MENASTREAM

Mali: Barkhane forces neutralize ten ISGS fighters including a senior commander in Menaka

French forces of Operation Barkhane conducted an air-landed operation overnight between December 14-15 in the Menaka Region. The operation resulted in ten militants of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) being “put out of action”, and arms and electronic equipment seized, according to France’s General Staff of the Armies (EMA).

EMA did not provide any precisions regarding the location of the operation or any further information about the ISGS fighters targeted. However, local sources indicated that the operation took place in Inazole, southwest of Menaka, along the Ansongo-Menaka transit route. At least five militants were reportedly killed and the remaining arrested. Among those killed, Katiba Salaheddine lieutenant and ISGS member Salkou Ould Abalawe, a Tilemsi Arab of the Mashdouf tribe. The group targeted was composed of a mix of Arab, Fulani and Tuareg fighters.

The area of Inazole has witnessed several Barkhane operations and clashes between ISGS fighters and militiamen from the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA). For instance, an ISGS unit commander, Moctar Ould Libnine was killed in fighting with MSA in May 2018 in the area.

Ould Abalawe was lastly signaled on 8 July 2018 in the area of Taziwanate, near Tamkoutat, accused of being involved in the murder of four elderly Tuareg Imghad men at their camp. Ould Abalawe was also a close associate of the two cousins Aboubacar Ould Abidine (“Abu Zubeir”) and Sultan Ould Bady (“Abu Ali”), an early Sahelian member of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), co-founder of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and founder of Katiba Salaheddine. Ould Bady turned himself in to Algerian military authorities in early August 2018 in Tamanrasset, Algeria. Ould Abidine was killed less than a month ago in an air-supported operation by the Algerian People’s National Army (ANP) on 18 November 2019 in the area of Tawendert (Tinzaouatine), Algeria. Ould Abidine had relocated to the border area between Mali and Algeria, in particular, the area of Boughessa in the extreme north of the Kidal Region. The presence of ISGS fighters in the area was already reported in February 2019.

Sahelian militants pledge(d) allegiance to the Islamic State

Decoding the Sahelian part of ISWAP’s ‘And the [best] Outcome is for the Righteous’ (published on June 15, 2019) – Islamic State’s recycling of old footage to advance its cause and influence in the Sahel.

The Islamic State’s (IS) reconstitution in Africa has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For years, assorted media outlets (of various credibility) “reported” the presence of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself in Libya (or even in the Nigerien desert), sometimes accompanied by reports on alerts raised along the Tunisian and Algerian borders. Meanwhile, think tanks and pundits foresaw an exodus of jihadi militants from the Middle East to Africa, foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) returning to their countries of origin in order to carry out attacks, establish new cells, or reinforce the ranks of pre-existing groups. Yes, there’s where IS will reconstitute itself..in Africa.

The crux of the matter is that this would be done without the presence of any self-styled “Caliph” on the African tectonic plate, or any major influx of FTFs relocating. The local environment was already proven fertile ground for militant expansion. As witnessed in the Sahel throughout the year of 2018, a ceaseless deterioration of the subregional security situation self-sustained by a chaotic mix of armed actors and constellations, misguided government responses, abuses by state forces, and intercommunal violence, triggering an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. However, amidst the fall of the so-called “caliphate”, the organization would channel the support it had accumulated in recent years in the Sahel (and elsewhere) into its media and propaganda apparatus. 

Preceding the capture of the last pocket of IS-held territory in Baghuz, Syria—the organization began a media campaign pivoted to the African continent. In Tunisia, IS ramped up its media activities which in previous years had been on energy-saving mode. The organization created the Central Africa Province, grouping rebels of The Allied Democratic Forces in the borderlands of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda—founded in the mid-1990s, and militants of a nascent insurgency in Cabo Delgado, the northernmost province of Mozambique. Analysts argued that while IS’ expansion model differs from that of Al-Qaeda, IS had now set the bar low, the group was “happy to rumble in the jungle“. Significant attention was also given to the Sahel, Islamic State Central (ISC) had re-established communications with its Sahelian affiliate—Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Oaths of allegiance to al-Baghdadi had been given in Mali and Burkina Faso—accepted in persona by the IS leader in a rare audiovisual appearance in late April, alluding to ISGS emir Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi as the subregional interlocutor. Following a two-and-a-half-year-long hiatus in communications, ISC now had plenty of material to exploit.

“Islamic State in Burkina Faso”

On June 15, in a video entitled ‘And the [best] Outcome is for the Righteous‘, militants of Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) renewed their pledge of allegiance to al-Baghdadi after a lengthy speech by an ISWAP commander named as “Sheikh Abu Salmah al-Mangawi”. Abu Salmah affirmed that military campaigns and operations by national and regional forces had failed to liberate Lake Chad and impose peace, rather the militants had shattered the borders by opening up several municipalities in Nigeria and expanded their operations into Niger and Chad.

Screen grab from speech by ISWAP commander “Sheikh Abu Salmah al-Mangawi” at an unspecified location, presumably in the area of Nigeria (Lake Chad)

The renewal was ensued by oaths of allegiance purportedly given in Mali and Burkina Faso. Indeed, IS has made headway in the Sahel and the successive pledges of allegiance emanating in the region have provided the organization with substantial propaganda capital. Add to this, a step-change in capacities of its Sahelian branch on the operational level, coinciding with the resumption of communications between ISGS and ISC—translating into action on the ground. Capacities dependent on local inter-armed group dynamics between ISGS and Al-Qaida’s Sahelian affiliate Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), transfer of competencies by migration of fighters, and coordination and cooperation between the two, while the inclination to conduct spectacular attacks reasonably would have been fueled by ISGS reconnecting to the global. However, by decoding the footage we may find a better measure of the actual value of the pledges in Sahel. 

