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The Islamist challenge from the Sahel Region and North Africa

By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
web posted February 4, 2013

The Islamist Trail Shaking the Sahel Region

The military operation launched by France against the Islamists in Mali on January 12, 2013, has a specific goal: to put a stop to the rampant and proliferating fundamentalist destabilization effort led by al-Qaeda in the Sahel region, whose virulent anti-Western approach is aimed at replacing existing regimes with Islamic autocracies ruled solely by Shari'a (Islamic law). Thus, the action in Mali is meant first and foremost to prevent a repetition of the Afghanistan syndrome where the Taliban took over the country, in order to deal a blow to terrorist organizations that have found a safe haven in the immensity of the Sahara Desert. These organizations have used this region in order to organize, train, and initiate terror attacks against local and foreign interests, not only in this particular area but also as a base for eventual terrorist actions in neighboring problematic countries (such as Nigeria) and in countries in Europe with a significant Muslim presence.

The option of military intervention, however, was a last resort choice accepted by all the countries involved in the process. The common unwritten agreement was that such an intervention would occur, if at all, not earlier than September 2013, pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 2085. However, events on the ground precipitated the military option: the French move was driven by intelligence about an imminent offensive prepared by the Islamic forces aimed to complete their conquest of the remainder of Mali and establish an Islamic sultanate in Africa by turning Mali into the first Islamic fundamentalist state in the Sahel region.

The fall of Mali would have directly threatened neighboring Niger, the sixth largest producer of uranium ore in the world. Given that France depends on nuclear reactors for approximately 75 percent of its electricity production and that most of its uranium comes from Niger, the French interest in preventing the fall of Mali and the spillover of the jihadist offensive into Niger is understandable.

In fact, the renewed Islamic military offensive was already underway and Islamic combatants had already swept into two critical towns 150 kilometers north of the capital Bamako when the French government decided to act. The states surrounding Mali understood that there was a region-wide Islamist threat, which explains why they supported France's military intervention. This includes the backing of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) led by Nigeria. Moreover, Algeria let French aircraft fly through its airspace in order to engage the jihadists and halt their offensive on the ground in Mali.

The Struggle for Tuareg Self-Determination

The crisis in Mali can be traced back to the long-term insurgency that has been waged by the Tuaeg people. The Tuaregs have complained for years about discriminatory policies that were adopted by the central government in Bamako, which ruled the country from the south. Thus, when Mali's Tuareg nomads launched their rebellion in January 2012, many in Africa and elsewhere thought it would be just the latest in a long line of desert uprisings to be swiftly terminated with offers of cash and jobs.

The Tuaregs are a minority of perhaps 1 million of Mali's 15 million people and they constitute about a third of the population of northern Mali, They are a Berber people who traditionally live in countries touching the Sahara Desert, including Mali, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Libya, and have resisted central authority since colonial times. Mali is no stranger to rebellions. This is the fourth led by Tuareg nomads since independence in 1960. The last ended only in 2008.

In October 2011 Tuareg fighters gathered in the oasis settlement of Zakak in the hills by the border of Algeria. They were joined by career rebels, Malian army deserters, and young activists in a conclave that gave birth to the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad), a coalition of different factions and agendas, with a force estimated at the time to be 1,000 strong and whose open goal was attaining independence. In January 2013, they made rapid military gains that perhaps triggered the French intervention.

The Azawad is an immense territory equivalent in size to France and Belgium combined. It is situated north of the Niger River and includes three administrative sub-divisions: Kidal, Timbuktu, and Gao. In the Malian context, Azawad refers to the northern part of Mali, considered by the Tuaregs to be their homeland.

Very little is known about the MNLA hierarchy. Mahmoud Ag-Ghali is believed to head the interim executive committee. Bilal Ag-Sherif has been mentioned as its secretary-general, while Colonel Ag Mohammed Najem is considered to be the commander of the military wing of the movement.

