Salafism, AQIM and rural Mauritania

Pay attention to this little town of Lehleiwa (لحليوه), near Aleg. Readers will remember Aleg as the site of the murder of several French tourists by AQIM members last year. This weekend 3 Salafists were arrested in Lehleiwa, after an argument broke out between them and the townspeople over an unknown topic. Interestingly, one of the Salafis is a black African. The movement is generally very Moorish, and there are indications that its appeal is spreading, if ever so slightly. Lehleiwa deserves attention because it appears to factor into the AQIM network in Mauritania rather strongly.

Further reading of the interrogation transcripts leads to several mentions of a small village called Lehleiwa (لحليوه). Mohamed Salem Ould Mohamed Lamine al-Majlissi visited the town as a preacher during 2006 as part of a tour which took him from Nouakchott down through Kiffa in the south west of the country. He says he visited the town because “[. . .] in the big cities there is a great number of preachers, but in little towns and villages there is a deficit in religious knowledge.” There is a clear recognition that the rural areas are at least somewhat removed from the Islamist/Salafi movement and that its leadership is making a concerted effort to radicalize them.

The town evidently has fewer than a couple of hundred residents, and is home to another one of the AQIM operatives interrogated, by the name Mohammed Mustafa Abdel Qader (also known as Bou Sa`id). Abdel Qader was born in Tijikja, and took up residence in Lehleiwa at some point prior to becoming involved with the Salafist movement. Eventually, Abdel Qader became a preacher within the movement. He was detained in 2005/06, and while in prison met and befriended Ould Sidna. It seems that he formed relationships with other Salafis either by visiting mosques (mosque hopping is a popular activity among Salafi activists, as mentioned in previous postings) or in prison. It seems to be a common pattern that these men participate in the movement, get locked up, and form new elements of AQIM’s logistical structure by means of friendships and relationships formed in prison. After their release (under Abdallahi, who is specifically mentioned more than once as having “left” the mosques to the Salafis or having made their activities easier), these connections come into force, as later events show.

It is from Abdel Qader in Lehleiwa that Ould Sidna and Chabarnou obtained a car following the Aleg attack. Abdel Qader gave the two a car and 1,000 MROs to a driver who took them on a scenic route to Boghe, on the Senegalese border. Ould Sidna, with a bleeding leg and all, told Abdel Qader that he and his companion needed the vehicle to do a da‘wah mission. He learned about the Aleg massacre only after coming home from the local mosque, and in his own words failed to “connect the dots”. He summed up his attitude towards the Aleg attack thusly: “As an Islamic preacher I condemn the massacre, because I consider them [the victims] to be ahl el-dhimma who did not commit any aggression, so they should not have been attacked on our land.”

The Mauritanian-Senegal border seems to be easily penetrated, and knowledgeable Mauritanians say that the government simply cannot afford to secure it. One of Mauritania’s many weak spots, the southern border saw raids by FLEM in 1989, and Salafis and AQIM members now hop back and forth over the porous border. Effective containment of AQIM in Mauritania would include, along with myriad other things, the exertion of firm control over the border, by both Mauritania and Senegal (the same goes for Mali and Algeria as well).

I will post more on al-Majlissi’s interrogation later on in the week, especially as it relates to his and other operatives’ views on suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks in Mauritanian, not to mention the power struggles within the AQIM leadership in northern Mali. I welcome any population figures/statistics or geographic insight about Lehleiwa. Maps are especially welcome (Here is a google map of the Brakna region, where Lehleiwa is located; this map shows a variety of cities and towns in Mauritania, with size comparison). There is probably a lot that can be learned from its circumstance.

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