TUAREG REBELS JOINING BATTLE AGAINST AL-QAEDA IN THE SAHARA?
On October 14 former Tuareg rebels under the command of Ibrahim Ag Bahanga attacked a heavily armed convoy of cocaine smugglers roughly 60 miles from the northern Mali town of Kidal. Some 12 people were killed in the clash in which the Tuareg fighters received “material support” from the Malian army, according to a local government official (Reuters, October 18; Jeune Afrique, October 18; Afrique en Ligne, October 20). It is unclear whether the Tuareg fighters were acting under their own initiative as a kind of demonstration of their potential in combating AQIM and narco-traffickers, or whether the action was officially sanctioned by the Bamako government, which has so far been reluctant to rearm the Tuareg. The traffickers were alleged to be running a shipment of cocaine from Morocco to Egypt across the sparsely populated Sahel region.
Ag Bahanga is a noted smuggler and rebel commander who is a leading proponent of transforming former Tuareg rebels into armed units tasked with expelling al-Qaeda operatives from the Sahel/Sahara region. Though his proposal was given a sympathetic ear in Algeria, the longtime rebel is little trusted in Bamako and continues to operate from self-imposed exile in Libya. Ag Bahanga’s proposal has elicited little sympathy from Mali’s press. One commentator noted that “in the recent past Bahanga has demonstrated proof of his inconsistency and his warlike inclination by swearing peace one day and indulging in atrocities the next day” (Info Matin [Bamako], October 20). Another commentator complained that Ag Bahanga’s “renewed patriotism” was “hard to understand” and rearming the Tuareg could turn Mali into “another Afghanistan” (Nouvelle Libération [Bamako], October 12).
Nevertheless, the Tuareg attack came only days after Ag Bahanga was reported to have met with Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré on the sidelines of the October 10 African-Arab summit meeting in the Libyan city of Sirte to discuss the reintegration of Ag Bahanga and his men into the Malian army (Nouvelle Libération [Bamako], October 12).
According to former rebel spokesman Ahmada Ag Bibi (now a parliamentary deputy in Bamako), “AQIM wants to dirty the image of our region. We aren’t going to accept that. [AQIM fighters] often seek shelter on our land, and we know the terrain. If we were armed we could easily take care of them… We’re just waiting for the Malian government to give us the green light to chase al-Qaeda from our desert” (AFP, October 10).
The 2006 Algiers Accord between Bamako and the Tuareg rebels provides for the establishment of Tuareg military units under officers of the Malian regular army, but like many aspects of the accord, these provisions have never been implemented. There are indications now, however, that such units may be formed soon – according to an authority in the Kidal administration, their establishment may be only weeks away (Afrique en Ligne, October 20; Ennahar [Algiers], October 10).
A small number of Tuareg are believed to be working for AQIM as drivers and guides, though there are also unconfirmed reports that a Tuareg imam from Kidal named Abdelkrim has become an amir in the AQIM organization (Libération [Bamako], October 31; Jeune Afrique, October 9). Though direct Tuareg participation in AQIM activities may be limited, there are signs, nonetheless, that the massive influx of cash into the region from AQIM-obtained ransoms has had an indirect benefit to the Tuareg and Arab tribes of the region. In the town of Kidal, expansive new villas and shiny 4 x 4’s have begun to appear in a region almost entirely devoid of development (Libération [Bamako], October 31).
A veteran Tuareg rebel, Iyad ag Ghali, has been designated as the government’s official mediator with AQIM forces in northern Mali (Le Républicain [Bamako], October 4). An AQIM katiba (military unit) led by Abdelhamid Abu Zeid is believed to have established bases in the rugged Timetrine Mountains of northern Mali (once a refuge for Tuareg rebels) and is currently believed to be holding French and African hostages there who were kidnapped from the French-owned uranium operations in neighboring Niger (Le Monde, October 18).