The Tuareg offensive occurred after the return of Tuareg fighters to Mali following the fall of their historical patron, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, in neighboring Libya. The "return" was in fact a deportation undertaken by the Arab militias against all black residents of Libya, of whom the Tuaregs were the majority. Most probably their rebellion would not have taken place had Gaddafi remained in power. Gaddafi's Malian fighters returned to Mali, bringing with them battle experience and equipped with heavy and sophisticated weapons looted from Gaddafi's arsenals.

Furthermore, the situation in Mali itself played into the hands of the Tuaregs. Inspired by the South Sudanese precedent, and taking advantage of the weakness of the central government and of a poorly equipped army, the Tuaregs launched their offensive in January 2012 and subsequently won town after town in the northern part of the country.

Beginning last year, the central government in Mali had already lost control of the northern two-thirds of its territory, which was taken over by a coalition of forces that included indigenous Tuareg forces, Tuareg fighters expelled from Libya by the new ruling militias, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM, Arabic: Tanzim al-Qaeda fi Bilad Al-Maghreb al-Islami) units, and other fundamentalist organizations such as Ansar Eddine (Defenders of Faith).

The drama that unfolded in neighboring Algeria with the assault on the gas facility at Amenas, following the French military intervention in Mali, illustrates clearly the threat posed by the fundamentalists in the Sahel region and their potential damage to Western and international interests. More than anything else, the French military intervention, together with the ensuing hostage crisis, allows a rare glimpse into the fundamentalist structures operating in the area in their open war against the Algerian regime and others such as Mali, Nigeria and Chad. They include: AQIM, Ansar Eddine, MNLA, MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), Katibat al-Mulathamin (Masked Men Battalion), and Katibat al-Mouaki'oun bil-Dam (Those Who Sign with Blood Battalion).

The Tuaregs – Caught between the MNLA and the Fundamentalist Ansar Eddine

Western intelligence agencies have been following events in Mali since, like other sub-Saharan countries, it has been facing growing attacks from al-Qaeda's North African branch – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Islamists are involved in a multi-million-dollar ransom industry fuelled by drug-trafficking and kidnapping Westerners. Northern Mali has long been a rear base for drug traffickers, with al-Qaeda militants and other Islamist combatants sharing ground with the local Tuaregs.

In March 2012, troops upset with the government's handling of the Tuareg rebellion, and opposed to any compromise with the rebels, staged a coup d'etat led by young officers against President Amadou Toumani Toure (commonly called ATT), creating a chaotic situation that was fully exploited by the Tuaregs. In less than three months, the Tuaregs became masters of their historical homeland in northern Mali, and on April 6 declared independence for their Azawad nation.

The fall of ATT was dramatic for the West. Washington had tried to bolster Mali's army by providing $17 million in military aid over the past year to equip and train its forces, as well as providing political support. Regular surveillance flights supported by the U.S. Pan-Sahel Counter-Terrorism Initiative used to patrol the skies looking for suspect or unusual movement in the area. The deteriorating situation in Mali brought the U.S. to cancel an annual exercise called Flintlock 2012, which was due to bring African, European, and U.S. troops to train together in late March. One of the aims of Flintlock was to build the counterterrorism capacities of African armies.

As has been the case in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, the Tuaregs' struggle for an independent homeland was hijacked by better-organized and armed Islamists from Mali and abroad, creating a safe haven for militants in the Sahara – a West African Afghanistan.

As rebel forces took major towns in northern Mali, such as the ancient city of Timbuktu, it appeared that MNLA fighters were operating alongside a newly formed Islamist movement known as Ansar Eddine, whose stated goal is to impose Islamic law (Shari'a) all across Mali. In fact the different militias appropriated for themselves the different towns in northern Mali according to their relative strength: Thus Timbuktu fell under the control of AQIM, while Ansar Eddine got control of Lere, Niafunke, Kidal, Aguelhok and part of the town of Tessali. MOJWA secured Douentza, Sevare, Niono, Markala, Gao, Annogo and Menaka. The MNLA remained until the beginning of the French operation in Tinzaouaten near the southern borders of Algeria and Libya.

