changing of the guards

Gentlemen, he said
I don’t need your organization, I’ve shined your shoes
I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards
But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards


The Islamic Republic of Mauritania, has since 2005, been confronted with a series of terrorist attacks attributed to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). A short description will be given of the key features of Mauritania. The paper will then examine AQIM’s campaign against Mauritania, both hostile attacks as well as recruitment. The Mauritanian security architecture – military, security intelligence, law enforcement, legal and civil –  will be briefly described and then examined to see how it has played a role in countering AQIM activity. An analysis of the activities of each of the components will made to determine what strategy the Mauritanian authorities have used to against AQIM. Mauritanian attempts to counter AQIM will be contrasted with English’s observations on successful counter-terrorist strategy.

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is a North African/Sahelian state neighbouring Morocco and Algeria to the North and Mali to the South. Mauritania has a population of 3.2 million, with 41% under 15 (Janes 2012). The country is a Presidential democracy although Jourde describes it as ‘neo-authoritarian’ (2007, 2011b). Since 2005 Mauritania has seen two military coups (2005 and 2008) and two democratic transitions (2007 and 2009) (Pazzanita 2008:152-162 and Janes 2012). The current President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, is a former military officer who deposed the elected president, Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdellahi in 2008. He was elected in 2009 after having resigned from the army (Pazzanita 2008:152-162 and Janes 2012). Jourde has argued that the terrorist threat has been manipulated to gain political legitimacy following the coups (Jourde 2007).  A second complicating factor is Mauritania’s complex ethnic make-up and tribal system which defies easy analysis. In broad terms, there are Moors (Maure) who are white Arabic speakers referred to as beydane or beidan, and Black Moors (haratines), former slaves. They may account for 80% of the population. The Moors are divided into castes and tribes (Pazzanita 2008: 351-354, 413-416; Rebstock 2009:1-16). The population is also comprised of a number of black African population groups like the Halpulaar (Fulani) (Pazzanita 2008: 236-237). There are tensions between the ethnic groups and intra-group rivalry, particularly among the Moor tribes for political power and wealth which has seen the security forces used to protect political gains limiting the effectiveness of counter terrorist activity.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Mauritania

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was founded in late 2006, from the Algeria-based Salafi Group for Call and Combat group (GSPC).

AQIM is a Sunni extremist organisation that seeks to overthrow governments in North Africa replacing them with an Islamic state similar to the Taliban or the Islamic Courts in Somalia (AQIM Media Committee 2009).

The organisation was established as a regional al-Qaeda franchise or affiliate. In the Sahel (Southern Algeria, Northern Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) at least 4 AQIM units (katibats) operate; Tarek ibn Ziyad (led by Abid Hamadou aka Abu Zeid), al-Forqan (led by Djamel Okacha aka Yahya Abou el Hamamm), el Mouthalmoune (led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar aka Khaled aka Bellawar), and al-Ansar (led by Amada Ag Hama aka Abdelkrim Targui) (Tahalil Hebdo 2010, Mohamedou 2011:5, Daniel 2012:129-145).

Since 2003, activity associated with the GSPC and later AQIM has implicated Mauritania. This activity has ranged from the recruitment of Mauritanians, financing activities as well as attacks on Mauritanian military and foreign interests in Mauritania (La Tribune 2008, Small Arms Survey 2010). AQIM’s search to demonstrate its’ regional nature as well as its capacity for activity external to Algeria has led the organisation to repeatedly strike the Mauritanian government. The first attack was on 5 June 2005. A GSPC unit led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar attacked a Mauritanian military unit in Lemghaity, Mauritania. The attack killed 15 Mauritanian soldiers and 9 members of the GSPC. The attack was later claimed by the GSPC and linked to Mauritanian military cooperation with the United States and an exercise that was occurring at the same time.

The announcement of the creation of AQIM in early 2007 was followed by a series of attacks and hostile activities in Mauritania that lasted until August 2010 but which peaked in 2009.