A video cut takes us from what presumably is Nigeria to Mali. A gathering of approximately forty young men in the bush of Intameda, situated about ninety kilometers east of the regional capital, Gao. Several fighters are recognizable from a previous by ISGS self-produced media item, namely the “Battle of Tongo Tongo”. The man in the middle of the gathering with his face uncovered is Aboubacar Ould Abidine (aka Abu Zoubeir), a younger paternal cousin of Sultan Ould Bady (aka Abu Ali)—an early Sahelian member of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and co-founder of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

Ould Abidine is a former member of the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA), part of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), signatory of the Algiers Accords, and also a former officer of the Operational Coordination Mechanism (MOC), or mixed patrols.

Ould Bady himself would have been present at the meeting about two years ago, discretely and in contrast to his cousin, not visible or identifiable on the footage. In early August 2018, Ould Bady turned himself in to Algerian military authorities in Tamanrasset, Algeria.

The base in Intameda was destroyed amidst a joint operation on February 17, 2018, two days after was Katiba Salaheddine’s pledge first reported (alongside JNIM cells that had defected). Mauritanian journalist, Mohamed Mahmoud Abou al-Maaly hinted to the alliance taking shape two months before the pledge was made public, while Sidi Kounta explicitly made reference to al-Sahrawi and Ould Bady. However, Katiba Salaheddine, had already since mid-2017 begun integrating into ISGS. Ultimately, the group was defeated in rural Gao, those not already absorbed by ISGS were dispersed, Katiba Salaheddine was defunct as a group, and the leaders had left the field. The image analysis below suggest that the footage used in the video is from the same gathering as the second photo featured as a still photo in the “Battle of Tongo Tongo“.  During another shorter sequence, is another unidentified individual exposed with his face uncovered, who  would be another of Ould Bady’s cousins, representing the core of the group founded back in 2013. The same individual is also featured on the still photo from Katiba Salaheddine’s pledge in “Battle of Tongo Tongo”, although back then with face covered.

Katiba Salaheddine pledges allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State. (June 15, 2019 – The Media Office of Islamic State’s West Africa Province)
Katiba Salaheddine pledges allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State. (February 19, 2018 – “Battle of Tongo Tongo” self-produced by ISGS)
Katiba Salaheddine pledges allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State. (June 15, 2019 – The Media Office of Islamic State’s West Africa Province)
Katiba Salaheddine pledges allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State. (February 19, 2018 – “Battle of Tongo Tongo” self-produced by ISGS)

The video now cuts into another view and gathering of men piling up hands to give the oath of fidelity, nothing really provides any hint about location, only a basis for speculations.

Caption: “Pledge by the brothers in Mali and Burkina Faso”

The following screen is a bit more revealing, previously featured as still photo in an Amaq report on a complex mass-casualty ambush against the Nigerien army not far from Tongo Tongo, and an attempted prison break targeting the Koutoukale high-security prison. In the midst of the gathering, a 9K32 Strela-2 (SA-7 Grail) is visible, most likely the same unit featured in the 2016 oath-giving-ceremony.  With this in mind, the actuality of the footage again becomes subject to scrutiny, possibly more old material recycled. While it’s hard to tell where and when the ceremony actually did take place, you can ask if a MANPADS with missing battery crisscrossed the tri-state borders for tacticool ceremonial purposes during the course of three years?

Photo featured in a May 16 (2019) Amaq report on a complex ambush targeting Nigerien forces near Siwili (officially referred to as Tongo Tongo/Bellaberi)

Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi reads out pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, as featured in Amaq video on October 30, 2016, visible and marked to the right, a 9K32 Strela-2 (SA-7 Grail) with battery missing
Unofficial photo from the 2016 pledge-of-allegiance ceremony showcasing a 9K32 Strela-2 (SA-7 Grail) with battery missing

More or less subtle details could provide us with further clues, such as arms (you look for a few FN-FALs, but spot a couple of AK-74s, the former very common on the local Nigerien market, and the latter used by Nigerien forces), physical attributes, colour and style combinations of clothing, like how the headscarves are wrapped and so forth. For instance, note the sand camo and khaki fatigues combined with dark headscarves, frequently used by ISGS fighters in the Mali-Niger borderlands, but also around the tri-state border. The point here is that we’re trying to narrow down by combining multiple elements for plausibility without ignoring other aspects such as militant mobility.

Or the thightly wrapped grey headscarf worn on the fighter on the below screen grab, probably a Dawsahak (or Tuareg) fighter. Or in a second set of images, the possible presence of a Dawsahak-speaking commander in the midst of the gathering, comparing two images from two separate videos, again pertaining to the Mali-Niger borderlands, between Menaka and Tillabery.

