Mauritanian sources have disclosed the following information related to the raid in Mali on 17-19 September. What follows are bits of that information as well as thoughts on the situation in general, not refined but hopefully worth consideration:
- The National Guard was lured into a trap off by an AQIM agent (the informant mentioned in other accounts). The Guard sent a specialized unit to investigate and then alerted the Army (through the Ministry of Defense; the Guard is under the Ministry of the Interior), which sent forces to assist. What followed was essentially a complex ambush; AQIM bated the Army unit in one direction, leaving the Guard troops open to another attack. The Army forces were then ambushed themselves. AQIM inflicted heavy casualties on both units. The Mauritanians were ambushed multiple times. This suggests an increasingly level of sophistication in AQIM. These ambushes are evidence of a high level of coordination, communication capacity and experience. That the AQIM brigade involved (which is 70-80% Mauritanian) was able to accomplish these maneuvers also indicates experienced or well educated command (formal or otherwise). It also suggests local logistical support.
- The plan of attack was meant to include specialized counter-terrorist units from the National Guard (one of the modules created over the last year specifically for counterterrorism). The officer in charge of the Guard operation (Gen. Misgharou Ould Ghoueizi), however, sent regular Guard troops and kept the specialized units on base with him for personal protection. The Army units sent, similarly, were more elite troops but the most elite forces were kept closer to the capital. The forces that did participate, according to multiple Mauritanian sources, were “mowed down,” some fleeing. No numbers are yet available through these sources.
- President (Gen.) Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz commanded the operation from Nouakchott (“Saddam style,” so to speak).
- Military families whose sons, husbands, etc. took part in the raid are increasingly angry that the Ministry of Defense is withholding information regarding casualties and fatalities. The Ministry has announced six deaths thus far, but many people have not been allowed contact with their relatives. The mood is grim. This suggests that the number of fatalities are likely higher than the official figures.
- Morale is especially low in the military but popular sentiment is hostile toward AQIM. At the same time, though, there are worrying signs that this sentiment is mixed with a sense that Ould Abdel Aziz is fighting a proxy war for France which existed previous and has become more common when military operations have been unsuccessful. However, AQIM’s narrative is precisely this and that the feel is current in society means it is available for exploitation by local actors (politicians, demagogues) or by outsiders (AQIM, hostile espionage services, etc.).
- Ould Abdel Aziz is personally irritated with Algeria over their handling of the raid and its fall out. He believes the Algerians are trying hold all the cards in the region and that they are not being supportive. There is truth in this, though the situation seems to say that the Algerians do hold most of the cards and that Ould Abdel Aziz needs their support (and vice versa).
- Where the Malians are concerned, there is a perception of a divided house between the military and the civilians. The military, according to Mauritanian sources, is more willing to engage in combat than the civilian leadership. (It should be noted that Malian troops participated in the recent raid, though mostly in a support role.) The civilians fear remilitarizing the capital’s relations with the northern population leading to greater instability, draining resources and so on (this has been discussed on this blog before). At the same time, the Mauritanians accuse mid-ranking Malian officers of “tipping off AQIM” and of involving themselves in its illicit trading activities. That such corruption may or does exist would not be surprising, especially if the officers in question were already involved in other forms of corruption. This kind of corruption is common in regional militaries. In any event, the Malians are understandably hesitant to escalate and the questions raised by Mauritanian hot pursuit operations as well as French activities are putting them in an ever more difficult situation; they are somewhat literally “damned if they do and damned if they don’t” escalate in the north (the definition of escalation is also important). Their divided stance has irritated the Mauritanians and the Algerians (who have other issues with Bamako as well related to their French and American connections which Algiers sees as undercutting its role/aspirations as the regional hegemon; they are irritated with the Mauritanians for raising the prospect of including Morocco at the recent Sahel intelligence summit as well). Consider also that:
- Many Arab and Tuareg Malians rely on smuggling networks for economic survival. There are few economic alternatives available to these communities. AQIM for economic and political reasons has embedded itself in these networks. The result is to: increase the group’s social capital and expand its relationships with locals; increase and sustain revenue for the group with which it can use to purchase weapons, communications equipment, fuel and other supplies; embed the group into the local economy which because of the relationships between Bamako and Timbuktu and Kidal raises the stakes for both the Malians and other actors in the region. Thus, rough action in the region, as has been seen, runs the risk of continuing to antagonize local tribes and help AQIM in its attempt to graft onto local ethnic and tribal grievances historical and current.
