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Mali: From le Movement National de l’Azawad to Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad (MSA) – Images

By Rida Lyammouri

September 5th, 2016

Key members of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) split from the group and created Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad (MSA). The MSA is an initiative led by two former MNLA figures, Moussa Ag Acharatoumane and Assalat Ag Habi. While Moussa have been active public figure, Assalat on the other hand have kept a low profile and his last appearance was back in April 2012 at Gao airport when the MNLA and other groups seized control of the city. He was accused by pro-Malian media to be behind an attack on Malian security forces checkpoint in Ménaka February 2016, but that was never confirmed.

Ag Habi is also a close figure to Elhadj Ag Gamou and Iyad Ag Ghali, all three were close friends and were key members of 1990s Tuareg rebellion. Ag Habi defected the Malian Army in 2011 to join the MNLA and 2012 Tuareg rebellion. He was reported to have joined platform groups supportive of the Malian government in April 2015 but that was never confirmed. Ag Habi is more known for his military experience because of the years he spent in Libya. He is comfortable speaking in Arabic than in French like most former Malian military officers and commanders.

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Assalat Ag Habi in Gao April 2012. Source: Al-Jazeera.

This division is another outcome during post conflict when influential members within certain community attempt to position themselves. Both Ag Acharatoumane and Ag Habi are key figures within Tuareg clans based in Ménaka region on the borders with Niger, Douassahak and Chamanamas respectively. Thus although MSA claims to represent communities throughout Azawad (northern Mali), this is unlikely to be case because of their limited influence and popularity among other communities.

I will add analysis and more context to this soon. Images below posted Moussa Ag Acharatoumane on 05 September 2016 (Source).

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Niger: Tebu armed movement in Niger released threatening video.

By Rida Lyammouri

September 5th, 2016

Video started circulating on the messenger application Whatsapp of Tebu armed movement. The group was supposedly created in 2008 but never really conducted any violent attacks against Nigerien authorities. In the video, a representative of the group confirmed the group was indeed established back in 2008 and its members are disappointed at the Nigerien government for not addressing their claims. I am quoting here the group’s representative then followed by my comments:

“We have created since 2008 Mouvement pour la Justice et la Rehabilitation du Niger (Movement for Justice and Rehabilitation of Niger). Since we came to existence we didn’t have fundamental rights in Niger. All doors were closed and was no channel for us to claim our rights, thus we have created an armed movement. If it happens we will attack Niger because we didn’t have an opportunity for an open dialogue with Nigerien government. We are here on the ground and engaged to claim our rights in Niger. We are here to claim our rights because we are marginalized, there is petrol and uranium in this area but we are not benefiting. As a result members of this group have decided to re-organize and get armed to claim their rights to live, eat, and rights to education and health services. We have two points: We demand our rights from the Nigerien government, and second, our rights from the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC).”

Key points:

  • At this point it is too early to know how serious the group is about its threat toward the Nigerien government, and its capabilities to conduct violent attacks against Nigerien forces and foreign interests in Niger. However it should not be underestimated since from the video the group appears to have at least dozens of armed fighters with 5 vehicles, rocket launcher and machine guns. These capabilities are enough to cause harm to local forces and disrupt foreign interests based in remote areas where there is little presence of Nigerien forces.
  • Despite that spokesperson did not indicate group’s area of operation, northeastern and eastern Niger on the borders with Libya and Chad are the most likely areas of their presence if any. Both regions are categorized by Tebu communities presence and home to uranium mines in Agadez region in northeastern Niger and oil refinery in Diffa region. Any disruption by this group will further result harm to Niger’s economy while there are already tensions between Niger and its French and Chinese partners.
  • The small size of their unit is likely to make them more mobile and to focus on guerrilla type of attacks rather than conventional war with Nigerien forces.
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Screenshot from the video. Source: Youtube.

Libya: Chronology of security incidents and violent clashes in Libya: 08 – 14 August period

By Rida Lyammouri

August 16th, 2016

There are two types of Islamist militant groups operating in Libya. Local groups: Benghazi Revolutionaries Shurah Council (BRSC), Darnah Revolutionaries Shurah Council (DRSC), Ajdabiya Revolutionaries Shurah Council (ARSC), Ansar al-Sharia Libya (AAS), Defense Brigade of Benghazi (DBB), Ajdabiya Operations Room (GATMJB). Regional groups: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State (IS).

Attacks and incidents listed below are not comprehensive and do not include all violence taking place in Libya. However these are incidents occurring in strategic areas where Libyan National Army (LNA) and its Western allies [with air support mainly] are carrying operations to chase Islamist militants out of their strongholds. Most of information is gathered through open source reporting and social media, and at times it’s difficult to confirm number of casualties and actors involved in an incident.

