Military sources connected close to an on-going French military operation in northern Mali have confirmed that the counter-terrorism offensive concluded on Friday, with eleven Islamist militants killed and one French soldier wounded.
An official from France’s Operation Serval has indicated “the French military operation in the Timbuktu region is completed. Eleven terrorists were killed. A French soldier was wounded but his life is not in danger.” A Malian military source has also confirmed the information, stating, “the French have done a good job, because the jihadists, notably from Libya, are reorganising to occupy the region and dig in permanently.” The source further indicated that military equipment and phones belonging to the militants were seized by French troops during the operation, which took place a few hundred kilometres north of Timbuktu.
According to military sources stationed in the capital Bamako, over the past few weeks, the French army has conducted two counter-terrorism operations around Timbuktu and in the far-northern Ifoghas mountains. It is believed that troops are targeting militants belonging to the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the Signatories in Blood, which is an armed unit founded by former al-Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, as well as fighters loyal to slain warlord Abdelhamid Abou Zeid. Abou Zeid and Belmoktar, both Algerians, were once leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which, along with MUJAO and a number of other militant groups, took control of northern Mali in 2012. In late February of last year, Abou Zeid was killed in fighting led by the French army in the Ifoghas mountain range. He is credited with having significantly expanded AQIM’s field of operations into Tunisia and Niger and for carrying out kidnapping activities across the region. Belmokhtar, who split from AQIM last year and launched the Signatories in Blood, which later masterminded the raid on Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant last year, remains at large. The launch of Operation Serval in January of last year resulted in many militants moving further north, particularly into the Ifoghas mountains, seeking shelter from the ground and air military campaign.
Despite France beginning to withdraw its troops, on Thursday, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian indicated that “not everything is finished, the terrorist risk in this part of Africa remains high,” adding that France “…will keep 1,000 soldiers who are carrying out counter-terrorism missions.” The fact that the terrorist risk in Mali remains high has been demonstrated through attacks that have targeted French and African forces and which have been claimed by Islamist insurgents. While residual groups of fighters are no longer able to carry out coordinated assaults, they continue to have the necessary abilities in order to regularly carry out small-scale attacks.
On Friday, flags were flown at half-mast in army barracks across Mali in commemoration of the two-year anniversary of a mass killing by Tuareg separatists, which came to be known as the massacre of Aguelhoc. When the northern town of Aguelhoc was taken on 24 January 2012, more than ninety soldiers and civilians had their throats slit or were shot in summary executions by separatist Tuaregs belonging to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. A statement released by the Ministry of Defence indicated that special prayers for the dead were planned in the town of Kati, which is located 15 kilometres northeast of Bamako, as well as religious services, which will be held on Sunday.
ALGERIA: Impact of terrorist leaders’ deaths
Recent claims by the Chadian Army regarding the deaths of two high ranking terrorist leaders, have left long term ramifications for the Algerian government and its security forces. Last month, Abdel Hamid Abu Zeid —one of the top three leaders in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—was killed by Chadian forces, and last week, unconfirmed reports claimed that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind of the In Amenas gas field attacks, was killed. If confirmed, these two deaths are the biggest blow to AQIM since its inception.
However, as leaders are killed, the emir of AQIM will need to identify new leaders. An internal power struggle to replace Belmokhtar and Abu Zeid —who held rival deputy commander positions in the Sahara and Sahel regions— could result in even more violence. Retired Algerian army colonel, Mohamed Chafik Mesbah stated, “There is a risk that the violence will move in a more permanent way across the border — both in the short-term and in the long-term.” Algerians worry that the violence may reach as far north as the Kabilye mountains, the birthplace of the radical Islamist movement that later morphed into AQIM.
AQIM’s emir, Abdel Malek Droukdel, who is based in Kabilye Mountains, will be responsible for appointing new leaders, if Belmokhtar and Abu Zeid are in fact dead. Belmokhtar’s rival, Al Hammam, is likely to be promoted. Al Hammam’s brigade is said to be holding French hostages captured in Mali last year.
Algeria, which is famous for its unilateral security policies, is at the centre of a counter-terrorism campaign by the US to minimize the volatility of the Sahel region. American officials have increased pressure on the Algerian government to share intelligence on the transnational militant networks which they perceive as a growing threat. The US believes that the Algerian army, one of the largest and most able Africa, should be used to battle militants or train other armies in the region. In exchange, the US wants to deliver high-tech surveillance technology.
