In another incident that targeted United Nations peacekeepers in Mali, on Friday nine UN peacekeepers were killed in an ambush on their convoy, the deadliest attack to occur on the UN mission in Mali.
According to Olivier Salgado, spokesman for the mission, the peacekeepers, who were all from neighbouring Niger, came under attack from heavily armed gunmen on motorbikes between the northeastern towns of Menaka and Ansongo. A statement released by the UN mission indicated “this morning, a convoy of MINUSMA peacekeepers from the Nigerien continent was the target of a direct attack while travelling to Indelimane, in the Menaka-Asongo corridor. A provisional toll indicated nine deaths.” UN officials have deployed aircraft to the region to secure the area where the attack took place, just 15 kilometres (9 miles) east of Indelimane.
While MINSUMA officials have not disclosed who was behind Friday’s attack, a UN officer from Niger has indicated that militants from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militia, were behind it. Sources have reported that MUJAO recently formed an alliance with militants from the Fulani ethnic group in the Gao region, where Friday’s attack took place. Menaka, an isolated desert town in eastern Mali is used mainly as a temporary refuge for nomadic Tuareg tribes however in May, it was the scene of intense fighting between the Malian government and three main separatist rebel groups.
In recent weeks, attacks on UN peacekeepers have sharply increased. Over the past few weeks, roadside bombs in the Kidal region have killed ten UN peacekeepers, all from Chad. The attacks prompted the government in N’Djamena to issue a statement to the UN indicating that the Chadian contingent of MINUSMA was suffering discrimination. In August, MUJAO claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on a MINUSMA base located close to the border with Algeria. They were also blamed for a suicide attack on August 16 that killed two soldiers from Burkina Faso serving with MINUSMA in the settlement of Ber, near the city of Timbuktu. Friday’s attack further underlines the fact that security in the northern region of Mali continues to be fragile, with militant groups continuing to operate in the region, and carrying out hit-and-run attacks despite the presence of foreign forces.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the Sahel-based terrorist group Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade (aka: Masked Brigade, aka: Signatories in Blood), has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Belmokhtar was believed to have been killed in fighting in Mali in 2013. However in late April, intelligence sources revealed that he had moved from Mali to a base in southern Libya.
Belmokhtar’s statement, released on Islamist websites, said, “We declare our faith in the policies of our emir, Cheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri… because we are convinced of the fairness of his approach,” Mokhtar Belmokhtar said in a statement posted Wednesday on Islamist websites.
Belmokhtar was key member of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) until political infighting lead to a fallout with AQIM leader Abou Zeid. Belmokhtar split from the group and formed his own organization. In 2013, Belmokhtar was known to be working with Islamist group MUJAO to drive the Taureg separatist group, out of Gao in Mali and to expand his land base and increase the numbers in his brigade.
In the statement, Belmokhtar specifically mentions al-Zawahiri’s latest comments on in-fighting between rebels in Syria that has killed hundreds since January.
In related news, Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has also issued a statement saying it will comply with Ayman al Zawahiri’s orders with respect to the jihadist infighting in Syria. Al Nusrah has been in combat with Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS, also known as ISIL), which has been disowned by al Qaeda’s general command.
In recently released audio messages, Zawahiri addressed Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of Al Nusrah, and demanded that Julani and Al Nusrah “immediately stop any fighting” as it is an act of aggression against “their jihadist brothers.” Zawahiri reiterated his call for the establishment of an independent sharia (Islamic law) court capable of settle the ongoing dispute. He also said the jihadists should stop criticizing each other in the media.
In reply to the message, Al Nusrah announced its “commitment” to comply with Zawahiri’s orders to stop attacking Isis, but added that they are prepared to respond defensively to any act of aggression. The group also says it is willing to submit to a sharia court, and will stop insulting its rivals on social media.
