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.
Reports have indicated that Islamist militants blew up a bridge on Tuesday, leaving two civilians wounded, just one day after they shelled the northern town of Gao. The sharp rise in attacks over the past few days largely stems from the Tuareg separatists’ decision to withdraw from the peace process.
According to Ibrahim Cisse, a local councillor for the Gao region, “early this Tuesday, Islamists dynamited one of two small bridges…near Bentia, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the border with Niger, leaving two civilians wounded. The local councillor further added that the assailants, who were “wearing turbans,” had arrived by motorbike at the bridge that crosses the Niger River at Bentia and proceeded to destroy it. According to a police source in Gao, “in this place, there are two small bridges. The aim of the Islamists was to blow up both bridges, but fortunately, only the old one was badly damaged,” adding that “the new bridge, which is the most frequently used, sustained only very light damage.” On the ground sources have reported that Malian soldiers were sent to the area, along with French troops who were deployed in the northern desert region, in order “to avoid other acts of sabotage” by armed extremists.
The two bridges in Bentia were attacked just one day after armed militant fired shells on the northern Malian city of Gao, the first attack on the insurgents’ former stronghold in months. Suspected Islamist militants targeted the city with artillery fire on Monday, wounding one Malian soldier. Although the attack was similar to the guerrilla-warfare that was used by the insurgents in the months following the January offensive, until Monday’s violence, the area had not seen an attack since May. The attack was confirmed by residents and Idrissa Cisse, a municipal official in Gao, who stated that “this morning from around 06:30 (0630 GMT) a series of four explosions hit the town. One Malian soldier was wounded and a house was damaged.” By mid-morning, French helicopters were patrolling the skies, with local residents stating that calm had been restored in the city. A spokesman for an al-Qaeda splinter group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), indicated that the group had claimed responsibility for the attack on Gao, warning that further such operations would be carried out.
The attacks on Bentia and Gao also come a week after a suicide bomb attack in Timbuktu killed two civilians and four bombers, and left seven Malian soldiers wounded. According to eye witness accounts, the suicide bombers detonated their vehicle near the Malian army camp in Timbuktu, killing both the themselves and two civilians. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which was founded in Algeria and which operates across the Sahel region south of the Sahara. The suicide car bomb attack was the first to occur since Mali’s presidential election. The attack also came a few days after Tuareg separatists pulled out of a ceasefire agreement and peace process with the new Malian government.
In the wake of rising tensions in the north of Mali, Mali’s Defence Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga has stated that he wants to “reassure the population that in coordination with our partners in Serval (the French military operation) and MINUSMA (the UN’s African military force in Mali), our deployment has been strengthened.” He also urged the population “to remain calm and above all to share information with personnel of the armed forces and security forces in order to help them track down the enemy in all its forms.” The recent rise in tensions also force Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to cut his visit to France short where he was holding talks with his French counterpart on the current security status of his country. During a meeting that was held last week, the Presidents of France and Mali warned that a “terrorist” resurgence in the Sahel region might be possible after new fighting between the insurgents and military had occurred in recent days. In a joint statement released by Hollande’s office shortly after the talks, the two leaders stated that “the Franco-African intervention put an end to the terrorist threat, but it could try to rebuild…we must remain vigilant.”
An al-Qaeda-linked militia that was founded by Islamist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar announced on Thursday that it would be joining forces with another armed group in order to take revenge against France for its military offensive in Mali. While this move is no surprise to analysts, as the two groups have previously collaborated in carrying out regional attacks, it does cement the fact that the Sahel region will remain the new focal point for global counter-insurgency efforts.
Reports surfaced on Thursday that Belmokhtar’s Mauritanian-based al-Mulathameen Brigade (the Brigade of the Masked Ones) along with Malian-based terrorist group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which is believed to be led by Ahmed Ould Amer, have joined forces under one banner in a bid to unite Muslims and to target French interests in the West African region. In a statement that was published by Mauritanian news agency Nouakchott News Agency (ANI), the two groups indicated that “your brothers in MUJAO and al-Mulathameen announced their union and fusion in one movement called al-Murabitoun, to unify the ranks of Muslims around the same goal, from the Nile to the Atlantic.” Belmokhtar and Ould Amer are said to have ceded control of al-Murabitoun to another leader. Although he has not been named, reliable sources indicate that the new commander has fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in the 2000’s. Reports also indicate that unlike the leaders of most of the armed organizations in the region, this new leader may not be Algerian.
