DEAD OR ALIVE? THE FATE OF MOKHTAR BELMOKHTAR
Despite claims that “terrorist kingpins” have been eliminated in the secret war being fought in the Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains of northern Mali, evidence of such results remains in short supply. Most notable among those allegedly killed in the fighting is Mokhtar Belmokhtar (a.k.a. Khalid Abu al-Abbas), a veteran al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader who soared to international prominence as the self-proclaimed organizer of January’s devastating terrorist attack on the Algerian oil facility at In Aménas.
Chadian army chief-of-staff General Zakaria Ngobongue reported that Belmokhtar was killed on March 2 by Chadian troops during a battle in the Ametetai Valley. The Chadians also reported killing a number of other terrorists in the battle and the seizure of 60 vehicles, GPS systems and sophisticated communications equipment (RFI, March 3).
Evidence of Belmokhtar’s death remains slim. Radio France Internationale published a very low quality photo of a mobile phone image (essentially a photo of a photo) of what appears to be the partially revealed and blood-covered face of Belmokhtar, with the rest of the body concealed by a fabric wrapping. The original image was supposedly recorded on the cell phone of a Chadian soldier, though there are now claims that the corpse was actually that of Abd al-Hamid Abu Zeid, another senior AQIM commander (RFI, March 4; March 5; Paris Match, March 4; France24, March 5). Chadian authorities, however, have refused French appeals for proof of the deaths of the two AQIM leaders; according to Chadian president Idriss Déby: “It’s in accordance with the principles of Islam that the remains of these two terrorists have not been put on display” (AFP, March 4).
Belmokhtar’s Algerian AQIM colleague and rival, Abd al-Hamid Abu Zeid (a.k.a. Muhammad Ghadir), was reported dead on February 28 (Ennahar [Algiers], February 28). Abu Zeid was the leader of the Tarik Ibn Zayid brigade of AQIM. Algerian security services were reported to have examined the corpse and Abu Zeid’s personal weapon at a military installation in northern Mali, but were unable to conclusively identify the body as his. The Algerians are now conducting DNA tests using samples taken from Abu Zeid’s relatives in Algeria (El Khabar [Algiers], March 2).
An unofficial posting that appeared on various jihadi websites confirmed that Abu Zeid had been killed, but claimed his death occurred in a French bombardment rather than as the result of actions by the Chadian army. The message also claimed that Belmokhtar was “alive and leading the battles” and would release a statement soon (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], March 2; March 4). Adding to the confusion was a statement from rebel Tuareg of the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) announcing that it had turned over remains believed to be those of Belmokhtar to French military forces, though it was unclear how the MNLA came into possession of these remains (El Khabar [Algiers], March 4).
According to the French military’s chief-of-staff, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, the death of Abu Zeid was “likely, but it is only likely,” while on the death of Belmokhtar the Admiral would only say that he was “extremely cautious” (Europe 1 Radio, March 4). French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also had his reservations over President Déby’s claim that Belmokhtar was dead: “We can’t be sure it is him… If the Chadian president can bring us proof, so much the better. If it is true it would be very good news but it would not resolve everything" (AFP, March 6).
MNLA spokesman Hama ag Sid’Ahmed confirmed Abu Zeid’s death on the basis of reports from local notables and the testimony of the three young survivors of the French air raid that hit Abu Zeid’s hideout. However, Sid’Ahmed claims that various notables who know Belmokhtar have reported he is alive and well but has left the combat regions. According to the same sources, Omar Ould Hamaha, the leader of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) was still active in the region between Gao and Tessalit (Le Temps d’Algérie, March 5).
The continuing hunt for extremists in the mountains of Kidal and the possible elimination of several top al-Qaeda leaders has raised concerns in France over the safety of the French hostages still being held by AQIM and its allies. There are many rumors regarding their fate, but Admiral Guillaud says the army does not believe the hostages are with the terrorists in their mountain hide-outs: “We think the hostages are not there [where air strikes are taking place], otherwise we would not be carrying them out” (AFP, March 4).
In their search for militants, the French military is using French-built Harfang surveillance drones (previously employed in Afghanistan and Libya) and Atlantique-2 surveillance aircraft. Also in use is the Eurocopter Tiger, a multi-role aircraft that can conduct surveillance as well as carry out airstrikes. However, despite a lack of cover in many areas, AQIM’s gunmen have proved remarkably skilled at disguising their movements and camps in northern Mali. The Tigharghar region of the Adrar des Ifoghas is especially suited for concealment and offers numerous opportunities for ambushes, as the Chadians have discovered. According to a French military spokesman, AQIM has established underground bunkers with pre-positioned arms and food depots in the mountains that fighters can move between with ease (AP, February 28).
MNLA fighters cooperating with French forces in Kidal have begun house-to-house searches for Islamists and are focusing on the residences of members of the Mouvement Islamique de l’Azawad (MIA), a newly formed group of Tuareg Islamists who abandoned Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din movement when French forces began advancing into northern Mali (For the MIA and its leader, Algabass ag Intallah, see Militant Leadership Monitor, January 29). The MNLA continues to reject all efforts by the MIA to form a political alliance, saying that the MIA members “bear the scent of AQIM” (RFI, March 3).