On 23 October 2007, there was an armed robbery in the port of Nouakchott. 45 000 000 ouguiya’s (the equivalent of EUR 135 000) was stolen. Investigations would later determine that this operation was carried out by members of the El Khadim Ould Semane group and had been planned since October 2006 when an earlier cell was disrupted. On 24 December 2007, an attack in Aleg, Mauritania killed four French nationals. Three days later on 27 December 2007, near Ghallawiya 3 Mauritanian soldiers were killed. This may have been an attempt to kidnap foreign nationals as members of an Italian NGO were reported as being in the area. On the 1 February 2008, there was a small arms attack on a nightclub next to the Israeli embassy in Nouakchott by AQIM-trained Mauritanians. On the 7 April 2008 there was a firefight between Mauritanian security forces and Mauritanian AQIM associates. The firefight led to the death of a police officer and two militants (Tahalil Hebdo 2008, April 15). On 15 September 2008, a Mauritanian military unit was attacked by AQIM elements near Tourine killing 11 members of the Mauritanian military and their guide (La Tribune 2008, September 22b). The series of attacks was attributed by the Mauritanian authorities to the same network led by Semane (Agence Nouakchott d’Information 2008, June 02).

The dismantling of the network responsible for the late 2007 and 2008 events led to a period of relative calm which was broken in mid-2009. On 23 June 2009, US NGO worker was assassinated in Nouakchott by Mauritanian AQIM associates.

On 8 August there was an attempted suicide bombing against the French embassy in Nouakchott. This led to the death of a Mauritanian AQIM suicide bomber and wounded three French embassy personnel (Salem 2012:194).

The attempts to attack Mauritania or foreign interests in the country changed on 29 November 2009, when three Spanish nationals were kidnapped – Roque Pascual, Albert Vilalta, Alicia Gámez – on the road between Nouakchott and Nouadhibou.  This kidnap was followed by a second one on 20 December 2009, when two Italian nationals – Sergio Cicala and Philomen Kabouree – were kidnapped near Kobenni, Mauritania.  These kidnaps should not have come as a surprise. The 27 December 2007 attack in Gallawiya was reported to have been carried out by a group looking to kidnap foreigner. Members of a foreign NGO were reported as being in the area (La Tribune 2008, September 22c). In fact, AQIM associates had been seeking to kidnap a foreign national in Nouakchott from early 2007, a target was a German diplomat in Nouakchott (Ould Ebnou 2010, Daniel 2012: 137). These kidnaps represented an intelligence failure on the  part of the Mauritanian services.

Following the kidnappings, AQIM made a number of attempts to carry out a Suicide-Vehicle-Borne-Improvised-Explosive-Device (SBVIED) attack in Mauritania. On 25 August 2010, an SBVIED attack against a Mauritanian military base in Nema was disrupted when the soldiers killed the driver as he approached  the base. On 1 February 2011, an attempted SBVIED attack against the President of Mauritania in Nouakchott was disrupted by the Mauritanian security forces. Nine soldiers were wounded as the SBVIED was being dismantled.  Three AQIM members were killed and two captured (Jeune Afrique 2011, February 02). Finally on 15 November 2011, Mauritanian press reported that a terrorist attack had been foiled.

A week later 20 persons were arrested for links to the foiled plot (Oumar 2011, November 25). The SBVEID attempts were in retaliation for a number of Mauritanian military operations.

AQIM Recruitment

From 2003 onwards Mauritanian extremists engaged with the GSPC and later AQIM, initially travelling to GSPC training facilities and later participating in hostile acts inside Mauritania. Mauritanian extremists travelled to GSPC facilities to acquire paramilitary skills which could be used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Subsequently it appears that opportunities for travel to these areas was limited. An initial group of individuals were reported to have travelled to northern Mali in February 2004 followed by groups in May and August 2005.  Since this time reports of travel to Mali by Mauritanians has been frequent. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former GSPC cadre and current AQIM leader has maintained a long-term relationship with Mauritanian extremists involving logistics support (weapons, money, exfiltration and safe houses for wanted Mauritanians), training for new Mauritanian recruits and the planning of hostile activity in Mauritania. This relationship held a number of advantages for Belmokhtar including the ethnic diversity of the Mauritanians that allowed them to operate across North Africa and down into sub-Saharan Africa.  The Belmokhtar-affiliated Semane network was made up of between 45 -50 persons (Tahalil Hebdo 2007, June 26; La Tribune 2008, September 22a, La Tribune 2008, September 22c, Ould Ebnou 2010; Tahalil Hebdo 2008, April 15; Tahalil Hebdo 2008, August 26; Tahalil Hebdo 2008, October 29; Jedoud, Khalil Ould. 2010).

