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Niger, Mali, and the Confluence of Salafisms in North and West Africa

July 9th, 2013 No comments
The Nigerién mission to the UN on East 50th Street in Manhattan.

The Nigérien mission to the UN on East 50th Street in Manhattan. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

New York- With the immediacy of the tactical success of the French military campaign in northern Mali beginning in mid-January combined with the aggressive Nigerian offensive in that country’s northeastern Borno State that began in mid-May, the Republic of Niger is wedged between two presently expanding salafi-jihadi conflicts. Niger with its vast uranium reserves, chronic food insecurity and immense poverty has emerged as the newest locale to suffer salafi martyrdom operations a.k.k.a. suicide bombings. I published a report in late June for Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst looking at the extension of kinetic militancy into Niger. While Niger is accustomed-like its neighbor Mali-to intermittent Tuareg rebellions and a minor degree of homegrown Islamism while having had several high profile kidnapping incidents in the last several years, neither Niamey or Bamako was adequately prepared for the ramping up of ideologically-driven insurgencies as compared to the veteran (in relative terms) security apparatuses helmed in Algiers and Abuja.

Screen shot 2013-07-03 at 10.24.02 AMWhile most of the conflict in Mali in 2012 consisted of a series of rebel advances and government retreats followed by a drawn out stalemate period, it seemed certain that once some form of military intervention was inevitably launched, the jihadis would surely begin a more asymmetric campaign that would feature suicide bombings and fidayeen-style raids on the forces of state actors be they indigenous, regional, or Western.

Less than a month after Operation Serval began, Mali experienced its first suicide bombing in Gao Region when on February 8 militants attacked a Malian Army checkpoint on the Gao-Bourem road. The attack was immediately claimed by MUJAO’s spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui. As if the first explosive message was insufficient, it was immediately followed up by a second attack on the same checkpoint the following day.

Then on February 10,MUJAO  jihadis launched a rather reckless raid on Gao’s centre ville. Despite MUJAO’s aggressive asymmetry, most of its operations resulted in tactical failures in terms of what were presumably hoped for mass casualty events. The strategy-at least in terms of branded messaging-was, however, somewhat successful. The two nodes of salafi-jihadism in North and West Africa i.e. Algeria to the north and northern Nigeria to the south, were being bridged with the gradual expansion of militancy in the broader Sahel region.

The Sahel has traditionally served as a natural geographic and cultural buffer zone which is being eroded by rapid advances in mobile technology and social media which have the means to both disseminate radical thought among susceptible populations that are woefully underserved  by feeble central governments as well as connect militant groups with traditionally localized or divergent agendas to one another.  For several years analysts have speculated whether there were or could be links to AQIM in Algeria-Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria.Even the head of AFRICOM stated: “linkages between AQIM and Boko Haram are probably the most worrisome.”

These claims were oft criticized by what were believed to be the very different aims of AQIM and Boko Haram. AQIM which is firmly rooted in the GIA and GSPC of Algeria’s 1990s civil war was an Algerian movement (albeit a quite fissiparous one indicated by the GIA-GSPC split) seeking mostly to create an Islamic state within Algeria’s borders-although undoubtedly some of these salafis were adherents of a borderless ummah ideology. But when the GSPC renamed itself AQIM in 2007, in the form of AQIM as a matter of strategic survival it broadened both its operational geography–which the GSPC had already begun in its final phase–in places like Mali and Niger while making inroads amongst those populations who harbored their own long-held grievances against their respective central governing institutions.

Meanwhile in the Hausa-dominated states of northern Nigeria, Boko Haram–Ahl al-Sunna li al-Da`wa wa al-Jihad for those in the know–maintained as its primary goal the formal introduction of sharia law throughout Nigeria. But when Ansar Eddine, AQIM, and MUJAO gained power in northern Mali in 2012, locals who had fled Gao described to TWD the presence of Hausa speaking, Anglophone militants operating alongside MUJAO in Gao ville and its immediate environs. For Boko Haram to be present in Gao it would likely have had to pass through southwestern Niger, skirting around its capital Niamey. But several Malian intellectuals who spoke candidly with TWD in 2012 stated that they firmly believed Boko Haram already had a presence in southern Niger including with Niamey itself and therefore the movement of Nigerian militants into Mali was not as improbable as some Westerners might assume just by looking from afar at perceived vast distances on a flat map.