Presumed Dawsahak (or Tuareg) ISGS fighter featured in the oath-of-allegiance video by Katibat al-Murabitin led by Abu Walid al-Sahrawi published by Amaq on October 30, 2016
Screen grab of a Dawsahak-speaking ISGS commander “Jaafar al-Ansari” featured in the by ISGS self-produced video, “The Battle of Taranguit”
Possibly the same commander seen on the previous screen grab, although here featured in the official June 15 ISWAP release

A video circulating on closed local WhatsApp groups in the wake of the official release, showed a drowsy pledge by a few dozens of Burkinabe militants (identified as Fulani Djelgoobe) on a misty morning, presumably somewhere in the Burkina Faso-Mali borderlands. Far less impressive in terms of quality, numbers of fighters, and ambience when compared to the official ISWAP release that showed hundreds of fighters “aestethically” lined up with motorbikes and parading to the sound of the accompanying nasheed blasting.

Screen grabs from the official ISWAP release

Screen grabs from the self-produced video circulating on WhatsApp

What this brief analysis concluded is that Islamic State in this release used old footage related to a group in Mali now defunct, probably used other old footage to visually amplify the impact of pledges of allegiance in Mali and Burkina Faso. Further, the organization likely took advantage of the relatively limited output of visual open-source material in the Sahel concerning jihadi militant groups, Thus, knowing they could pick, cut and mix according to preference, regardless of the age of the footage, as shown with the case of Katiba Salaheddine, that reportedly pledged allegiance in mid-2017, an event already announced in February 2018.

“Islamic State in Burkina Faso”

For the first time ever did Islamic State Central officially publish a media product related to the militant group Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). A modest release limited to a low-quality photo showing seven of the group’s fighters wearing military fatigues, equipped with AK rifles, an RPG launcher, and flying a black standard. However, a number of circumstances draws attention to the timing and purpose of this release.

“Soldiers of the Caliphate in Burkina Faso – 1440 Rajab [March 8, 2019 – April 5, 2019] Gharb Ifriqiyah (Ar) West Africa”

First of all, the Islamic State is about to—and will inevitably lose the last tiny pocket it holds in Baghuz, Syria. While underlining that it’s not holding territory that will decide the future of ISIS, nevertheless quite apparent that the territorial loss fait accompli is a factor that has guided the organization’s strategic choice to convey a number of messages across the African continent. It clings on to its slogan “baqiyah wa tatamaddad“, remaining and expanding, and aims to give the impression of expansion in Africa.

The organization has stepped up media operations in the Lake Chad Region with a sharp increase in claimed attacks, already amounting to the total number of attacks claimed in 2018. Media products emanating in Tunisia in recent weeks have resulted in premieres including a beheading video published by the semi-official al-Furat Media Foundation, and a photo report showing the daily lives of Tunisian fighters in the western mountains, activities that apparently triggered a response from special units of the National Guard (USGN) who two days after the publication of the photo report conducted a raid at Mount Salloum in the Kasserine Governorate, and removed three Jund al-Khilafah militants including an alleged emir from the ecosystem.

Then it was Burkina’s turn, the country where ISGS carried out its first two attacks in the fall of 2016. Yet until now, ISIS hasn’t officially claimed responsibility for a single attack carried out by its—in October 2016—accepted Sahelian affiliate. Official media activities related to the group limited to two news items in the weekly Al-Naba newsletter, replicating mainstream media, and a delayed unofficial release of an already leaked video of the Tongo Tongo ambush in Niger.

Furthermore, on March 10, presumed ISGS militants carried out one of its most advanced attacks involving a suicide car bomb and a motorbike-borne assault squad targeting French forces in the process of setting up a security post near Akabar in Mali’s Ménaka Region. While the attack was thwarted, as many as fifteen French soldiers were wounded including two sustaining severe injuries, necessitating a strategic medical evacuation to France. The ISIS Central publication also comes in a context where ISGS and JNIM are deepening cooperation and coordination, groups that are interconnected and share a common substratum, geographical space, objectives, and adversaries. See: Mali: Complex attack against French forces in Menaka, Menastream, 2019.

ISGS has independently from ISIS Central during the past three months (consistent for the past four years) produced and released for local consumption, two videos and a photoset showing militiamen killed and arms seized. Neither has ISIS Central mentioned the aforementioned attack, any other recent attacks nor the cited media products.

A single low-quality photo would come to represent the first official publication attributed to its “caliphate soldiers” in Burkina Faso. Well, the thing is, the photo is more than a year old, taken in the area of Touka-Bayel northwest of Dori, Séno Province. Noteworthy is that Séno constitutes the province with the lowest level of militant military activity in Burkina’s Sahel Region out of four provinces. In fact, only one attack has taken place in the province. On December 4, 2018, presumed ISGS or Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) militants raided a gendarmerie checkpoint, seven kilometers east of Dori, on the road toward Seytenga, three gendarmes were wounded, and vehicles burned and motorbikes seized by the assailants. Five months earlier, security forces arrested a municipal councilor in Dori, described as an Ansaroul Islam tax collector. Thus, locations of armed action do not fully reflect militant presence or areas of operations. During an audiovisual speech in November 2018, JNIM’s Katiba Macina emir Amadou Kouffa greeted militants specifically in the area of Dori, among others. See: Comment le djihad armé se diffuse au Sahel, The Conversation, 2019.

Here follows a brief photo analysis comparing a photo obtained by Menastream in April 2018 with the single ISIS low-quality photo. The analysis will show that the two photos most likely were taken during the same gathering in Touka-Bayel. The ISIS media photo shows seven fighters, all identifiable on the ISGS photo obtained almost a year earlier. The individuals are numbered to show the corresponding matches and markers used as identifiers. The resolution is visibly higher on the first photo, the color tones differ due to shadow, sunlight, and possibly editing. The camo patterns on the fatigues worn, other accessories, and arms are identical.