More than 200 Mauritanians have been identified as operating with the GSPC/AQIM between 2005 and 2010. Guidere estimates in 2011 there were 150 Mauritanians operating with AQIM’s Sahelian units (2011:3). Salem (2012:195) suggests that AQIM’s Mauritanian recruits represent a broad cross-section of Mauritanian society:

“it can be seen that all tribal and ethnic categories are represented, even if the dominant group consists of Arabo-Berber white Moors of various tribes, both maraboutic (clerical) and warrior tribes. All the information about their personal trajectories into violence highlights a journey through unemployment, informal semi-skilled work, the army, delinquency, and then the discovery of religion and the initial recruitment to become a jihadist abroad in algeria and Northern Mali.”

Salem’s analysis of why young Mauritanians join AQIM tends to focus on ‘root causes’ – frustration at social injustices, problems in the educational system, absence of employment, the urbanisation of Mauritanian society and an authoritarian political context (Salem 2012:196). He does not examine group dynamics or see the turn to violence as a process.  For a country of nearly 3 million, the number of young Mauritanians engaging in terrorist activity in absolute terms is small but for a country with Mauritania’s resources the volume of recruits has proved to be a challenge.

Mauritanian Security Architecture and Counter-Terrorst Response

The Mauritanian counter-terrorism architecture has evolved since 2005 when the first post-9/11 terrorist attack took place to include military, security intelligence service, law enforcement, judicial and civil society elements.

The Military

The Mauritanian military is composed of an Army, Airforce (Force Aerienne Islamique de Mauritanie), Navy (Marine Mauritanienne), and the Gendarmerie Nationale. The total number of active duty members is slightly less than 20 000 (Janes Sentinel 2012). The army is the largest entity with 16 000 personnel followed by the Gendarmerie with 3000. The Navy (700) and the Airforce (250) are significantly smaller. The Navy is the service which has played the smallest role in the counter-terrorism campaign. The military has an intelligence capacity in the  B2 (Deuxième Bureau similar to G2 or J2 functions in western militaries). The Gendarmerie Nationale has its own intelligence capacity and gathers intelligence related to terrorism.

Military Operations and Cooperation

Between 2005 and 2010, the Mauritanian military was the target of AQIM attacks (2005, 2007, and 2008) and did not conduct offensive operations. Beginning in 2010, the Mauritanian military began to carry-out operations against AQIM. These operations appear to have been the result of a decision to implement a ‘preventative doctrine’ that would seek to target AQIM outside of Mauritania before it could launch operations inside Mauritania. The first of these operations was a raid into Mali to release a French hostage on 22 July 2010. The raid was initially portrayed as a Mauritanian initiative (Nouakchott Info Quotidien 2010, July 25) but later reports suggested that it was a joint Franco-Mauritanian operation (Daniel 2012: 27-33). The operation failed to secure the release of Michel Germaneau and AQIM announced three days later that it had executed him in retaliation for the killing of AQIM members by the French and Mauritanians. The Malian’s were reported as saying that they encouraged their neighbours to use their right of pursuit to cross over into Mali when tracking terrorists (AFP 2010, July 24). This attitude would change over time as Mauritania continued to launch operations into Mali against AQIM.

On 24 June 2011, Operation “Benkan” (Unity) was carried out against AQIM militants who were alleged to be setting up a base in the Wagadou forest on the Malian side of the Mauritanian-Malian border. The operation was reported as a joint Malian-Mauritanian initiative. However, the operation was launched by the Mauritanians, who mistrustful of the Malians leaking information to AQIM, then informed the Malians who moved their forces on the 25 June 2011. AQIM was reported to have lost 15 miltiants, the Mauritanians, one soldier and the Malians, one dead and 8 wounded. The operation lasted 3 weeks and generated criticism in Mali of percieved Mauritanian violation of Malian sovereignty (Daou 2011, June 30; Ahmed 2011, July 01; Babi 2011, July 13; Ahmed 2011, July 14; Jeune Afrique 2011, July 19). A Malian Member of Parliament asked if the “scared terre of Mali was under our control, and if we are not losing our soverignty…” (Ahmed 2011, July 14). The Malians alleged that the Mauritanian military were responsible for collateral incidents when they mistook a local chief for a member of AQIM (Ahmed 2011, July 01). The Mauritanians had given an indication of their new posture on 6 June 2011, when the President of Mauritania stated in an interview with the AFP stated, “all those people there [AQIM] come to us from the other side [of the border] and then added that measures had been taken to respond to this situation (Ahmed 2011, July 14).  In October 2011, the Mauritanians carried out another intelligence-driven raid against the same forest. The aerial attack destroyed two explosive laden cars and killed a number of AQIM members (AFP, 2011, October 20).