Ansar Eddine Led by Ag Ghali

Iyad Ag GhaliAnsar Eddine's leader is Iyad Ag Ghali, who, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, is "northern Mali's undisputed power broker."6 In two decades Ag Ghali led two previous Tuareg rebellions, and served briefly as Mali's Consul General in Saudi Arabia where he adopted the most extreme Salafi form of Islam before being expelled by the Saudi authorities. Once back home he acted as an intermediary between hostage-paying European governments and kidnappers belonging to AQIM.

While some wonder whether Ag Ghali, the whiskey-drinking fundamentalist, is motivated more by religion or by personal ambition, he has taken on at least the appearance of a fundamentalist. Gone is the large mustache that he used to wear. On a video released by Ansar Eddine, he has a full, graying beard.

Colleagues say he became more religiously active in the 1990s when Tabligh Jamaat, a fundamentalist but nonviolent Islamic movement from Pakistan and India, started preaching in northern Mali. Tabligh Jamaat, founded early in the last century, is an offshoot of the Deobandi school of Islam, which is very hardline. Most of the Taliban leadership is Deobandi.

After Ag Ghali was assigned in 2007 to Mali's consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the Saudis became concerned about the amount of time he spent on his satellite phone and his ties to Tabligh Jamaat. They considered his activities incompatible with his status as a diplomat. He had been appointed to Saudi Arabia after he helped negotiate a peace accord that ended a brief Tuareg rebellion. "Some Tuareg rebels are irked at what they view as Ag Ghali's self-centered decision to abandon northern Mali during a time of crisis, leaving his Tuareg rebel colleagues in the lurch," a leaked U.S. Embassy cable noted in 2008.

Today, the doubts about Ag Ghali's motivations are resurfacing. His family is part of a group of Tuaregs who have traditionally ruled the region around the town of Kidal, and he has been active in the rebellions there for years. Other leaked U.S. diplomatic cables describe Ag Ghali as a master manipulator, especially when there is a chance to make money. "Ag Ghali is so adept at playing all sides of the Tuareg conflict to maximize his personal gain," notes a cable from October 2008 released by WikiLeaks. "Like the proverbial bad penny, Ag Ghali turns up whenever a cash transaction between a foreign government and Kidal Tuaregs appears forthcoming."

Ag Ghali's age isn't clear. He was born in Abeibara in northern Mali in the late 1950s. In the 1970s, like many other young Tuareg men, he left to join Gaddafi's Islamic Legion in Libya. He was sent to fight against Chad in the 1980s, and fought in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. By the early 1990s, Ag Ghali returned to Mali to take part in a Tuareg rebellion in which he was a senior commander, and then helped negotiate a peace deal with the government.

The leaked cables show that Ag Ghali spoke with staff at the U.S. Embassy in Bamako several times about events in Mali between April 2006 and January 2010. "Soft-spoken and reserved, Ag Ghali showed nothing of the cold-blooded warrior persona created by the Malian press," according to a May 2007 cable written after one such meeting.

Diplomats in Mali said Ag Ghali formed Ansar Eddine in 2012 after being rebuffed in separate efforts to head both the MNLA and his Ifoghas tribe. Diplomats also say that his links with al-Qaeda are through a cousin who is a local commander. Yet if imposing Shari'a has won Ag Ghali little popularity, it has been crucial in drawing him closer to AQIM, which he now needed for its firepower and the cash it had accumulated after years operating in the area.

However, the rapidly unfolding events since the beginning of the French operation are playing into the hands of the MNLA. The MNLA has already declared itself ready to come to terms with the French on a power-sharing agreement with the central regime in Bamako. Most probably the French will do their utmost in order to concretize such a pledge, since they know they will not stay forever in the remote areas of Mali. Only the Tuaregs can be their natural ally and provide them an umbrella to withdraw when time comes. Moreover, the French will experience no difficulty in convincing the ruling Captain Sanogo to accept such an arrangement which is, after all, a guarantee of the consolidation of his regime and the integrity of Mali.

