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.

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)

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”.

Mali: Malian soldiers held in captivity by JNIM appeal for their release

In a previously unpublished “proof of life” video named “Appeal of the detainees”, dated October 1, 2017 by Al-Zallaqa, the media wing of Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) – Malian soldiers held in captivity by the group, appeal to the Malian people, the Malian government and in particular the president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita for help to find a solution, or as one of the prisoners stated “we call on each and every one of the Malian people for help in order to “bring us out of this crisis”.

The recording begins with an obligatory Qur’an quote, this in particular frequently used in the context of taking prisoners of war:

“So when you meet those who disbelieve [in battle], strike [their] necks until, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them, then secure their bonds, and either [confer] favor afterwards or ransom [them] until the war lays down its burdens. That [is the command].” (Qur’an 47:4)

All prisoners give short testimonies, mentioning their rank, name, service number, and also the date and location of their capture, the largest group included five taken prisoners amidst a mass-casualty attack in Nampala last summer, with combat footage and sequences showing the capture of some of the soldiers, although those taken in Nampala were already featured in a previous release about two weeks after the attack. The prisoners look to be in relatively good shape considering the circumstances and having spent almost one and a half year in captivity, without disregarding the heavy emotional toll levied on the prisoners.

A second group of prisoners consisted of three soldiers captured amidst another mass-casualty attack, namely in Boulkessi on March 5 earlier this year, the first attack claimed by Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, just two days after the formalization of the merger between four jihadist factions active in Mali and in the border areas of Niger and Burkina Faso.

Three other soldiers were taken in three separate incidents, one during an ambush on the road between Diabaly and Nampala, the second amidst last year’s prison break in Banamba and a third taken in Boulkessi in early November last year under unclear circumstances.

Some of the prisoners mentioned in their testimonies that they were held by “Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin”. Several of the prisoners were given the oppurtunity to greet their families including wifes, children, parents, friends and collegues. Obvious and understandable, a unison and desperate call for help with hope of being released, although under the watchful eye of their captivators.

Currently there are as already mentioned eleven Malian soldiers, and five foreign nationals held by JNIM as publicized by the organization, although the fate of U.S. citizen Jeffrey Woodke and the identity of his captivators remains unknown.

 

Below is a list detailing name, date and location of the capture as well as images of the eleven Malian soldiers held in JNIM captivity.

Nampala – July 19, 2016. Abderrahmane Coulibaly, Boubacar Kanté, Kassim Sanogo, Mar Sangaré and Bakary Diaka.

Boulkessi – November 5, 2016. Jouma Touré.

Banamba – November 6-7, 2016. Abdollahi Bisam.

Diabaly – Nampala transit route December 26, 2016. Abla Maïga.

Boulkessi – March 5, 2017. Moussa Diarra, Boureïma Samaké and another Boureïma Samaké.

 

Jihadist Groups In The Sahel Region Formalize Merger

Leading figures gathered for the announcement of the merger into Jama’at Nusrat ul-Islam wal-Muslimin (screen capture from the video released by al-Zaleqa Foundation for Media Productions)

By Héni Nsaibia

In the midst of a faltering peace process in Mali that are characterized by quarrels and cleavages between the Malian government and signatory armed groups, they are increasingly fragmented along ethno-political lines. In contrast, jihadist groups at the core of a regional insurgency display a united front by merging and renewing their oath of allegiance to Al-Qaeda and its leader Aymen Al-Zawahiri, a move that possibly could fuel Islamist militancy in Mali and across the porous borders of neighboring countries.

From rebellion hijacked by Islamists to French intervention and the world’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission

In early 2012, a Tuareg-led rebellion against the Malian government in Bamako swept the north of the country with the aim to seek and achieve independence for a marginalized region largely inhabited by Tuaregs and Arabs. The rebellion was later hijacked by Islamists and consequently catalyzed a military intervention by France and the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) – considered the world’s deadliest – in order to stabilize the country. Despite these deployments, the deeply-rooted insurgency shows no signs of being defeated.