“It is mostly the Americans that are pushing for this cooperation,” said Mesbah. Currently, cooperation between the two nations is limited. Former Algerian officials and security leaders believe Algeria will allow the US to fly drones over its border with Mali in exchange for passing the information on to Algerian counterparts.
Tunisia: Announcement of new political leadership
Tunisia’s new coalition government was revealed on Friday, after a successful last minute deal to end the political crisis. Independents were given key appointments, a clear concession by the dominant Islamist party, Ennahda. Ennahda is mistrusted by the secular opposition, who accusing them of authoritarian tendencies, and attempting to bring about the Islamisation of Tunisian society.
Premier-designate Ali Larayedh announced the new on state television hours before a midnight deadline. The weeks leading up to the deadline were fraught with tensions in government and on the street. Those tensions and were heightened exponentially following the February 6 murder of leftist politician Chokri Belaid by a suspected radical Muslim.
Larayedh declared that the new team, made up from parties of the outgoing coalition and independents, will step down at the end of the year following legislative and presidential elections. Key appointments were given to independent candidates little known by most Tunisians. These appointments reflect a critical concession by Ennahda to give ministries to non-partisan figures, with parties in the outgoing coalition getting less sensitive posts.
On Twitter, Ennahda said 48 percent of appointments in the new government will be in the hands of independents. Islamists will control 28 percent, compared with 40 percent in the outgoing line-up.
Parliament has three days to endorse or reject the new line. Larayedh was optimistic, but has declined to speculate on when the elections would be held, saying that was a prerogative of the assembly, but suggested they could be in October-November.
Libya: Gunmen storm TV network headquarters
On Thursday, gunmen stormed the headquarters of Al-Assama, a private TV network in Tripoli, destroying and stealing equipment before abducting five journalists and media workers. All were released within 24 hours with no injuries, but the stations owner and former manager were released long after the other journalists.
The attack was likely prompted by protest demonstrations against the station’s perceived support of the National Forces Alliance (NFA), a secular coalition led by Mahmoud Jibril, who served as the interim Prime Minister during the 2011-2012 civil war. The NFA defeated a Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition in last year’s legislative elections.
A day earlier, protesters seized members of the Libyan General National Congress, demanding they pass a bill banning former members of the Qaddafi regime from holding positions of power. If the bill passes, Jibril, along with almost every other major government leader, would be banned from holding office.
Al-Assama TV network is also affiliated with a top political figure who currently leads the largest coalition in parliament. Mahmoud Shammam, who runs another TV network, stated that he tried unsuccessfully to reach government ministers and security officials to get their help.
UN Supports Mission in Libya released a statement just hours before the attack, expressing concern over recent attacks and threats against freedom of expression. Last month, an Al-Assama TV crew was attacked and beaten by security guards outside the General National Congress. The President of the General National Congress
Libya: Attack on President of GNC
On 7 March, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) condemned an attack against the President of the General National Congress (GNC), calling on citizens to settle political issues peacefully. GNC president Mohammed Magariaf was targeted in a gunfire attack against his vehicle.
UNSMIL head, Tarek Mitri, called on Libyans to safeguard and contribute to building and strengthening the State institutions. The General National Congress, the highest legislative authority in Libya, is currently developing the legal framework for free, fair, and inclusive elections.
UNSMIL has also voiced deep concern at several recent incidents, including attacks on media organizations, threats against journalists, and violence against a Coptic church and other houses of worship.
Libya: Ansar al-Sharia returns
On 3 March, four pickup trucks filled with Ansar al-Sharia militiamen arrived at the European School in Benghazi. The men stormed the school, searching for teaching materials they viewed as contradicting sharia law or the values of Libyan society. The militiamen remained for about two hours. Members of the group claim that the parents of a student at the school complained about a biology book for sixth-grade students, which contained graphic images.
Ansar al-Sharia (“Partisans of Islamic Law”), who fought with other Libyans to topple the Qaddafi regime, advocates the implementation of strict sharia law across Libya. The group has branches in other countries, including Mali, Tunisia, and Yemen. In Libya, the group has declared itself to be an independent paramilitary body that does not fall under the government’s direct command and control. The group represents a marginal minority that does not characterise the views of the wider Libyan society.
Following the US embassy attacks in September of 2012, 30,000 people in Benghazi took to the streets, demonstrating against terrorism and violence, and forced Ansar al-Sharia out of the city. After their expulsion, Ansar members went underground and hid their weapons, opting instead to make a high-profile effort to carry out charity work, such as cleaning streets, unblocking drains, and distributing food the poor. While some Libyans welcomed these efforts, they questioned the real motives of the group. Finally, to the disappointment of many, the militia returned, claiming they want to help secure the city alongside the police and army.
