Tag Archives: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

Cultivating the Many Gaddafis

When Doundou Chefou first took up arms as a youth a decade ago, it was for the same reason as other ethnic Fulani herders along the Niger-Mali border: to protect his livestock.  He had nothing against the Republic of Niger, let alone the United States of America. His quarrel was with rival Tuareg cattle raiders.

Yet in October 2017 he led dozens of militants allied to Islamic State in a deadly assault against allied US-Niger forces, killing four soldiers from each nation and demonstrating how dangerous the West’s mission in the Sahel has become.

The transition of Chefou and men like him from vigilantes protecting their cows to jihadists capable of carrying out complex attacks is a story Western powers would do well to heed, as the pursuit of violent extremism in West Africa becomes ever more enmeshed in long-standing ethnic and clan conflicts.

For centuries Tuareg and Fulani lived as nomads herding animals and trading – Tuareg mostly across the dunes and oases of the Sahara and Fulani mostly in the Sahel, a vast band of semi-arid scrubland that stretches from Senegal to Sudan….Though they largely lived peacefully side-by-side, arguments occasionally flared, usually over scarce watering points. A steady increase in the availability of automatic weapons made the rivalry more deadly.

A turning point was the Western-backed ousting of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. With his demise, many Tuareg who fought as mercenaries for Gaddafi returned home, bringing with them the contents of Libya’s looted armouries.  Some returnees launched a rebellion in Mali to create a breakaway Tuareg state in the desert north, a movement hijacked by al Qaeda-linked jihadists who had been operating in Mali for years. In 2012, they swept across northern Mali, seizing key towns and prompting a French intervention that pushed them back in 2013.

Amid the violence and chaos, some Tuareg turned their guns on rivals from other ethnic groups like the Fulani, who then went to the Islamists for arms and training.

“The Tuareg were armed and were pillaging the Fulani’s cattle,” Niger Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Reuters. “The Fulani felt obliged to arm themselves.”..

Tuareg in Mali and Niger dreamed of and sometimes fought for an independent state, Fulani generally been more pre-occupied by concerns over the security of their community and the herds they depend on. “For the Fulani, it was a sense of injustice, of exclusion, of discrimination and a need for self-defence,”  A militant who proved particularly good at tapping into this dissatisfaction was Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, an Arabic-speaking north African, several law enforcement sources said.  Al-Sahrawi recruited dozens of Fulani into the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), loosely allied to al Qaeda in the region and controlled Gao and the area to the Niger border in 2012.

Why pastoralists in Mali and Niger turned to jihad, Reuters, Nov. 13,  2017

The Flourishing Jihadists and their Support Systems

U.S. special forces who accompanied Niger’s military at a meeting of village leaders in Tongo Tongo on Oct. 4, 2017were working in the country’s treacherous western borderlands, a region of shifting tribal allegiances, opaque motives and ethnic grudges going back decades, all feeding into a growing jihadi problem.  Four Americans and five Nigerien troops died after leaving Tongo Tongo and being ambushed and heavily outgunned by fighters armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. The militants are believed to be from a Malian-led militia, Islamic State in the Greater Sahel, which declared allegiance to the overall militant organization in 2015.

One error appears to have been downplaying the danger. The Tillaberi and Tahoua regions in western Niger have been under a state of emergency since March 2017, as Niger has confronted the Islamic State offshoot, led by Malian extremist Abu Walid Sahrawi. U.S. forces have been present in the region to advise and assist Nigerien forces.

The United Nations has cataloged 46 attacks by extremists in western Niger since February 2016, including a February 2017 attack that killed 15 Nigerien soldiers and one a year ago that killed 22 Nigerien forces at a refugee camp.,,

Niger’s interior minister, Mohamed Bazoum, said intelligence failures were to blame for the nine deaths. He said Islamic State in the Greater Sahel is more entrenched in local communities than are government forces.

Adam Sandor, an analyst on violent extremism in the Sahel at the University of Ottawa, said….“Essentially, the attackers are believed to have been scoping out and planning the attack and must have a knowledge of local communities in the area. Local communities most likely shared with them the information regarding the Nigerien Armed Forces operating with foreigners or military advisors in this space,” he said.  Leaders of Tongo Tongo village have been arrested, amid suspicions they were delaying the departure of the Nigerien and U.S. forces to pave the way for the attackers.

