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.

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.

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.

Mali: Al-Mourabitoun commander and associates killed amidst Barkhane operation near Tabankort

On July 29, French forces of Operation Barkhane conducted a military operation in the Tilemsi Valley, specifically in the area of Ersane near Tabankort, Gao Region. The operation was initiated by an airstrike followed by a ground assault. The operation resulted in the killing of Himama Ould Lekhweir (alt. Hamama Ould al-Khuwayyir) and at least thirteen of his associates, all Tilemsi Arabs including seven from Ould Lekhweir’s Lemhar tribe and six others from the Ladim tribe, according to tribal sources. However, the death of Ould Lekhweir was refuted by Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), as reported on Twitter by Mauritanian journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Maaly. Ould Lekhweir was a former member of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and in particular the katiba (brigade) “Oussama Ben Laden”. Regardless of the confusion about Ould Lekhweir’s fate, the death toll following the operation stands at fourteen killed and at least two combatants taken prisoners.

In August 2013, MUJAO merged with Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Al-Muwaqq’iun bi-Dima into Al-Mourabitoun, the merger was arranged in connection with two coordinated attacks against the Areva-operated uranium mine in Arlit and Nigerien army barracks in Agadez, Niger. Ould Lekhweir had a record of trafficking and was a close associate of late MUJAO-founder and Al-Mourabitoun emir Abderrahmane Ould El Amar (“Ahmed al-Tilemsi”). Ould Lekhweir was arrested in 2010 amidst a major counter-trafficking operation in the area of Lemzareb, Mauritania, but subsequently released.

Himama Ould Lekhweir (“Hamza al-Tabankorti”) has been described as an explosives expert and potential successor of late Al-Mourabitoun emir and JNIM co-founder Mohamed Lahbous (“Mohamed Ould Nouini”), Lahbous was a military commander who among other responsibilities directed the group’s regional operations, such as the attacks in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast. Lahbous was killed together with several other senior JNIM commanders and fighters amidst a coordinated Barkhane operation on February 14 against targets in the areas of Tin Zaouatene, Boughessa, and Aouhou.

Moreover, this operation came in the wake of a presumed French airstrike a week ago in the southern Libyan town of Ubari, a strike which targeted the leadership of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Libya. Ramzi Mansour (“Ramzi al-Tunisi”), a senior Tunisian AQIM commander was killed in the strike. Al-Tunisi was a recruiter, trainer, and facilitator considered to be the organization’s number three in Libya, The organization’s Algerian top leader in Libya, Moussa Bourahla was killed in a previous strike on March 24, also in Ubari, for which the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) announced its responsibility.

Abderrahmane Ould El Amar was known as Ahmed al-Tilemsi, killed amidst Barkhane operation on December 11, 2014 in Tabankort of the Tilemsi Valley, Gao Region

Mohamed Lahbous was known as Mohamed Ould Nouini and Hassan al-Ansari/al-Tabankorti, killed amidst Barkhane operation on February 14, 2018, in the area of I-n-Aralouas, extreme north Kidal Region, near Tin Zaouatene on the Algerian border

 

Libya: Tunisian AQIM commander killed in Ubari airstrike

In the evening of July 25, an unknown aircraft conducted an airstrike that struck a vehicle in front of a house in the Al-Sharib district of Ubari. An area mainly inhabited by Libyan and Malian Tuareg. The airstrike briefly interrupted electricity and telecommunications. The air raid was initially assumed to have been carried out by the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), considering recent U.S. action on March 24 in a nearby area of Ubari, an airstrike that killed two militants of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) including the Algerian senior commander Moussa Bourahla, known by his nom de guerre “Musa Abu Dawud”. However, AFRICOM denied responsibility for the latest airstrike in a communication to Airwars. U.S. denial strongly points to France as the author of the operation, taking into account previous action and its strategic interests in the region, although this has still not been confirmed.

Speculations have gone wild about the target of the airstrike and individuals killed. Some Libyan news outlets reported that six individuals including three Malians, two Algerians and a Libyan named as “Abu Laith al-Libi” had been killed, while others said that the deputy emir of Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin and the emir of AQIM’s Sahara Region, Yahya Abu al-Hammam (Djamel Okacha) had been targeted together with Katibat al-Furqan commander Talha al-Mauritani. A source close to AQIM acknowledged in a communication (published on Twitter by French researcher Romain Caillet) that Abu al-Hammam and Al-Mauritani were those targeted, although not present in Libya, but on Malian soil fighting the “occupying Crusaders”, the same source further indicated that the airstrike had been carried out by the United Arab Emirates. However, according to information received by MENASTREAM, there was only one individual killed in the Ubari strike, namely AQIM commander Ramzi Mansour, a Tunisian going by the nom de guerre Ramzi al-Tunisi, an aide of late Moussa Bourahla, killed in the previously mentioned airstrike by the U.S. in Ubari. Another Tunisian, late Al-Mourabitoun member Mokhtar Akkouri was killed in an airstrike in Gardhah al-Shati in November 2016.