Ansar al-Sharia’s reappearance appears to be an arrangement with the Libyan Ministry of Defence. In Libya, there is currently a shortage of security personnel. Following the rebellion against Qaddafi, many of the militia groups made off with Qaddafi’s stockpiles of weapons, resulting in under-equipped government troops and security units.
Currently, Ansar al-Sharia wants to improve its standing with the Libyan public. The Libyan government sees this as an opportunity to de-radicalize some of the group’s members through constructive dialogue with them about the ideology and beliefs by which they operate.
MENA: AQAP releases 10th copy of Inspire
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has released the 10th edition of Inspire, its English language propaganda magazine.
The latest edition focuses on al Qaeda’s view of the Arab Spring. Two articles, written by Adam Gadahn and Yahya Ibrahim, focus on al Qaeda’s ability to capitalize on the Arab Spring. Gadahn advises jihadists in the West to continue “direct engagement at home and abroad with America and its NATO parents, particularly France and Britain,” stating that the enemies economic and military hemorrhage must not stop until the West are forced to choose between the crusade against Muslims or the continuation of viable governments and public services.
Ibrahim’s article highlighted the attacks on the US Consulates in Benghazi, and US embassies in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen in September 2012. Claiming that despite his death, bin Laden continues to “inspire old and new jihadists alike”.
AQAP touted Gadahn’s article as an “exclusive.” Gadahn is believed to be based in Pakistan, and has been known to work with As Sahab, al Qaeda’s primary propaganda production outfit. This article indicates that the group was either able to contact Gadahn, or Gadahn contacted the publishers of Inspire to offer the article, and disproves the assumption that Al Qaeda core leadership is disconnected from its affiliates.
Egypt: Increased Al Qaeda-linked presence in Nile Delta and Sinai
Egyptian officials fear that they are seizing only a fraction of the weaponry entering the Sinai Peninsula from Libya, and that the final destination for many weapons shipments is the Sinai itself, where Salafi jihadists have a growing presence.
“The Egyptians are becoming alarmed that weapons are now being stockpiled by Egyptian Salafi groups. They are starting to uncover arms trafficked from Libya in the [Nile] Delta and believe other weapons are being stored in Sinai. It is making them very nervous,” a European diplomat told Voice of America.
In early January, Egyptian authorities issued a security alert for the Sinai as intelligence services received information about potential attacks by extremist groups in the Sinai. On 15 February, the authorities announced the seizure of two tons of explosives headed to the Sinai from Cairo, followed by the discovery of a weapons cache in Al-Arish two days later. The seized weapons include 21 anti-aircraft shells, six anti-tank mines and an anti-aircraft gun. The same day, one ton of explosives was found in a car headed from Cairo toward the Sinai. On 27 February, Egyptian security forces confiscated 60 antitank missiles south of Cairo that were being transported in two pickup trucks from Libya. And on 5 March, a cache of weaponry, including antitank mines, was seized in el Arish.
Further, US intelligence sources indication that Al-Qaeda linked militants have increased contact with local Salafist groups in the Sinai and Delta regions. In the absence of security in the Sinai Peninsula during the Egyptian revolution, several jihadist groups have appeared region. The groups have conducted attacks against Egyptian security forces, Israel border crossings, international peacekeepers, and have repeatedly attacked a natural gas pipeline which transports gas to Israel and Jordan.
Western officials believe there are at least several hundred militants in the region, some of whom are from Yemen and Somalia, and Egyptian officials fear that militants from Algeria and Libya are now operating in Sinai as well.
In recently disclosed communication between Muhammad Jamal al Kashef, the head of the Nasr City terror cell, and Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, Jamal said that he had formed “groups for us inside [the] Sinai.” This link indicates that some groups are proclaiming allegiance to Al Qaeda.
French President Francois Hollande announced today that top Islamic extremist leaders, who have been seeking shelter in the northern mountainous region of Mali, have been killed. Meanwhile France suffers a fourth death in Mali. The security situation throughout Mali remains to be volatile. With the recent unconfirmed deaths of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, anyone remaining in the country is highly advised to relocate to the capital city of Bamako as retaliatory attacks throughout the northern region are expected to occur. Companies whose employees remain within Mali should take additional security precautions around company buildings as well as travel routes taken by employees. MS Risk advises those who are travelling in the country to use alternate routes and to not travel at night. Although a number of militants are known to be hiding in the Ifoghas mountains, it is highly likely that a number of rebels are present throughout the northern region and may seek to kidnap westerners as a form of retaliation.