Across the border, Algeria has stepped up efforts to prevent Islamist penetration by mounting extra patrols and reconnaissance flights. A multi-arm operational task force has been set up at the military base at Tamanrasset under the command of former Special Forces commander Major General Ammar Athamnia, commander of the 6th military region (Tamanrasset). According to one American report, the United States has also committed resources from the CIA, FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Joint Special Operations Command in the hunt for Belmokhtar and other AQIM warlords (Wall Street Journal, February 11).
So long as France continues to impose a blanket of silence over military operations in the Kidal region it will remain difficult to confirm reports emerging from the bitter conflict being fought there. The idea of Mokhtar Belmokhtar making a last stand, trapped by Chadian and French troops in the rocks of the Ifoghas Mountains, seems contrary to everything we know about Belmokhtar, including his dedication to mobility and advance preparation of escape routes and caches of arms and supplies. Belmokhtar also appeared to lack the ideological conviction that was characteristic of Abu Zeid and other AQIM commanders. It is possible that may have changed in recent months, but the answer to that question lies in the true motivations behind Belmokhtar’s attack on In Aménas, motivations that remain poorly understood as of yet. It would seem more likely for Belmokhtar to have made a break from his base at the town of al-Khalil on the Algerian border into Niger and gone on into southern Libya, where Belmokhtar established contacts with local jihadis over the last two years. He may also have sought unofficial help from contacts in Algerian intelligence formed during Algeria’s long “dirty war” against AQIM’s Islamist predecessors. In its need for morale-boosting news after suffering heavy losses in the Ifoghas Mountains, Chad’s military leadership may have acted rashly by announcing the deaths of Belmokhtar and Abu Zeid. However, now that the announcements have been made, it has become essential to verify or dismiss these claims in order to formulate the future direction of the counter-terrorist campaign in the Sahara/Sahel region. Belmokhtar and Abu Zeid are too dangerous to be allowed to cast a permanent shadow over efforts to pacify and develop a deeply impoverished region whose problems cannot be solved by sectarian terrorism.
1. See “Chad and Niger: France’s Military Allies in Northern Mali,” Aberfoyle International Security Special Report, February 15, 2013, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=186.
FRENCH COOPERATION WITH TUAREG REBELS RISKS ARAB RISING IN NORTHERN MALI
The military situation in the Kidal region of northern Mali is growing more complex by the day. France is conducting counterterrorist operations in the region with its Chadian and Nigérien allies while soldiers of the Malian Army remain excluded from the zone at the request of two Tuareg rebel groups Bamako would like to eliminate – the separatist Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Mouvement Islamique de l’Azawad (MIA), recently formed by defectors from Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din. It is France’s military cooperation with the MNLA (and to a lesser extent with the MIA) in securing Kidal that is now threatening to ignite a tribal war in northern Mali.
For France, cooperation with the Tuareg MNLA is a military necessity. The movement is largely drawn from the local Ifoghas Tuareg and guides with intimate knowledge of the terrain are essential in the campaign to exterminate the well-armed Islamists hidden in the caves, rocks and vegetation of the mountainous Tigharghar region. Likewise, the MIA is seen as useful in tracking down fugitive Tuareg Islamists from Ansar al-Din, including the movement’s leader, Iyad ag Ghali. The Islamists have already proven their ability to launch devastating ambushes on the counterterrorist forces. For northern Mali’s Arab minority, however, the military alliance between intervention forces and the Tuareg rebels has revived the ancient rivalry between the Arab tribes and the Berber Tuareg. With this rivalry now erupting into armed clashes and the Malian Army (largely composed of Black African tribes from the south) now accused of excesses against the lighter-skinned Tuareg and Arabs in Timbuktu and Gao, the French military now faces the danger of being drawn into a new tribal conflict that will inevitably set back efforts to rid northern Mali of jihadis and narco-traffickers.
Arabs form approximately 10% of northern Mali’s population of 1.2 million, while the Tuareg account for roughly 50%. The main Arab groups are the Bérabiche (who worked closely with the French in the original conquest of northern Mali 119 years ago), the “noble” Kunta and the Telemsi. The Arab tribes are not any better known for inter-tribal cooperation than the fractious Tuareg tribes.
The situation in Kidal was described by Muhamad Mahmud al-Oumrany, a former ambassador and the current president of the Arab Community of Mali:
The whole Arab community, which was residing in Al-Khalil, was forced to evacuate the town. It is the first time that ethnic cleansing by a community of another. The cause is that the Kidal area is regarded today as a safe haven for the MNLA. There is no Malian army to restore stability, to restore the law. It is only the MNLA that is in the region. It loots and if any protest is made, it runs to the French army to say: “These are Islamists. They are terrorists.” It is an unacceptable situation and it is going to lead definitely to a clash between the Arab and Tuareg communities (RFI, March 3).
Al-Oumrany is more favorable to the MIA, under the leadership of Algabass ag Intallah, saying that the noble Intallah family is the key to restoring security to the Kidal region (RFI, March 3).