Jihadist leaders reunite for a watershed moment

On March 2, a video was released showing the gathering of five leading figures of several jihadist factions in the Sahara-Sahel region. The video constituted the founding statement of a “new group” bringing together the Islamist extremist Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb‘s (AQIM) Sahara Region, Al-Murabitoun, Ansar Dine, and the Macina Liberation Front (Katiba Macina) movements. Each of the factions were represented by militant commanders who have gained notoriety for spearheading jihadist militancy across the Sahel. Al-Qaeda’s North African franchise AQIM was represented by the Emir of its Sahara Branch, namely Djamel Okacha (Yahya Abu al-Hammam) and Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sanhaji who is responsible for the movement’s judicial affairs. Al-Murabitoun who have conducted several high-profile terrorist attacks across North and West Africa, led by the infamous militant commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar whose whereabouts and fate remains unknown, was represented by the group’s deputy commander Mohamed Ould Nouini (al-Hassan al-Ansari). Ansar Dine, Al-Qaeda’s (AQ) mainly Tuareg local affiliate was represented by its Emir Iyad Ag Ghaly (Abu al-Fadhl). Lastly, the Macina Liberation Front, a mainly Fulani Islamist group part of Ansar Dine and active in central Mali, represented by its Emir Mohamed Koufa. Together, the militant leaders proclaimed the watershed announcement of a united group, which has assumed the moniker of “Jama’at Nusrat ul-Islam wal-Muslimeen” translated as “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims” (JNIM).

Anything more than just a structural reorganization?

Despite publicising the alliance and the founding of this new group, it is important to note that the aforementioned factions already enjoyed close operational linkages on the battlefield, which has drawn attention to both the timing and purpose of the merger. So where lies the strategic importance in the formalization of an already existing nucleus? The first explanation for the announcement may be to debunk unsubstantiated media speculation about splits in the ranks of the jihadists, or that al-Qaeda’s Sahel based affiliate groups were seeking to switch allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS). Secondly, the designation of Iyad Ag Ghaly as the Emir of this alliance further highlights the importance of ethno-political dynamics that are fueling Al-Qaeda’s ascendency in the Sahel. Ag Ghaly’s influence in the mountainous region of Adrar des Ifoghas has been important for AQIM’s implantation in the region where the nobleman and long-serving militant commander has used his wide-reaching familial linkages, and the Islamisization of Tuareg separatism, to secure a steady stream of recruits for his political and religious aspirations. Thirdly, it gives an injection to invigorate the insurgency in the Sahel and also puts a stronger imprint on the region within the global map of jihad.

Since the formation of Ag Ghaly’s Ansar Dine in 2012, the movement has shared a mutually beneficial relationship with AQIM. Following France’s Operation Serval military intervention in Mali, several AQIM cells were reportedly rendered defunct by broad based counterterrorism operations; those that remained were reported to have been provided sanctuary by Ansar Dine. In Mali’s northernmost Kidal administrative division, AQIM had three active katibas or brigades, Al-Ansar, Youssef Ibn Tachfin, and Tariq Ibn Ziyad, which is believed to have been entirely assimilated into the Ansar Dine network. Evidence of this lies in the fact that the region in which these factions operated in – saw militancy which was almost exclusively claimed by Ansar Dine for the past three years, the result of a transient phase beginning with the French intervention, and the subsequent elimination of commanders and decimation of the AQIM brigades active in the area. The restructuring of the weakened AQIM factions, and their assimilation into more powerful groups amid intensive counterterrorism operations, may also explain the dynamics that precipitated the formation of Jama’at Nusrat ul-Islam wal-Muslimeen under the unifying Quranic slogan of  “One banner, one group, one emir”.

“And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided” (Surah Al-‘Imran 3:103)

The message of unity is also articulated with reference to al-Sham – namely the Levant Region of the Middle East – and the alliances created by the formation of the region’s Al-Qaeda proxies of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, this despite the articulated intention to “cut ties” with Al-Qaeda by the creation of these alliances. Symbolically, Iyad Ag Ghaly also pays tribute to a long list of deceased al-Qaeda ideologues and commanders. In this regard, there is a strong pro-AQ message, thus cementing its ties with the parent organization Al-Qaeda. Although, there are exceptions, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and Abu ‘Anas al-Shami both emblematic figures within Al-Qaeda in Iraq, at the same time, precursors who laid the foundation for what was to become the Islamic State. Both held in high esteem by ISIS followers and frequently paid tribute. Al-Shami being the mentor of Taha Falaha more commonly known as Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the most prominent Islamic State commander. Falaha pledged allegiance to al-Zarqawi back in 2002. As an heir of al-Shami’s and al-Zarqawi’s legacy, their violent doctrine and entrusted by al-Zarqawi, Falaha rose to the top in the Islamic State organization. Falaha was killed in a US airstrike near al-Bab in northern Syria on August 30, 2016. Hence, a subtle indication that AQIM as part of a wider Al-Qaeda strategy is preparing for a post-Islamic State era by flirting with ISIS followers. Although, not without reservations, Iyad Ag Ghaly empasizes in his speech the importance to avoid extremism (ghulu’) and the priority to adhere to the unity of the Islamic Nation (Ummah), Ag Ghaly also mentions the sensitive issue of takfir (to declare other Muslims, individuals or groups as non-believers), a practice permissive within the sphere of the Islamic State, in contrast a subject and practice which Al-Qaeda ideologues consider to be dealt with by scholars.