During his visit to Warsaw, Poland for a six-nation European Union defence summit, President Hollande indicated that “the terrorist kingpins have been destroyed” in the Ifoghas mountains. However he declined to comment if key commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar is amongst those key AQIM leaders that have been killed in recent days. Hollande meanwhile has indicated that France will begin to pull its troops out of Mali sometime in April. According to the President, the final phase of the French military intervention “will last through March and from April there will be a decrease in the number of French soldiers in Mali as African forces will take over, supported by the Europeans.” Although initially France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had indicated in early February that French troop numbers in Mali, who now number around 4,000, would decrease as of March, if all goes according to plan, the recent sharp increase of suicide attacks in the former Islamist strongholds, coupled with a general unreadiness of full deployment of African forces, has effectively forced officials in France to maintain their army numbers within the country as the security situation remains too fluid to withdrawal.
Meanwhile France suffered another casualty on Wednesday when a French soldier was killed during fighting against Islamist militants in eastern Mali, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the northern city of Gao. Sergeant Wilfried Pingaud (37) is the fourth French soldier to have died in action. He was a member of the 68th African Artillery Regiment based in Valbonne in southern France. The French soldier died when a group of Islamist fighters attacked French and Malian troops as they were carrying out operations to secure the area. During the attack, a dozen militants were killed while four Malian soldiers were wounded. So far, France has suffered relatively minimal casualties during its operation in Mali which was launched in mid-January. On Saturday, a paratrooper was killed during an operation that was aimed at removing Islamist militants from the Ifoghas mountains. A legionnaire with the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment was killed amidst heavy fighting on February 19 while a helicopter pilot died on the first day of the French military intervention. Although the intervention initially resulted in a quick ousting of the rebels who had previously controlled the northern region of the country, fighting has intensified over the past week as efforts have focused on hunting down the militants who are believed to be in the mountainous region of the country.
After a weekend of increased fighting in the mountainous region of northern Mali, al-Qaeda sources have come forth and confirmed the death of one of the leaders of the organization’s North African wing. The death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid is the most significant success for the French-led operation against Islamist fighters in Mali. Meanwhile the families of those French nationals who are being held in West Africa have voiced their concerns that this recent development will likely leave their relatives at a greater risk. They have called on officials in Paris to bring a halt to the bombings in order to allow for negotiations, aimed at securing their release, to take place.
Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a senior fighter in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was killed last week during a French bombing raid in the Ifoghas mountains. However while an AQIM militant has confirmed the death of Abou Zeid, he has insisted that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose death was announced by the Chadian army on Saturday, is alive and fighting. Although AQIM has formally acknowledged the death of Abou Zeid, the head of France’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, has indicated that it is “probable” that the commander was killed in fighting however until a body is produced, the death will not be confirmed by officials in France. In regards to the death of Belmokhtar, Admiral Guillaud indicated that reports on jihadist internet forums were stating that he may still be alive. Further sources have indicated that some Islamist militants believe that at the time of the raid, Belmokhtar was operating near Gao, hundreds of kilometers south of where Chadian troops were engaged in operations. The validity of these reports have further questioned his death as Belmokhtar has often been seen in Timbuktu and in Gao. A United States official has also indicated that the Obama Administration is currently searching through US intelligence reports in order to locate specific evidence that confirms the death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar. As of Sunday, information that was available to the U.S. included both intelligence that supported and contradicted the claim of his death.
AQIM’s acknowledgement of the death of Abou Zeid comes at time when France’s top military officials have claimed that the intervention, which was launched in January, was beginning to break the back of AQIM and its allies in Mali. The announcement also coincides with increasing appeals put forth by the relatives of four of the French hostages who are being held in the region. Fears that the hostages may have been used as human shields during the bombing raids, or could now be subjected to reprisal executions, have intensified over the past few days as reports pertaining to Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar have emerged.
Abou Zeid was believed to have been holding four French citizens who were kidnapped in Niger in 2010 however Admiral Guilldau has indicated that these reports cannot be confirmed and that France currently has no information on their whereabouts. Although officials in France have avoided directly responding to the hostage families critique of the current strategy, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry has indicated that everything possible was being done in order to secure the freedom of the French nationals.