America has 6,000 troops in 50 countries across the continent, according to the Department of Defense, although many of the missions are charged with guarding U.S. embassies. The counter-terrorism deployments include an estimated 1,000 special operations forces, many posted in high-risk locations such as Somalia, Mali and Nigeria. An estimated 800 troops are in Niger.  The U.S. also operates a string of drone bases throughout Africa, including one in Niger.

The Shabab is the deadliest of Africa’s terrorist groups and is believed to be responsible for the country’s worst terrorist attack: At least 358 people were killed Oct. 14, 2017 and 56 are still missing. The attack came weeks after a U.S. drone strike killed 10 civilians, including three children, in Bariire, west of Mogadishu.  The U.S. has carried out at least 60 drone strikes in Somalia since January 2017, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, killing up to 510 people, including at least 38 civilians. The Shabab has killed 2,745 people in 2017, carrying out 987 of the continent’s 1,827 incidents of violent extremism in the first nine months of the year, according to the analytical group African Center for Strategic Studies.

The Shabab also has a presence in Kenya, where it launches regular attacks, including the 2013 Westgate shopping mall massacre that killed at least 67 people, and the 2015 Garissa University College attack, where 147 people — mainly university students — were killed. The terrorist group is believed to have a presence across East Africa.

Boko Haram, operating in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and southeastern Niger, was responsible for 2,232 deaths in the first nine months of the year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

In Mali, myriad armed extremists operate, including Islamic State in the Greater Sahel and its rival the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, formed in March 2017 from several Al Qaeda-linked extremist groups, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In 2012, Islamist militias took over half of the country before the French military drove them out of major cities.

The militias range freely across rural areas, crossing borders at will, launching operations in Mauritania, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, including attacks on hotels and resorts popular with foreigners.   In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where myriad rebel groups vie for control over mineral resources, a new organization emerged recently declaring fealty to Islamic State.  By comparison, Niger is one of the more stable countries in the region, making it the U.S. choice for a drone base being built outside Agadez, in central Niger, that will launch strikes across the region.

The Tongo Tongo attack has focused attention on Sahel leader Sahrawi…. He has a history of swapping sides and financing his operations through kidnappings.  He has recruited fighters from among the Fulani nomads in western Niger, exploiting ethnic rivalries with the Daoussahak people in the region, some of whom have formed a militia called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. Both Niger and France have used the group as a proxy force to fight Islamic State in the Great Sahel, deepening ethnic animosities.

Excerpts from After Niger attack, a look at clandestine jihadis posing a growing danger to U.S. forces in Africa, L.A. Times, Oct. 21, 2017

Kill Operations in Yemen

The Pentagon has quietly ordered new commando deployments to the Middle East and North Africa amid an unprecedented series of American airstrikes in Yemen, counterterrorism officials tell ABC News.  The moves appear to signal that the U.S. military is kicking off a more aggressive counterterrorism campaign… against Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS strongholds in Syria and areas in North Africa.

The Trump administration in late January 2017 launched the first known ground force operation in Yemen in two years followed by an unprecedented two-dozen or more airstrikes the first week of March 2017 targeting al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, including airstrikes March 2, 2017 night. This week also saw the killing of al-Qaeda’s overall deputy leader in a U.S. drone strike in northwestern Syria….

Un-announced fresh deployments of elite American commando units from the Army’s Delta Force and Navy SEAL teams continue…

But the first known ground force operation in two years on Jan. 28, 2017 raid by the Navy’s “black ops” counterterror unit, SEAL Team Six, came at a high price.  The experienced operators were caught in a withering mountain gunfight with fighters from AQAP, the only terrorist group which has succeeded three times in smuggling sophisticated bombs aboard U.S.-bound jetliners, which were defused before they exploded.

“There were women straight up shooting at the SEALs,” said a counterterrorism official briefed on the fight, describing the unusual battle, which resulted in one SEAL killed in action, some children in the compound killed by crossfire as the SEALs tried to search buildings and then broke contact, leaving the site aboard MV-22 Osprey aircraft. One Osprey had to make a hard landing, which injured three SEALs and the aircraft had to be destroyed in place by the operators….

One computer hard drive and phones containing a wealth of contact information for al-Qaeda operatives around the region were recovered by the SEALs…While the Yemen operation has become politicized in Washington as having “failed,” with some Democrats questioning whether any intelligence gains were worth the high cost of SEAL Ryan Owens’ life, a $75 million aircraft crashed and children killed in crossfire, military analysts continue “docex” — document exploitation — in an eavesdrop-proof sensitive compartmented information facility….