Taha Falaha or by his nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Adnani (Photo from Islamic State’s al-Naba Newsletter #45)

Further, dispelling any suggestions of factionalism within the wider al-Qaeda body, Ag Ghaly reaffirms allegiance to the Emir of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wadud (Abdelmalek Droukdel), and asserts an oath of fidelity to the General Emir of Al-Qaeda Aymen al-Zawahiri and to the Emir of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, Haibatullah Akhundzada, who al-Zawahiri himself swore allegiance to in June 2016 – adopting the same approach as Usama Bin Laden when he erstwhile pledged loyalty to Mullah Omar. In this regard, we can also draw an interesting parallel to AQIM’s approach in Mali with that of Afghanistan, where Ag Ghaly has adopted the same leadership role as that of Mullah Omar and his successors.

From Sahel as rear base to the main base

Notwithstanding the renewed oath of allegiance to Abdelmalek Droukdel, it is evident that the ability of the AQIM Emir to assert influence in the Sahel has been limited, with the Sahara Region gradually moving from being a rear base and support zone to becoming the main base at the expense of AQIM’s central and historical base in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, where it has been dismembered by intense counterterrorism operations by the Popular National Army. Highlighting this, in the first two months of 2017, Algerian authorities announced to have killed as many as twenty-four terrorists. On March 17, an audio recording released featuring Droukdel himself, unsurprisingly embraced the consolidation that had taken place and stated that it has set an example for other jihadist groups to follow. Another key point in his speech addressed France, saying that its military activities in the Sahara and the Sahel Region only strengthened fraternity and unity between peoples and tribes, further threatening to move the war to France by stating “until you live the fear our people experience in our lands”.

Al-Qaeda vis-à-vis the Islamic State in the Sahel Region

In addition to the groups comprising the merger, it is important to mention other jihadist actors in order to provide a full picture on the state of affairs within the jihadist scene of the Sahel Region. Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi leads a faction known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). For apparent reasons excluded from the equation of the merger, firstly, because of the split within al-Murabitoun as a result of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi’s oath of allegiance to the Islamic State in mid-May 2015, with clashes ensuing about a month later near Gao between the followers of Belmokhtar and those of al-Sahrawi, leaving several of al-Sahrawi’s men killed and Sahrawi himself seriously injured. Secondly, Sahrawi is not a major player in the current affairs of the region embroidered with both jihadist and non-jihadist armed groups where Sahrawi’s faction seems to constitute a singular logic in the far east of Mali around the tri-state border area (Liptako), with the groups stronghold located along the Akabar-Andéramboukane axis. Nevertheless, al-Sahrawi’s faction has managed to carry out deadly attacks against security forces in both Niger and Burkina Faso, several of which have resulted in significant casualties. Al-Sahrawi carries the trademark of jihad in its most extreme form with the potential to attract followers from across the region, although without putting too much emphasis on Al-Qaeda / Islamic State competition in this specific context. The limited relevance of the AQ-ISIS schism on the local level was highlighted in January 2016 when AQIM’s Emir of the Sahara Region, Djamel Okacha, gave an interview to the Mauritanian news outlet Al-Akhbar, stating that “…our relationship is normal connecting us to them through relations and contacts”. It was further rumored by sources close to Al-Qaeda in early January, although still not confirmed, that al-Sahrawi had broken his pledge to the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi reading out pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (screen capture from video released by Islamic State-affiliated Amaq News Agency)

Another player more recently introduced on the regional jihadist scene is ‘Ansaroul Islam‘ led by the radical Burkinabe preacher Boureïma Dicko more commonly known as Malam Ibrahim Dicko. Dicko reportedly a former MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) member, detained for two years in Bamako before returning home, gained influence by transmitting his sermons via radio in Djibo and surrounding areas, now leading a fledgling insurgency in Burkina’s northern provinces of Soum and Oudalan. Linked to Ansar Dine’s Katiba Macina, seemingly close to Mohamed Koufa and with former MOJWA fighters in its ranks, the group is still in a premature stage to have a prominent role in the nascent merger. However, such symbiosis may yet occur by solidifying cross-border ties and cooperation between so-called Fulani-dominant extremist groups active in Burkina Faso’s Soum and Oudalan Provinces with others in Mali’s Mopti, Ségou, Sikasso, and Gao Regions.