Although neither Abou Zeid nor Belmokhtar sat at the top of AQIM’s hierarchy, they effectively became two of the most powerful al-Qaeda figures in the sub-Sahara. Both are known to have commanded powerful brigades of fighters who were intensely loyal to them. Several years ago, Abou Zeid was promoted to the position of deputy leadership in the Sahara by AQIM’s Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel out of a concern that Belmokhtar was growing too strong. With Algerian security forces degrading the group within its borders, over the next few years, the Sahel countries – Mali, Mauritania and Niger – would become AQIM’s new center of gravity. However while AQIM was finding itself on new grounds, Droukdel began to struggle to exert control over his southern commanders. He would go on to appoint Jemal Oukacha – also known as Yahay Abou el-Hammam – in an effort to restore his influence. Jemal Oukacha was appointed the overall commander of AQIM in the Sahara last autumn. His appointment resulted in the announcement that Belmokhtar had been relieved of his command. Although Jemal Oukacha has been a jihadist for the past decade, he comes from northern Algeria and over the years, he has struggled to gain the degree of influence that both Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar had attained within AQIM. Both men also counted criminals, corrupt politicians and military officers as their contacts which only enabled them to further their influence and power. Belmokhtar’s response to his demotion of power and status resulted in the formation of a new commando unit which would be responsible for the January 2013 attack on a plant in Algeria. If the deaths of Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid are confirmed, this may allow Droukdel and his deputy, Jemal Oukacha to gain greater control of al-Qaeda’s operations in the Sahara.
Although Chadian President Idriss Deby has announced that a senior al-Qaeda militant has been killed in northern Mali, efforts by the Algerian security services are currently under way in order to confirm the reports that one of the most notorious and ruthless leaders of al-Qaeda’s North African wing has in fact been killed. If these reports are confirmed, it is highly likely that militant rebels in Mali, and possibly in other countries in West Africa, may carry out retaliatory hit-and-run attacks in an attempt to place increased pressure on France to withdraw its military intervention. Likewise, the lives of fifteen French nationals, who are being held hostage by Islamist militants in West Africa are currently in jeopardy as they may be executed in retaliation for his death.
Chadian President Deby has indicated that the country’s troops killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, one of the main leaders of al-Qaeda’s north African branch on 22 February during fighting in northern Mali. According to reports, Chadian troops confronted a number of jihadists in the mountainous region near Kidal. It has also been reported that the commander was amongst forty militants who were killed near the border with Algeria. Although these reports have yet to be confirmed by officials in France, Algeria or Mali, Washington has indicated that these reports appear to be credible and that they view his death as a serious blow to the al-Qaeda wing.
Algerian security services have taken DNA samples from two of Abou Zeid’s relatives in order to compare them with the body which reportedly belongs to him. If the testing comes back positive, the killing of Abou Zeid, a longtime militant who has been linked with a number of kidnappings and executions of Westerns, would be a major success for French forces. However it is highly likely that his death will also come with increased retaliatory attacks in Mali and possibly in Chad. The killing of this high-leveled militant will no doubtedly spark a number of hit-and-run attacks throughout Mali. Any citizens remaining in the country are advised to relocate to Bamako and avoid the main former strongholds, including Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Citizens in Chad should also remain vigilant as retaliatory attacks may be staged in that country in the coming days and weeks.
Abou Zeid, a 46-year-old whose real name is Mohamed Ghedir, was often seen in the cities of Gao and Timbuktu after Islamists took control of northern Mali last year. An Algerian born near the border with Libya, Abou Zeid is a former smuggler who embraced radical Islam in the 1990’s and who became one of AQIM’s key leaders. He is suspected of being behind a series of brutal kidnappings in several countries, including British national Edwin Dyer, who was abducted in Niger and executed in 2009, and a 78-year-old French aid worker Michel Germaneau, who was executed in 2010. Abou Zeid is believed to be holding a number of Western hostages, including four French citizens who were kidnapped in Niger in 2010. If his death is confirmed by Algerian authorities, then the lives of those French hostages may be in jeopardy as they may be executed in retaliation for his death. Similarly the well being of a French family who was recently kidnapped in northern Cameroon and taken over to Nigeria may also be at risk. Although the group holding the family hostage is not directly linked to the militants in Mali, their execution may be used to issue a warning to France to halt the military intervention in Mali.
Abou Zeid is thought to have about 200 seasoned fighters under his command, mainly comprised of Algerians, Mauritanians and Malians, who are well equipped and highly mobile. Last year, an Algiers court sentenced Abou Zeid in absentia to life in prison for having formed an international armed group implicated in the kidnapping of foreigners. Five other members of his family were jailed for ten years each. He is seen as a true religious fanatic and more uncompromising than some other leaders of north African armed Islamist groups, such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind behind the January attack on an Algerian natural gas facility which left thirty seven foreign hostages dead.