Excerpts from JAMES GORDON MEEK,US special ops step up strikes on al-Qaeda and ISIS, insiders say, Mar. 3, 2017

 

A State from Scratch: the Islamic State

f sentiment in the towns in or bordering the so-called “caliphate” of Islamic State (IS) is anything to go by, the jihadists are winning the war. “IS is here to stay,” a doctor in Falluja says of the group’s grip on Anbar, Iraq’s largest province. It is a sharp reversal from just a few months ago, when the campaign against IS seemed to be going quite well…[A]fter the retreat of Syrian regime forces from Palmyra, the black flag of IS now flies over the ancient city; while Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, Iraq, fell on May 17th. The idea that IS was in retreat has thus taken a severe jolt.

Barack Obama describes the loss of Ramadi as a mere “tactical setback”. But a blame game has since broken out.   In any case the group’s [IS] recent successes owe more to the weakness of the forces opposing it than to its own strength. The regime of Bashar Assad in Syria is looking wobblier than at any time since 2012. Its army fled Palmyra. Although Iraq’s Shia militias put up a good fight in places, its Shia-dominated and often badly led army is reluctant to fight and die for Sunni territory. Unless it improves the jihadists may advance further. The government remains reluctant to arm the Sunni tribesmen who might defend their homes.

The recent gains by IS also do little to address its weaknesses. It needs to generate huge funds to maintain its pretension to be a caliphate, yet its income streams, such as those from illicit oil sales, ransoms and looted antiquities, are all vulnerable to concerted pressure and windfalls from conquest are dwindling.

Its top-down structure leaves it vulnerable to “kill or capture” raids by American special forces (like one in Syria on May 15th that resulted in the death of Abu Sayyaf, the outfit’s financial brain). A more concerted air campaign could also set it back. Western forces are managing a meagre 15 strikes a day (compared with the 50 a day NATO carried out against Qaddafi’s less formidable forces in Libya). Mr McCain says that 75% of sorties fail to fire a weapon or drop a bomb, because targets are not identified. That might change if America provided forward air controllers.

The state of the caliphate: The fortunes of war, Economist, May 30, 2015

The Jihadist View of the World

Al-Qaeda.., including militia groups under the umbrella name of Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law)in Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, Mali and Egypt that both compete and co-operate with the organisation, have recovered momentum and self-confidence as the hopes invested in the Arab spring have withered. Indeed, the reverses of the Arab spring have been a boon to it.Take Egypt. After the coup that toppled President Muhammad Morsi in July, Mr Zawahiri posted a 15-minute message on jihadist websites arguing that “the crusaders” in the West and their allies in the Arab world will never allow the establishment of an Islamist state…Look to the biggest gift the Arab spring has given al-Qaeda: the increasingly sectarian civil war in Syria.  The prospect of overthrowing Bashar Assad is catnip to jihadists; his Alawite regime is an heretical abomination to the hyper-orthodox Salafis from which al-Qaeda draws its support. Western intelligence thinks most of Syria’s effective rebel militias may now be jihadist, with thousands of fighters from other Muslim countries and hundreds from Europe, especially Britain, France and the Netherlands.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), has recently pushed into eastern Syria from Iraq, following a resurgence there that is part of the more general pattern of ineradicability…Al-Qaeda wants to bring Iraq, Syria and Lebanon together into a single “caliphate”, and ISIS uses foreign fighters drawn to Syria on both sides of the porous border with Iraq. It has also tried to merge with Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), one of the most militarily formidable rebel militias (and the one with which Mr Qunaibi is associated). …For the time being, ISIS and JAN are focused entirely on the would-be caliphate of the Levant. Most of the network’s affiliates are similarly engaged in regional struggles, the most extensive being that of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the north African branch. AQIM is seeking to make use of Libya’s post-revolutionary chaos, and weapons from Muammar Qaddafi’s former arsenal, to create an “arc of instability” across the Sahara and the Sahel. It provides help and advice to jihadist organisations from Boko Haram in Nigeria to the Shabab in Somalia.In 2012 AQIM commanders allied to an indigenous insurgent group, Ansar Eddine, took control of the northern half of Mali. They ruthlessly implemented sharia law and picked an unnecessary fight with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a grouping of rebel Tuaregs…

