Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 6


In an interview with a Nouakchott daily, Jemil Mansour, leader of the Islamist Rassemblement national pour la réforme et le développement (RNRD Tawassoul), compared the demonstrations in Egypt to the situation in Mauritania, where General Muhammad Ould Abdel Aziz seized power in a military coup in 2008 and then won the presidency in the election that followed in 2009. “I think the situation in Mauritania is a little different… The situation in Mauritania is still recoverable. But without political reform, the economic and social situation will worsen and lead to revolutionary acts of the citizens. These preventive reforms require a political opening, a real dialogue to find a solution to the problems of prices, unemployment, the problems of national unity and a merciless fight against slavery [which continues to be a social problem in Mauritania].” The Islamist leader pointed out that the West prefers to promote democracy at home while encouraging dictatorships in the Arab-Muslim world: “Islamist parties tolerate not only democracy; they defend it whether the people vote for them or for secular regimes… The examples of Turkey, Morocco, Indonesia and Malaysia confirm that the Islamist parties can play the democratic game perfectly well” (Quotidien Nouakchott, February 3).

Ahmed Ould Daddah, the leader of the Regroupement des forces démocratiques (RFD), the country’s largest opposition party, also warned that “The causes that led to a revolt in Egypt are the same, if not worse in Mauritania,” adding that President Abdel Aziz must “go before it is too late” (AFP, January 31). Like the regimes in Algeria and Egypt, Mauritanian authorities have responded to the political unrest by increasing subsidies on food staples like sugar, rice, cooking oil and flour (Quotidien Nouakchott, February 2).

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) appeared to be trying to precipitate such a confrontation with a failed long-distance raid on Nouakchott they later described as an attempt to kill the Mauritanian president. Mauritanian authorities apparently received a tip (possibly from French surveillance aircraft or American satellites) that three AQIM 4x4s had crossed from Mali into the southeast Nema district of Mauritania and were heading for Nouakchott.

A puzzling aspect of the infiltration is presented by government reports that one of the vehicles approached the Nema military barracks in an apparent attempt to duplicate a similar suicide attack last August (AFP, February 2). The vehicle was driven off by fire from the garrison, suggesting the vehicle’s approach was unintentional. At this point the AQIM team was presumably unaware their presence had already been detected, and an attack on the barracks would have disclosed their presence in Mauritania before being able to carry out an attack on the Mauritanian president in Nouakchott.

The lead vehicle was spotted by a Presidential Guard patrol 12 km south of Nouakchott in the early hours of the morning. Perhaps unaware the vehicle was packed with explosives for use in a suicide bombing, the troops shelled the vehicle with a mortar at relatively close range. Shrapnel from the resulting explosion injured nine soldiers and was heard in several districts of the capital. The blast left a crater eight meters deep and four meters wide (Quotidien Nouakchott, February 3; AFP, February 2).

A later statement by an AQIM spokesman disputed this version of events, claiming the explosives in the vehicle were deliberately detonated by its occupants. According to the spokesman, the unit sent to carry out the operation was composed of several nationalities (including two “veteran” Mauritanian members) and was planning to “assassinate Aziz” in retaliation for Mauritania’s military cooperation with France in operations against AQIM.  The spokesman promised videotaped “martyrs’ wills” would verify these claims (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, February 2).

According to Mauritanian security sources, another vehicle carrying two AQIM members at first gave indications it intended to flee, but then turned on its pursuers, injuring one security officer (who later died) before seizing his weapon and fleeing in the direction of the Senegal River, where Senegalese troops had been deployed to prevent the fugitives from crossing (AFP, February 3). One suspect was later detained in the Brakna region near the Senegal border after locals alerted authorities, while the second blew himself up when encircled by security forces (Reuters, February 6). The two AQIM operatives in the third vehicle were captured.

A French Foreign Ministry spokesman said France was not ruling out the possibility French establishments in Nouakchott were among the intended targets. One of those arrested was a national of Guinea-Bissau, who told investigators the targets included a Nouakchott military barracks and the French Embassy (AFP, February 2). The French Embassy was previously targeted by a suicide bomber in 2009. Despite the casualties to the Presidential Guard battalion, the operation presented Mauritanian authorities with a notable success in its continuing efforts to combat AQIM.


A pair of suicide bombings on January 28 constituted the latest round in a bitter struggle between Taliban militants and government security forces for control of Pakistan’s strategic Kohat Tunnel, an important part of Pakistan’s N55 highway (popularly known as the “Indus Highway”), which is heavily used by NATO supply convoys headed for Afghanistan and Pakistani military convoys headed for volatile Waziristan.

The first bombing was carried out by a Bedford truck full of explosives that entered the tunnel from the Darra Adamkhel side, apparently unchallenged by tunnel security units. The explosives were detonated some 600 meters inside as the driver crashed the truck into the wall of the tunnel. The blast damaged the electrical, drainage and exhaust systems and created a crater one meter deep and six meters wide. This forced a 24-hour closure of the tunnel, which was later reopened to small vehicles only (Express Tribune [Karachi], January 30; Daily Times [Lahore], February 2). Repairs enabling the passage of heavy vehicles are expected to take some time. Bomb disposal experts later estimated the truck-bomb contained roughly 500 kg of explosives (Pakistan Observer, February 4).

A second explosion followed as an oil tanker rigged with a similar charge of explosives crashed into a military checkpoint outside the tunnel. Normally manned by units of the regular army and the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC), the checkpoint was unmanned at the time of the attack, approximately 12:30 AM. The tunnel has only been open at night for the past two months after night-time use was banned following its brief seizure in January 2008 by Taliban forces who set off explosives inside the tunnel. A male civilian and two women were killed immediately in a car following the tanker to the tunnel. The death toll in the two attacks has now reached eight, as several wounded have succumbed to their injuries (Pakistan Observer, February 4). The owner of the oil tanker has appealed to the government for compensation for the destruction of the tanker (The News [Islamabad], February 5).

Responsibility for the blasts was claimed by the Darra Adamkhel Taliban under the leadership of Tariq Afridi (The News, January 30). Tariq Afridi took command of the Darra Adamkhel fighters in November 2009 after the group’s two principal leaders were killed in a military operation in 2008 (for Tariq Afridi, see Terrorism Monitor, February 13, 2008; Terrorism Monitor, March 3, 2009; Terrorism Monitor Briefs, November 19, 2009). Taliban fighters based in the hills around Darra Adamkhel (and its thriving arms bazaar) have made regular attacks on supply convoys passing through the region (see Terrorism Focus, February 13, 2008).  The Darra Adamkhel command is most notorious for the kidnapping and murder of Polish engineer Petr Stanczak in February 2009 (The News, February 15, 2009; Dawn [Karachi], April 26, 2009). Taliban fighters in the area have also been responsible for numerous attacks on the region’s substantial Shiite minority. Reports last December indicated that members of the local Taliban were shaving their beards and infiltrating the Darra Adamkhel area (Daily Times, December 6, 2010).

The strategic 1.9 km tunnel was built with Japanese assistance and completed in 2004. It connects the relatively isolated Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa district with Peshawar and the rest of Pakistan. The tunnel allows shipping by large trucks that was previously impossible due to the dangerous hairpin turns of the old 14 km Kohat Pass road. Control of the tunnel has been an important Taliban objective for several years. A major battle between militants and government troops over several days in January 2008 saw Taliban fighters led by Tariq Afridi take temporary control of the tunnel before being driven off by a massive military response (PakTribune, January 28, 2008; The Nation [Islamabad], January 31; Reuters, January 27, 2008).