Individual 1 wears a distinct white cheche, and a com-radio attached in the same angle on both images, probably the commander of the group.

Individual 2 wears a noticeably angular cap or bucket hat wrapped in a bandana high on top of the head.

Individual 3 is the only one wearing a camo bucket hat with screen visible, belt with a water bottle, and an RPG-7 launcher.

Individual 4 is relatively tall wearing a camo cap or bucket hat wrapped in a bandana and com-radio on the left side of the chest.

Individual 5’s headscarf is sloppy wrapped and does not fully cover the face, revealing facial features, transparent sunglasses, and black boots.

Individual 6 is the only one wearing a cap without a screen over the headscarf without a bandana, the face is partly uncovered with some distinguishable facial features, com-radio attached in the middle of the tactical vest, and a shoe tag not removed.

Individual 7 is hidden on the second row, but discernible by a distinct sand yellow headscarf with the edge folded down over the nose, a grey and green camo fatigue, and hiking shoes.

Mali: Complex attack against French forces in Menaka

ISGS militants aboard motorbikes in the Mali-Niger borderlands

Around 1300 local time on Sunday afternoon, an attempted complex attack targeted French forces in the area of Akabar, Menaka Region, not far from the border with Niger. French forces reportedly spotted and opened fire against a Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (SVBIED) (Ouest-France), triggering a premature detonation, local sources testified about the sound of a heavy explosion echoing across the plains of rural Menaka. Enfilading small arms fire by a group of an estimated fifteen presumed Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) militants aboard motorbikes followed the detonation. Around fifteen French soldiers were wounded, mostly minor injuries, however, two were severely wounded, necessitating a strategic medical evacuation to France. The attack came as the French forces set up a security post in the area. Mirage 2000 fighter jets and a quick reaction force (QRF) deployed didn’t manage to intercept the bikers (RFI).

Yesterday’s attack constitutes the second SVBIED attack carried out by presumed ISGS militants targeting French forces. On January 11, 2018, an explosives-laden pickup truck struck a Barkhane patrol between Menaka and In-Delimane, wounding three military medics. Furthermore, it’s the fourth complex attack involving the use of SVBIEDs in the past seven weeks, the three preceding were all claimed by Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). Thus, the deployment of suicide tactics is occurring at a pace not witnessed since in the wake of the French intervention
back in 2013 with Operation Serval.

During the first fortnight of February, ISGS and JNIM conducted what strongly appeared to be a coordinated campaign against the local militias of the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) and the Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-defence Group (GATIA), armed groups known to cooperate with the French forces. Attacks and clashes took place in Tidimbawen, Inahar, Taringuite, In-Agar, and Talataye, the coalition lost around forty men with others injured, a considerable toll within such a short time frame. Moreover, JNIM announced for the first time in public to be at war with MSA and GATIA by officially claiming responsibility for two attacks targeting the two movements which the group described as “agents of the crusaders”, as well as previous attacks in the area, without providing further details.

While militant groups recently have suffered multiple tactical defeats and lost senior commanders (MENASTREAM), militancy is expanding in the subregion (The Conversation), notably in Burkina Faso where new fronts have opened up in the eastern and southwestern parts of the country since the beginning of last year (ACLED). A more recent development is that militants are gaining ground in the Centre-Nord Region.

In the context of militant expansion and adaptation, there are several discernible trends. The proliferation and spread of IED and landmine usage as seen in previously untouched areas such as Torodi and Ayorou in Niger’s Tillabery Region, and across several provinces in Burkina’s Est Region. Another tendency is the increasingly frequent use of explosives to destroy public infrastructure including administrative buildings, schools, and security facilities. An additional aspect is innovation, reflected by the modus operandi of booby-trapping corpses as seen on two occasions near Diankabou, Mali, and near Djibo, Burkina Faso. Part of the adaptation process is that JNIM and ISGS are increasingly melting together in order to consolidate ranks, sharing objectives and adversaries.

Exclusive: End of the run for Tunisian Ansar al-Sharia founder Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi

Seifallah Ben Hassine, commonly known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi—one of North Africa’s most influential jihadi ideologues—is confirmed to have been killed on February 21, 2019, in northern Mali.

A senior Tunisian Al-Qaida member, Afghanistan veteran, and founder of the Islamist organization Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) is now confirmed to have been killed in an operation by French forces, reportedly in the area of El Aklé, nearly 300km northwest of Timbuktu, Mali, on the border with Mauritania.

[Update] However, on 13 June, 2019, French defense minister Florence Parly stated that the operation took place in Bou Djebeha, approximately 125km north of Timbuktu. Ultimately, the emir of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abu Musab Abdul Wadud announced in an audio message on 27 February, 2020, the deaths of Yahya Abu al-Hammam and Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi.

In the wake of the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, Abu Iyadh founded AST and mobilized tens of thousands of Islamists. In mid-August 2012, Abu Iyadh hosted late Bahraini Islamic State ideologue Turki al-Bin’ali in his hometown of Menzel Bourguiba, a month later, he commanded the assault on the U.S. embassy in Tunis. The following year, two political assassinations of the opposition politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi took place, Abu Iyad is among the primary suspects to have planned the assassinations. Abu Iyadh escaped arrest attempts twice and the Tunisian government declared AST a terrorist organization in 2013. Since then, the whereabouts of Abu Iyadh have been shrouded in mystery after he fled Tunisia for Libya. In fact, he was announced dead in 2015, although he wasn’t.