An intense drone campaign has killed several of AQAP’s (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) senior leaders; its second-in-command, Said al-Shihri, died on July 16th. Yemeni government operations have driven it out of some of the southern tribal areas it overran in 2011. But it has lost none of its ambition….Bruce Riedel, who has advised four presidents and is now at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC, recently warned that al-Qaeda in Pakistan remains embedded in a network of local support groups from the Taliban to Lashkar-e-Taiba. After the departure of NATO combat forces in 2014 it may be able to regenerate itself, rather as ISIS did in Iraq….Thomas Sanderson of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, also in Washington, says al-Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan are weaving a narrative that equates America’s post-2014 withdrawal with the mujahideen defeat of the Soviet Union, another superpower with feet of clay, 25 years earlier…

One counter-terrorism intelligence source recently observed: “Tactically, we may have defeated the central leadership, but strategically, they are winning.”  While attacks on the far enemy are important both as a deterrent and as a source of jihadist inspiration, they are not al-Qaeda’s main purpose. Its overriding aim remains, as it has been since bin Laden saw the retreat of the Soviet Union, the creation of a new caliphate across the Islamic world based on unswerving adherence to sharia law. That requires the corrupting influence of the “Zionist-Crusader alliance” in the region to be extirpated and all apostate Muslim governments removed.

Seen from that point of view, things are not going badly. Al-Qaeda believes America is in retreat not just in Afghanistan but also across the Middle East. The poisoning of the Arab spring has given it new purpose and ideological momentum. Al-Qaeda itself may be divided and in some places depleted. It may be shunned by some with similar ideologies, and its affiliates may increasingly ignore its ageing leadership. But the Salafi jihadist view of the world that al-Qaeda promotes and fights for has never had greater traction.

Excerpts, The state of al-Qaeda: The unquenchable fire, Economist. Sept. 28, 2013, at 21

U.S. Special Operations in 30 African Countries

The United States Army’s Transportation Command (US-TRANSCOM) is looking for private flight contractors to transport commandos from the Joint Special Taskforce Trans-Sahara as they conduct ‘high risk activities’ in 31 African countries.The pre-solicitation notice, issued by the US-TRANSCOM on 1 April, says the contractor will need to conduct air drops, fly commandos in and out of hostile territory and carry out short notice medical evacuation between 12 August 2013 and 27 June 2017. A 10.5 month base period will start in August this year to be followed by three one-year option periods.  [This is]  under the auspices of the US military’s Africa Command, under which the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Trans Sahara (JSOTF-TF) falls.

TRANSCOM is looking for aircraft able to carry at least six passengers and 2 500 pounds of cargo. From the US intelligence hub located in a military airfield in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso..…”Services shall be based at Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, with services provided to, but not limited to, the recognized political boundaries of Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, South Sudan, Tunisia, and Uganda, as dictated by operational requirements. It is anticipated the most likely additional locations for missions from the above list would be to: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia,” the Transcom work statement reads.

The expansion of US commando operations is focused on confronting the threat posed by Sahelian and sub-Saharan terror groups which include Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which operate in nearly all north and north-west African countries. The operations are also aimed at confronting Al Qaeda inspired Nigerian Islamist militant groups Boko Haram and its more radical splinter movement Jamā atu Anṣāril Muslimīna fī Bilādis Sūdān (Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa), better known as Ansaru.

In East and Central Africa, the US special forces operations will target renegade rebel groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and its leader Joseph Kony, Al Shabaab in Somalia, Islamic militant sleeper cells in the coastal areas of Kenya and Tanzania and various regional rebel groups operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. In yet another sign of intensifying US military and security interest in Africa, the US Defence Logistics Agency on April 12 issued a request for bids to provide the US Air Force with 547,500 gallons of No. 2 diesel fuel “for ongoing deliveries to Niamey Airport, Niger, (Africa).“The fuel is intended for a fleet of unarmed US Predator drones which are presently flying intelligence and surveillance missions from a military airport in Niamey into Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Mauritania, Algeria and other suspected terrorist locations in the Sahel.

Since 2009, private flight contractors engaged by US special operations forces have been operating Pilatus PC-12s on intelligence gathering and image collection missions over Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan, Central Africa Republic and other Central African states from a small airport located near the Ugandan city of Entebbe. 

Excerpt, Oscar Nkala, US Army seeking private contractors for African commando transportation, www.defenceweb.co.z, May 7, 2013