The French-Mauritanian raid on an AQIM camp in northern Mali on 22 July has produced interesting reactions and highlighted problems in the region. UPDATE: See point 5 below.
- The Algerians feel sidelined. The raid went on without Algerian support, foreknowledge and went outside of the Tamanrasset command set up after the regional anti-terrorism conference earlier this year. As they see it, the raid ignored the regional security structures set up expressly to deal with AQIM. The French reportedly provided logistical and technical support while the Mauritanians did the heavy-lifting. An Algerian source told this blogger that France’s association with the raid will only create the perception that “France attacked an African camp and killed Muslims. They will make more enemies for themselves this way. They put African efforts in danger if they associate themselves too publicly with these kinds of things because it can make [us] look like stooges, like the French are really the ones fighting these terrorists when it is us.” Initially, the Mauritanians claimed full credit for the attack. Later, the French chimed in and announced their supporting participation. The Algerians and some Mauritanians now see the attack in terms of the 2012 French election, believing that Sarkozy hoped to use the raid to bolster his image in France; the cold politicians might say “so much for that” (their hostage was executed, after all). Still, local sources do not doubt France’s commitment to fighting AQIM, which was likely the other (more important) factor in French participation — to strengthen the narrative that “France takes AQIM seriously” (as Time puts it). The Algerians also seem to believe that the French hoped to demonstrate their ability to take decisive action in the Sahel, thus showing the Algerians and Americans (for separate but related reasons) that this part of Africa remains within their sphere of influence. (Also note that in this report it is stated that the French intend to work with the UK and US in the region and with local governments in Mali, Mauritania and Niger — but it does not mention Algeria except to say that the country would prefer for states in the region to handle the terrorism problem “without foreign intervention.”) Other Algerian sources say Algerian involvement might discredit anti-AQIM activity as much as France’s (for reasons of doctrine/mentality and Malian attitudes towards the Algerians). Others believe that Algerian involvement may initiate needless blood feuds with the local population (still others see Algerian involvement as wholly problematic from the start). Malian and Mauritanian sources report that in the last six months Malian Arab smugglers have taken fire from Algerian helicopters near the Algerian border. These sources report that smugglers in the area have grown increasingly irritated with the Algerians who, they say, “shoot the smugglers like terrorists when they are really just punks.”
- Mauritanian sources claim to have seen multiple military pickup trucks packed with Mauritanian and French soldiers in full battle dress outside the capital the day after the attack. The French are likely to have actively participated in the raid as a part of the actual strike force. French troops are known to be stationed at Nouakchott, Atar and other posts in the north of the country. Mauritanians believe these soldiers may have been a part of the attack (some sources speak with greater confidence than others). Mauritania being the small place it is, more information from the immediate vicinity of where troops are garrisoned is likely to come out on web-forums or in the newspapers within the next month.
- Members of the Malian Arab community claim that the raiders “kidnapped” two civilians during the attack. This would seem to confirm fears that more aggressive activity in the area by governments might offend tribal sensibilities. The soldiers killed six seven AQIM members but the attack looks to have been bungled in terms of planning and communications, both politically and strategically. Understandably, it went on without the knowledge of the local tribes and there may be a good reason these two “civilians” were detained. But whatever that reason might be, the Mauritanians and the French have controlled the narrative around the attack or gained the support of locals. This could be problematic down the line, as not all of those killed in the raid were Mauritanians and the degree to which local Malian Arabs have an special regard or fidelity towards AQIM whatsoever remains an open question (though reports of the make of the fatalities do not include Malians). Mali has agreements with both Mauritania and Algeria that allow for these countries’ militaries to pursue terrorists in Malian territory. Reckless and poorly planned raids could damage the Malian government’s relations with locals in the border region and create unnecessary discord in the country and then between Bamako and Nouakchott or Algiers. There is a real risk that this kind of activity, if done badly, could allow AQIM to graft itself to tribal grievances, thus making common cause with the local population against regional governments and outside actors like France and the United States. This would be highly undesirable.
- One of the more noteworthy fatalities from the raid was Abdelkader Ould Ahmednah, a member of the wealthy Smasside tribe (the business-savvy tribe to which Mauritania’s old dictator Maaouiya Ould Tayya belongs). Ould Ahmednah’s biography illustrates many of the social, ideological and practical issues that surround jihadi recruitment in Mauritania. Ould Ahmednah was arrested by Mauritanian authorities in 2006 and released by the Abdellahi government’s 2007 amnesty. Ould Ahmednah’s two brothers were also recruited into AQIM: the other two Ould Ahmednahs are accused of having connections to the killing of the American aid worker Christopher Leggett last year and the attempted suicide bombing on the French embassy last summer. Ould Ahmednah’s brothers identified him to the authorities from a gruesome postmortem photograph taken at the scene of the raid (more on him here). Ould Ahmednah was the son of a wealthy businessman and, as another blogger has noted, likely could have gone on to be one himself had he not adopted the “jihadi” cause in early adulthood. This highlights the power of AQIM’s narrative and ideology among [some] relatively affluent young Mauritanians, as noted in the second point here (a similar analysis is here). This is important in the context of de-tribalization (as the urban population expands, international Arabic newspapers and satellite media and internet access grows people replace more limited tribal or family loyalties with more abstract internationalized ones be they nationalist, Arabist, Islamist or whatever) which has been proceeding rapidly in Mauritania since the late 1970s. This does not mean that young, “modern” men disconnect from tribalism, it simply means that they enter a new level of political consciousness that connects them to broader grievances (i.e., AQIM is able to use family/tribal linkages in recruiting, as in this case, but only by penetrating the parochial boundaries that otherwise insulate tribal people from internationalism). Ould Ahmednah seems to be a rather dreary example of this process.
