TUAREG REBEL LEADER RHISSA AG BOULA ARRESTED IN NIAMEY
A Tuareg rebel leader who was sentenced to death in 2008 has been arrested in Niger’s capital of Niamey after returning from exile to negotiate peace with the government (Radio France Internationale, April 1). A veteran Tuareg rebel leader, Ag Boula was sentenced to death in absentia for his alleged role in the 2004 murder of politician Adam Amangue. Ag Boula, who arrived in Niamey in late March, appears to have severely misinterpreted the mood of the military junta which took control of Niger in February. The arrest has effectively squelched earlier speculation that Ag Boula’s return was a sign he had reached a deal with the new government, the Conseil Suprême pour la Restauration de la Démocratie (CSRD) (L’Evenement [Niamey], November 29, 2009).
The military has recently arrested dozens of former members of ex-president Mamadou Tandja’s administration, as well as over 600 individuals in an unrelated crackdown on crime (AFP, April 1). Ag Boula arrived in Niamey in the company of the main leaders of the various Tuareg rebel movements involved in the 2009 Libyan-mediated peace agreement—the Mouvement des nigériens pour la justice (MNJ), the Front patriotique nigérien (FPN) and Ag Boula’s own Front des forces de redressement (FFR). All the leaders were covered by a government amnesty except Ag Boula, who remains under sentence of death (Jeune Afrique, April 1).
With a brief interruption caused by a military coup, Ag Boula served as Tourism Minister in Niger’s government from 1997 to 2004. A pioneering desert tour operator in the 1980s, Ag Boula is generally acknowledged to have performed well in that role (including a 2000 visit to the United States) before being charged in 2004 with orchestrating the kidnap and murder of Adam Amangue. He was convicted of ordering three men to carry out the murder, all of whom were sentenced to 20 years in prison (Radio France Internationale, July 14, 2008). There was speculation at the time of his 2004 arrest that his detention was intended to spark a new Tuareg rebellion, allowing the Forces Armées Nigeriennes (FAN) to receive additional arms and funds from the U.S. military, which had just begun its Pan-Sahel Initiative, designed to secure the region against terrorists (see Jeremy Keenan, “Security and Insecurity in North Africa,” Review of African Political Economy 108, pp.280-81).
While their leader sat in prison, Ag Boula’s men took three police officers and a soldier hostage. The hostages were exchanged for Ag Boula’s provisional release in 2005 in a deal mediated by the Libyans. Ag Boula fled to France, but when he announced he was returning to Niger in 2008 to join a new Tuareg revolt, his release was withdrawn and a sentence of death imposed following an in absentia conviction for Amangue’s murder (Le Canard Dechaine [Niamey], July 14, 2008; AFP, July 14, 2008). In July, 2008 Ag Boula complained that the MNJ failed to retaliate for Tuareg deaths in a military offensive and left to create his own movement, the Front des Forces de Redressement (FFR) (RFI, June 1, 2008).
Ag Boula’s fate will depend largely upon the mood of the junta and their reasons for arresting him. At the time of his conviction the prosecutor stated that Ag Boula could opt to be retried if he returned to Niger, where most death sentences are eventually commuted to life imprisonment (AFP, July 14).
Also arrested was Major Kindo Zada, an ally of Ag Boula. A field officer, Zada was closely tied to the administration of President Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, who was assassinated when his bodyguard fired on him with a truck mounted machine gun at Niamey Airport in April 1999. Mainassara had himself taken power in a military coup in 1996. Major Zada deserted the army in 2007, leading dozens of his men and 20 pick-up trucks north to join the Tuareg rebellion (African Press International, July 22, 2007; AFP, April 1). Major Zada is reported to have been arrested on charges related to the 2000 kidnapping of then-Major Djibrilla Hima Hamidou “Pele” by a group of officers loyal to Mainassara (TamtamInfo.com, April 1; Pan-African News Agency, June 12, 2000). Colonel Hima played an important role in the 1999 coup that killed Mainassara and is believed to have been a prime mover behind the latest military takeover.