The Mauritanian raids and the increase in military capacity may have been the result of training provided by the United States under the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI) and the French military advisors who have assisted the development of the Groupement de lutte anti-terroriste (Glat) later renamed Groupes spéciaux d’intervention (GSI). The United States have provided financial assistance with the procurement of Embraer aircraft for reconnaissance and ground-attack (Janes 2012). The Mauritanians participate in a regional cooperation mechanism which saw the establishment of a command centre in Tammanrasset, Algeria. The centre has yet to demonstrate its operational capacity (Janes 2012).

Direction Générale de la Sûreté Extérieure et de la Documentation (External Intelligence)

Information on Mauritania’s external intelligence services is confused. Janes states that there is the Direction Générale de la Sûreté Extérieure et de la Documentation (General Directorate for External Security and Information – DGSED) (Janes Sentinel 2012).  It is unclear if this service is under the responsibility of the Ministry of Defense or the Presidency. Panzanitta refers to the Directorate of Research and Information (Directorate of Study and Documentation – DED) (2008:172). The service is described as responsible for dealing with intelligence collected by itself as well as by the Gendarmerie and the Military Intelligence wings of the Mauritanian armed forces. The organisation answers directly to the Presidency. Aziz has extended the mandate of the organisation to deal with terrorism.

Direction Générale de la Sûreté Nationale (Internal Intelligence and Law Enforcement)

Law enforcement services in Mauritania are under the Ministry of the Interior and grouped together in the Direction Générale de la Sûreté Nationale (General Directorate of National Security – DGSN). The DGSN is comprised of a number of entities including: the National Guard (2000 personnel). The La Direction de la Surete de l’Etat (Directorate of State Security – DSE). The DSE is the ‘political police’ tasked with, identifying, tracking and crushing dissent. Historically, it was the most powerful intelligence entity. The Direction de la Sureté Territoriale (The Directorate of Terroritorial Security – DST). The entity deals with criminality and has an intelligence gathering capacity. The organisation has seen an expansion of its’ mandate by Aziz to include anti-terrorism. SInce Aziz became President the role of the BSE has declined as resources have been directed to the DST and DED. The DGCN also includes judicial police units organised on functional lines; banditry or economic crime. (Pazzanita 2008, Janes Sentinel 2012). Janes estimates that the total strength of the DGSN is about 5000.

Law Enforcement, Security Intelligence and Judicial Responses

The Mauritanian law enforcement agencies have arrested more than 200 individuals since 2005. The arrests have have not always been followed by judicial due process and some individuals have remained in detention without trial for extended periods of time. The Judiciary while at times slow to bring individuals to trial has appeared to be relatively independent dismissing charges or releasing individuals. This was most obviously the case during the time of the Abdellahi government (2007 – 2008). Following the 2008 coup d’etat, they have been less inclined to release individuals and have sentenced a number of AQIM members to the death Human Rights organisations have expressed concern about the systematic use of torture by Mauritanian enforcement entities, particularly the DST (Amnesty International 2008). In the past two years, Human Rights organisations – Amnesty International (2012) and al-Karama (2011) – have expressed concern about the whereabouts of 14 individuals imprisoned for criminal and terrorist activity linked to AQIM who were removed from prison in Nouakchott and sent to an unknown destination. The reports of torture and disappearances have undermined the legitimacy of the Mauritanian states’ counter-terrorist activity.

There are few details of the work of the Mauritanian security intelligence services against AQIM. They are obviously active but the exact role and nature of their work remains little publicized. In the period prior to 2010, the services appeared to try and manage the activity of Mauritanian AQIM members and to avoid open confrontation. This was done by dismantling known networks and using arrested members as ‘sources’ by sending them back to AQIM. Members who had been involved in violence were imprisoned and those that could not be used as ‘sources’ were released after being debriefed (La Tribune 2008, September 22c). The Mauritanian services also seem to have been lucky and on occasion recovered significant intelligence during their operations. In 2006, the Mauritanians arrested Taher Ould Biyé (al-Mouthanna). Biyé was in possession of a computer that included recent images of Belmokhtar as well as other material. This seizure apparently allowed the Mauritanians to target their operations as opposed to the large scale sweep and arrest operations that had characterised some of the early anti-GSPC operations in 2005 and 2006 (La Tribune 2008, September 22c; Daniel 2012: 139).