Moreover, Ansar Eddine itself is no longer a single entity. On January 24, 2013, Alghabasse Ag Intalla, who used to be the chief of the political wing of the MNLA before joining Ansar Eddine, announced that he was creating his own movement, MIA (French; Mouvement islamique de l'Azawad), while splitting from Ansar Eddine and expressing a willingness to negotiate with the Malian government and the French about a compromise in northern Mali that would satisfy the national ambitions of the Tuaregs. Intalla is not just a figurehead; his father Intalla Ag Attaher used to be the chief of the most powerful Tuareg tribe in Mali – the Ifoghas.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

AQIM is certainly the most important and militant jihadist organization in North Africa. In fact, AQIM is basically an Algerian movement, since most of its members are Algerians. AQIM's beginnings can be traced back to the early 1990s when it was known as the GIA (Groupe Islamique Arme) which fought the regime in one of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of terrorism: almost 150,000 people died during the struggle in Algeria. The GIA transformed into the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat – Arabic: Al-Jama'ah al-Salafiyya lil-Da'wa wal-Qital) to become in 2006 a full part of global al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri himself announced the merger and the change of name in January 2007.

AQIM is very active in the Sahel region where it maintains several training camps where locals and foreigners are trained and prepared for their missions in North Africa and other places around the globe. Typical of this organization is the fact that it encompasses almost every nationality in the African region and also volunteers from Europe.

Abd el-Malik Droukdel, alias Abu Mossaab Abd el-Woudoud (born 1970), is the leader of AQIM. While coordinated with global al-Qaeda, Droukdel has enough room to maneuver in his sphere of influence. Droukdel has succeeded to infiltrate remote countries such as Nigeria (through the training of Boko Haram combatants) and Somalia (via al-Shabab). His fighters were deeply involved in the Libyan conflict fighting against Gaddafi, as they are now in Syria and Iraq. However, it seems that Droukdel cannot accept criticism or competition to his leadership, a phenomenon that led to divisions inside his organization and the formation of other terrorist jihadist cells such as the MOJWA and Katibat al-Mulathamin and its subunit Katibat al-Moaki'oun bil-Dam, which made their first appearance during the hostage ordeal in Algeria.

AQIM has been designated by the U.S. State Department and the European Union as a terrorist organization. Inter alia, AQIM is heavily involved in smuggling and drug trafficking. In recent years it has also focused on kidnapping for ransom – a "business" that has produced several million euro per year.

MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa)

MOJWA (Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad fi Gharb Ifriqya) first appeared in December 2011 when it split officially from AQIM. The main reason behind the split was uneasiness with the fact that AQIM was dominated by Algerian-born activists. MOJWA's leader is Mauritanian-born Hamada Ould Khairou, who, like other jihadists, carries on his resume a brief sojourn in Afghanistan and other places where Islamists clash with secular or "heretic" regimes. Khairou's emphasis is on action in West Africa (unlike al-Qaeda whose turf is mainly in North Africa), while stressing the fact that the members of his group are followers of Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban. However, MOJWA prefers to emphasize West African figures such as Sheikhou Amadou, Othman Dan Fordio and El-Hajj Omar Tal. Among its key members are the Algerian Ahmed el-Talmasi, the Malian Sultan Ould Badi, and the chief of the military wing, Omar Ould Hamaha.

MOJWA fighters have been active in hostage kidnapping, drug trafficking, and the illicit weapons trade. However, their first massive appearance was in Mali where they fought alongside the MNLA, AQIM, and Ansar Eddine, hijacking the Tuareg revolt to their advantage. MOJWA has controlled some cities in northern Mali, the most important of which is Gao, and is confronting the French expeditionary force in Mali.