ABDULLAH AZZAM BRIGADES COMMANDER
A communiqué from Salih Bin-Abdallah al-Qar’awi, a field commander in the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, was issued earlier this month. The commander discussed Lebanese issues in detail while promising further strikes on Israel (al-Fajr Media Center, April 4).
A native of Saudi Arabia, al-Qar’awi appears on the Kingdom’s list of the 85 most wanted terrorist suspects. In 2004, al-Qar’awi went to Iraq to join the mujahideen. After fighting in the battle for Fallujah, al-Qar’awi became very close to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who gave him various tasks in Syria and Lebanon. Eventually he was captured by members of the Nusayri sect in Syria and turned over to Saudi authorities who imprisoned him for eight months. Al-Qar’awi was released when authorities could not prove he had fought in Iraq.
Al-Qar’awi went on to form the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (named for the Palestinian jihad ideologue Abdullah Azzam – 1941-1989), which were divided into various units, including the Ziyad al-Jarrah squad (named for the Lebanese 9/11 hijacker) which “specializes” in attacks on Israel. This group’s first rocket attack on Israel took place a year and a half ago. Following Hizbollah’s denouncement of the group’s activities, al-Qar’awi has accused the Shi’a movement of cooperating with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to protect Israel from attack. The jihadi commander claims the aim of the Ziyad al-Jarrah formation is to expel the Jews from Palestine and unite the Muslims of the “ring states” (Syria, Jordan and Egypt) in this effort. The movement also opposes an American presence in the Middle East, which has led to “colonization and Westernization.”
Within Lebanon, al-Qar’awi denies having played any role in the wave of political assassinations afflicting that nation, for which he blames Hizbollah and Syria, with the support of Lebanon’s military. Al-Qar’awi insists the Lebanese Army has come under the influence of the Shiite Hizbollah and Amal movements, leading to arbitrary measures against the Sunni community that include torture, detention and murder.
Al-Qar’awi acknowledges that his group’s largely ineffective rocket attacks often miss their targets and are sometimes detected and disabled. Nevertheless, such attacks serve the larger strategic objective of disrupting Israel’s efforts to establish security. “It is true that we did not hit vital targets, but the most important thing is to keep attacking them [Israel]. This undermines their security and economy. Moreover, the attacks affect their political plans, including the Judaization of Jerusalem and the psychological normalization with the Muslim peoples.” Though al-Qar’awi accuses Hizbollah of protecting Israel (despite Hizbollah’s strong resistance to Israeli forces in the 2006 invasion of Lebanon), his own group has made only a few attempts to fire rockets across the border.
In October 2009, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades tried to fire five Katyusha rockets at the Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona. One rocket fired prematurely, which forced the team to abandon the mission and flee the area (Israeli fighter-jet response time to rocket launches along the Lebanese border is roughly ten minutes) (al-Fajr, October 29, 2009). Videos of Azzam Brigade launches against Israel have appeared on jihadi websites (al-Fajr, July 23, 2009).
There are many odd aspects to al-Qar’awi’s message that are inconsistent with al-Qaeda communiqués, for example the mention of Israel by name, the reference to Rafik Hariri as Lebanon’s Prime Minister (al-Qaeda does not recognize “apostate” regimes), the extensive discussion of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (which has never been an issue for al-Qaeda), etc. (al-Nahar, April 7). Syrian Salafist leader Shaykh Omar Bakri questioned the authenticity of the message, saying, “I doubt that Qar’awi is still alive; the wording used in this message was not the work of a Salafist jihadi but of someone who is familiar with the intelligence world and has a vested interest in Lebanese politics” (Now Lebanon, April 9). A Lebanese security source suggested the message was part of an attempt to foment conflict between Sunnis and Shi’a in Lebanon, possibly as a substitute for “Israeli aggression” or as preparation for it (As-Safir, April 8). It was noted elsewhere that the bulk of the message seemed to focus on an “enemy” other than Israel. "The hostility shown toward the government, the Lebanese Army, and the Shiite sect—with Hizbollah and the Amal Movement as representatives—clearly reveals the forces that will be identified as enemies and targeted” (al-Akhbar, April 6).