Taqadoumy has published an account of the events around the Mauritanian Army raid against AQIM in Mali this past weekend (though fighting continues). The account is interesting and worth Arabic-speakers reading. It is based on the testimony of an unnamed source (“from northern Mali”), possibly military (see below). For non-Arabic speakers a snap rendering of the highlights are below (hopefully they can be compared with other accounts soon; readers are encouraged to link or post similar information in the comments section): UPDATED
- The operation began after the arrest in Mauritania of a Malian from Araoane with connections to AQIM’s Yahiya Abu Hamam Brigade. This man told the security forces that the group had a presence 30km from the local military post. Based on this information, the Mauritanians moved on the camp. (Note: another report states that the Mauritanians were in northern Mali on a reconnaissance mission when they took the Araouane man into custody.)
- The source says that, based on this information, the Mauritanians engaged AQIM on early Saturday near or at Ras al-Ma, AQIM forces hit and ran, ambushing Mauritanian Army vehicles and inflicting heavy losses. AQIM also lost trucks. The source claims that the Mauritanians suffered “heavily in life and gear.” Dead soldiers were stripped of their weapons.
- Regarding the fighting at Ras al-Ma, the source describes the combat as having been “in populated areas, for it was within the coverage of communications companies” (cellphone networks?). The source also says that Malian Tuaregs found the bodies of three naked Mauritanian soldiers, which they gave to the Malian authorities. The source says that the Mauritanians suffered heavy losses at Ras al Ma — more than 10. He also reports that AQIM suffered losses. (According to the other report mentioned above, among the AQIM killed are said to be an Algerian, a Moroccan, a Mauritanian and three Azouadis. The same report also says that AQIM’s brigade leader was killed in the fighting.) (Also: Aerial attacks hit 3 of 7 trucks in an AQIM convoy; more on that below.)
- The source says that locals report “Salafists” (presumably referring to AQIM) “passing them in the villages, firing shots into the sky celebrating what they considered a victory against the Mauritanian forces.” There is no comment on whether locals participated at all in the fighting in favor of either party. That the fighting took place in populated areas might suggest some level of collaboration between locals and the militants (also see Tommy Miles comments here).
- The source denies French involvement and that the operation had anything to do with the recent kidnapping in Niger. This suggests the source is Mauritanian or French (or even Malian) and operating in some semi-official or official capacity. Were it a local or non-affiliated source would probably not have commented on the raid’s intentions regarding the Niger business.
Recent development regarding France’s deployment of air power from Niger over that country and Mali are summarized well by Le Monde. Keep in mind the following important developments:
- The names of dead Mauritanian soldiers have been released. Among the dead are two officers, a lieutenant and a captain. While hoping to avoid unnecessarily dramatizing tribal grievances, it will be interesting to consider the tribal origins of the soliders killed and the AQIM fighters killed (when the later information becomes available) in terms of (potential) future escalations in AQIM recruitment and public grievance at the local level and in the military. A post on the role of tribalism within the Mauritanian military might be worth putting out in this regard. At the same time consider that two or more confrontations in which the military suffers similar losses could result in less, rather than more, support for the regime in the ranks and in the provinces. The opposite is also possible (though somewhat less likely without important structural and political maneuvers).
- Mali-Mauritania relations, I: The Malian deputy speaker of parliament has condemned the Mauritanians for “killing civilians” during their aerial attacks on an AQIM convoy — and several Malian civilians have been reported killed or missing (with the Mauritanians boasting of having captured 6 AQIM fighters; the Mauritanians deny targeting or hitting civilians). Reports say 4 Malian civilians were injured and two “very young” women were killed (at least one of whom the Mauritanians claim is the “wife of a terrorist” which has its own implications if it is true.). Their bullet riddle car is reportedly in the court yard of the main Timbuktu hospital. As with previous raids (22 July, for instance) the violence has caused nationalist and moral posturing by Malian politicians and understandable anger by local leaders and their people. This problem is likely to be compounded by the French fly-overs (and almost certainly in the event of bombings or conspicuous troop deployments) currently underway.