Katibat al-Mulathamin and Katibat al-Mouaki'oun bil-Dam

Mokhtar BelMokhtarThe hostage drama in Algeria provided the opportunity to expose yet another splinter organization that separated itself from AQIM in late October 2012. Katibat al-Mulathamin was founded by Algerian-born Mokhtar BelMokhtar, alias Khaled Abou el-Abbas, known, inter alia, as "the one-eyed sheikh" (Al-A'war) or "Mister Marlboro" as an illustration of his main activity: smuggling, drug trafficking, and hostage-taking in the Sahel area. Mokhtar was first spotted in Gao in late 2012, which led to the assessment that his fighters had joined the battle against the central regime in Mali. Mokhtar has been present in West Africa for more than 23 years and has successfully enrolled Mauritanians, Malians, and jihadists from Niger in his forces. According to some sources, Mokhtar is in fact a creation of the Algerian secret services whose aim was to break up AQIM into smaller groups that would be easier to control. Some even said he answered to the Algerian DRS (Department of Research and Security), the successor of the notorious Algerian SM (Securite Militaire).

Mokhtar founded the Katibat al-Mulathamin (Masked Men Battalion) in late December 2012. A second structure commanded by Mokhtar is the Katibat al-Mouaqi'oun bil-Dam (Those Who Sign with Blood Battalion). It is not clear whether these are two different units or are one unit with two names, or al-Mulathamin was replaced by al-Mouaqi'oun bil-Dam. Those two units appear to have been responsible for the incident in In Amenas in mid-January 2013. The assault on the gas facility was carried out by one of his most daring commanders, Abd el-Rahman al-Nigeri (as his name shows, an Arab fighter from neighboring Niger), known also as Abu Dajjanah, with about 40 fighters originally coming from northern Mali. Al-Nigeri, together with three other top commanders (Abu al-Bara el-Jazaiiri and Abdullah Ould Hmida, known as Al-Zarqawi al-Mauritani, and Mohammed Al-Amin Bouchnanab, known also as Tahar Abou Aicha), were killed while fighting the Algerian special forces.

From the report of the Algerian prime minister in the aftermath of the attack, we learn that the assault team of this jihadist organization included two Canadians, three Algerians, eleven Tunisians, two from Niger, Egyptians, Malians, Mauritanians, and one French citizen.

The Qatari Role

Since the beginning of the events, French politicians and intelligence have been pointing to the role Qatar was playing in this area. It is known that Mokhtar fighters joined the battle against Gaddafi in Libya after having been financed by Qatar. Mokhtar himself has been employed to provide security to the Qatari ruling family on its hawking hunts in the Algerian desert.

French politicians from the right and left have explicitly accused Qatar of giving material support to the Islamists in northern Mali. The respected French weekly Le canard enchaine alleged in June 2012 that Qatar was financing the rebels. It even quoted a source in French military intelligence as saying that the different rebel factions in Mali had all received "cash from Doha." In fact, a Qatari NGO has been present in northern Mali since summer 2012, the only humanitarian organization granted access to the area.

Other Jihadi Organizations

Since the beginning of the events in southern Algeria, the media has mentioned the existence of additional jihadi groups. These include the Abdullah Azzam cell, the Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi cell, the Abu Leith el-Libi cell, the Martyrs cell, the Osama bin Laden brigade (affiliated to MOJWA), and Ansar el-Shari'ah, reportedly headed by Omar Ould Hamaha (the red-bearded man), which is also part of MOJWA.


Events in Mali and Algeria have given a rare opportunity to become acquainted with unfamiliar names, all dealing with terrorism and all anti-Western. The French expeditionary forces have a mission to restore Mali's sovereignty and territorial integrity. It should be clear that, as was the case in In Amenas, the jihadi groups will probably try to retaliate, though not necessarily in the Sahel region. Rather, with the human infrastructure they have in Europe, the U.S., South America and West Africa, the choice of possible targets presents a huge challenge for all intelligence services involved in homeland security. ESR

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence. Originally published by The Institute for Contemporary Affairs at http://www.jcpa.org.






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