A look inside AQIM

One year ago last weekend, two young French men were seized from a restaurant in the middle of Niamey, Niger, and hustled quickly north towards Mali by members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Yet unlike the normal AQIM kidnapping, which ends in ransom demands and months of waiting, this kidnapping ended quickly and tragically, with an ambush just inside Mali by French Special Forces, and two dead hostages — longtime friends Antoine de Léocour and Vincent Delory. De Léocour was supposed to get married that week to a Nigerien woman, and Delory had just arrived in Niger for the wedding.

While the investigation into their deaths, initially attributed solely to their kidnappers by French authorities, quickly faded from the news, events this week have brought the incident back into the public eye in France. The paper Libération first broke the story Friday that a French anti-terrorism judge, Yves Jannier, interviewed in November 2011 a young AQIM member arrested in Nuakchott the previous February (his name is Mohamed al-Amine ould Mouhamedou ould M’Balle, known as “Mouawiya”).

And what a story Mouawiya told.

According to the reports, Mouawiya was part of the same katiba, or unit, as the men who took part in the kidnapping. He claims that the operation was carefully planned, and that the men of the unit rejoiced upon news that the two young Frenchmen had been seized. But then things went wrong as the three-car AQIM convoy crossed into Mali, and French helicopters carrying elite paratroopers struck. As Mouawiya tells it, the kidnappers tried to pull de Léocour from the car, but when he did not have the strength to follow an AQIM member named Faisal al-Jazairi, the latter coldly shot him several times. However, Mouawiya says, Delory was killed when the truck he was riding in, which was carrying gasoline, was shot at and burst into flames. Moreover, according to Mouawiya, AQIM did not fire the shots that set the truck on fire.

While we can’t be sure about the events as described by Mouawiya, this telling of the story fits with what AQIM said previously about the incident, and other evidence leaves some room for doubt in the official story; some months ago, France’s military released video of the rescue operation from an overhead surveillance plane, but 1 minute was omitted — the time in which Delory’s car burst into flames.

Delory’s family believes that the French army is responsible for at least his death, and allege that a lack of bulletproof vests and hastiness in staging the operation, which they believe may not have been solely a hostage-rescue operation, led to the Delory’s death. They are demanding a further investigation and possible charges of involuntary manslaughter. I’ll leave that debate for another blog post, though I will point out that that a French military source told Le Point defense writer Jean Guisnel that the operation, effected with incredible speed over great distances, was a “tactical, not strategic, failure.” This implies that one motivation for staging the helicopter raid was to deter further AQIM activity. To quote the source (my quick translation, with help from journalist Olivier Knox):

We needed to attempt this operation. The pros and cons were discussed. I’m not BS’ing you. I’ll tell you straight; if any little group can kidnap our compatriots living tranquilly in an African capital, we must put a stop to it. As soon as we had the capacity to react, we had to do it! Of course, to bring [the hostages] out alive would have been an absolute triumph. But it is to the credit of our of political leaders to to have acted as they did: their global responsibility leads them to privilege the national interest. In this affair, we have experienced a tactical failure, but I would not say the same thing on the strategic level.

Setting aside this brewing controversy, the rest of Mouawiya’s testimony seems to have passed into the news largely without commentary, testimony that is of great interest to anyone who’s ever spent time thinking about the internal structure and motivations of AQIM. And primarily, his comments help shed some light on the question of what AQIM in the Sahel really is – a jihadist organization that engages criminal activity, or a criminal organization masquerading as holy warriors.

Mouawiya, 22 when he was arrested last February, told the judge that his engagement with jihadist activities began in 2006, following a religious upbringing and a turn towards salafist ideas, jihadist hymns broadcast on the radio and poetry about famed jihadist leader Abdullah Azzam.  By 2007 he had joined AQIM at the instigation of a local religious leader, Ibrahim Ould Hannoud, which took him to a training camp near Timbuktu, in order to satisfy his desire to “wage jihad in conformity with the methods adopted by Osama bin Laden.” At the camp he trained with kalashnikov rifles, PK submachine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, Tokarev pistols, and even 12.7 mm DShK heavy machine guns.