The merger between the two groups was first reported by ANI, which has long been a reliable source of information pertaining to jihadist activities in West Africa. In an excerpt of the group’s statement, Belmokhtar indicates that he decided not to assume the leadership of al-Murabitoun in order to “empower a new generation of leaders.” Further excerpts of al-Murabitoun’s first statement also threaten France and its allies in the region and call upon Muslims to target French interests everywhere. The document states that “we say to France and its allies in the region, receive the glad tidings of what will harm you, for the mujahideen have gathered against you and they pledged to deter your armies and destroy your plans and projects. By the grace of Allah, they are more firm and strong in your face, and your new war only increased their certitude, resolve and determination.”
Previously believed to have been killed, Belmokhtar is a one-eyed Algerian former commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In 2003, he was designated a foreign terrorist by the United States, with the State Department offering a US $5 million reward for information that would lead to his capture. He broke away from AQIM in 2012 in a bid to form a new group that would expand its beliefs of forming an Islamist state. In March of this year, it had been reported that he was killed in action in northern Mali. Although the reports of his death were announced by the Chadian military, they were never confirmed by France or the United States. Currently Belmokhtar remains at large. He is believed to be the mastermind behind January’s siege of an Algerian gas plant in which thirty-eight hostages were killed. MUJAO is though to be led by Mauritanian ethnic Tuareg Ahmed Ould Amer, who goes by the nom de guerre “Ahmed Telmissi.” The group also broke away from AQIM in mid-2011 with the apparent goal of spreading jihad into areas outside of AQIM’s scope. It was one of a number of Islamist groups that occupied northern Mali last year and was responsible for imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia Law.
Despite previously separating themselves from AQIM, citing leadership issues and desires of expanding their control, both groups continued to cooperate and fight alongside AQIM fighters in Mali and in other regions of West Africa. In late May of this year, the two groups targeted a military barracks in Agadez, Niger and a uranium mine in Arlit which supplies French nuclear reactors. The attack in Agadez was reportedly executed by a five-man suicide assault team which resulted in the deaths of at least twenty people. The attack in Arlit was reportedly carried out as a means of attempting to cripple France. Shortly after the attacks, Belmokhtar indicated that the incidents had been carried out as a form of avenge for the death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, an AQIM commander who was killed by French forces in northern Mali earlier this year. Consequently this merger comes with minimal surprise as MUJAO and Belmokhtar’s forces have already forged a working relationship. Thursday’s announcement just makes this relationship official. However many questions still linger as to whether such a merger will have any impact within a region that continues to be rocked by instability.
On the one hand, in examining Mali, the country no longer seems to be the central hub it was a year ago. The recently held peaceful presidential elections, which resulted in the election of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, coupled with 12,600 UN troops that are stationed on the ground, are a move to fill the security vacuum and to stabilize the country by uniting the north and south. However when looking at the greater Sahel region, many vulnerabilities continue to exist in a region of Africa that is sparsely populated and prone to poverty, food insecurity and estrangement from regional governments. The Sahel region continues to see high threats of kidnap and terrorist attacks. These threats, which were further heightened following the French military intervention in Mali, are highly likely to occur again. Furthermore, there are currently at least thirteen hostages being held in the Sahel and surrounding regions, which includes Algeria, Cameroon, Libya and Nigeria. Over the years, many have been killed and threats of kidnappings, especially of French and Western nationals, will likely continue. The surrounding areas also contain threats that may lead to a further destabilization of the region. Terrorist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria are waging their own wars at home. While reports that Boko Haram militants may have been trained by al-Qaeda-linked operatives in Mali further fuels the notions the movement of terrorists in the Sahel and surrounding regions continues to be unaffected. The militant groups now joining forces have gained reputations for evading capture and continuing to launch attacks despite security forces’ concentrated efforts to stop them.