 

 

Mali: “The old man of the mountain”

Timely, two days ahead of Mali’s presidential elections, the emir of Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), Iyad Ag Ghaly made his first appearance since the announcement of the merger in March last year, which gathered several militant factions into a Sahelian jihadi conglomerate. A beard grey of age and whitened by the sun, cut into a montage of wooden blinds with a laptop placed on a table in front, the long-serving Tuareg sheik and militant leader began to read out his speech accompanied by gusts of the desert wind and reflections of sun rays and silhouettes of tree leaves and branches waving above.

The multifaceted political message delivered was motivated by expectations on the jihadi alliance to clarify its stance amidst major political events and developments in Mali, while underscoring that the issue of the soon to be held elections already had been addressed in a previous message by the group’s Moroccan qadi (judge) Ali Maychou, more commonly known by his nom de guerre Abu Abderrahmane Al-Sanhaji or Al-Maghribi. Ag Ghaly dismissed the forthcoming elections as a mirage that only exploits people’s illusions, a democratic process which the Shariah opposes, further advising the audience that religion is the right way. Al-Sanhaji had earlier urged Malians to boycott the elections since they only would maintain a system of corruption, oppression, and continued French occupation, the only solution is jihad, according to Al-Sanhaji.

On the field, the group has suffered a series of tactical defeats with a dozen senior and mid-level commanders killed so far in 2018, and it had limited success in terms of outcome of the military operations where significant means were deployed, although the complex attack against the Burkinabe army’s Chief of Staff (EMGA) headquarters, the failed assault on the French Embassy in Ouagadougou in March this year, and the complex attack which destroyed the G5Sahel-Force headquarters in Sevaré a month ago were highly symbolic and indicated that the group maintained significant operational capabilities and the ability to strike hard targets across the subregion. Nevertheless, Ag Ghaly proclaimed that France had failed in achieving its goals and that the prolonged “occupation” and the numerous operations only had multiplied the ranks and popular support for the “mujahideen”, additionally, militant expansion in neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. In light of the alleged failure on the part of France, Ag Ghaly accused the former colonial power of letting the Malian army commit massacres in Macina, Boulkessi and elsewhere, crimes that Ag Ghaly promised not to be left unanswered. Considering France’s central role in Mali, one gets a bit confounded that France does not use its leverage to pressure Malian authorities to put an end to these practices, essentially this is not a recent phenomenon. Indeed, France did not hasten to express concerns over the massacres in Nantaka and Kobaka, Mopti, preceded by Canada and the United States. Meanwhile, Ag Ghaly puts further blame on France for igniting an ethnic and tribal war, or a war of jahiliyyah, referencing the tribal wars during the “age of ignorance” in pre-Islamic Arabia. To be seen in the light of France’s training and support of local militias engaged in hyper-localized conflicts catalyzed by political and tribal dividends, conflicts that currently are playing out in the Mali-Niger borderlands, rural Gao, and the Gourma.

Ag Ghaly warns the people in Mali and Azawad about diverting from the objective to fight the “crusaders” and their allies, with a reminder of the punishment for killing fellow Muslims, citing the Quran on the subject of killing believers.

But whoever deliberately slays another believer, his requital shall be hell, therein to abide; and God will condemn him, and will reject him, and will prepare for him awesome suffering. (Surah An-Nisa 4:93)

Thus, a pointer to the massacres that have taken place across northern and central Mali. Mass atrocities have been perpetrated by government forces, ethnic-based militias, and militants including ISGS and JNIM itself, although in the case of JNIM supposedly unintentional IED attacks that nevertheless have caused carnage with large numbers of civilian victims. In the context of ethnic and tribal fighting and collaboration with French forces of Operation Barkhane, Ag Ghaly calls on movements and militias who have allied with France to repent and return to their religion. Presumably, a communication primarily intended for armed groups in the north where such a message would have more penetrative power and potentially a more significant impact vis-à-vis militias composed of Dozos, Dogon, and Bambara in central Mali. While the militias, the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) and the Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-defence Group (GATIA) have conducted counter-militancy operations alongside Operation Barkhane or under French air cover against the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), JNIM has largely been on the sideline, with only limited armed engagements with the aforementioned militias. However, in this context JNIM appears to portray itself as a broker, at the same time a subtle outreach which could be translated as the need for support, contradicting previous statements.

Ag Ghaly took the opportunity to express his support for imprisoned members who he calls on to stand firm, and says that no efforts will be spared to free them, note that JNIM constituent Katiba Macina freed prisoners in Banamba in late 2016 and that a senior Al-Mourabitoun cadre and former spokesperson made a breakout recently from the high-security prison in Koutoukalé, Niger.

