Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 23

France’s growing involvement in Somalia suddenly drew attention when two French intelligence agents were kidnapped from a supposedly secure hotel in Mogadishu on July 14. The men, posing as journalists, were eating breakfast at Mogadishu’s Sahafi Hotel when gunmen wearing Somali government uniforms burst into the restaurant and seized them. The success of the operation and the absence of any resistance from security personnel led some to speculate it was an inside job.
Among those arrested were a number of hotel staff and bodyguards belonging to the Minister of the Interior, Shaykh Abdulkadir Ali Omar. A former deputy chairman of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) before the Ethiopian invasion of December 2006, and still a leader of his own militia, Abdulkadir’s appointment as Somalia’s new interior minister was controversial. Abdulkadir, however, is loyal to President and former ICU chairman Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad and served as the ICU’s operations commander during the Ethiopian invasion (Reuters, February 21). Shaykh Abdulkadir was wounded and his personal secretary was killed in a targeted IED explosion near Mogadishu’s Bakara market in March (Garowe Online, March 27). No one claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt.
Abdulkadir’s bodyguards were accused of snatching the French agents before turning them over to Somali insurgents, but a government commission of inquiry said a few days later that they had found no evidence for the involvement of government officials (Horseed Media, July 21). The hotel, favored by Transitional Federal Government (TFG) officials, is located in an area tightly controlled by government troops and Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers belonging to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
Whether the abducted men were then turned over (or sold) to the Islamist Hizb al-Islam militia of Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys remains uncertain. Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke maintains the two were abducted by Hizb al-Islam operatives (Shabelle Media Network, July 16). At some point during their transportation to a safe location, Hizb al-Islam’s al-Shabaab allies turned up and demanded custody of both prisoners. Hours of heated argument followed, with al-Shabaab eventually being persuaded to take only one of the pair (Shabelle Media Network, July 16; AFP, July 16).
A Somali news site reported receiving information that the two men had been transported to Lower Shabelle in a convoy of battle wagons (armored pick-up trucks) where they were turned over to the forces of Shaykh Hassan Abdullah Hirsi al-Turki for concealment under heavy guard in the forests of the Juba region (AllPuntland, July 20). Al-Turki is an Islamist warlord who has close ties to al-Shabaab.
By some accounts, the agents will be tried for spying under Islamic law, though senior commanders have said the penalty may be a “fine,” suggesting the insurgents are badly in need of funds as American military equipment continues to flow to the TFG (, July 19).
Eventually French officials admitted the two men were not journalists; the secretary-general of the Elysée Palace (office of the French president) declared that the men were provided by the Defense Ministry “under international authority, in the preparation of a security unit for the Somali president… They were the precursors of a training unit for the praetorian guard” (AFP, July 19).
Earlier this month, France’s U.N. representative told the Security Council: “The training of Somali security forces is key to building the country’s military capacity.” [1] France started training an initial force of 150 TFG soldiers at the French military base in Djibouti this month, two months ahead of schedule (AFP, July 21). They are the first of a battalion of 500 men scheduled to receive military training. France has sought the participation of other European nations in training as part of a full-fledged mission under the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), but other European parties have expressed concern about whether the trained troops would remain loyal to the TFG after returning to Somalia (, May 20).

Besides training TFG troops in Djibouti, the French military has made its presence felt in Somalia in other ways. A joint French-Spanish naval mission, “Atalante,” has been providing security against piracy in the Gulf of Aden since December 2008 and France has also provided military training to the Ugandan and Burundian troops of AMISOM, who are now battling al-Shabaab and Hizb al-Islam fighters in Mogadishu.
The choice of the intelligence agents to disguise themselves as journalists has drawn condemnation from Somalia’s much-threatened journalist community. Eight Somali journalists have been murdered in the last two years and scores beaten or imprisoned. The Somalis fear such impersonations will only fuel the popular conception of journalists as agents of foreign powers.
[1] Security Council: Somalia – Statement made by Mr. Jean-Maurice Ripert, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations, July 9, 2009

According to Algerian security sources, an ambush set by the Mauritanian army along the border with Algeria narrowly missed killing a number of high-profile members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (al-Jazeera, July 25). The Mauritanians launched the operation after receiving intelligence information suggesting AQIM operatives were present in Mauritania’s eastern desert, preparing new attacks to divert pressure on AQIM fighters in northern Mali and Niger. Mali is in the midst of an offensive using Tuareg and Arab militias against the AQIM presence in Mali’s difficult northern desert. Among those in the AQIM force who escaped the ambush near the Algerian border were the so-called “Amir of the Sahara,” Yahya Jouadi (a.k.a. Yahya Abu Ammar), AQIM’s chief qadi (judge) in Algeria, Abelrahman al-Tantaghi (a.k.a. Abu Anas al-Mauritani) and three other senior members, including two Mauritanians and a Moroccan.

Two Islamist militants believed to be AQIM operatives were arrested in Nouakchott on July 17, following a shoot-out with security forces. State security chief Mohamed Lemine Ould Ahmed said the pair had come from Mali and were responsible for the June 23 murder of American citizen Christopher Leggett, who ran a computer and language school in the Mauritanian capital (Le Mali en Ligne, July 2; AFP, July 18). AQIM claimed responsibility for the murder. The remaining two members of the four-man cell, Didi Ould Bezeid and Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Hmeimed, were arrested in the following days (AFP, July 25).
Mauritania, Mali and Algeria have agreed on greater military cooperation to deal with AQIM, which exploits national borders and hostile terrain to maintain their activities in the Saharan region.
Following his victory in the July 18 presidential elections disputed by the opposition, General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz vowed to renew efforts to eliminate terrorism in Mauritania. General Abdelaziz took power in an August 2008 coup, using the threat posed by terrorism as one of his main justifications for seizing power from a democratically elected president, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi. The General has pledged to increase the size and efficiency of the army but has also promised to address the causes of terrorism. "We need to fight terrorism in terms of security but also by improving the living conditions of the people and fighting ignorance" (BBC, July 20).

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