Big Happenings in a Big Desert – Updated
March 3, 2012 21 Comments
The last 24 hours have seen an unusual amount of activity by and involving terrorist groups in the Sahel. This morning a suicide bomber detonated a Toyota truck filled with explosives at the gates of the Gendarmerie in the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset, an attack swiftly claimed in a phone call to the AFP in Bamako by the AQIM “splinter group” MUJWA – the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The attack came just hours after AQIM freed a Mauritanian gendarme kidnapped in a cross-border raid in December, Ely Ould Elmoctar. And reports circulated today that MUJWA had also freed an Italian humanitarian worker kidnapped in the Polisario-run camps at Tindouf in October, Rossella Urru. Oddly enough, a source close to the negotiations for Urru and two Spaniards taken from Tindouf told the AFP today that MUJWA wanted $30 million for the hostages, including Urru.
This flurry of activity will doubtless lead to questions about the lingering effect of instability in the Sahel and the spreading reach of AQIM and linked groups in the region. But more importantly, the events of the past 24 hours, taken in conjunction with other incidents that have recently taken place lead me to believe not only that AQIM is gearing up for further actions in the area, but that we now have enough evidence to conclude that the creation of MUJWA last fall marked not a splintering of AQIM, but rather a reorganization of men and resources.
An attack most unusual
First, let’s deal with today’s suicide bombing in Tamanrasset. The attack, which the Algerian daily El Watan said was almost certainly conducted by a “subsaharan,” wounded 23 people and caused major damage to the Gendarmerie. The Mauritanian news site Agence Nuakchott d’Information (ANI), which has published AQIM statements in the past and has good contacts with the group, has tentatively identified two men they say conducted the attack, Abou Anass al-Sahraoui (denoting either that he is from the Western Sahara or has links to Sahraouis) and Abou Jendel al-Azawadi (signifying he is likely from northern Mali).
A number of things are unique about this attack. While AQIM has in the past conducted suicide attacks in northern Algeria and Mauritania, this is the first major attack by a jihadist group that I can recall taking place in Tamanrasset in the past few years, and certainly the first suicide attack. Despite the growing instability in the Sahel, southern Algeria is generally considered a safe zone, and Tamanrasset in particular boasts a large security presence, given the city’s important role as a desert waypoint for travel and trade, both licit and illicit.
This attack demonstrates the continued availability of suicide bombers in the region, as well as the presence of high explosives, a likely consequence of the massive flow of weapons and explosives into southern Algeria and the Sahel as a result of the instability in Libya. And AQIM in particular has been increasingly active in southern Algeria, and not just in smuggling – Algerian forces engaged AQIM members in a firefight near the Malian/Algerian border town of Tin Zaouatine last month, and other AQIM members were reportedly the target of an airstrike in the country’s south days later.
Yet the fact that the attack was claimed by MUJWA – and not AQIM – should raise eyebrows. After all, when MUJWA came onto the scene in December, its members stated that MUJWA’s goal was to spread jihad and shariah to West Africa, citing as inspiration historical militant leaders in the region, including Usman Dan Fodio and El Hajj Omar Tell. Yet as Algerian blogger “7our” pointed out on Twitter this morning (my translation), “The only 2 actions of MUJWA, who want to ‘spread jihad in West Africa,’ have targeted Algeria.” Even as a “dissident” group, MUJWA still seems to be fighting AQIM’s jihad.
I have never been comfortable with the reports that MUJWA had truly “broken off” from AQIM. For one thing, as noted above, it is odd that despite having ostensibly split from AQIM, MUJWA has still chosen to target Algeria in such a serious fashion. And even before the Tamanrasset attack, MUJWA has behaved and spoken much as AQIM does, with the group’s leader Kheirou even declaring war on France – a favorite AQIM propaganda target - with attack in a video released in December. We also should not forget that Kheirou spent several years under the command of key AQIM figure Mokhtar Belmokhtar (also known as Khaled Abou al-Abass).
Moreover, the very reason for supposedly founding the group was for Mauritanians and others to break away from AQIM’s Algerian-dominated leadership. Yet this is odd, given that despite AQIM’s many failures as a jihadist organization, it has arguably been more successful than any other al-Qaeda affiliate in recruiting a diverse group of people, including Malians, Mauritanians, Tuareg, Senegalese, Guineans, and more. Indeed, Kheirou himself appeared in a 2010 video produced by the group explicitly for the purpose of showing its diversity.
This diversity does not mean, of course, that some members of AQIM were not unhappy with the group’s leadership. Yet Kheirou’s long involvement with AQIM at a high level, combined with the persistent similarities between AQIM and MUJWA, leave open the possibility that the “split” between the two was not as definitive as some analysts believe. The circumstances surrounding the liberation of Ely Elmoctar and Rossella Urru lend some credence to this theory.