- In the last decade the GSPC and then AQIM have, in general, failed to capitalize on widespread popular grievences in the Maghreb and Sahel. One of al-Qaeda’s strategies elsewhere has been to construct “resistance” narratives that draw on or build on other, frequently secular, discontent in Muslim communities. So in Afghanistan and Pakistan it has been the Americans and “puppet” governments; in Yemen it has been tribal and sectarian divisions and conflicts; in Iraq it was sectarianism and occupation. The GSPC was the result of a particular Algerian experience. Its original objective was to overthrow the Algerian regime, like other militias during the Algerian Civil War except that the GSPC hoped to limit its association with civilian deaths in order to gain popular support. By the time the GSPC’s founders regrouped the armed movement was defeated. The idea of setting up a “Islamic” state in Algeria disappeared and the groups activities were successful only in launching sporadic attacks in the northern mountains and expanding in the Sahara through cigaret smuggling, ransom collection and primitive raiding on military targets. It gained new life by internationalizing its mission by allying with al-Qaeda and refocusing its political efforts toward the pastoralist communities in the Sahel and on Mauritania. Its evolving narrative in the Sahel, expressed in practically all of its recent propaganda (especially since France has become more heavily involved militarily), is that it is fighting illegitimate regimes, supported by and doing the bidding of “Crusaders” (code for France), and that it is on the side of the victimized and oppressed peoples in Kidal and Azaouad. It has married into the tribal families and has attempted to make itself a part of the local color. The 2008 coup in Mauritania strengthened its narrative and gave the group a boon. During the 2005-2008 period in Mauritania, the group could not claim to be fighting a dictatorship or a junta propped up by the west (as it intently claims today). The 2008 coup was its great opportunity to do what it could not during the rebellions in northern Mali and Niger or during the ethnic/sectarian violence in Berriane (Algeria) not even three years earlier — claim to champion a cause. AQIM is said to have upped its recruiting among Mauritanians since 2008.
- Posts here and on other blogs have considered AQIM’s interest in Mauritania in the past. At the same time, the Algeria-Mauritania-Mali border region is another area that is more vulnerable to thorough infiltration for the conventional reasons: the Malians and Mauritanians lack the capacity to assert control there on a year-round basis, it has already set up a working relationship with locals, etc. Additionally, it can link up with the sense of siege and victimhood that military raids from Mauritania or Bamako (or elsewhere) help to aggravate. The people in these regions have their own problems with their capitals and their militaries; AQIM has announced solidarity with the tribes of civilians killed in raids and has tried to make itself a champion of the oppressed in the area. It would be ideal for local governments to work to separate whatever activities they undertake against AQIM from local communities at a rhetorical and kinetic level. The local Tuareg and Arab populations are unlikely to tolerate AQIM if they see it as bringing them significant trouble, but if tribal links become deep whatever violence comes as a result of AQIM’s activity are likely be interpreted as aggression against the general population damaging the precarious peace Bamako and Niamey have reached with their northern populations. To what extent AQIM appeals to the Tuareg communities in the region as something more than a business opportunity is unclear; there is likely more ideological and social potential for them among the Arabs in Azaouad particularly. Excessive and poorly coordinated military activity will help accomplish that goal. The stakes for Mali and Niger’s political stability (especially given their economic situations) are exceptionally high where AQIM is concerned. Mali’s caution is understandable but not wholly productive in the eyes of its neighbors. This all raises the value and importance of constructive and sustainable development projects in the region to redirect communities from smuggling and to combat radicalism and alienation. As French (and other foreign) military activity escalates this side of the problem seems more remote but must not move out of sight; an over zealously kinetic “solution” in deed and in rhetoric risks making the situation worse and putting a broader spectrum of western interests at further risk.