Unfortunately for the Arabs, their community is hardly free of associations with AQIM and its ally, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Many of the Bérabiche Arabs of northern Mali have cooperated with the AQIM presence for several years out of a combination of economic necessity and ethnic solidarity. For some Arabs, it is the ideological appeal of al-Qaeda that has drawn them into their ranks. Omar Ould Hamaha, a Timbuktu Bérabiche Arab, is the leader of MUJWA and recently formed a local Bérabiche version of Ansar al-Shari’a on December 9, 2012 to protect Arab interests and promote jihad in the Arab community.
The Arab community in Timbuktu has warned of retaliatory ethnic violence in the wake of abuses committed by the Malian Army and even other civilians who do not differentiate between Malian Arabs and al-Qaeda jihadists (RFI, February 23). The community has sent representatives to Paris to plead their case and is urging that Colonel Ould Meydou, a Telemsi Arab, be released from Bamako to lead his largely Bérabiche Arab militia into Timbuktu to restore order (RFI, February 23). The colonel is unpopular with the Malian Army putschists, who have refused to allow him to use his considerable desert-fighting skills against the Islamists. The MNLA strongly dislike Meydou – many of them have clashed with him before in earlier Tuareg rebel formations.
Arab refugees in Mauritania have also mounted protests against what they describe as “ethnic cleansing” by the Malian Army, citing a number of massacres, missing people taken by soldiers and other disorders that are difficult to confirm in the tight information regime currently imposed on northern Mali (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], February 20; February 22). Despite this, a number of Malian officers and men have been recalled to Bamako for investigation into human rights abuses committed in the wake of the French advance.
In response to these abuses, the Arab community of northern Mali has created a secular self-defense militia with an estimated 500 members. The Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad (MAA) was created in February, 2012 as the Front de Libération nationale de l’Azawad (FNLA) and formed from members of earlier Arab militias and Arab soldiers of the Malian Army who defected after the fall of Timbuktu. Since the rebellion began last year, the movement has drawn increasing numbers of young Arab men looking for some form of protection for their community (Sahara Press, January 12, 2012). The MAA has two strongholds in northern Mali, the first at Telemsi near the Mauritanian border and the second at Tinafareg close to the border with Algeria.
MAA secretary general Ahmad Ould Sidi Muhammad has warned of an ethnic conflict between Arabs and Tuareg and has called for Mauritania and Algeria to be aware of “the grave danger of this unholy alliance between France and the MNLA and the dangerous implications for the region’s people” (Sahara Media, March 4).
A large number of Arabs from Timbuktu took refuge from the Malian Army in the border town of al-Khalil (or In Khalil), a small but strategically important town that controls both smuggling and legal trade across the Algerian border. As such, it formed the last base for AQIM Amir Mokhtar Belmokhtar before it was occupied by the French. After the arrival of the French, the Arab refugees began to complain of rough treatment by the MNLA, including car-theft, looting and ultimately rape (Algerie1.com, February 23). The MNLA occupation, according to the movement, was designed to cut off the Islamists in the Adrar des Ifoghas from food, fuel and other supplies brought in by smugglers.
On February 23, a column of up to 30 vehicles attacked the MNLA based at al-Khalil. The MNLA claimed that they were under attack from elements of MUJWA under Ould Hamaha supported by Ansar al-Shari’a and MAA fighters under the command of MAA chief-of-staff Colonel Hussein Ould Ghulam, a defector from the national army (Combat [Bamako], February 23). The MNLA succeeded in selling this version of events to the French, who launched airstrikes on the MAA, destroying several vehicles. The MAA withdrew from the attack and returned to their base in the In Farah region close to the border with Algeria, furious at the French intervention on behalf of the MNLA (RFI, February 25). MUJWA claimed responsibility for two car bombs that went off in near MNLA checkpoints that killed two Tuareg fighters on February 22, but made no comment on their alleged role in a battle with the MNLA and French units (RFI, February 23).
An MAA leader, Boubacar Ould Talib, suggested that it was “illogical” for the MAA to cooperate with the Islamists: “We came to al-Khalil to ensure the security and safety of the Arab interests and we will never coordinate with the terrorists in that.” Ould Talib also stated that the MAA was ready to coordinate in counterterrorist efforts with the French at any time (al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 27). The day after the attack on al-Khalil there were fresh clashes between the MAA and MNLA near Tessalit, where the Arab movement claimed the MNLA Tuaregs had committed numerous abuses against the Arab residents (RFI, February 24).
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said: “In Kidal, we are living a particular situation and we do our best to be on good terms with the Tuaregs” (RFI, February 23). However, the defense minister has here ignored the fact that French forces are also fighting alongside the Imghad Tuareg militia led by Colonel al-Hajj ag Gamou, bitter enemies of the Ifoghas leadership of the MNLA and the MIA. At some point, all the contradictions of the French campaign in northern Mali will catch up with it, unless the French succeed in pulling out first. In either case, the hastily-planned intervention has consistently ignored the political and sociological aspects of the campaign, likely at a great future cost to the inhabitants of northern Mali.