MAURITANIA’S IMPRISONED ISLAMISTS DEBATE JIHAD WITH RELIGIOUS SCHOLARS ON PUBLIC TELEVISION
Buoyed by the successful transition of power after recent elections and the reconciliation of the government and opposition, Mauritania is now taking the unprecedented step of broadcasting a televised debate on the meaning and merits of jihad from inside a Nouakchott prison. On one side was a panel of officials and scholars, on the other was a divided group of some of Mauritania’s most dangerous convicts, including the leader of al-Qaeda in Mauritania, Khadim Ould Saman (al-Jazeera, January 19).
In the last few years, Mauritania has battled a low-level but often shockingly violent insurgency led by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (see Terrorism Monitor, August 20, 2009; July 30, 2009; February 23, 2005; Terrorism Focus, October 1, 2008; January 9, 2008).
The two-day event (January 18-19) was attended by 67 Salafist prisoners, most of whom still await trial. The panel of scholars was led by Shaykh Muhammad Hassan Ould Daou and the Minister of Islamic Affairs, Ahmed Ould Nini, who announced, “We are here today to discuss ways and means to get out of a crisis that threatens civil peace in a nation known for its spirit of tolerance, magnanimity and openness” (AFP, January 2). One member of the panel explained, “The objective is to encourage [the prisoners] to repent and to support a fatwa that condemns fundamentalism and religious violence – a fatwa which imams will later disseminate in mosques” (Jeune Afrique, January 29). One of the central questions examined in the dialogue was the legitimacy of attacks against Muslims and non-Muslims.
Ould Saman, who wore an “Al-Qaeda” T-shirt to one of the sessions, maintains that attacks on the Islamic Republic of Mauritania are a religious duty due to the government’s failure to uphold Shari’a. During the debate, Ould Saman insisted the scholars and clerics had no choice but to follow his example:
"Indeed, we are right to face infidels everywhere in Muslim lands until they leave every part of Muslim countries and until we liberate them. We have the right to fight a handful of people who rule Muslim countries until we remove them by fighting them by the sword and until we enforce the rule of Shari’a. It is the right of Muslims to be ruled by the Shari’a… You [the clerics] have no knowledge and are wrong to describe us as ignorant and religious extremists (al-Jazeera, January 19; January 23)."
Ould Saman, however, appears to represent a minority view among the prisoners, 47 of whom signed a document calling for dialogue with Mauritanian religious scholars. The document praised the outreach work of the scholars, saying they have explained certain concepts “which they previously did not understand” (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, January 11). Still, about 20 irreconcilables continue to support Ould Saman’s hardline views, even with the possibility of an amnesty dangling before them. This group, which includes some of Mauritania’s best-known terrorists, is aware that AQIM has demanded their release in exchange for three Spanish hostages. Many of the Salafist detainees have complained of torture and mistreatment while in prison, though human rights groups report an improvement in this area under the new regime.
Ould Saman escaped from the same prison in 2006 and is alleged to have used his freedom to murder four French tourists in December 2007 and to organize an attack on the Israeli embassy (now closed) in February 2008. He was re-arrested in April, 2008 (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, April 30, 2008). After his arrest, Ould Saman was charged with using Mauritania as a base for “terrorist acts against a foreign country [Israel] and belonging to a terrorist organization” (AFP, August 26, 2009). The talks, which are being followed closely by the public, are supported by Mauritania’s newly legitimate Islamist party, Tawassoul.
SOMALIA’S RAS KAMBONI GROUP JOINS AL-SHABAAB’S GLOBAL JIHAD
Somalia’s Hizb al-Islam movement appears to have lost a significant portion of its fighting strength to its Islamist rival, al-Shabaab. A senior Shabaab leader, Shaykh Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf, used a February 1 news conference in Baidoa to announce that the Ras Kamboni Brigade had left Hizb al-Islam to join the mujahideen of al-Shabaab (al-Qimmah, February 1). A declaration signed by the leaders of both movements outlined the groups’ shared objectives, which include the establishment of an Islamic government, support for Muslims in the Horn of Africa who are living under the rule of “enemy Christians”, and a determination to “combine the jihad of the Horn of Africa with the international jihad.” Ras Kamboni will now operate under the name al-Shabaab (Shabelle Media Network, February 1).
Mu’askar (Camp) Ras Kamboni was one of four Islamist militias that gathered together under the Hizb al-Islam umbrella in January, 2009 to oppose the government of Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad. Ras Kamboni has previously cooperated with al-Shabaab, most notably in the expulsion of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) from the southern port of Kismayo in 2006. The movement is based in south Somalia and is currently led by Shaykh Hassan Abdullah Hirsi al-Turki, a controversial Islamist warlord and political figure who is well known for his shifting loyalties. Al-Turki provided reinforcements to al-Shabaab when the movement took heavy losses in the summer of 2008. The warlord was defeated in fighting by al-Shabaab in southern Somalia last fall, but unlike other Hizb al-Islam leaders he was unable to flee into ethnic-Somali north Kenya as he is wanted there for his alleged involvement in the 1998 Nairobi embassy bombing (Shabelle Media Network, February 2).
The Ras Kamboni militia has joined al-Shabaab just as the movement made a declaration of allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Shaykh Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf announced that the unification agreement was just the first step in dismantling the Hizb al-Islam Islamist coalition, saying, “We intend to invite other groups in Hizb al-Islam and make our war a global jihad” (Garowe Online, February 2).
Hizb al-Islam commander Shaykh Ahmad Madobe said al-Turki was already “long suspended from Ras Kamboni” and was an ailing man who was “not capable of carrying out any duties” (Shabelle Media Network, February 2). Backed by a number of Ras Kamboni commanders, the leader of Hizb al-Islam, Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys, questioned the reality and significance of the Baidoa agreement; “Shaykh Turki has joined al-Shabaab, but that does not mean Ras Kamboni has indeed joined our brothers in al-Shabaab” (Garowe Online, February 2).