Mohamed al-Zahawi, founder of AST’s brother organization in Libya, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL), sustained severe injuries during the battle of the Benina Airport in late 2014. Al-Zahawi was transported via Ajdabiya to Misrata, and received treatment in Turkey, but succumbed to his wounds. The corpse of Al-Zahawi was repatriated to Misrata for burial—Abu Iyadh present during the funeral—mourned Al-Zahawi by his side.

On June 14, 2015, the U.S. conducted an airstrike against a farm south of Ajdabiya. Both Abu Iyadh and the infamous one-eyed Algerian militant commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar were reported to have been killed in the airstrike. Eventually, those killed were local Ansar al-Sharia members. The farm belonged to another Al-Qaida veteran, namely al-Saadi Bukhazem al-Nawfali (Abu Abdallah) who in the early 2000s fought in Iraq as a member of Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Nawfali was imprisoned upon return to Libya, although in the wake of the Libyan Revolution he became the emir of the Ajdabiya Shura Council which in 2016 became ‘Operations Room for the Liberation of the City Ajdabiya and Support for Benghazi Rebels’. The group launched an offensive in the early summer of 2016 along the axis Ajdabiya-Benghazi, briefly taking control of a couple of villages, and claiming to have downed a helicopter (other reports indicate technical failure) of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) in the area of Magrun, killing three French intelligence operatives (DGSE) and three Libyans who were aboard the aircraft.

Since the U.S. airstrike in Ajdabiya, not much has filtered regarding the fate of Abu Iyadh, at times said to be hiding in Derna, however, in mid-2016, the Tunisian news outlet Akher Khabar Online reported that Abu Iyadh managed to leave Libya for northern Mali, where he resided under the protection of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Ultimately, the report proved to be correct since Abu Iyadh now have been confirmed killed alongside Jama’ah Nusrat Al-Islam wal-Muslimin’s (JNIM) deputy emir Yahya Abu al-Hammam amidst a combined air-ground operation by French forces of Operation Barkhane.

Abu Iyadh is not the only Tunisian jihadist militant who has sought refuge in the Sahel. In November 2016, Nigerien security forces arrested his associate Wannes Ben Hassine Fékih and later extradited him to Tunisia. Fékih, accused of planning the Bardo attack in Tunis, was condemned to ten years in prison. Another former senior Ansar al-Sharia member, Moez Fezzani, met a similar fate in Sudan, his arrest was made possible through exchanges of intelligence between Italian, Sudanese, and Libyan authorities, and likewise extradited to Tunisia for prosecution, where he two months after his return was sentenced to thirty years in prison.

Burkina Faso: Attack against customs checkpoint in Nohao, customs officers and Spanish priest killed

(Updated)

Around 17h local time, presumed militants attacked a customs checkpoint in Nohao, situated in the Boulgou Province on national route 16 between Cinkansé and Bittou, near the Ghanaian border.

Four customs officers were killed in the attack and three vehicles burned. Koglweogo militiamen arriving at the site were told by the militants to make a “u-turn” and not to meddle in their affairs, since they were after defense and security forces (FDS). Consequently, the Koglweogo left the area.

In connection to the events in Nohao, a vehicle carrying a Spanish priest and two local colleagues traveling from Cinkansé en route to Ouagadougou was intercepted by the militants who separated the Spanish priest from the others and shot him dead.

The organization CERFI planned to hold an Islamic conference on Sunday in Bittou, the event was postponed as a result of the attack.

The Burkinabe air force carried out an erroneous airstrike on January 30 against the village of Zanta, also located in the Boulgou Province, while in the process of retaliating against militants who had overrun an army camp in Kompienbiga. (see Menastream: Burkina Faso: Airstrike hit village 130km from the actual target)

Yesterday, two Burkinabe soldiers were killed and six others wounded after being dispatched to the site of a corpse dressed in military uniform between Djibo and Mentao in the country’s north. The body was booby-trapped and detonated when the team handled the corpse in order to move it from the area. The incident is the first of its kind, although militants frequently use IEDs, mines, and explosives when conducting attacks and blowing up security and educational facilities.

Burkina Faso: Airstrike hit village 130km from the actual target

On January 30, around 17h30 local time, JNIM militants aboard a 4×4 vehicle and motorbikes, equipped with RPGs and machine guns attacked the army camp in Kompienbiga, located in the country’s east. The militants overran the military camp, took control of the site, and torched vehicles of substantial worth including ACMAT Bastion armored vehicles, Toyota Land Cruiser pickup trucks, and motorbikes. The defending soldiers composed of combined units of the 34th Interarms Regiment (RIA) in Fada N’Gourma and the 31st Commando Infantry Regiment (RIC) in Tenkodogo quickly abandoned their posts, some reportedly sought refuge at the gendarmerie while others fled toward the southern border, subsequently arrested on Togolese territory, to later be repatriated to Ouagadougou.

