Aaron Zelin posted two posts on a recent AQIM video (21 and 22 August). These posts are particular relevant considering the recent events at Nema. Zelin’s 22 August post includes analysis of a Mauritanian (via Twitter), noting that the video highlights Afro-Mauritanian, Tuareg, Guinean, and other recruits preaching and boasting in their respective languages (Tamashek, Portugese, Halpulaar, Haussa, etc.) a clear attempt to highlight the group’s ethnic diversity and distance itself from its image as a largely Arab affair and appeal to black Africans.
The use of Hassaniyah poetry is conspicuous and would appear to acknowledge that the group still sees Mauritanian Arabs as its most fertile recruiting pool. As Zelin’s post notes, there is an attempt to appeal to the Moorish “warrior ethos,” the part of Mauritania’s nomadic folk culture that links to traditional roles for men of particular regions and castes whose role it was to protect religious and tribal rights from enemies, which is rightly distinguished from any jihadist sentiment (more on that here). The poet in the video is one Hmada Ould Mohamed Khayrou and he gives the names of four dead AQIM members, all of whom are Mauritanians:
- Abu Mohamed al-Jakeni (Ahmed Bamba), from Orkiz
- Abu Mohamed Ould Makam (of the Idab Lehssen tribe)
- Isselmou Ould Abdellahi Ould Oubeid (of the Tagounanet)
- Limam Ould Rahal (“عمير”/Abu Esma)
All but Ould Rahal (whose origin is not confirmed) hail from the Trarza region, which has a strong Salafi concentration, funded and inspired by Saudi and Gulf types. The religious movement there has produced many leaders in the broader, non-violent Salafi movement in Mauritania as well as providing some recruits to AQIM.
Al-Akhbar published its own summary of the video on 27 August. What is interesting about the report is that it identifies Ould Khayrou has having been “released in a deal for the French hostages in Mali”. Khayrou was arrested and detained with many other Salafists in a large 2004 round up. That batch included a large number of imams from independent mosques, their followers and others — including Sheikh Mohamed Hassan Ould Dedew and Khadim Ould Semane and Maarouf Ould Heiba. Khayrou was held until April 2006 when he and others escaped from prison. He was captured again and put on trial with Ould Semane; Khayrou was acquitted while Ould Semane was sentenced to a year in prison. Khayrou then went off the map, presumably heading back to the camps. He reappeared in an explosives shop full of guns, ammunition, cell phones and bombing-making equipment in Gao, Mali. At that point he was detained by the Malians, who exchanged him for a French hostage in February, 2010.
Khayrou’s appearance in AQIM’s latest video has him insulting Mauritanian Salafists. (This is likely for two reasons: (1) to protect allies from possible persecution in Mauritania by distancing the group from them thus giving them cover; and (2) to chastise as hypocrites and cowards non-violent/non-jihadi Salafis who, knowing the “Truth” chose not act on their beliefs, thus re-enforcing AQIM’s overall message as the “real thing”.) Al-Akhbar‘s interest in him likely stems from his attack on the credibility of the moderate Islamist tendency, with which the newspaper is broadly sympathetic. The “moderates” have taken two similar political approaches in recent months: the hard line, in the case of Tawassoul (i.e., the Ikhwan) and some other minor parties, largely as part of an attempt get closer to Ould Abdel Aziz and thus cabinet posts and favors, or the intermediary role between the regime and the various elements on the militant side, as with Ould Dedew, et al who hope to avoid regime persecution by making themselves useful to Ould Abdel Aziz. The later set is closest to AQIM in ideology and in personal relations: many of the long active militants associated with AQIM were at one time closely associated with the rest of the Salafi trend, in religious groups, mosques, prison cells and elsewhere. The Salafi infrastructure that produced AQIM’s early Mauritanian recruits and leaders remains largely intact. Moves against the violent trend have been largely reactive and individual; they often lack coordination and vigor because other political interests are prioritized above what was seen until the last few years as a weak and improbable threat to state security.
One can compare the regime’s conduct where the Baʿthist and other anti-Taya forces were concerned earlier in the decade to the way AQIM has been handled by the Ould Taya, Abdellahi and Ould Abdel Aziz governments; there is a distinct difference in threat perception. The regime saw the Baʿthis and their supporters as fundamental threats to the survival of the regime itself where the regime has tended to see AQIM as a threat that can be leveraged and managed for its benefit. Persecution was swift and brutal for both but Islamists were a secondary concern compared to other internal political threats with wider popular appeal.
Since as early as 2000 the regime has seen the Islamist issue as one posing a mild threat to state security but not as a primary source of destabilization. The regime has understood the potential of violent Islamism, thus Ould Taya’s aggressive campaign to create a public perception that Salafism and the ideology behind what has become AQIM was “un-Mauritanian,” imported from the Gulf or elsewhere. This has worked to a large extent in coloring average Mauritanians’ opinions of groups like AQIM and Salafists. But the violent tendency has been as chip to be used in procuring foreign, especially American or French, aid to feed the military or to line certain officials’ pockets. The regime’s excitement over the “War on Terror” came first from these motives and changed in recent years because the problem has been handled poorly, damaging the military’s public credibility in dealing with what is increasingly seen as s serious threat to public safety. The bungling seen in the 2006-2009 period has been the result of this complacent politicking.
At the same time, though, Khayrou represents the evolution of the early AQIM militants from their days as members of the repressed religious tendency on into the camps and the front lines. The early attacks in northern Mauritania were largely GSPC attacks; those carried out by Mauritanians — the shootings and the botched bombings — were often relatively primitive and amateurish. It might have been the case that the Algerians and experienced fighters withheld more advanced training from the Mauritanian operatives until relatively late, likely for lack of trust. That he was last captured in a bomb-making set up and that group is now using suicide bombings speaks volumes about how its militants and infrastructure have progressed over the last four years, taking on more consequential and significant operations. It also shows at least one of the pitfalls and consequences of the prisoner exchange schemes hashed out from Europe.¹ (His significance persists whether or not he has been “flipped” as a double agent of some kind or not.) Financed by illicit smuggling and ransoms from European governments, abetted by states too weak or without sufficient will to aggressively rein in its activities, AQIM has nevertheless seen a decline in the effectiveness of its attacks and sustained vulnerability to deliberate measures by states in and outside the region.
A lack of will and capacity to contain or rollback al-Qaeda’s most primitive regional branch among local elites and outside partners — France, the United States and other western actors — has allowed the group to sustain and continue to adversely affect economic and political development efforts. One wonders what the millions of dollars spent on “combatting violent extremism” through America’s AFRICOM and its associated exercises in this part of the world have been used for beyond press releases and “outreach”; he is less puzzled by the motives for Spanish or French ransom payments but nevertheless disturbed by the manner in which these exchanges have impacted the survival of the organization. This particular problem, it seems, is emboldened more by the inability of relevant state parties to proceed effectively alone or in concert (to say nothing of in good faith) than the skill or ferocity of AQIM itself.
1. The fact that AQIM is still willing to exchange hostages for prisoners (even in place of money) shows that the group is still small and in some ways organizationally immature. Many other similar organizations operate on an unspoken rule that members in captivity are virtually abandoned. Stronger groups allow their members to rot and execute prisoners for tactical or symbolic reasons. AQIM appears to engage in the exchanges out of necessity and in order make their hand appear stronger (and their foes’ weaker) by compelling the release of prisoners.