Below is an areal image of the site of Mauritania’s first car bombing (its second suicide bombing), at a military base east of Nema (Neʿma, Hodh esh-Sharqi) near the border with Mali. The plus sign indicates the target, a barracks; its eastern gate was blown up by a speeding SUV stolen from a rental agency two days ago (reportedly with Malian plates, though it is unclear if this refers to the exploded car or a second one). Shots were fired causing the truck to detonate, wounding three soldiers and killing the driver. The blast is reported to have damaged nearby buildings as well. It is also reported that a second vehicle is being pursued by the Mauritanian military, suspected of carrying a second bomber. Mauritanian papers have speculated that the attack may have been in response to Mauritania’s participation, with France, in the 22 July raid against AQIM in Mali. More to come… [ Thoughts below; updates to follow. ]
The popular mood is increasingly tolerant of harsh action against AQIM. As mentioned in a previous post, though, the country’s road network — especially the main east-west roadway — has been severely damaged by recent flooding, thus making a fast and forceful show of force difficult (if not unlikely). In any case, the attack has the potential to initiate several short and medium-term processes politically and military (not that the two are wholly separate) …
On the one hand, there is the possibility that inaction by the government could turn the public hostile to General Ould Abdel Aziz’s regime and security policy. On the other hand, given public reactions to the 22 July raid and the generally negative opinion Mauritanians hold of AQIM, it is likely that retaliatory action might cause the public to rally around the President, although mismanagement or dissatisfaction in other areas might ought weight whatever gains he might receive from a “hard line.”
The attack also comes in the context of the recent prisoner exchange and the release of hostages for which the Spanish government paid several million dollars. Though Mauritanians, through intermediaries in Burkina Faso and Mali, were party to this. The Algerians (e.g., the DRS and military types) found the entire business distasteful and made it known in the press. The attack is a show of force for AQIM: (1) they had one of their comrades release and are several million dollars/euros richer; (2) they hit an enemy on the ground with an unsettling boldness (regardless of its operational success), after he had declared his satisfaction with his forces’ performance; (3) they have re-asserted their ideological credentials and intentions, thus combating their image as money grubbing traffickers masquerading as jihadis; and (4) they have, it would seem, made good on their promise to retaliate against France and their allies for the 22 July raid. They have benefited from recent events and continue to bait the Mauritanians.
There are other regional implications: the Mauritanians and the Malians have a strained relationship. Malian President Ahmedou Toumani Touré has a well known feud with Mauritania’s Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, stemming from mutual suspicion after Mali refused to recognize Ould Abdel Aziz’s 2008 junta; Touré is also known to have a low opinion of Ould Abdel Aziz in general, thinking him dim and uncomfortable with his personal stylings. Ould Abdel Aziz is irritated by Touré’s doubt and his percieved fear of addressing AQIM head on. Touré hopes to leave avoid a northern rebellion and to office with his country at peace and is reluctant to jeopardize that by taking risks in Azaouad or Kidal. The 22 July raid was seen as damaging these prospects (it was also seen as insulting, as it deliberately excluded Malian soldiers and the government, allegedly for lack of competence, bravery and secrecy). Ould Abdel Aziz sees this as getting in the way of his security (and domestic political) priorities, and as a part of some effort by Touré to keep on undermining his legitimacy (as after the 2008 coup). Highly placed sources have said that conflicts between the two men over security issues could severely damage security cooperation between the country. Poorly arranged or hasty raids into Mali could prove problematic in this climate. (This is not meant to exaggerate the situation but merely highlight its gravity and it should be considered in context.)
The government will likely face public pressure to “do something” and if it does not will suffer in terms of credibility. If it responds too aggressively it could cause serious problems for itself in the region. The government may also view this as an opportunity to further illustrate its utility in combatting terrorism (or “violent extremism”) to western governments such as France and the United States in particular (the “Strong Man” theory). The object of these kinds of attacks is to create precisely these sorts of situations and to establish perceptions of its power; if Mauritanians or Europeans were under the impression that the group was interested primarily in grabbing loot from hostage-takings, they have reminded them that the group is a militant faction willing to die and kill for their cause (“we won’t just be bought off”).