About one and a half hour after the armed assault on the army camp in Kompienbiga—an airstrike took place in the village of Zanta which is a part of Zourma, twenty-five kilometers from the Burkinabe-Ghanaian border. Villagers witnessed explosions, a man in a neighboring village testified about a helicopter hovering the area, but couldn’t identify if it was a helicopter of the army. Projectiles hit the ground, trees and fields, exploding and causing fires, although no casualties were recorded. The projectiles fired were 57mm rockets of the S-5 series (see images below), widely used for helicopter armament subsystems. The events in Zanta sparked wild speculations in the Burkinabe media, and a not very informed debate on social media. However, Burkina Faso currently has one operational attack helicopter of type Mi-24 (Mi-35) stationed in Ouagadougou, and a Super Tucano in Bobo-Dioulasso. Thus, it was likely the Mi-24 deployed to Zourma, apparently, in order to provide air support to the forces attacked in Kompienbiga and retaliate against the militants controlling the camp. The issue is that Zourma is situated 130km from the actual target site (see map attached), indicating that the air raid conducted was randomly executed, without any visual contact established or target identified. In fact, it strongly appears that the erroneous airstrike was conducted due to a geographical error, Kompienbiga and Zourma share the same coordinate numbers, albeit respectively in eastern and western direction on the longitude axis.

The Burkinabe government didn’t acknowledge any responsibility for the failed airstrike and the grave error committed. Instead, the recently appointed Minister of Security, Ousséni Compaoré, stated that “investigations are underway to determine the nature of the devices”. Militancy in Burkina Faso is spreading like a wildfire, attacks are occuring at an unprecedented scale and pace, weakening the government’s already-tenuous hold of several regions and provinces, at a time when Burkina Faso is ascending the throne of the G5 Sahel presidency.

Prior to the attack in Kompienbiga, militants overran another army camp in the country’s north, harboring the counter-terrorism forces of the Northern Security Forces Group (GFSN), the assault triggered the third French intervention since early October last year.

In the wake of repeated assaults against positions of the army, security forces, and the killing of fourteen civilians in a village on the border with Mali—GFSN forces launched a large-scale operation in the provinces of Loroum, Sourou, and Yatenga. The general staff of the armed forces issued a statement claiming to have “neutralized 146 terrorists” as the result of this operation. Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) West Africa director, Corinne Dufka stated that sources interviewed by HRW said that some of those killed were executed in front of their families. The number per se is unprecedented and draws attention to both the timing and purpose of this announcement in light of successive setbacks. Potentially an attempt to sway opinion of an increasingly discontent public. The events have also sparked polemics among Burkinabes, those skeptic about the claims by the army or criticizing reported abuses and executions are accused of supporting terrorism, or even named as terrorists. The use of Balzac’s famous quote “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs” is frequent in the discourse, said to justify what some consider “collateral damage”, including abuses and summary executions.

Mali: French forces killed ISGS commander involved in Tongo Tongo ambush

Early on the morning of August 26, French forces of operation Barkhane conducted a combined air-ground operation between Infoukaretane and Labouta, about 30km south of Ménaka. Two Mirage 2000 fighter jets carried out an air raid followed by action on the ground by commandos. The operation resulted in the death of a senior commander of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), namely Mohamed “Atinka” Ag Almouner and one of his guard corps. In addition to the nickname “Atinka”, Ag Almouner was referred to as “Le Réseau”, a French word meaning the network.  The member of the guard corps killed has been named as Mouta, the son of a prominent marabout in Infoukaretane. Two civilians including a woman and a child were also killed in the airstrike, the French General Staff of the Armies said that it had opened an investigation because of the civilian fatalities. Two more civilians and a militant were wounded amid the operation, subsequently provided medical care by Barkhane’s medical staff.

Ag Almouner from the Idoguiritane fraction of Dawsahak tribe was one of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi’s most senior lieutenants, identified as having played a leading role in the ambush on October 4, 2017, against a joint force of U.S. Green Berets and the Nigerien army in Tongo Tongo, Niger. An earlier article by the New York Times stated that Ag Almouner was killed in Tongo Tongo, citing American military officials. In the same way, another article by the New York Times stated that the Nigerien ISGS commander, Dando Cheffou “may be in custody”. Ultimately, none of the reports were proven to be correct. Local sources further confirmed that Al Mahmoud “Ikaray” Ag Baye who was a superior commander of Ag Almouner is still alive, in contrast to the U.S. assessment that he also had been killed in the Tongo Tongo ambush.

In late March this year, Nigerien gendarmes on a routine patrol in the small village of Wedi Bangou, Tillabery, arrested a group of men, some of them were armed, the gendarmes blindfolded and lined them up on the ground in the vicinity of the gendarmerie. During the interrogations, a young man caught the attention of the interrogators who suspected it was Ibrahim Ousmane, more commonly known as Dando Cheffou, prompting the Nigeriens to alert the Americans, believing that they finally had got their hands on the American hostage Jeffrey Woodke’s suspected caretaker. However, at the time was Cheffou traveling in a convoy with his senior commander Illiassou Djibo, also known as Petit Chafori, spotted while passing through a hamlet in a valley not far from the Malian border, an area which serves as a base for the ISGS militants.

Between February and early April 2018, ISGS was the target of intense counter-militancy operations spearheaded by Barkhane, aided by a coalition of local militias including the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) and the Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-defence Group (GATIA). However, these operations were followed by a series of mass atrocities in the Mali-Niger borderlands, the violence soon spread to rural Gao, and later to Gourma and Arabanda.