Leader of Ansaroul Islam, Boureïma Dicko more commonly known as Malam Ibrahim Dicko.

It is necessary to stress that the region’s jihadist groups have far-reaching ramifications in the political economy, including complex ties beyond labels of jihadist groups, and as well to non-jihadist signatory armed groups and criminal networks embedded in both formal and informal structures of the political economy.

The Political and Military context

This announcement also comes in the midst of both significant political and military developments. On the political level, France at the center of counterinsurgency efforts in the Sahel Region is moving towards presidential elections with Francois Hollande leaving office in two months, raising questions about France’s future engagements, this while Germany is strengthening its presence in the region, increased regional military involvement by the US, and Canada still assessing and considering deployment within a framework of peacekeeping and counter-insurgency mission.

The Bamako government and signatory armed groups are in the process of installing the ‘Interim Authorities’ as part of an Algeria-brokered Peace Accord, a conciliatory process from which Mali‘s Islamists were excluded. Now, for the first time, Ansar Dine openly declares allegiance to Al-Qaeda, prior viewed as a disguised front group. Hence the creation of the new group could be viewed as a response to the sidelining of Islamists from the negotiation table and that the initiation of the peace accord has yet to provide full political autonomy to northern Mali under the necessary condition of an Islamic political and judicial system, a scenario unacceptable by both national and international actors. What this video statement also conveys is that in contrast to the signatory armed groups, the jihadists show a unified front represented by individuals of various ethnicities (Tuareg, Fulani, Arab, and Amazigh) and origins who nevertheless share the same objectives. This is in stark contrast to the fragmented signatory armed groups with different loyalties, conflicting interests, and ethno-political ambitions. The installation of the Interim Authorities has yet to be finalized, a part of the Peace Accord that have proven difficult to implement with dissatisfaction and disputes between various factions and actors.

The announcement is besides a political communication, a military one, a renewal of the insurgency, as stated in the speech of unification to close ranks against the “invading crusader enemy”. A development like this carries a significant amounts of public relations capital, hence functioning as a propaganda vehicle for recruitment and attracting support. Secondly, a move like this brings expectations and there is likely a worked out plan to orientate strategically, increase coordination between the different groups, and thus increase the frequency, deadliness, and geographic scope of regional jihadist operations. With the Islamists excluded from the political process it is to be expected that besides attacking MINUSMA peacekeepers, French forces of Operation Barkhane, and Malian forces, efforts will be focused on interrupting and disturbing this process including the targeting of security arrangements like the mixed patrols (MOC – Mécanisme Opérationnel pour la Coordination), signatory armed groups, and individuals viewed as cooperating with international or Malian forces. An attempt to interrupt the aforementioned peace process and security cooperation was projected on January 18 when a suicide bomber dispatched by al-Murabitoun struck the MOC camp in Gao targeting the planned launch of mixed patrols in the area, the attack left more than fifty killed and around hundred twenty wounded; although casualty figures differ depending on sources consulted.

The mere appearance of the aforementioned jihadist leaders carries subliminal messages, assumably calls for mobilization and activation of cells to conduct attacks. In the days that followed the announcement, a MINUSMA base in Aguelhok and a joint base with Barkhane in Tessalit, both located in the Kidal Region were subjected to rocket attacks. A Malian army camp located in Boulikessi, central Mali near the border with Burkina Faso suffered a high-casualty attack with at least 11 soldiers killed on March 5, the first attack claimed by JNIM, only three days after the announcement of the joint venture. In this context, MINUSMA and French Barkhane forces are in the process of strengthening their presence in central Mali, the home turf of Macina Liberation Front leader Mohamed Koufa, a region plagued by both jihadist activity and inter-communal violence. The answer by Malian authorities to address insecurity in the central region was to prohibit the essential movement with motorcycles between villages. Additionally, increasing security crackdowns which discriminately target the Fulani community, too often accompanied with abuses.

The Tillabéri Region of neighboring Niger has also seen an uptick in militancy ascribed to al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked forces. After being subjected to several deadly attacks in the past six months, Niger finally declared a state of emergency in areas bordering Mali and also requested assistance from France, who responded with the decision to deploy a force numbering up to eighty military personnel including special operations forces to the Tillabéri Region in order to aid Niger in fighting terrorists along its borders with Mali.

Neighboring Burkina Faso shows just like Mali and Niger, a negative trend with jihadist activity in the provinces of Soum and Oudalan in the country’s far north. Plagued by increased insecurity as a result of threats, targeted killings, and attacks on security forces, Burkina decided to impose a ban on the use of vehicles at night time in the north, a similar counterterrorism measure as implemented in Mali.