And the truth (or a deal) shall set you free
On the surface, the liberation of Ely Ould Elmoctar and Rossella Urru appear to be separate events. Elmoctar’s kidnapping was claimed by AQIM, and appears to have been the work of Mauritanian AQIM commander Khaled es-Chinguitty. AQIM demanded the liberation of two prisoners held by Mauritania in return for Elmoctar, whose disappearance prompted protests in Mauritania and solicited the attention of opponents of President Ould Abdel Aziz. Elmoctar’s liberation came on the day AQIM promised to kill him if the group did not get what they wanted; it is reported that the Malian Abderrahmane Ould Medou, involved in the kidnapping of two Italians in 2009 in Mauritania and arrested by Mauritanian authorities, was freed as part of the deal for Elmoctar’s freedom.
Urru, whose kidnapping was claimed by MUJWA last December, was almost certainly freed in exchange for a ransom payment. We don’t know yet why the unnamed negotiator publicized the price for Urru and the two other victims on the day Urru was freed. However, it is possible that a) he was one of multiple negotiators competing to win the hostages’ freedom (as well as a cut of the ransom payment), as has happened in other cases, or b) that the announcement was simply a means of indicating to the Spanish government the price for their two citizens who remain captive. I do not think the timing is accidental, given the arrival in Bamako today of Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Garcia-Margallo to “inquire about the fate of the three Europeans” taken from Tindouf.
That said, there are other aspects to the two stories that seem too convenient to be mere coincidence. Looking simply at the facts of the case, we have two kidnappings by two ostensibly separate (but related) terrorist organizations, with hostages from each case freed on the same day and both sent back simultaneously to Bamako. The simultaneous liberation and return to Bamako of the hostages implies either coordination between the groups that kidnapped Elmoctar and Urru, or that the same negotiator worked out both arrangements.
A shared negotiator linked to the Mauritanian government seems likely, given the conveniently-timed meeting last week between Ould Abdel Aziz and an Italian envoy, Margueritta Bonivar. However, it defies credulity to think that the release of the hostages held by two separate groups could be conducted simultaneously without a certain level of cooperation and coordination between MUJWA and AQIM. It is thus not illogical to suspect that the two were released as part of the same deal.
Things aren’t always what they seem
It is dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions from incomplete and circumstantial evidence, especially given the opaqueness of AQIM’s structure and operations and the relative lack of reporting on the group and the region in which it operates. And there is much that we do not know and may never learn about today’s bombing and hostage releases.
However, the events of the last 24 hours provide some indications of coordination between AQIM and MUJWA. Additionally, the fact that both groups appear to be increasingly active in Algeria and in targeting the Algerian security forces show the remarkable similarities between them, especially given MUJWA’s stated mission of moving the jihad south, not north.
The question is, given the sudden uptick in movement by both groups, what does this all mean?
As I previously noted, any conclusions drawn on such thin information are likely to be incomplete. But this morning’s attack, as well as the increased attempts by AQIM members to infiltrate southern Algeria from the group’s safe haven in northern Mali, could indicate a concerted effort by both MUJWA and AQIM to increase the pace of operations in Algeria proper.
This move north could be a reaction to the increasingly tenuous situation in northern Mali, given the ongoing Tuareg rebellion there and increased Malian military presence near key parts of the Adrar des Ifoghas, where AQIM commander Abou Zeid is known to operate. But it could also mark the start of a new and more deliberate campaign against Algerian forces. And if, as I believe, MUJWA is less a breakaway faction of AQIM and more of a partner or sub-unit, then it would appear the jihad in West Africa will be on hold for sometime to come.
UPDATE: It appears I wrote too soon. ANI, which initially reported not only that both Elmoctar and Urru had been freed but that both were expected to arrive in Bamako, reported today that in fact Elmoctar was still being held by AQIM. It seems like the negotiations were very close to being concluded, but then for reasons as yet unknown were suspended. This could explain the premature reports of their release.
The ANI article is still interesting for what it reveals – while it says two separate negotiation channels were at work for the release of the two separate hostages held by two separate groups, the ANI report suggests that both AQIM and MUJWA agreed to seek the release of Abderrahmane Ould Meidou. According to the same report, AQIM leader Yahya Abou Alhamam (who has been reported dead several times in the past) in particular sought Ould Meidou’s release, as did MUJWA leader Sultan Ould Badi, who along with other MUJWA members has “social relations” with Ould Meidou.
The fact that Elmoctar and Urru may not have been released yet takes away some of the support for the argument I laid out in the post above. Due to the evidence available and other things that I have heard or suspect, I still stand by my analysis. That said, I think that if the above story valid – though we must be careful about all reports where we can’t ascertain for ourselves the sourcing – we can still see the close personal and social links that likely exist between MUJWA and AQIM. Though this should be of no surprise whether MUJWA is a “splinter” group or simply a reorganized part of AQIM, the report would indicate that the groups are in contact and willing to work with each other in some capacity. Either way, there’s much more to this story, and we will hopefully have better information in the days to come.