On the other hand, given the long history of al-Qaeda-linked forces making and breaking alliances, the real question remains whether this official union will change anything. Many doubt that al-Murabitoun can bring anything new to the table and that instead this could signify another reorganization in an attempt to strengthen the group, remain relevant and give it a new and better direction. The timing of this announcement is also critical as it comes just two weeks after elections were held in Mali and a new President was selected. This alliance may be an attempt to remind regional actors and international officials that while Mali has won a victory by carrying out successful elections, the war is far from over.
Mali’s interim government announced on Friday that the country’s presidential elections will go to a second round, which has been scheduled for August 11, after no candidates succeeded in securing a majority in the landmark polls.
Figures for Sunday’s ballot, which were announced on live television, indicated that former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came in first in Mali’s presidential elections, gaining 39.2 percent of the vote, however he will face his main rival, ex-Finance Minister Soumalia Cisse, who attained 19.4 percent of the vote, after he failed to secure an outright majority. The results, which were announced by Territorial Administration Minister Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, are provisional and need to be confirmed by the West African nation’s Constitutional Court. No candidate gained the fifty percent of the vote that is necessary in order to declare a victory. Dramane Dembele, the candidate for Mali’s largest political party, the Alliance for Democracy in Mali, polled just 9.6 percent, taking third place. Twenty-four other presidential candidates also took part in the polls. It is widely believed that Mr. Dembele’s votes, along with those of fourth placed candidate Modibo Sidibe, which amount to a total of 14.5 percent, are likely to be transferred to Cisse in the run-off.
The announcement of a run-off will likely ease tensions which have risen since partial results earlier in the week gave Mr. Keita a large lead, indicating that he may win outright. Although Sunday’s voting was carried out in a peaceful manner, and has been praised by observer missions, Mr. Cisse’s party on Wednesday has announced that the elections had been marred by what it termed as “ballot stuffing,” a form of electoral fraud in which people submit multiple ballots during a vote in which only one ballot per person is allowed. Critics have argued that Mali, which was under pressure from the international community, may have rushed into the polls and risked mishandling the elections which would result in more harm than good. However the country has been praised by the international community for running a transparent, credible and peaceful election. In response to Wednesday’s allegations, acting President Dioncounda Traore and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have acknowledged that the vote may be “imperfect” in a country were 500,000 citizens continue to be displaced by a military coup that was launched in March 2012. They have however urged Malians to respect the outcome.
Despite heavy security during voting, after the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the main armed groups in northern Mali, announced that it would “strike polling stations more than 3.5 million Malians cast their ballot, resulting in a 51.5 percent turnout which eclipsed its next best of 38 percent. The turnout was also higher than the United States has managed in three of its presidential elections since 1984. This high turnout has in effect demonstrated that Malians are ready to get back to the democratic government that was present prior to a military coup which led to armed Islamist militants taking over the northern regions of the country.
Mali Rebels Offer Freedom Deal for Algerian Hostages
23 June, 2013- The Mali-based al-Qaeda affiliate, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) has offered to release one individual from a group of Algerian diplomats which were kidnapped last year, in exchange for the release of three “mujahedeen” currently held in Algeria. A statement sent to the Algerian government said, “If Algeria rejects the proposal, the Algerian hostages’ lives will be in danger.” The group did not release the names of the three prisoners they wish to have released, nor where they were being held.
MUJAO abducted a group of seven people, including the Algerian diplomats, on 5 April, 2012 in Gao, northern Mali. The kidnappers initially asked for €15 million to release the group, however, they released three of those hostages months later in July. In September 2013, MUJAO announced that the group had killed one of the hostages, however, this has not verified by the Algerian government.
Bahraini Security Arrests 9 in Prison Break Plan
25 June, 2013- Bahrain announced the arrest of nine Shiites members of the group Jaish al-Imam (Army of the Imam) thought to be linked to Iran, that were planning, among other things, to attack a prison to facilitate a jail break. Arms, ammunition and a plan for attacking the prison were seized. Those arrested were intending to carry out attacks on key installations in the country, the ministry said.