Despite the presence of a nearly 14,000 troop-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping mission force in Mali and 4,000 troops of Operation Barkhane in the region, countries like Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso are failing to respond to the terrorist threat. All three countries share porous borders and common denominators such as widespread corruption, vast areas of underdeveloped and ungoverned space, with limited presence of authorities, including security forces, and structural weaknesses of their intelligence services. Burkina Faso and Niger are major contributors to the MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali, troop deployments abroad which are unfavorable to internal needs, already lacking the resources to secure and manage their own borders and to provide adequate presence of security forces in remote high-risk areas. These deficiencies are being exploited by jihadist groups, from their asymmetric engagements in response to intended counterterrorism efforts, security arrangements, and military operations in the concerned countries previously mentioned. On January 24, the three G5 Sahel countries reaffirmed their commitment to create a joint security force in order to more effectively combat terrorism, although the establishment, efficiency, and results of this commitment are still to be seen.

This article was first published on March 27, 2017 by Aaron Y. Zelin at Jihadology.net [GUEST POST: Jihadist Groups In The Sahel Region Formalize Merger]

Burkina Faso: Ansaroul Islam pledging allegiance to the Islamic State? Maybe or maybe not..

On Thursday April 13, 2017, a pro-AQIM account on telegram and a pro-ISIS account on twitter respectively reported that a Burkinabe jihadist group possibly would pledge allegiance (bay’ah) to the Islamic State, the group was not mentioned by name, although it is believed that the reports (considered rumors) refered to Ansaroul Islam led by Boureïma Dicko, more commonly known as Malam Ibrahim Dicko. It is worth noting that the AQIM associated account most likely cited the pro-ISIS account. Dicko’s group, being the main source of a surge in insecurity in Burkina’s north, stemming from targeted killings, assassination attempts, village and school incursions and complex attacks against army or police positions. A security situation that have paralyzed the educational sector, impacted access to health and social services, also resulting in displacements and affecting food security in Burkina Faso’s Sahel Region.

Members of the jihadist group Ansaroul Islam

The aforementioned rumors emerge in the wake of the recent tri-partite cross-border operation named ‘Panga’ involving French Barkhane, Malian and Burkinabe forces. The Fhero forest located along the Mali-Burkina Faso border constituted the focal point of the operations, and also the site of a double-attack which targeted French forces in the afternoon of April 5. The double-attack was initiated by an IED detonation that struck a light armored vehicle (LAV), wounding two soldiers, and ensued by an ambush that targeted an engineering unit that arrived to secure the perimeter of the first attack, leaving one French soldier dead. Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) claimed responsibility for the attacks. On April 7, residents in villages inside the Fhero forest and surroundings confirmed several airstrikes and shellings throughout the day, the following day things had calmed down, marking the last day of the operations.

The Fhero forest recently gained increased attention for harboring Dicko and his men, active between Djibo and Mondoro, notwithstanding the historical presence of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Murabitoun, Ansar Dine and MUJAO. At present, there are five more distinct local groups active in the area, one based in the surroundings of Sèrma. Another group of smaller AQIM units in the Dogon country, more specifically in the area of Dinangourou and Dioungani-Peulh. Malam’s group along the border, remnants of MUJAO fighters, most prominently under the leadership of al-Sahrawi in the tri-state border area, and Al-Murabitoun, on the local level active along the axes Ansongo-Gao-Gossi. Hence, the claim of responsibility for the attack against French forces does not automatically confirm that Ansaroul Islam has joined the recent merger of AQIM-affiliated factions in the region, nevertheless an important sign.

Regarding the foregoing rumors, firstly, it is important to note that Dicko reportedly a former MUJAO member has a connection to Adnan Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi, although the nature of this relation at present is not known. Secondly, well-informed sources confirm that Ansaroul Islam have expressed their intention to join the Islamic State, the previously referenced pro-ISIS source confidently confirmed the report to MENASTREAM while citing Libyan ISIS fighters, the original source of the rumor about a forthcoming bay’ah in Burkina Faso. Despite being dislodged from its former stronghold in Sirte and scattered across Libya, the network is there with a significant media presence and seemingly a not inconsiderable role regarding communications between West Africa and Raqqa.

