SAHARAN MERCENARY EMPLOYED BY AL-QAEDA FREED IN HOSTAGE EXCHANGE
While mercenaries have played an important role in the war on terrorism from the beginning, the use of private forces has until recently been associated with counterterrorism efforts. However, since al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) began establishing a Saharan front, they have been compelled to hire local guides and suppliers, much like every other non-native interloper in the region. Many of the AQIM leaders in the Sahara are Arabs or Arabized Berbers from the coastal mountains of Algeria, nearly 2,000 miles from their current zone of operations in the desert near the Mali border.
Omar al-Sahrawi (the nickname of Omar Sid Ahmed Ould Hamma) is one such employee of al-Qaeda participating in AQIM’s lucrative kidnapping operations without necessarily sharing the same ideology. In late August he was freed from captivity in Mauritania as part of a hostage exchange and ransom deal demanded by AQIM in return for the release of two Spanish captives.
Reports from Spain claim the hostages were released in exchange for between $4.8 million and $12.7 million as well as the release of al-Sahrawi (El Mundo [Madrid], August 23; ABC [Madrid], August 23). The two captives, Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta, were kidnapped in Mauritania on the road from Nouakchott to the coastal town of Nouadhibou (formerly Port Étienne) in November 2009 (Afrique en Ligne, August 29). The men are employees of the Barcelona-based NGO Accio Solidaria. A third Spanish hostage taken at the same time, Alicia Gamez, was released by AQIM in March. It is believed a ransom was paid in this case as well.
In a telephone interview with a French reporter, al-Sahrawi declared, "I have nothing to do with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Me, I do business, and if you sell something to someone who is from AQIM, it does not mean that you are from AQIM. I am a businessman (AFP, August 24). In his homeland of Mali, security sources identified al-Sahrawi as a cigarette smuggler and transporter of illegal immigrants.
Al-Sahrawi had been sentenced by a Mauritanian court to 12 years of hard labor for his role in the abductions. Following his release and extradition to Mali, where the hostages were being held, al-Sahrawi was reported to have been present at the release of the hostages so AQIM could see if he was alive and in good health. Mauritanian TV footage showed al-Sahrawi joking with the hostages (AFP, August 25). On his return, Al-Sahrawi reportedly celebrated his release by declaring, “I have come back free to Mali” (Nouakchott-Info, August 26).
Referring to the failed Mauritanian-French effort to free a French hostage in July that resulted in the death of seven AQIM operatives and later the execution of the hostage, AQIM said the release of the Spanish hostages was a "lesson for the French secret services to take into consideration in the future” (al-Jazeera, August 24). Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said the release marked a “day of celebration.” He made no mention of the ransom (Ennahar [Algiers], August 23).
Algiers is reported to be displeased with the ransom, some of which will likely be used to buy arms for further attacks within Algeria (Ennahar, August 25). Mauritania has also failed to garner AQIM’s good-will through the release; only two days later a would-be suicide bomber was killed by security forces as he tried to ram an explosives-laden truck into the Nema military barracks, 750 miles east of Nouackchott (al-Jazeera, August 25; AFP, August 25).
YEMEN ARMS DEALER FARIS MANNA CLAIMS GOVERNMENT ARMING HUTHIST REBELS
Yemen is not only one of the world’s most heavily armed nations on a per capita basis, but also serves as a regional hub for arms shipments, a lucrative trade that has the approval of Yemen’s government. One of Yemen’s most prominent arms dealers, Faris Manna, had a falling out with his former sponsor, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, after being imprisoned earlier this year on charges of providing arms to the Huthist rebels of northern Yemen. Manna recently gave an interview to an Arabic language daily in which he claimed Saleh’s government was responsible for arming the Huthist rebellion, a claim supported by his brother, the former governor of Sada’a governorate (elaph.com, August 17).
The 40-year-old Manna, a former organizer for the ruling General People’s Congress, describes himself not as an arms retailer but as a facilitator, arranging deals between Arab and African consumers and foreign suppliers, principally in Russia and Eastern Europe, where he maintains offices. “I conclude arms deals, like other international companies that facilitate deals between states and arms manufacturers… We bring the parties closer together, and help them reach agreements. This is our role, nothing else,” explained Manna. Despite the accusations against him, Manna denies selling arms in local Yemeni markets. “I have never done that. This is what tendentious people say. They spread such rumors. We work in the framework of the Yemeni constitution and law, as well as within the international law,” he stated.
According to the Yemeni arms merchant, who acted as an intermediary in negotiations between the government and the Huthist rebels, it is the state that made room in local markets for the arms trade, which it supplies through stocks discretely removed from military garrisons; “I want to say that there was collusion in certain army garrisons to hand over weapons to the Huthists. It has become clear that their ammunition came from the Army, and all their rifles and weapons came from the Army. There are photographs and documents that prove this. All the proof is available. The matter has become clear and unambiguous.” Manna has useful connections to the Huthists – his brother Hassan Manna was formerly governor of Sada’a governorate, the home of the Huthist rebellion. Faris says his brother resigned as a result of his unjust detention; “How could he go on working when his brother was wrongly and unjustly arrested? He refused to carry on working, but out of respect for the brother president of the republic, may God protect him, and in appreciation of the relations between us and him, we did not publish our resignation.” Several weeks after his brother’s arrest last January, Hassan Manna threatened to reveal the “true source” of the Huthist arms, suggesting that the Ministry of the Interior was heavily involved in shipping arms to the northern rebels, though this accusation was strongly denied by Brigadier General Muhammad Abdullah al-Qawsi, following which Hassan Manna warned the press against publishing any further comments on the issue delivered under his name (Yemen Tribune, February 21).
Manna claims the charges against him were the work of the National Security Agency (NSA), which sought to create a divide between himself and the president, his longtime patron. In June, a supporter of Faris Manna fired on a security convoy carrying him to court from Sana’a rooftops (Yemen Observer, May 11). Manna denied allegations that his family was behind the attack (Yemen Gazette, July 3).