As nation-states occupying transition zones connecting the dry Sahara to the more verdant sub-Sahara, Mali and now Niger have manifested clearly as conduits between these what are often thought of as disparate  regions of Africa. When movements like AQIM, MUJAO and Boko Haram graft themselves onto deeply held provincial tribulations beyond their traditional realms, the threat to the respective wobbly regimes squeezed in the middle is heightened more so.  Thus we may see suicide bombing spread even farther to poorly protected targets in N’djamena and Nouakchott, perhaps even Dakar. None of these movements appears to pose a specific threat to the West itself–at least for the time being–but they threaten Western interests and allies which may pull Paris and Washington in only deeper into a widening crisis.

Though the jihadis were forcefully ejected from Mali’s northern and central cities mostly by French air strikes followed by ground columns and Abuja is touting that it has reached a truce of sorts with Boko Haram, the troubles for Niger and Mali, and possibly Mauritania, Chad and other regional states may be far from over.

The Nigérien tricolor wilts in a New York Heat wave. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

With all the grim talk of relgio-political or inter-communal violence and such mentioned above, I thought it would be good to balance out this post with something a bit more relaxed. I attended a fantastic concert on June 21 where Bombino, a mezmerizing Tuareg guitarist from Niger’s uranium rich, politically troubled Agadez Region. Bombino sings in Tamasheq, the language of the Sahara-Sahel area’s indigenous Tuareg people who refer to themselves as the Kel Tamasheq.

I have no clue if there was any intention of this by the concert’s organizers but it was great to hear Saharan Tuareg rock in the same venue as the venerated Amadou and Mariam who sing in Bambara, the predominant language of southern Mali and in the areas surrounding its capital Bamako, but it seemed symbolically poignant if it the result was unintentional. One of the more simplistic perceptions of Mali’s internal war-which has since affected Niger as the salafi-jihadi militants sought safe ground from French air strikes-is that it had an implied north-south dynamic in which impoverished or resentful northern ethno-linguistic groups felt underserved by and underrepresented amongst the southern-dominated political circles in Bamako. Some of the same can be said for Niger where northerners feel Niamey is a far off kleptocracy that undermines their own economic and political interests.

Bombino

Amadou and Mariam

Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar

March 4th, 2013 No comments
A screen shot of a Chadian soldier's mobile phone image that Chadian troops allege to be Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

A screen shot of a Chadian soldier’s mobile phone image that Chadian troops allege to be Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

New York- The first images have seeped out of the Franco-Chadian battles in the Adrar des Ifoghas and the Adrar Tigharghar areas of northeastern Mali’s Kidal Region today. Both Chadian state television and al-Jazeera Arabic gained (or were given) access. Contained briefly in the al-Jazeera English version of the AJA report was this fleeting image of a dead man alleged to be the notorious Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the AQIM/Signatories in Blood katiba leader.

Chadian TV describes its battle as one against “narco-terrorists“ of “diverse nationalities” while displaying images of bedraggled captives, mud-caked technicals and dust-encrusted munitions. French news weekly Le Point has exclusive images of French soldiers captured war material from AQIM including a BM-21 Grad truck with a 40 shell Multiple Launch Rocket System.

Update: Long after I posted this, France publicly confirmed the death of AQIM’s Abou Zeid but never did such for the case of Belmokhtar. The fate of Belmokhtar is still the subject of wild speculation. Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno said firmly (if bizarrely) that Belmokhtar exploded himself after learning of the death of Abou Zeid in a moment of pure desperation. On the other hand, Algiers indicates that it believes Belmokhtar is in southern Libya-likley related to their version of deadly events surrounding the In Amenas gas plant raid. Only time will truly tell I suppose.

Mali in Chaos

October 25th, 2012 No comments

New York- Although interest in Mali has been partly piqued in the American polity from facile, puppet-like foreign policy comments by Mitt Romney in a recent debate with President Obama, for genuine students and scholars of foreign policy Mali has been of grave concern since late March with the fall of Gao if not mid-January when the MNLA launched an attack on Ménaka. For specialists in the Sahel region bridging north and west Africa, Mali has been of note since time immemorial. I’ve long had a general interest in Malian history and politics inasmuch as I devour everything I can on virtually all of the history and conflicts of present day ‘Afro-Euraisa.’