A source refering to a Burkinabe security source working close to the “Ansaroul Islam folder” also indicated the group’s affiliation with the “Islamic State in the Sahel”, that is to say Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Dicko and Sahrawi share an operational space in Burkina’s north, whereas Dicko’s group pertains to the Soum Province while Sahrawi’s gang more to the Oudalan Province. Sahrawi has claimed responsibility for two attacks on Burkinabe soil. On September 1 last year, Sahrawi’s group attacked a customs post in Markoye, and on October 12 an army position in Intagom, also the first attacks materializing since Sahrawi gave his oath to al-Baghdadi in May 2015.

Moreover, the Mauritanian news outlet Al-Akhbar reported that Dicko’s group, in the article refered to as “Ançar Allah” intended to give an oath of allegiance to the Islamic State, although stating that it was unclear if the oath was to be given directly to Al-Baghdadi or to (as stated) the “Islamic State in West Africa” led by al-Sahrawi, citing the outlet’s sources. However, an official communication with an oath of allegiance emanating from Burkina is still to be seen.

Recently, an important meeting took place in Indaki, Mali, near the tri-state border. During this meeting fighters from Dicko’s Ansaroul Islam met up with a group of jihadists in the area, Almansour Ag Alkassoum, an Imghad Tuareg in his mid-forties is the commander and brain of this group, he was also present at this meeting together with an unnamed individual who had lived at the Mentao refugee camp in Burkina Faso. Alkassoum has the role of a coordinator among the sarayas (units) active in the Gourma and the Haïre. Alkassoum originates from the village of Madiakoye, the administrative center of the commune Séréré, located just south of the Niger River about seventy kilometers east of Timbuktu. He operates with some other Tuaregs from the Imouchag tribe, Bellahs from the Gourma, Fulanis from Séno Mango, and Bambaras from the Dawa movement coming from Bamako. Together the units operating in the area constitute the Ansar Dine katiba (brigade) refered to as Ansar Dine Sud or “South of the River” (not to be confused with Katiba Macina). Alkassoum’s katiba has been responsable for multiple attacks against Malian and MINUSMA forces in the area, stretching from Gourma-Rharous in the north to Douentza in the south.

It is strongly assumed that the meeting between Dicko’s men and the group led by Alkassoum focused on Ansaroul Islam uniting with JNIM. Noteworthy, is that the area of Indaki, more precisely Tin Téhégrin saw clashes between a tri-partite patrol and presumed jihadists as late as April 7, no details or outcome of the clashes have been reported.

A question remaining is whether the relationship between Ansaroul Islam and JNIM might have changed following the recent events in the border area. The outcome of the tri-partite military operations as reported by the French Ministry of Defense, “..materiel seized, two terrorists neutralized, eight others captured and several dozens of suspects handed over to the Burkinabe authorities.” Meanwhile, Nord Sud Journal reported that more than two hundred suspects were arrested in the Fhero forest and surrounding villages, at the same time villagers witnessed a still visible presence of jihadists in the area, specifically in Douna, now when the sweeping operations in the area have ended. Until now, no substantial evidence points at Ansaroul Islam joining the Islamic State, notwithstanding the various sources from where these rumors and speculations have emerged.

Mali: Presumed AQIM commander of Grand-Bassam attack arrested near Gossi

“Mastermind” of Grand-Bassam shootings

On January 11, RFI reported that one of the commanders who directed the Grand-Bassam attack in Ivory Coast on March 13, 2016, had been arrested near Gossi, in the region of Gao between January 9 and 10 by French Barkhane forces. In the report is the concerned individual named as ‘Mimi Ould Baba Ould El Mokhtar’, as noted has the name stirred some confusion making some to believe that the person arrested is Mini Ould Baba Ould Sidi Al Mokhtar, who is the tribal chief of the Arab Kounta. RFI corrected the name in a report on January 12 by stating that the name of the individual arrested is Mimi Ould Baba Ould Cheick—”presumed brain” behind the Grand-Bassam attack—tracked by the Malian secret service after returning from a stay in Algeria, and arrested in coordination with French Barkhane forces who have Ould Cheick in their custody.

A heritage: from drug-trafficking to jihadism

Mimi Ould Baba Ould Cheick is no one less than the son of the infamous drug trafficker Baba Ould Cheick, strongly associated with MUJAO. Baba Ould Cheick is also the mayor of Tarkint, originating from the small village of Tangara near Tabankort. Ould Cheick the older is attributed a prominent role in the drug-trafficking network of Gao, a network sometimes referred to as the “Mali Connection”, arrested for his supposed involvement in the”Air Cocaine” case. Baba Ould Cheick has also acted as a mediator for the liberation of hostages abducted by jihadis. Just like his father, Mimi seems to have taken a prominent role in the regional trafficking and jihadi networks, an inherited position benefiting from his father’s contacts and kinship. It is very possible that Ould Cheick the younger was behind the Grand-Bassam attack, but also the previous attack that overnight struck Splendid Hotel and restaurant Cappuccino in central Ouagadougou on January 15-16, 2016. According to local sources is Mimi’s involvement in the series of attacks that struck West Africa in early 2016 something that is “generally known”, and especially in Gao. A question that remains unanswered is what brought Mimi to Gossi following his alleged visit to Algeria? A fateful journey that eventually led to his arrest.