He also disclosed some interesting details about his unit, led by the infamous “Mr. Marlboro” Mokhtar Belmokhtar (referred to in most of the pieces about Mouawiya by another name, Khaled Abou al-Abbes.) He says his unit comprised 40 individuals, mostly Algerians but with at least one other Mauritanian, and that they had several heavily-armed 4x4s, including at least one SA-7 surface-to-air missile, and around $5 million in cash gleaned from ransom payments. Interestingly, he seems to confirm what others have said about Belmokhtar, saying that MBM got along well with European hostages and treated them kindly, and that he also had little education in religious matters, but instead often talked about his great love of women.

Getting to the hostage-taking itself, Mouawiya told his interrogator that the information about the two young Frenchman’s precise location came from a Nigerian Boko Haram member. This fits with a story first reported by RFI last year that investigators supposedly found the number of a Boko Haram member and supposed “intermediary” with AQIM in cell phones carried by the kidnappers. While there has been much speculation about possible links between AQIM and Boko Haram, this information reinforces the existence of at least contacts between the group and some level of cooperation and information sharing, even if we still do not know about the extent of possible training of Boko Haram members by AQIM, or whether or not AQIM is helping supply the group with weapons, as has been alleged by the Nigerian and other governments in the past.

Yet something that is even more interesting to me (and something that seems to have gone unnoticed in media reports) is what Mouawiya’s testimony says about cooperation among AQIM’s Sahelian units. According to the timeline that the young jihadist laid out, in January 2011 he was in Gao, in northern Mali, part of the unit involved in this kidnapping in Niamey. Yet a month later, he was arrested in Nuakchott, due to his alleged involvement in a failed operation to infiltrate the Mauritanian capital with three explosives-laden trucks and attack the country’s president as well as the French embassy. Except that most AQIM specialists agree that that operation was handled by Khaled al-Chinguitti, a Mauritanian AQIM commander known to be close to Yahya Djuadi, who himself works closely with Abou Zeid, AQIM’s other key commander in the Sahel and a reputed rival of, you guessed it, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Now, reports about the rivalry between MBM and Abou Zeid go back several years, and Abou Zeid (along with Djuadi) were reportedly sent south to replace MBM as Emir in the Sahara sometime in 2009. But Mouawiya’s testimony implies that there is more cooperation amongst rival units than most people think, and that different units of the group are involved actively in both criminal and jihadist activities. This is not to say that these rivalries don’t exist, but I do think that this data point could show that AQIM’s Sahelian units are more interconnected than most think, to the point of sharing fighters for different operations. This is far from conclusive evidence, and I’d have to see the full transcript of Mouawiya’s testimony for more information, but it’s certainly a fascinating detail.

Either way, Mouawiya’s statements add an interesting look inside AQIM’s operations in the Sahel, and provide further proof that much of what is commonly thought about AQIM may need to be reconsidered, in light of other evidence.

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13 Responses to A look inside AQIM

  1. French defense minister said as much after the botched ‘rescue’ attempt:
    “Alain Juppe, who is due to arrive in Niger’s capital Niamey for talks with officials on Monday, said the decision to launch the rescue mission went ahead because doing nothing would pose a “double threat for France”.
    “On one hand we risked that that the hostages would be taken to a camp in Sahel by their abductors and on the other, refraining from all action would have signaled to the kidnappers that in the end France doesn’t fight terrorism’”, said Juppe.”
    The way it was done, attacking without coordination with the nigerians, destroying a vehicle and letting the beards escape without further pursuit told us their mission was to interrupt the kidnapping at any cost.

    The French aren’t very successful with their rescue missions. Not with Niamey, not with Germenau, and certainly not when they shot and killed the French captain of a pirated sailing boat off the Somalia coast.
    If taken hostage, pray there will be no attempt to ‘rescue’. At least not by the French.

    In a video from 2010 there was footage of both Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar, somewhat surprising after what we had heard of their differences. We just don’t know that much about Aqim.
    Let’s hope that they are coming to an end, but their jihad has been allowed to go on for so long that algerian salafism has already spread over West Africa.