Bahrain is a country with a Shiite Muslim majority population that is ruled by a Sunni Muslim dynasty. Relations between Bahrain and overwhelmingly Shiite Iran have been tense since the authorities in Manama, with the help of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf neighbors, suppressed a pro-democracy movement largely led by Shiites.
Egypt Reinforces Military Presence in Suez Region ahead of Protests
27 June, 2013- The Egyptian army has reinforced its presence in the Egyptian Suez Canal city of Port Said ahead of national anti-government protests on 30 June. Several armoured vehicles toured the city’s streets before parking in front of the governorate headquarters. The forces were received with cheers by residents. Egypt is bracing for the protests on 30 June, called for by signature drive ‘Tamarod’, which aims at withdrawing confidence from the president and holding early elections.
The campaign’s petition to remove Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi from office has gathered 15 million signatures, more than the number of votes amassed by Morsi last year. The petition accuses the president of “failing to implement policies to improve the life of ordinary people,” citing Egypt’s critical economic situation. Some Egyptians are calling for the army to take over power for a temporary period and appoint a new government, in the event that Morsi resigns.
In preparation for June 30 demonstrations, army troops have started to take over the assignment of safeguarding vital facilities, including Martyr Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel and the banks of the Suez Canal.
Meanwhile, early clashes north of Cairo resulted in one person killed and more than 200 injured as opponents of President Morsi pelted his supporters with garbage as they gathered outside a mosque to stage a march in support of the president. This clash is probably an omen of larger clashes likely this weekend.
Bombs Target Protesters, 14 Dead
25 June, 2013- Bombs targeting Shiite protesters and pilgrims killed 14 people in northern town of Tuz Khurmatu, a day after 35 people were killed nationwide, most of them in a wave of car bombings in the capital. The death toll for June is now over 350. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Sunni militants linked to al Qaeda frequently target Shia Muslims.
Two suicide bombers blew themselves up inside a tent filled with Shia Turkmen protesters in the town, killing at least 11 people and wounding 55. The protesters had been rallying over poor security in the town, which is regularly hit with attacks.
Tuz Khurmatu lies in a tract of territory in the north that Kurdistan wants to incorporate into its three-province autonomous region over Baghdad’s objections. The unresolved dispute over the territory, which stretches from Iraq’s eastern border with Iran to its western frontier with Syria, is cited by diplomats as one of the biggest threats to the country’s long-term stability.
Also on 25 June, a “sticky bomb” attached to a minibus went off as Shiite pilgrims were on their way to the central shrine city of Karbala for Shabaniyah commemorations. Three people were killed and 15 wounded when the bomb went off near the town of Iskandiriyah. In east Baghdad, gunmen wounded two guards outside an Assyrian church.
Iraq is struggling with a prolonged political deadlock and violence at its worst levels since 2008. Attacks have increased considerably since the beginning of the year, coinciding with rising discontent among the Sunni Arab minority that erupted into protests in late December.
Libya Deemed Major Transit Hub for Terrorists
An African Union (AU) leader has warned that Libya has become a major transit hub for terrorists. AU representative Fransisco Cetano Jose Madiera stated that he has reports which indicate that Libya has become a major transit hub for the main terrorist groups travelling from one country to another. In addition, Libya is seen as a refuge and point for terrorists to “reorganize”.
Following the removal of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya’s weakened security and porous borders make it a prime location for rebel groups to transit through. This was a key concern at the two-day regional security meeting in Oran, Algeria. Libya is a key component to stabilising the Sahel region, however few countries in the region have the means to protect their borders. The EU has offered to work with Libya to tighten border security but the lack of organization in the country makes the endeavour very difficult. The European bloc believes that development of the region could be a solution to fighting the problem of porous borders.
Libya is working in close collaboration with Algeria and Tunisia to secure their borders and to fight against terrorism and organised crime. Algerian Foreign Affairs Minister has said that officials are “in a constant contact with the Libyan government”, including Algerian contributions to the training of the Libyan police and army.