Infamous drug trafficker Baba Ould Cheick and the father of Mimi arrested near Gossi

Left to right: Iyad Ag Ghaly, Baba Ould Cheick, Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, and El Hadj Ag Gamou

Burkina Faso: The jihadist threat continuously rising in the far north – A new Ansar Dine branch in gestation, Ansaroul Islam?

From targeted killings to complex attack – The Irchad network

Recent months have seen a significant increase in incidents of suspected jihadist activity in the Soum Province of Burkina Faso’s far north. Spillover from the Mali conflict in the border areas is nothing new, but the current trend shows very negative tendencies. Various attacks have plagued the area ranging from targeted killings, assassination attempts, village incursions to a high-casualty complex attack against an army position. A significant component of the insecurity in the regions stems from what could be viewed as the wider “Fulani struggle” where the notion of jihad plays an increasingly important role. Recent events in Djibo and surroundings point to a intra-communal dimension of this conflict with one layer being the targeting of community elites, shown in the almost simultaneous attacks that targeted local councilmen in the localitys of Pétèga and Soboulé on November 12, these types of targeted killings are far from as common as on the Malian side of the border. Another important layer is the internal conflict of a local network of Imams or Muslim preachers named Al-Irchad, at least one member of this network has been subjected to a targeted killing with other members being the suspected perpetrators. This conflict indicates that some radical elements aim at eradicating those more moderate or unwilling to take part in the radicalization and recruitment of youth or even more extreme activities like conducting violent and armed attacks, like in the case of Amadou Boli assassinated on November 12 in Djibo, allegedly number two in the Al-Irchad network, an individual who may have known too much about the network’s activities to constitute a threat.

More recently, the Al-Irchad network received renewed attention, on January 1, two attacks took place in Djibo and Sibé, in Djibo a man escaped an attempted abduction or assassination but was shot three times, in Sibé an imam was shot dead by alleged members of the Al-Irchad network. Local media reported that the mentioned imam actually was killed by his son in the presence of another Al-Irchad member. Additionally, the locality of Kérboulé saw an incursion by unknown gunmen who on October 18 clashed with the Koglweogo self-defense militia, the attack claimed the lives of three miners, one Koglweogo and another individual was wounded. Further, on December 16 a large-scale attack targeted the army camp in Nassoumbou, an attack that left twelve Burkinabe soldiers dead, all being soldiers belonging to GFAT or ‘Groupement des forces armées anti-terroristes’, the Burkinabe army’s counter-terrorism battalion.

Large-scale attack in Nassoumbou – From Irchad to Ansaroul Islam

The extent of the attack in Nassoumbou is significant and constitute the largest damages in terms of human lives ever inflicted on the Burkinabe army by jihadists, none of the known groups roaming the area have officially claimed responsibility for the attack, similar to the attack in Tazalite, Niger on October 6, which also resulted in a heavy casualty toll. The area of Soum is far from alien to jihadist militancy and the Burkinabe and above all the Fulani component within groups operating in the region is strong in all the various militant factions both jihadist and non-jihadist, be it Ansar Dine’s southern katibas (al-Mansour, Macina and Khalid Ibn al-Walid), AQIM’s al-Mourabitoune, remnants of MUJAO now going by the name Islamic State in the Greater Sahara following their break away from al-Mourabitoune or any of the armed signatory groups in Mali. Burkinabe media attribute the attack to Malam Ibrahim Dicko, alleged leader of the previously mentioned Al-Irchad network, also given the name “Ansar-ul-Islam lil-Irchad wal-Jihad”. Worth noting regarding Dicko’s name is that ‘Malam’ is a simple transcription of the Arabic word ‘Mu’alim’ or colloquially ‘Maalem’ meaning Teacher, hence, Dicko has been given the title teacher or scholar for having teached in neighboring Niger and for being a well-known preacher in Djibo, although his real name is Boureïma Dicko. Dicko is married to the sister of the Grand Imam of Djibo. The imam himself threatened by Dicko and his followers.