There are indications that the security intelligence services are involved in organising and executing operations outside of Mauritania. In February 2010, Mauritanians arrested Oumar Ould Sid’Ahmed (Omar Sahraoui), an AQIM sub-contractor who had organised the logistics of the 2009 kidnap of three Spanish nationals in Mauritania. Sid’Ahmed was officially arrested in Mauritania near Lemzeirib. However, there were allegations that he had been detained in Mali by Mauritanian security services and brought back to Mauritania (Oumar undated). in an April 2010 interview, Sid’Ahmed which he detailed the Mauritanian operation.  He stated that he was 170 km north of Timbuktu when he was approached by 3 four-wheel drive vehicles. The passengers were a mix of Malian smugglers, a local informer a working for the Mauritanian services and three individuals with their faces covered. These individuals hand-cuffed him and transported him to a military base in Mauritania from where he was flown to Nouakchott  (Nouakchott Info Quotidien 2010, April 06).  Sid’Ahmed also uses the interview to state his innocence and allege acts of torture by the Mauritanian security service that detained him (Pham 2011:22-23, Daniel 2012:93-100).

There has been law enforcement and judicial cooperation between the Mauritanians and neighbouring states in the countering AQIM. Between 2006 and 2008, the Malian authorities arrested and extradited 5 Mauritanian nationals on terrorist related charges. At  other times the cooperation has been difficult. Mauritania broke diplomatic relations when Mali released a wanted Mauritanian national to facilitate the liberation of a a French hostage, Pierre Carmatte (Daniel 2012: 89-93).

Mauritania introduced new anti-terrorist legislation in early 2010. The legislation would have given the police the power to wire-tap telephones, to detain suspects without trial for up-to four years. It also made provision for terrorists who cooperated with the police to benefit from immunity from prosecution. The law was the subject of debate and a number of clauses were rejected as unconstitutional by the Consitutional Court leading to a revision of the law including removing detention without trial for four years (Wedoud 2010, January 13 & 2010, March 09; Antil 2011).

The government has sought to address the legitimacy deficit generated by the reports of the maltreatment and torture as well as the accusations of using the terrorist threat to mute political dissent. Measures taken include legalising Islamist political parties, using pardons, and initiating a dialogue between the government and the detained terrorists.

Civil Society and the Religious Dialogue

In January 2010, the Mauritanian authorities initiated a religious dialogue with detained terrorists, most of whom were held in prison in Nouakchott. This dialogue followed a number of statements in the press by some of the prisoners indicating a turn from violence. The government created an inter-ministerial committee directed by Mohamed el-Hacen Ould Dedew, a prominent and respected religious figure. The opening of the dialogue was held in public and a division between those who were willing to end their involvement in violence and those who remained allied with AQIM became quickly clear.  Semane being among the most vocal opponents of the initiative. The discussions between the committee and the prisoners led to about 50 individuals agreeing to end ‘radicalisation in their discourse and to apologise for the violence’ (Salem 2012:200). The move to include deradicalisation initiatives alongside repressive methods appears to have come from the realisation that there was a need to move towards a preventive strategy;  “It is not sufficient to just track terrorists and stop them from carrying out attacks, it is also equally necessary to protect the nation by reinforcing its’ immunity against terrorism. The state must make preventive action a priority to stop the slide to terrorist and the spread of violent ideas” (Ebnou 2010, February 11).

Evidently, the Mauritanians had been examining various programmes developed in Saudi Arabia or Singapore to develop a local model.  Options considered included dialogue between the extremists and credible religious authorities. Giving moral and material support to the family members of imprisoned terrorists to avoid having them receive support from terrorists and avoiding enlarging the circle of violence. Transferring prisoners who have renounced violence to rehabilitation centres to prepare them to re-integrate in normal life. The recruitment of individuals who have renounced jihadist activity to serve in the context of the these programmes (Ebnou 2010, February 11).


English has suggested that there are 6 key elements to successfully responding to terrorism and to eventually bringing a terrorist campaign to an end (2009:118-143). These elements include understanding that terrorism can never be eradicated, attempting to address underlying problems, avoiding an over-militarization of the response, recognising that intelligence is the most vital element, respecting legal frameworks and the rule of law and finally maintaining credibility in public discourse. The Mauritanian response has developed some of these better than others. This has been a strengthening of its intelligence collection capacity and understanding of AQIM. They have sought to address some of the underlying issues with the establishment of a religious dialogue. However, the respect of the rule of law and legal frameworks has been consistently missing due to the allegations of systematic torture and mistreatment of detained terrorists. The increase in the use of military solutions could see Mauritania over-militarize their response at the expense of intelligence and judicial solutions.


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