The losses suffered by ISGS have caused a quasi-breakdown in its ranks. On August 11, the Algerian Ministry of National Defense (MDN) announced that Sultan Ould Badi, the commander of ISGS constituent Katiba Salaheddine, had surrendered to the military authorities in Tamanrasset, Algeria. A report by France 24 suggested that Ould Badi had been captured in late June amidst an operation by the Algerian army, although Ould Badi turned himself in within the frame of a negotiated settlement with the Algerian authorities together with three of his associates. Ould Badi and his companions were spotted near Aguelhok in early August while traveling from the Tilemsi Valley toward the Algerian border.

Tunisia: Joint operation between Tunisian and U.S. forces targeted AQIM militants in Kasserine – “Battle of Mount Semmama”

In an article by Task and Purpose, previously undisclosed information revealed that two U.S. members of the Marine Special Operations Command (MSOC), also referred to as Marine Raiders had received decorations (Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Combat “V”) following a battle with militants of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) at an unknown location in Northern Africa. The article provides a relatively detailed account of the course of the battle, notably that air-support was called in following an initial engagement which resulted in the killing of a militant. However, specific details about the operation were withheld due to “classification considerations, force protection, and diplomatic sensitivities”. It was further stated that the events occurred within the frame of “..a three-day operation to train, advise, and assist partner forces in the unnamed country”.

In any case, the article does reveal some crucial details about the operation including the date, February 28, 2017, and the identity of the opposing belligerent, as previously mentioned, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. This information enabled a rapid identification by triangulation of the actual event which undoubtedly took place on the aforementioned date in the area of Douar el Atrach at Mount Semmama, situated in the Kasserine Governorate of Tunisia. Notwithstanding that it is speculated in the article where the actual events took place, unknowingly, it testifies about a fierce battle between joint Tunisian and U.S. forces against militants of Katibat Uqba Bin Nafaa (KUBN), AQIM’s Tunisian branch. Militants attempting to flank U.S. forces and its Tunisian counterparts, as well as returning accurate fire, wounding a Tunisian M60 gunner aboard a helicopter accompanied by U.S. soldiers, one of the U.S. soldiers taking over the control of the M60 machine gun in order to maintain suppressive fire against the enemy. Eventually, Tunisian forces secured the site of the battle, which resulted in the killing of two militants including an Algerian and a Tunisian, a Steyr AUG rifle, magazines, ammunition, solar cells, and medical supplies were also seized. While not of comparable magnitude, the U.S. and its partner force (Tunisian Armed Forces) sustained one casualty each, echoing the dramatic events that took place seven months later in Tongo Tongo, Niger.

 

A Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Combat “V” for valor. Photo credit: Lance Cpl. Christopher Johns

 

The personal trajectories of the two militants killed differ significantly. The Algerian, Hichem Messaadia began his journey of jihad in his early 20s. In early 2006, Messaadia crossed the border from Syria into Iraq where he in Al-Qaim fought for several factions before ending up in Tandhim Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  After about a year on the field, a militant gathering was hit by a U.S. airstrike, most of Messaadia’s companions were either killed or wounded, Messaadia himself was wounded. Lonely he escaped to Syria for treatment and to heal his wounds. Despite the willingness to return to Iraq upon recovery, the communication lines with the comrades in Iraq had been broken. Stranded, Messaadia went to Turkey in preparation to make hijra (emigrate) to Afghanistan. A house where Messaadia stayed was raided by Turkish security forces, and Messaadia once again returned to Syria. Contacts with Iraq were resumed but his group was monitored. Ultimately, he was arrested and detained by Syrian intelligence at the infamous Fir’a Filistin (Palestine Branch) for three months before being extradited to Algeria and handed over to Algerian intelligence. Back in Algeria, Messaadia toured the prisons of Harrach, Serkadji, and Berrouaghia. Following his release, he joined militants in the Aurès mountains, roaming the hills, plains, and valleys before reaching the western highlands of Tunisia. The Tunisian killed, Ammar Alaoui, was born and raised in El Kef, staggering through his youth and life as an adult, spending time in prison for common law crimes. At the age of thirty, he became more religious and started frequenting mosques, seemingly like so many other Tunisian youths and young men, feeling disenfranchised, confronted with a lack of prospects for the future, probably also influenced by fellow inmates during his stay in prison. In 2015, Alaoui joined KUBN at Mount Ouergha, the Kef Governorate’s largest mountain range which constitutes KUBN’s secondary stronghold. Alaoui was reported to have provided support for militant groups, planted IEDs at Mount Ouergha, and taking part in more than one attack against Tunisian defense and security forces. Alaoui later linked up with militants in the Kasserine mountains amidst increased pressure in the highlands of Kef.

 

Hicham Messaadia (“Abu Khallad al-Marwani”), born 1984 in Merouana, Batna Province, Algeria; and Ammar Ben Hamadi Alaoui (“Ikrimah al-Tunisi”), born 1984 in the city of El Kef, Tunisia, both killed amidst the joint Tunisia-U.S. operation on February 28, 2017.

 

While Tunisia has been a key regional U.S. counter-terrorism partner post-9/11, annually receiving substantial security assistance, more recent involvement in counter-terrorism operations dates back to February 2014, when a team of fewer than 50 U.S. special operations troops was deployed to a remote base in western Tunisia. In the wake of a terrorist attack against the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March 2015, U.S. forces provided operational support amidst a counter-terrorism operation targeting core members of KUBN in Sidi Aich, Gafsa. Possibly taking part in a raid in July 2015 in Ben Guerdane against the home of arms smuggler, Hocine Rebai (Maiz), also known as “the Prince of the Borders” with connections to militant networks. Later the same year, a joint force consisting of U.S. advisors and Tunisian soldiers discovered a militant camp in the heights of Kasserine. The joint force only observed the camp and did not launch any assault due to the presence of women and children at the site. The United State Air Force (USAF) component of the United States Africa Command (Africom) has frequently flown intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions across Tunisia from Sigonella and Pantelleria, Italy. U.S. staff and Reaper drones have also operated out of the Sidi Ahmed Air Base in Bizerte.