Boys in Bamako’s Badalabougou district playing football at dusk near the banks of the River Niger with the BCEAO tower looming off in the distance. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

After working in the Libyan war during 2011 in both its east and west theatres of conflict–Cyrenaica and Jebel Nafusa–I had planned to focus some of my efforts in 2012 on the Sahel. I had been contemplating working in Niger this year (before the Mali crisis began in earnest) in part because of hysterical front line Libyan rebels telling me they were fighting against Nigerien, Chadian and other sub-Saharan African ‘mercenaries’ who were allegedly being airlifted in by the Antonov into Sebha in the Libyan Sahara. (See the story of Qaddafi’s Nigerien Tuareg confidant here)

I’d been wanting to go to George W. Bush’s “Africa” i.e. Niger for quite some time to investigate the French-led uranium extraction industry in that country’s Aïr Massif in the sprawling northern Agadez Region and exploring the rebellious political dynamics of the adjacent Ténéré Desert and the Tuareg-dominated Mouvement des Nigériens pour la justice (MNJ).

‘Africa is a continent.’ T-shirt detail, Le Grand Marché, Bamako. @2012 Derek Henry Flood

But Niger was not meant to be, at least in terms of my own 2012 reporting priorities, so off to Bamako I went. I realized after I had already gone to some trouble to acquire my Malian visa that the only viable way to visit the short-lived Azawad state would to have actually queued up for a Nigérien or Mauritanian visa instead to visit either rebel-controlled Timbuktu or Gao respectively.

Plan A of interviewing the MNLA or Ansar Eddine was a pipe dream. I would quickly come to learn to my Plan B of hoping to somehow embed with the Malian army would not be doable either (although the BBC with its clout and/or connections managed to do so months later). The door would be then shut in my face upon attempting Plan C which was to visit the no-man’s land between the last government-held area of Mopti Region yet before the rebel or militia held areas of Douentza. Sometimes life is about Plan D I suppose was the take away from all this–accomplish whatever I could in the face of all these obstacles.

Moonrise over a concrete block village mosque built with money from the United Arab Emirates in the Malian Sahel. These rectangular houses of worship built with Wahhabi money from the GCC states were often the only painted structures for miles around, standing out amidst the dull mud brick villages dotting the Malian bush. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Mali is now undoubtedly going to face some form of military intervention to counter the Salafi-jihadi groups occupying its three northern regions and parts of northeast Mopti region. France currently has six hostages being held there beyond its more obvious political and economic interests in Mali. Three additional Western hostages plus the fear of blowback on the European heartland means that the EU views further consolidation of radical Salafi power in northern Mali as a threat to the EU itself.

France knows all too well that nihilistic terror wars in North Africa can reverberate back to the metropole with deadly effect evidenced by the Christmas Eve 1994 hijacking of Air France Flight 8969 and the 1995 Paris Metro bombings carried out by al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyah al-Musallaha-better known by known by its Francophone name, the Groupe Islamique Armé or GIA. The GIA–a precursor to today’s AQIM in Mali–was one of the principal non-state belligerents fighting the Algerian government and security apparatus during the worst of the civil war years in the mid-1990s.

We still don’t have an accurate picture of precisely how this roughly proposed intervention will take place and likely won’t until something is already underway. Whatever the outcome, it will continue to have humanitarian repercussions across the entire region perhaps well beyond the massive refugee and IDP outflow we have already witnessed. It all remains to be seen at this point.

Categories: Africa, Mali Tags: , , , ,

Review of AQIM Report

June 15th, 2010 No comments

New York- Princeton’s Norwegian Islamist scholar Thomas Hegghammer gave a nice recommendation on a report that I edited for Lebanese author Camille Tawil’s Jamestown occasional paper The Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb: Expansion in the Sahel and Challenges from Within Jihadist Circles on Jihadica.com. Thanks Jihadica!

Categories: Sahel Tags: , ,

New Issue of Militant Leadership Monitor

March 2nd, 2010 No comments

New York- The new issue of Militant Leadership Monitor is online over at the Jamestown site. In our 2nd issue, I have another article on a recently killed Abu Sayyaf leader named Albader Parad who was recently taken down in a firefight in Jolo with Philippine marines. The death of Parad may yield the eventual decline of the ASG and could be significant to the future of U.S. involvement in the southern Philippines.

Other articles in this issue include:

• A profile of AQAP leader Said al-Shihri by Murad Batal al-Shishani

• A profile of AQIM leader Abedelmalek Droukdel by Camille Tawil

• A profile of radical Jamaican cleric Sheikh al-Faisal by Chris Zambelis

• Briefs by me on the capture by Iran of Jundullah leader Abdolmalek Rigi and capture by Pakistan of Afghan Taleban leader Mullah Abdul Salam

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