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.