Mauritania is on high alert after a major military operation against AQIM near (and across) the country’s border with Mali. The Mauritanians are said to have “enveloped” a column of twenty AQIM vehicles on its way to Mali through the desert near Hassi Sidi close to the Malian border late last night (others say Areich Hindi in Mali).¹ Early reports had the objective as the capture of two (unnamed) AQIM commanders. The Mauritanians managed to killed at least 12 AQIM fighters while suffering as many as fifteen deaths of their own. Reuters is quoting security officials as saying “The operation was launched because the opportunity presented itself. It was not planned long in advance.” Mauritanian reports have said that President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz himself directed the five hour battle from army head quarters in Nouakchott. Later reports have it that Deputy Chief of Staff Mohamed Ould Mohamed Znagui ran the operation on the ground. It was reported in Mauritanian newspapers that France and the United States provided intelligence and logistical support for the raid; France has denied involvement in the Hassi Sidi operation. Another engagement is said to have taken place following the Hassi Sidi fight, in towns nearer to Timbuktu, Mali (80 km away) and launched northeast from Nema. The Mauritanians bombed AQIM positions as the fighting reached a lull during the early morning hours, after which fighting resumed (it is unclear what equipment was used for this; probably helicopters, possibly of Chinese origin or possibly fixed wing craft from elsewhere). The Mauritanians are reported to have used “heavy weapons” though news reports did not specify what this means (in Mauritania heavy weapons could be high caliber machine guns or possibly artillery). Military planes are reported to have landed at Timbuktu to retrieve the military dead.
The raid has left tensions high in Mauritania especially because it comes on the heels of two recent events: the discovery of an active AQIM cell in the capital and the arrest of two of its members (milkmen), one of whom escaped from custody; and the recent kidnaping in Niger. Adding to popular anxiety is the fact that the AQIM brigade fighting the army (the “Yahiya Abu Hamam Brigade”) is close to 80% Mauritanian (local media reports frequently say “more than 70%” security sources put the figure higher). Many worry that the large numbers of combatants killed on both sides could have negative implications at a tribal level. The army has sent reinforcements to the east, via Nema (the target of August’s suicide-bombing attempt), a build up unseen in recent Mauritanian history. Al-Akhbar is reporting that thirty military vehicles were seen advancing from Nema to the front on the Malian border and that the military aircraft that landed in the town yesterday included “a large number of French troops.” Sources say two modules were used in the raid, meaning about 300-400 soldiers all together of whom 100-120 were combatants.
Like previous raids, this one has caused some controversy in the region. Algerian sources have fed information about the raid to AFP commenting on the large number of Mauritanian casualties and terming calling the operation a “failure.” Mauritanian security officials fired back, praising the Malians for at least not protesting the raid and opening their airfields to Mauritanian transport planes while analysts asking “is this our war alone, and what do our neighbors want? And where do all the conventions and agreements stop at photo-ops and newspaper articles?” The tension comes from Algerian perceptions of Mauritanian (and Malian) incompetence and possibly from other political motivations in the deep state or related to recent prisoner amnesties. While Mauritania-Malian relations are on a relative ups (the Mauritanians finally sent their ambassador back to Bamako last week) dynamics in the relationships between the three “front” line states — Algeria, Mauritania and Mali — again seem to be hindering effectiveness and unity. Mauritanian officials were especially incensed that the Algerian source released information about the high number of deaths in the military (15) while the Ministry of Defense had still only made 6 public.
After reports of the fighting surfaced, France issued a travel warning to its citizens in the country covering the east and northeastern parts of the country, vital to both tourism and mining. Mauritanians concerned with uranium and gold mining (projects still in their preliminary stages) expressed a worry that the warning would do grievous harm to their work. And this illustrates the real danger of groups such as AQIM: the damage they do to the image of these very poor countries, scaring of the foreigners with whom locals do so much business with to the point of dependency, thus sucking much needed cash out of the economy unpredictably.
Expect updates as more information becomes available.
UPDATE I: Conversations with Mauritanian politicos and high-ranking members of the opposition shed light on two concerns.
First is with respect to outrage among some opposition forces over the presence of French troops in Mauritania. These sources complain that the parliament has not been consulted on major cross-border raids or on the presence of a secret French base in northern Mauritania widely believed to be located in Atar. These opposition personalities link the ruling party’s statements urging the opposition not to “avoid political rhetoric” (i.e., raise the foreign bases issue) the recent military operation (the government made a similar statement following the 22 July raid) to the large numbers of French intelligence and security personel in Nouakchott and the large towns and the high likelihood (in their opinion) that Atar is hosting a French base. The government continuously denies reports that the French have any military presence in Mauritania.
Second is Algeria’s negative reaction to the raid. Similar sources to those above link this to the participation of foreign forces in raids which Algeria sees as going against the regional cooperation and the command structures set up at Tamanrasset. The Algerians increasingly see the Mauritanians as acting as a platform for French action — the opposite of the object of Algerian policy in the region (which has been to move outside powers out in favor of African (e.g., Algerian) security alliances).
1. One should factor in the strategic value of a place such as Hassi Sidi for AQIM: it has water, or at least its name implies as much (“Hassi” means well). See the comments for more information on the vicinity of the fighting from Tommy Miles who is familiar with that part of the region.