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.