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  3. Abou Djaffar says:

    At least French trie to free their hostages… Remember the Ponant operation? And all the guys freed in Irak and Afghanistan? Well, let’s just hope there is no US check point on the way to the airport (remember the Italian master spy shot dead near Baghdad?) or no Marines involved in a raid on a cave (remember the British hostage killed in Afghanistan by a grenade during a raid?)
    And, by the way, we know a lot about AQIM, but maybe everything is not released in the mass media… I read somewhere that it is called the secret war against AQ. Secret?

    Best regards

  4. suzamina says:

    Well done. Stumbled upon this blog yesterday, and read this article today. “Like” is not the perfect word for what I think about the subject, but the article deserves a big compliment, so … well done. Thank you very much.

  5. lissnup says:

    Reblogged this on @lissnup and commented:
    The truth will out. It doesn’t always save you, but at least it can set you free. How ridiculous for France to post an important video with a minute of footage missing and not expect to get caught.

  6. The crew of the m/y Le Ponant was released after a hefty ransom was paid. French commandoes using choppers managed to take back some of the money and arrest a few pirates. No rescue attempt was made.
    In Afghanistan, two journalists held by the taliban were also released after a ransom of 10-15 M$ was paid, although (of course) both Juppé and the talibans vehemently denied this.
    Iraq? Of four french abducted, Aubenas was freed for 10 M$, Chesnot and Malbrunot for 15 M$, and Planche was freed by US troops.
    Last time the French had any success on foreign soil may have been in Kolwezi, Congo back in 1978??
    In fairness, hostage rescue attempts often end badly. But french troops have shown blatant disregard for the safety of hostages. This reflect the orders they were acting under.

    If you have information on Aqim that hasn’t been published in the media, why not go ahead and write about it!

    • Abou Djaffar says:

      Of course France pay, and that’s a shame, but we are talking about freeing hostages, aren’t we? Regarding the special ops, do you remember the Airbus case in december 94? Or the Ouvea Cave in 1988? Hope you do. Regarding French forces, and despite a full century of military defeats, do I have to remind you special ops in Lebanon, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Chad, Mali, Iraq? I am sure you are fully aware of all these operations. And, finally, regarding my own knowledge on AQIM, first I am not allowed to write everything I know and did, second I will write, within a year, some lines on this interesting band of jihadists and third I love to read some interesting comments from common citizens. Regards.

  7. As a common citizen, I thank you…and will give you Caledonia with the Congo operation as being successful in liberating hostages on foreign soil. But Ouvea was a massacre and probably Kolwezi, too.
    Looking forward to your writings, Abou Djaffar.

    • Abou Djaffar says:

      Well, Ouvea was not, indeed, a “page de gloire”, but hostages were freed and their takers killed or caught. You may be have in mind that this assault took place after fierce fights into the jungle. You just have to make up your mind: do we have to pay to free hostages, or do we have to fight? If we chose to fight, I cannot figure how we could avoid human losses. That’s the doctrine followed by US and British authorities, and I fully agree with that. If we chose to pay, well, we know what happens. The French doctrine is to try anything possible. It was my job, so I did it. Sometimes, to give money is easier than risking lives (and believe me, paying is not so simple…) Sometimes, assaulting is the best thing to do. Thanks to our current President, nothing is forbidden. Pay, negociate or catch them. As France, we must act within our little own limits (people on the ground, public debate, and so on)

      • I was writing from the hostages point of view, and then I would fear a rescue attempt more than anything else. Especially after the Niamey kidnapping where the orders evidently were to interrupt the kidnapping at any cost.
        Of course ransoms should never ever be paid, but I can see how this gets complicated for instance when Qadafi offers to step in. And that ransom payments are a logistical challenge we have seen both from Somalia and Mali.
        I just wish that more action had been taken in those few and short periods since 2007 when there were no hostages kept in the Malian desert! Now there is at least 13 and it can get worse.
        merci

  8. tidinit says:

    Good post and good comments. Thanks

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