The reports on the Nassoumbou attack do not only attribute the attack to Dicko, it is also stated that he claimed responsibility for the attack something that raises some skepticism, the claim that a relatively unknown network should have been able to recruit, train, arm and independently carry out a military operation of the magnitude like the Nassoumbou attack is dubious. A report in Le Quotidien links Dicko to Amadou Koufa, the emir of Ansar Dine’s Katiba Macina, although the report contains inconsistencies by stating that Dicko during a stay in Mali in 2015 was arrested together with Koufa, detained on charges of possession of illegal arms, but subsequently released. The actual time of this incident and the arrest of Koufa seems incorrect, although a recent article in Jeune Afrique mentions a certain Ibrahim, close to Koufa arrested in late 2013 by French Serval forces in the area of Tessalit on charges of attempting to join jihadist groups, kept detained for two years under the supervision of DGSE (Direction Générale de la Sécurité d’État) in Bamako before being released. The passage mentioning Ibrahim makes reference to a known preacher in Djibo and in connection to dozens of men who have chosen jihad and joined the ‘maquis’ (shrublands) during the last months in the area of Djibo, doubtlessly Ibrahim Dicko. Prior to his arrest reportedly a member of Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA). Multiple attacks on the Burkina side of the border have been claimed or attributed to previously mentioned jihadist groups, several of these groups have lost some important operatives according to reports such as the arrests of Souleymane Keïta, Yacouba Touré and the Burkinabe Boubacar Sawadogo, who allegedly was responsable for a previous attempt to install a Burkinabe branch for Ansar Dine, and also possibly behind the attack that targeted Burkinabe gendarmes on October 9, 2015 in Samorogouan.

A new Ansar Dine branch in gestation, Ansaroul Islam?

The reports in the Burkinabe media do not seem totally unfounded, recent activity in Soum points to the presence of units operating with a hyper-localized agenda, additional activity has been signaled in the forests between Mondoro and Djibo, and also on the Malian side of the border. The attack in Nassoumbou has not been claimed by any of the more well-known groups and katibas roaming the region, still a detailed claim of responsibility does exist if we follow the trails in Burkinabe media reports, the facebook page ‘Ansaroul Islam’ have issued claims for both the attack in Nassoumbou and the targeted assassination and assassination attempt that took place just days ago in Djibo and Sibé, the authenticity of the claims are questionable although the claims are “signed Malam Ibrahim Dicko”, received directly from Dicko or retreived from another source. One message on the page makes direct reference to Amadou Koufa stating that Dicko and Koufa are together at the front. If we assume that the claims mentioned are authentic and that the connections between Dicko and Koufa are true, then it is valid to say that Ansaroul Islam could be viewed as a Burkinabe branch of Katiba Macina, and by extension Ansar Dine.

The historical references, Macina and Djelgodji

Like Amadou Koufa’s Katiba Macina claims the revival of the Fulani Macina Empire (l’Empire Peul du Macina) established by Cheikou Amadou in the early 19th century, we also find the reference ‘Djelgoodji’ below in the purported claim of responsiblity for the Nassoumbou attack. Djelgodji constitutes the historical region and kingdom of the Peuls with the Soum province marking the borders except for the eastern part that covers the historical part of the Kurumba of Arbinda. In addition to the often natural ties between communities in border zones there is a strong historical link between Mopti and Soum, dating back to the migrations of Peuls into Songhaï territory in the 17th and 18th century with a group of Dicko lineage (nobles), the Djelgobè, migrating from Hombori (Douentza) in the Mopti Region at the end of the 17th and in the beginning of the 18th century, due to famines or dynastic quarrels in the Macina, but also as part of Peul movements in general during the period, migrations that consequently led to the creation of what today constitute the Fulani heartland in Burkina Faso. Hence, we have the links between Koufa and Dicko, references to historical regions of Peuls on both sides of the borders added to the alleged establishment of this new faction. Two “brothers” united by blood, sharing a common goal by restoring their respective historical Fulani kingdoms. References and discours likely used as a tool to attract and recruit Fulani youth.

Purported claim of responsibility for the Nassoumbou attack on December 16, “signed Maalam Ibrahim, commander of the believers, guide of Ansaroul Islam”

 

“..the commander of the believers Maalam Ibrahim greets you from the front in the company of the Great Emir Amadou Koufa, Grand Imam of Macina..”

 

Purported claim of responsibility for the assassination attempt and the assassination that targeted as stated in the message “hypocrite collaborators” in Djibo and Sibé on January 1

 

Ibrahim Dicko, alleged commander of ‘Ansaroul Islam’