position in Mauritania, Sidina responds that (as of January 2008) the present time was “good” for them because, in comparison with the previous regimes, the current one (Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi’s) was much more lax in its control and surveillance of the mosques and Islamic centers, which made recruitment more facile. He says that they could “operate freely” in the mosques and Islamic centers under Abdallahi; his impression seems to be that Abdallahi abandoned efforts to combat AQIM ideologically, and left it up to nature. The cell displeased with the country’s politics before, but previously could not articulate their solution to the faithful, and their new “freedom” allowed them to do so. While it would certainly be simplistic and fool hearted to blame all of this on Sidi, this, along with the fact that Ould Sidina escaped so easily, undoubtedly factored into the military’s contemptuous perception of Sidi as a failed leader. Furthermore, it should be remembered that both Ould Sidina and Chabarnou were released under Abdallhi, after Col. Vall had stated publicly that both were men that should not be set free.

This leads me to believe the following:

  • The GSPC’s previous orientation was towards attacking the Algerian Army, in the Sahara as in the north. After its merger w/ al-Qaeda, its goal shifted towards attacking European and American targets in the region. This might be because it is more lucrative to operate in the orbit of such targets, in terms of trade routes and the possibilities for kidnapping and ransom. The lesson they seem to have taken away from El Para’s German kidnapping is that Europeans are like walking Euros. If one kidnaps them, he can count on a random; If one attacks or kills them on holiday, he can watch tourism money flee the country and damage the “enemy” financially. Further, they need the conflict in northern Mali to continue to profit from arms sales to the Tuareg. If the conflicts in the region were settled, a major portion of their income would dry up.
  • As said above, the Mauritanian AQIM cannot operate on their own, without securing a constant independent cash flow. They are unlikely to take over cigarette and weapons smuggling (cigarettes into Algeria and weapons into Mali, both of which are controlled by Algerians), and thus will have to find something else if they want to wage war on their own. The likely alternatives are stealing and smuggling cars (hence they have enlisted the likes of Ould Hiba, mentioned above, and other petty criminals who are not necessarily allied with them ideologically) or pushing their way into drug smuggling, particularly cocaine. While the men in the transcripts evidence a strong distaste for drug smuggling, this does not mean that other men, just as ambitious or more so, would not or will not look to make these their enterprises under the AQIM flag. It would be prudent for governments to focus on clamping down the automobile smuggling between north-west Africa and Europe (that market rather large and if AQIM were to become more deeply involved in it, it could develop sound effects).
  • The Mauritanians should exert tighter control over the Salafist outlets within the country (as harmless as many of those bodies may be) and try to clot the flood of Saudi materials into the country, in order to combat the Salafi ideology, which is mostly foreign to Mauritania. Based on other sources, it seems that much of the AQIM membership in Mauritania seems to have come via the local Brotherhood, Tawassul (or through criminal networks, of course). That doesn’t mean mass scale round ups or shelling Salafi mosques a la Sadat or As`ad, but it does mean resuming some of the practices that helped to keep the country’s traditional religious practices in place and the more violent ideas coming from Egypt and the Gulf in check.
  • The transcripts tell a story of an organization made up of true and half believers on the one hand and opportunistic criminal minds on the other, not always operating in the most fluid of ways (their operations are often as blunderous as they are bloody and more confused than they are meticulous. As I and others have said before, the factors that feed the organization’s Mauritanian existence are ones that cause trouble regardless of terrorism, and that touch various vest interests (both state and non-state) throughout the region. These gaps need to be narrowed by others (or closed up wholly, which is unlikely), so that AQIM has fewer options to finance its growth locally. They have already begun to splinter, which, given the detainees’ statements, is not as surprising as it might be given the organization’s commercial element.

More will come as I go through the transcript.

11 thoughts on “AQIM-Mauritania: Quite Saharan, in fact

  1. Fascinating and really valuable stuff.

    What makes you believe the GSPC/AQIM profits off arms sales to Tuareg? My sources had detailed the Tuaregs arms as coming from general smuggling routes which I’m sure the GSPC profit off of, but mainly from government sources, Libya, and from other conflicts in West Africa dying down, creating surplus weaponry.