Many Malian politicians complain that they have been excluded from the decision-making process in regard to the security of northern Mali. Such decisions are now made exclusively by the president, himself a former military commander in the north, and a small group of senior officers, including General Habib Sissoko, General Kafougouna Kone, Brigadier Gabriel Poudiougou and Colonel Mamy Coulibaly (Jeune Afrique, October 9).
MAURITANIAN DEFENSE MINISTER DISCUSSES JOINT MILITARY OPERATIONS WITH FRANCE
Mauritanian Defense Minister Hamadi Ould Baba Ould Hamadi recently described the new offensive posture his country is taking in regard to the threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in an interview with an Algerian daily (El Watan [Algiers], October 28). Noting the vast size of Mauritania and the difficulty of securing a territory that is two-thirds desert, Ould Hamadi said authorities now believe that “a defensive and static strategy is not efficient. This is why we have opted for an offensive defense against terrorism, which consists in not allowing the setting up of terrorist operational and logistic bases at our borders.”
The Defense Minister said the September 17 joint military operation with France that attacked AQIM suspects in neighboring Mali was an example of Mauritania’s new approach:
"According to our information, the terrorist groups were regrouping to attack us. We effectively benefited from French logistic support that has enabled us to conduct our offensive attack. We will repeat this sort of operation whenever we can, and we will not wait to be attacked and then retaliate. When we have information about the existence of operational bases, we will do our best to destroy them."
Though the September operation was carried out to muted opposition from Algeria, the most powerful country in the region and a firm opponent of military intervention by “former colonial powers,” Ould Hamadi indicated that Mauritania would address its security concerns in its own way despite the recent creation of a number of multilateral security mechanisms in the Sahel/Sahara region. According to Ould Hamadi, “Consultation does not mean that when you feel that an attack is coming you wait for consultation with other countries. Threat imposes a daily vigilance, and we are obliged to react when we are faced with a threat.”
The Algerian position on foreign intervention was echoed by Jemil Ould Mansour, leader of the Islamist opposition Tewassoul party, when he said, "We all agree to condemn terrorism and fight it vigorously, but we do not agree on coordination with foreign countries, especially when they have a colonial past in the region” (AFP, October 28). His remarks came during a five day national forum on terrorism held in Nouackchott (October 24-28). In his opening remarks to the forum, Mauritania’s president, Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, expanded on his government’s new security policy:
"We have transferred the battle circle to the strongholds of the aggressors’, away from our borders in order to, on the one hand, prevent them from launching their shameful operations in our populated regions and on the other hand, with the aim of carrying out our global development programs in an atmosphere of security and peace" (Maliweb, October 27).
The forum was boycotted by most of the opposition parties, who complained of being invited only at the last minute (PANA Online [Dakar], October 25).
September’s Franco-Mauritanian operation, which resulted in the death of two Malian women, proved an embarrassment for Mali’s president Amadou Toumani Touré. Malian troops had an almost negligible role in the operation, which was carried out close to the city of Timbuktu. Malian spokesmen at first denied any knowledge of the foreign military intervention, but by late October the president had acknowledged being informed of the operations, even claiming the mission “was largely supported, if not accompanied, by the Malian Army” (Radio France Internationale, October 25; Le Soir de Bamako, October 27).
Nevertheless, Mauritania is trying to distance itself from being seen as a security proxy for France and the West. Ould Hamadi confirmed that the government was seeking to upgrade Mauritania’s arms and military equipment, but tried to emphasize the limited French military role. He stated, “There is no French base in Mauritania, nor will there be, not for France, nor for other countries.” In an effort to not be seen as the West’s ally in the “War on Terrorism,” President Abdelaziz has explained several times that Mauritania is “not engaged in an open war against al-Qaeda or any other person,” suggesting instead that Mauritanian military operations are directed at “armed criminal bands” (al-Jazeera, October 9). According to an AQIM statement, however, the president is an “agent of France” and the Mauritanian army is “acting in the way of infidels and crusaders who kill innocent people in Afghanistan and Iraq” (Ennahar [Algiers], September 21).