Al Nusrah blames ISIS for the death of Abu Khalid al Suri, Zawahiri’s chief representative in Syria until he was killed in February. Al Suri was a founding member and senior leader in Ahrar al Sham, which is allied with Al Nusrah and is a prominent part of the Islamic Front, a coalition of several rebel groups. Al Nusrah also blames ISIS for the death of Abu Muhammad al Fateh, a leader in the group who was killed along with other members of his family in Syria’s Idlib province.
The pledged to Zawahiri show a renewed unity among various branches of Al Qaeda, and a willingness to work more closely AQ main office. This may signal strengthening ties, and unity of messages and actions coming from AQ affiliates throughout the Middle East.
23 April, 2014: The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) has announced that a French hostage, Gilberto Leal Rodrigues, has died. In November 2012, Leal Rodrigues was kidnapped by armed men near the western town of Kayes in Mali, as he was driving a camper van from Mauritania.
In a brief telephone interview, a spokesman for MUJAO, Yoro Abdoul Salam, gave no details surrounding the date or circumstances of Gilberto Leal Rodrigues’ death, only saying, he “is dead because France is our enemy”. Sources say that when Salam was pressed for evidence, such as pictures or video footage of the body, he said, “in the name of Allah, he is dead”, before hanging up.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had vocalised concern for the 62-year old victim only days earlier. “We haven’t had any news for a long time. We are in contact with the family but we are extremely worried,” he said.
MUJAO, a Mali-based offshoot of al Qaeda, is one of several hard-line Islamist groups that occupied the vast desert north of Mali along with Taureg separatist rebels in 2012, following a military coup. The Islamists then overtook the Taureg fight and began to advance toward Bamako, instigating a French-led intervention which pushed the militants out of the region. France and other nations have continued anti-insurgency operations. Last week, French forces successfully freed five Malian aid workers who were taken hostage in a February kidnapping claimed by MUJAO, and in the past month French soldiers have killed about 40 Islamist fighters, including some senior commanders in Mali.
France is beginning to wind down the presence of soldiers to approximately 1000 troops; however sources suspect that MUJAO and other militias are regrouping. President François Hollande has that Rodrigues Leal’s death will “not go unpunished”. In a statement, Hollande said, “France will do everything to know the truth about what happened to Gilberto Leal Rodrigues and she will not let it pass unpunished […] There is every reason to believe that our fellow died several weeks [ago] because of the conditions of his detention.”
Spokesman of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Romain Nadal said in a statement, “We condemn in the strongest possible action of this terrorist group way.”
Military sources in Mali have confirmed that militants launched rockets during a night attack on the desert town of Timbuktu. None of the intended targets were hit. Over the past week, this is the second such to occur in northern Mali, resulting in heightened worry amongst officials as militants have vowed to carry out further attacks. The latest incidents come days after the Red Cross confirmed that a team of five aid workers was kidnapped.
A senior Malian army officer stationed in Timbuktu has confirmed that three rockets were fired on Sunday night by “terrorists,” adding “fortunately there were no casualties.” A source from the United Nations’ MINUSMA peacekeeping force also confirmed that attack, which came three days after a similar assault on the northern town of Gao. On 13 February, militants launched two rockets at a French army base in northern Mali. The attack occurred during a visit by France’s top military officer. The incident was later claimed by the militant group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which is a splinter group of al-Qaeda’s regional branch. The militant group also warned that similar such attacks would continue to be carried out against the “enemies of Islam.”
Despite both incidents resulting in no casualties, the recent rise in attacks and incidents in northern Mali has nevertheless resulted in heightened concerns amongst local and international officials that security within the northern region continues to be unstable and may threaten the efforts made by the Malian government and international peacekeeping forces. The attacks also demonstrate MUJAO’s, and similar militant groups, continued capabilities to carry out terrorist attacks.
The latest incidents in northern Mali come days after a group of five Malian Red Cross aid workers went missing on Saturday in an area between Kidal and Gao. Last Tuesday, MUJAO’s leader confirmed that the militant group was responsible for the kidnapping, adding that the five Malians “are alive and in good health.” So far the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has not indicated whether a ransom demand has been made. The current whereabouts of the team are unknown.
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.