 

Sidi Ahmed Air Base, Bizerte. Credit: Dan Gettinger

 

Beyond the various dimensions of U.S.-Tunisian partnership in the domain of counter-terrorism, this particular event apparently surfaced because of the dramatic circumstances. However, it would be naive to believe that this was an isolated incident limited to a three-day training and advisory mission considering the documented presence of U.S. forces on Tunisian soil for more than four and a half years. Noteworthy, in the context of a low-level insurgency driven by a number of militants estimated between 100-200 individuals, the number 200 representing the very upper end of estimates. On February 17, 2017, eleven days prior to the publicized operation, another operation had taken place in Ain Fara at Mount Semmama, resulting in the killing of two KUBN militants. Once again, an Algerian and a Tunisian, just like the events involving the joint Tunisia-U.S. force. The “Battle of Mount Semmama” was effectively fought between February and May 2017 including a detour operation in Sidi Bouzid that resulted in the elimination of KUBN’s emir, the Algerian Sofiane Segni (“Abu Sufyan al-Soufi”) and his Tunisian associate Iheb Yousfi (“Abu Yaqin al-Qayrawani”). Segni and Yousfi had descended the mountain and were holed up in a safe house in the town of Sidi Bouzid. It was a month ahead of Ramadan, the month of “raids and conquests”, the two militants had planned to carry out attacks. On April 30, Special Units of the National Guard (USGN) launched a pre-emptive operation by assaulting the safe house. Segni cornered, detonated his explosive belt, Yousfi also equipped with an explosive belt was shot dead before he managed to detonate his device. The operation had ended, two AKs and a hand grenade had been seized, a dozen people including the owner of the safe house were arrested. Segni had been sought by authorities since late March 2015, accused of having planned the mass-casualty attack which had targeted tourists at the Bardo Museum in the capital of Tunis.

 

The front page of a publication by AQIM’s secondary media wing Ifriqiya al-Muslimah, entitled “Battle of Mount Semmama – Heroic bravery”

 

Militant presence at Mount Semmama did not end with the battle that raged during the spring of 2017, IEDs have continued to be triggered by soldiers conducting combing operations, and shepherds herding their flocks of sheep or goats, repeated shellings and airstrikes against suspected militant positions, and  militants raiding villages adjacent to the mountains in hunt for supplies. On January 20, 2018, an operation conducted by USGN targeted two KUBN cadres on the western hillside of Mount Semmama near the town of Khmouda, namely two Algerians, Bechir Neji and Bilel Kobbi. Neji, a veteran described as a mountain guide with excellent knowledge of the mountain routes between Tunisia and Algeria, while Kobbi has been attributed the assignment of reorganizing KUBN and being an aide of AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel, functioning as the liaison between Tunisia and Algeria. A media hype surrounded the deaths of Neji and Kobbi, portraying the events as being linked to efforts by Al-Qaeda to regroup and to reunite splinter groups in Tunisia against the backdrop of Islamic State setbacks. Anyways, both Neji and Kobbi had fought in the ranks of KUBN for years. KUBN cooperates closely with AQIM militants on the Algerian side, in particular, Katibat al-Fath al-Mubin active in the provinces of Tebessa, Khenchela and El Oued. Militants frequently move back and forth across the border. Naturally, since their areas of operations are found in the borderlands, stroking the frontier on the Tunisian side from Jendouba in the north to Gafsa in the south.

Abu Siham Khalid al-Jaza’iri, born 1980 in Jijel, Algeria, joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in 1995, linked up with Katiba Uqba Bin Nafaa in 2016. Killed on February 17, 2017, in Ain Fara at Mount Semmama, Kasserine.

 

Abderrahmane Boukhari (Abu Zayd al-Tunisi), born 1995, from the El Hannachi neighborhood of El Kef, killed on February 17, 2017 in Ain Fara, Mount Semmama, Kasserine

 

Late KUBN emir, the Algerian Sofiane Segni (“Abu Sufyan al-Soufi”), born 1987, from Reguiba in the province of El Oued, Algeria; and his Tunisian associate Iheb Yousfi (“Abu Yaqin al-Qayrawani”), born 1996, from the Nour neighborhood of Sidi Bouzid, both killed on April 30, 2017 in Ouled Chelbi, Sidi Bouzid

 

Bechir Ben Neji (“Hamza al-Nimr” or “al-Morr”) joined militant groups in Algeria in 2003 and Katibat Uqba Bin Nafaa in 2013, killed at Mount Semmama, near the town of Khmouda on January 20, 2018, his corpse was recovered on the morning the following day

 

Bilel Kobbi, sought by Algerian authorities since 1993, joined Katibat Uqba Bin Nafaa at Mount Chaambi, Kasserine in 2012, killed at Mount Semmama, near the town of Khmouda on January 20, 2018

 

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Arms, ammunition, IEDs, explosives, IED manufacturing materials, and other equipment seized at Mount Semmama, Kasserine (February 17, 2017 — January 20, 2018)