  2. Hi Adrian,

    Thanks for the kind words. While it is true that the Nigerien Tuareg have received arms from Libya, it must be remembered that since Tripoli and Bamako’s relations have cleared up, the Libyans’ strategic focus has moved away from the Malian Tuareg relative to the ones in Niger, to whom the Libyans are supplying in larger proportion nowadays. Libyan arms are being moved via Burkinabese Tuaregs. Burkina Faso is Libya’s forward base in West Africa (that’s how rebellion in Ivory Coast is funded, for example and how Libyan arms move into Mali and Niger). The Tuareg have purchased arms from Mauritania as well (particularly from former Chief of Staff General Moulaye Ould Boukhreiss). But after the Tuareg disarmed in 1998, AQIM, then the GSPC, was instrumental in their rearmament process through normal trade routes and through direct contact. GSPC was very much involved in moving weapons through and into the Sahara. Certainly they are not and were not providing the majority of the Tuareg’s weaponry, but that trade is a major part of their income. At least that is my understanding of it.

  3. Yeah I’ve always been a bit fuzzy on the conflict/cooperation between the Malian Tuareg and the GSPC. Supposedly Belmokhtar married a Tuareg woman and they cooperate in the weapons/drugs trade, but there was also fighting between at least one Tuareg faction and the GSPC and some Tuareg have been trained by the US for counterterrorism operations.

  4. It’s tribal more or less, isn’t it? I think in that context, one should note that the Algiers accords between Mali and the Touareg have provided for ex-rebels forming security units to keep the areas free of “foreigners”. (See eg. here, final para.) This seems to me a convenient way of saying they will be kept on leash by Algeria to serve as its local border patrol proxy.

  5. The Algiers accord refers to the May 23rd/ADC people, which as I understand it is more of a mainstream/respectable group of people that fought with the GSPC even when they weren’t paid by the gov’t to do so. Bahanga’s group is the group that is running the drug smuggling and I don’t think they ever signed the Algiers accord. Some Malian and Nigerien military types I’ve talked to say that Bahanga cooperates with the GSPC/AQIM people, or that he hires them, or that they hire him, or that they work together on an individual basis and not as representing AQIM… and I believe a spokesman for Bahanga denies working with terrorists at all. Hence my confusion.

  6. I am not really very sure, but what about Algeria’s alleged involvement into manipulating the salafists? Have been reading since 2007 on Algeria-Watch site that it is known that El Para and Belaouar are agents of the Algerian DRS which in my view that Mauritanian jihadist cells are always run by Algerian GSPC cells. This is evidences by an article in le Monde Diplomatique of February 2005, articles by F. Geze and S. Mellah. Most recently I read an article from the Tuarologue Jeremy Keenan in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) of October 2008 incriminating the Algerian government in manipulating the tuaregs for a long time. The most disturbing evidence is the hostile reaction of Algeria in the freeing of the Austrian hostages a week ago (see article from La Liberte that is close to the power in Algiers. More evidence again in my view is that the security conference called for by ATT in July and then in October is dead because Algeria does not seem to want it for fear some truth may be said there. Amazing that Morocco was not invited to that conference. My belief is that these djihadists are the creation of the US and Algeria.The generals in Mauritania could be involved as they leaked some transcripts of the questioning of Ould Sidna and Ould Chabarnou to a French newspaper, with a journalist ex-army officer pushing the theory that it is Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi’s incompetent handling of the salafists that brought insecurity to Mauritania.Bizarre coincidence: it is the justification that Aziz uses today to justify the coup. In a nutshell, all these djihadists could not survive without the help of a country and people are looking first at Algeria and then Libya.However, the killing of the 11 soldiers and their civilian guide in Tourine near the Morocco border make people look towards Morocco as the doer of this killing, signing it “algerian” so that it is blamed on GSPC that is believed to be manipulated by the Algerian generals. What do you think of this line of thinking?

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