- Mali-Mauritania relations, II: Relations between Mali and Mauritania are on the relative ups. Mauritania returned its ambassador to Mali last week (after removing him over a Malian prisoner swap) and Mauritania’s president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is set to attend Mali’s independence celebrations this week. This is significant as well because there are known and somewhat severe tensions between Ould Abdel Aziz and Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Touré. The AQIM positions in northern Mali have become a part of escalating sub-state tensions in the region and could be deeply destabilizing for that country. Popular and elite criticism is understandable and in some ways desirable, given the political circumstances because it gives locals a voice. But if the raiding and killing and disappearances go on these counter-terrorist operations will likely contribute to a deterioration of relations between the northern Malian population(s) (Tuaregs and Arabs) and the central government (thereby offering AQIM a terrible opportunity to graft onto preexisting tribal or ethnic grievances though it is not certain that they could be successful in this). Rapprochement between Ould Abdel Aziz and Touré does not necessarily mean that Malians in the affected area will react happily to further violence in their lands. Increased violence — contra-AQIM or otherwise — could set off deeper and more dangerous tensions between the local people in northern Mali, their government, the Mauritanians and AQIM. These are concerns, some more or less remote or relevant, that must be kept in mind.
- The perspective of the local people is most important here. If they and their leaders see themselves under attack from France, Mauritania, Algeria and the Malian government as a result of these kinds of raids (and internal Malian problems) then these incursions are useless to the purposes of western players. If not deliberate and targeted at specific characters, leaving out the local people and keeping them oriented away from AQIM’s narrative and commercial appeal further raids will be thoroughly destructive to these countries’ development and a boon to AQIM. In both previous raids by the Mauritanians locals have reported missing persons, some who have been released and others who have not; these people have been called terrorists and complaints thought of in terms of a conspiracy between the tribes and AQIM. While this is a distinct possibility it is quite clear that on the non-military front far from enough is being done to alienate let alone disloge AQIM from the smuggling and trafficking networks or to offer a serious alternative form of employment aside from illicit trading in that region. Given the region’s humanitarian and economic woes there must be something done more broadly than kinetic responses, parachute training and summit meetings (Touré has said as much himself — “the solution is sustainable development”). Where that will come from, this blogger does not know, things are not so easy (please salute Captain obvious, here).
- Another factor is also the control of oases and various desert outposts. Control or non-control of these positions heavily influences the mobility and range of a group like AQIM — the oases posses water, fuel, resting places and potential recruits, human cover and intelligence (for governments and AQIM). The space-travel analogy is fun though a comparison with naval warfare is perhaps more similar (this is desert warfare, after all; Mauritanian papers have compared the recent events to the Sand War and the Sahara War, the later of which Mauritania was involved in disastrously). AQIM benefits from the region’s geography yes, as many write, because there are vast, open swaths of terrain, but also because governments do not have a permanent, year-round (or slightly less) presence on the key oases and trading routes. The same environment that enables criminal smuggling enables terrorist smugglers. It is difficult to establish control over so wide a space with as few resources as the states in the region have. This cannot reasonably be done by relevant outsiders (Americans, the French, etc.), though the French had measured success (and non-success) with it through brutality and other means during the colonial period. Non-kinetic, economic and political solutions for local people will be key to resolving the AQIM problem and are more desirably at every level than engagements like this past weekend’s which can perhaps make matters worse rather than better.
UPDATE: AQIM has issued its version of events. The text is here. The highlights are as follows:
- Statement begins by declaring the operation a “defeat, an awful and painful blow suffered by the Mauritanian Army suffered at the hands of the heroic Saharan mujahideen.” It promises details of the battle later on.
- After saying it was “surprised,” by the aerial attack, AQIM accuses the Mauritanians of having “targeted innocent and defenseless Muslims, killing a Muslim [woman] named ‘Najiha’ and a little girl named ‘Silka’ and well as wounding a man from among the victimized people.” It calls the attacks the work of a “criminal and cowardly client army and a bitter defeat at the hands of men who rushed to avenge the women and children,” saying it was carried out “in order to bully the innocent and defenseless following the example of the Crusaders in their shelling of the Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.” It accuses the Mauritanian Army of “resorting to lies and fallacies in claiming that the woman killed is the wife of one of the mujahideen and that the innocent people taking flight from its aerial shelling last night were members of the mujahideen.”
- It makes three points following this: (1) it offers its “condolences to the families of the martyrs/dead.” In the same point it specifically states its solidarity with the “Oulad ʿAmrane, Oulad Ayesh, Oulad Idriss and all the Berebeche tribes and the proud/free Tuareg of Azouad,” vowing to avenge the blood of their kinsmen and “sheild our nation” saying that their “blood are not shed in vain.”‘; (2) it accuses Ould Abdel Aziz of “fighting a French proxy war” and vows revenge on France (the Elysee “Insha’allah”); and (3) it appeals to “‘ulema and people of virtue and wisdom in Mauritania” to condemn and reject the Mauritanian regime and army for fight a war for France, killing Muslims, innocents and so on.