A central focus of JNIM has been the launch and operationalization of the G5Sahel-Force, clearly reflected by the complex attacks in Ouagadougou and Sevaré, Ag Ghaly took the opportunity to lambast those Muslim countries that have provided the nascent regional counter-terrorism force with financial aid, materiel and other forms of support. He goes on by saying that war on Islam is a global war, and the G5Sahel-Force a device set up to eliminate the Islamic project in Mali. Ag Ghaly’s Algerian deputy, Yahya Abu al-Hammam, earlier described the G5Sahel-Force as another French intervention succeeding Operation Serval and Barkhane.

Ag Ghaly concluded his speech by articulating his support for the people in Gaza and Al-Quds (Jerusalem), forwarding thoughts and prayers for victory in defending Islamic sanctities. This in accordance with JNIM’s template for visual recordings which end with “Here we begin..and at Al-Aqsa we meet”.

Video: Another video released by Katiba Salaheddine (ISGS) – “Response to Aggression by MSA and GATIA”

Katiba Salaheddine’s second video was released on June 24, entitled “Response to Aggression by MSA and GATIA”. The group’s first video was published the day before, showcasing two GATIA technicals taken as “spoils of war”, reportedly amidst clashes on December 22, 2017, in the area of Ahina, rural Gao. Katiba Salaheddine is led by Sultan Ould Badi, a Malian militant, with a reputation for trafficking activities, he joined Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2009, and co-founded the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in 2011 with late Al-Mourabitoun Emir, Abderrahmane Ould el Amar, also known as “Ahmed Tilemsi”. Katiba Salaheddine draws most of its members from various Arab tribes and the Fulani, although the leader Ould Badi is of mixed Arab and Tuareg descent, namely the subfactions Ahel Taleb (Tilemsi Arab) and Taghat Mellet (Ifoghas Tuareg confederation). Although barely legible, a blue text displayed on the video screen explicitly states that the fighters seen taking turns firing rounds are Arabs and Fulani.

The date and location of the combat displayed in this latest video have not yet been verified, presumably not a recent recording. Several confrontations took place in late 2017 and earlier this year between Katiba Salaheddine and the militia coalition, supported by French forces of Operation Barkhane. Notably, on February 17, was a Katiba Salaheddine base destroyed in the area of Intameda amidst a joint operation, which left ten militants dead. Katiba Salaheddine and GATIA regularly trade abductions of members of the communities perceived as being close to each group.

It is worth noting that Katiba Salaheddine sometime in mid-2017 pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State, consequently joining the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), to which it has contributed with reinforcements. ISGS has through various channels claimed responsibility for 15 attacks in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso since 2016, although the operations claimed only constitute a fraction of the attacks and acts carried out. ISGS including Katiba Salaheddine was subjected to intense counter-militancy operations during the first quarter of 2018 and has sustained significant losses. However, militant groups operating in the Sahel have a remarkable ability to recover, replenish, and resume action, this due to a multitude of contributing factors. These groups draw upon experience from the parent organization AQIM, which (including predecessors) has developed considerable knowledge in conducting insurgency warfare over close to three decades, deeply enmeshed in the social fabric, and given the opportunity to configure local dynamics amidst the jihadi takeover of northern Mali. The space where they operate provides an ideal template, characterized by a general lawlessness, abuses by government forces and militias, intercommunal violence rooted in fights over scarce resources and trafficking routes, and for some communities, an urgent need for community protection.

Meanwhile, French forces Operation Barkhane continue to conduct simultaneous operations alongside Malian forces in the areas of Ansongo and Menaka, and together with Nigerien forces in the area of Ouallam, however, the main focus has largely shifted toward the Gourma where joint forces of Operation Barkhane, the Malian army, and GATIA are pursuing ISGS elements and members of other militant factions. The Gourma is the home turf of an Ansar Dine katiba led by Imghad Tuareg Almansour Ag Alkassoum (Alkassoum functions as liaison between katibas in the Gourma, Haire and Burkina Faso), Al-Mourabitoun is also present, and ISGS has a local branch under the command of Abdelhakim Al-Sahrawi with a zone of influence stretching across the border into Burkina Faso’s Oudalan Province. Amidst pressure in the Mali-Niger borderlands, ISGS has made inroads into eastern Burkina Faso, presumably by crossing the border from southern Tillabery in western Niger, it also appears that there is an Ansaroul Islam component contributing to the emergence of militant activity in Burkina Faso’s east.

In the Menaka region, the Dawsahak community was subjected to a number of massacres that followed joint counter-militancy operations. These operations were accompanied by abuses against the Fulani in the Mali-Niger borderland. The conflict also spread further north and triggered intercommunal violence between Arabs and Dawsahak in the Cercle of Ansongo.

In the Gourma, abductions and assassinations targeting the Imghad community has surged in recent months, which raises concerns about an extending perimeter of instability. Operations in the Gourma and Arabanda which began two weeks ago and military movements by  GATIA have sparked unrest among Arabs. From Taoudenit to Tilemsi, critical voices have been raised with various degrees of heated rhetoric, some have the perception that the drums of war are beating.