- UPDATE: [Information from 2 and 3 August, 2010.] An Algerian source (separate from the first and close to the military) notes the following: (1) The official Algerian position — that Algeria had no part in the raid and plans no counter-terrorist activity outside of its borders — is false. The Algerians were informed in advance. According to this source, the Algerians participated in a second attack for which the “Franco-Mauritanian” one was to serve as a “decoy”. (2) The second attack, which was mentioned in Malian newspapers last week and also mentioned in some Algerian papers as a possibility, is said to have been against an AQIM “base” in the Tigharghar Mountains (Menas Associates has a large report on this as well, more detailed though more ambiguous than what this blogger’s source relates; they also quote an Echorouk article reporting that aircraft were used in the first raid and that France denied using any aircraft and an additional report from Xinhua that says the attack used the Tamanrasset center, though this was not the case in the first raid. More interesting is Menas’s “absolute confirmation” that the French chief of staff met with Mohamed Mediene (“Tewfik”) on 20 July. Both the source and Menas mention the Tigharghar position as having been used by the Tuaregs in the past and having been used by AQIM for 12-14 months.). (3) This source reports that no Mauritanians participated in the second attack and that it was carried out by Algerian and French forces. (The source calls the Mauritanian attack “the newspaper raid”.) The attack, the source says, used Algerian attack helicopters (the source did not say “helicopters”; rather he declined to identify what kind of aircraft was used or where it originated but said that “Russian machines” were used, which would suggest they were Algerian) from southern Algerian positions (likely from Bechar, Tindouf or Tamanrasset, though the numbers of attack and transport craft in the south is somewhat illusive) brought into Mali with French personnel and support (French craft could also have been used). The Algerians carried out massive troop movements in the Sahara in late June and July (desert sweeping) and it would not be surprising if this second raid was a part of these maneuvers. (4) The source says the second raid was also meant to rescue Germaneau but was unsuccessful toward that end. The Algerian source says that the mountains are “hard terrain and some of the intelligence was inaccurate.” The source says the troops used were Algerian and French and that the attack used a Malian airstrip (which the source would not name but Menas identified Tessilit; see this map). The source would not speak to whether Germaneau was actually at the Tigharghar base (which was especially used for smuggling) or if he was killed in the process of the attack or earlier. It is possible that Germaneau had been dead for some time before the raid(s). Menas has a darker (but not wholly convincing) assessment: “There is mounting evidence that there were two operations: a decoy near the Mauritanian border, where six ‘traffickers’ (supposedly AQIM) were killed, and a more serious and politically-sensitive operation run out of Tessalit (and perhaps Tamanrasset) which was an unmitigated disaster. This main operation not only appears not to have located any major AQIM base (probably because they were tipped off by the DRS) but failed to find any trace of Germaneau … It is suggested that one motive for Algeria manipulating France in this way is to make France/Sarkozy appear responsible for his death.” Menas further believes that the Algerians “suckered” the French into the second raid with (presumably) false intelligence (they also believe the helicopters were French though this conflicts with this blogger’s source’s account; the Menas narrative is not totally reasonable in some parts). (5) The indignation from the first Algerian source (quoted above in point 1) may be political cover or simply reflects the source’s position within the (less informed) political establishment rather than the military (where the second source comes from). The motivation behind the decoy and the “real” raid might be to deflect attention from its failure, saving face for France and Algeria (especially for the French who, not having rescued their hostage, could still say they killed some of the enemy). Also related to this are the political implications of Algerian soldiers fighting alongside French troops. As Menas notes this would play straight into AQIM and other jihadi propaganda about apostates and crusaders and likely irritate more nationalistic types in Algeria. The source continuously stresses that the Tigharghar base is surrounded by “horrible, impossible terrain” and that this made failure or complications more likely and that the “easy newspaper raid” near the Mauritanian border was meant to “give us cover from this.” Regarding the second possibility, the source says: “that is possible, but the enemy knows we cooperate with France. They know all the governments are against them; it would be better if the French did not present themselves as the first fighters.” The other concern might be related to regional opinion; the “second” raid would have been comparatively large to previous skirmishes and engagements with AQIM and would cause many to ask serious questions. Many Malians are sore with France and Mauritania about the raid as a “violation of our territory,” and already hold deep suspicions about France, Mauritania and Algeria’s intentions. Algeria’s role in a large attack within Malian territory would be problematic from this standpoint; it would be better to have such discontent directed at Mauritania and France. (6) From a communications standpoint, the French handled this poorly, with multiple leaks coming out of every pore of the operation. Part of this is simply because there are so few people in the vicinity of where it happened and part of it is because the French and the Mauritanians and Algerians talk a lot. Other political motivations are probably at work, too, especially in the Algerian news reports that mentioned the Tigharghar raid or Algerian participation at all.