Qatar’s New Emir to Follow in Father’s Footsteps
25 June, 2013- In his first speech as the new emir of Qatar, 33 year-old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, announced that he plans to follow policies established by his father and the country’s last government. The emir signalled that Qatar would undergo drastic change in domestic or foreign policy despite new leadership. The new emir’s father announced the end of his 18-year rule the day before, an unprecedented move for the country.
During the previous emir’s rule, Qatar spread its wealth through foreign investments, largely financed by its vast natural gas sources, to increase its political and economic influence in the region.
While Qatar supported the Arab Spring and has maintained an alliance with the United States, critics worry that the nation’s open support of the Syrian opposition could mean financial support of al Qaeda-linked groups. Further, some Westerners fear Qatar’s friendly terms with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The new emir reaffirmed his country’s wish to remain on peaceful diplomatic terms with all governments. “We respect all the influential and active political trends in the region, but we are not affiliated with one trend against the other. We are Muslims and Arabs who respect diversity of sects and respect all religions in our countries and outside of them.”
During his speech, Sheikh Tamim refrained from mentioning the Syrian war, instead expressing his support for the Palestinians’ struggle against Israel. The sheikh also unveiled his cabinet reshuffle; outgoing Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani is to be replaced by Sheik Abdullah bin Naser Al Thani and Khalid al-Atiyah, respectively. Qatar has been dominated by the Al Thani family for nearly 150 years.
Qatar holds the world’s third largest gas reserves and produces around 77 million tons of liquefied natural gas annually, making it the largest supplier on the planet. According to the International Monetary Fund, Qatar has the highest per capita income in the world.
Saudi Arabia Changes Start of Weekend
Saudi Arabia will change the start of its two-day weekend from Thursday to Friday, in order to bring it into line with other countries in the region and coordinate business and banking days. The royal decree takes effect this week.
Last month Oman switched to a Friday-Saturday weekend, making Saudi Arabia the only country left among the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council to persist with the old format. The change means that Saudi businesses will now have four working days overlapping with Western and regional businesses rather than three. Friday remains a holiday in Muslim countries because it is a holy day set aside for communal prayer.
Spain uncovers al Qaeda network for Syrian Militants
21 June 2013- Spanish authorities arrested eight suspected members of an al Qaeda network who are allegedly involved in training, funding, and facilitating travel for Islamic radical fighters to Syria. The network is based in the Spanish territory of Ceuta and in the city of Fnideq in neighboring Morocco. The names and nationalities of those arrested have not been disclosed, but they are all Spanish citizens. The network has apparently funneled “dozens” of fighters to Syria, where some have taken part in suicide attacks and others have joined training camps. The network recruited fighters from various parts of Spain as well as Morocco and Ceuta.
According to Spain’s Foreign Ministry, investigations are underway for other groups which are still preparing to travel to Syria. Although separate investigations of al Qaeda networks were begun in 2009 and 2011 by the National Guard and the Civil Police, the two agencies began collaborating this year. Spain is one of many European countries from which an estimated 700 fighters have traveled to join the rebels in the Syrian conflict.
Al Qaeda has been active in Spain since the 1990s, when the Spanish cell was headed by a Syrian named Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, a.k.a. Abu Dahdah. Yarkas was later found to have had foreknowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, although the full extent of his involvement was never determined. He was arrested in late 2001 and sentenced to 27 years in prison for conspiracy in the 9/11 attacks, but his sentence was later reduced to 12 years for lack of proof on the conspiracy charge. He was released on 23 May. The US has been seeking to monitor Yarkas for some time. Although Yarkas has not been added to the US or UN lists of global terrorists, a 2003 UN designation of an Indonesian al Qaeda-linked terrorist notes that Yarkas was instrumental in establishing al Qaeda training camps in Indonesia for European recruits.
Al Qaeda has been linked to Spain’s worst terrorist attack, the Madrid train bombings of March 2004, which killed 191 people. The cell phones used to detonate the bombs were provided by Jamal Zougam, yet another member of Yarkas’ al Qaeda cell, and Zougam’s accomplices included members of a known al Qaeda affiliate, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group.