Key points and comments from MENASTREAM who has been following Libyan conflict very closely and recent evolvement of different groups in Libya:

  • Ajdabiya Revolutionaries Shura Council (ARSC) don’t longer exist and was dissolved several months ago resulting in the creation of ‘Operations Room for the Liberation of the City Ajdabiya and Support for Benghazi Rebels.’ GATMJB as abbreviation is now accepted according to same observer.
  • Ansar al-Sharia do exist but very much folded into BRSC along with Rafallah Sahati Brigade, February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade and few others that seems to have become totally folded into BRSC.
  • GATMJB and DBB work together but are work very closely together pretty much like one with the GATMJB leader al-Saadi al-Nawfali being a senior commander in DB as well along with Zied Bel’am commander of Katibat Omar al-Mukhtar, Mustapha Sharkassi former LAF spokesman i.e. former LNA (Haftar), Frag Shaku, the commander of February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade and also one of the main field commanders in BRSC prior the formation of DBB.
  • Increased use of suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) by BRSC could be explained by the fact they have been pushed back significantly and pretty much holed up in the corner of the ‘Western region’ Gawarsha, Ganfouda and Garyounis/south Benghazi. In this area there is an obvious possible coordination/cooperation with IS which influences this behavior. But also Ansar al-Sharia’s seemingly leading role and the strongly articulated popular support.

Note: This is a trial to see if there is need for weekly reporting about key security related events taking place in Libya. 

Chronology of violent incidents in Libya: 8 – 14 August 2016

Benghazi

09 August 2016: Counterterrorism office in Benghazi discovered and dismantled a sleeping cell of unknown “terrorist organization,” and arrested two suspects. Weapons, cash, and explosives also seized.

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Bushra news agency infographic. Source: @MENASTREAM

11 August 2016: According to Bushra News Agency infographic (above), two airstrikes and four drones attacks were conducted in Benghazi. Reportedly 4 killed and 5 injured.

12 August 2016: According to Saraya media, a news outlet affiliated with Benghazi Shura Council, French drone strike targeted Ganfouda district in Benghazi.

13 August 2016: Two suspects arrested in Benghazi allegedly members of what referred to as terrorist organizations. The arrest took place east Benghazi at Boudzira area. Reportedly suspects are members of Dare’ Libya 1 and Rafallah al-Sahati.

13 August 2016: Islamic State targeted National Libyan Army (LNA) in Gawarsha area in Benghazi.

14 August 2016: A landmine explosion in Al-Gawarsha district killed 2 of Khalifa Haftar’s militiamen and injured 2. The IED targeted volunteering militiamen, who fight with Haftar’s forces, as they were advancing nearby Al-Gawarsha checkpoint.

Sirte

08 – 10 August 2016: After days of fighting, Bonyan Al-Marsous, Libyan militia backed by U.S airstrikes claimed capturing several strategic locations from IS in Libya. Captured locations included Ouagadougou conference center, and the university of Sirte, both have been considered symbolic to IS. Misrata hospital reported to have received 16 dead and 93 wounded soldiers from Bonyan Al-Marsous forces as a result of Sirte clashes.

09 August 2016: Bonyan Al-Marsous team struck an IED at Sirte where the Libyan militia have been clashing with IS.

10 August 2016: Libyan Dawn Air Force (LDAF) plane reported crashed at Sirte due to technical difficulties while IS media arm Amaq claimed its fighters downed the warplane. 2 pilots killed.

13 August 2016: An Islamic State SVBIED targeted Bonyan Al-Marsous gathering near captured Ouagadougou conference center. 7 fighters allegedly killed.

14 August 2016: Bonyan Al-Marsous reported ongoing clashes at both residential districts near the waterfront.

Jufra

09 August 2016: SDB and LNA reportedly clashed near the Naga oil field at Jufra. LNA sources also released photos of alleged IS fighters killed claiming to the group (IS) is supposedly behind the attack.

Darnah

10 August 2016: Libyan Air Force (LAF) reportedly conducted airstrikes on ammunition depot belonging to DMSC.

Niger: Images of displaced population affected by recent Boko Haram violence.

By Rida Lyammouri

June 11, 2015

There are no words to describe what people displaced because of violence related to Boko Haram in SE Niger are going through. This humanitarian tragedy is caused by a group that claims to represent and defend Muslims in Nigeria and neighboring countries. Yet it is causing such harm to innocent people during the holy month of Ramadan. These displaced people are the true Muslims because despite violence and the heat, they are most likely observing the holy month of Ramadan. People are walking miles in 100+ degrees, including women, children, and elders. Access to water is limited and almost non-existent. Keep them in our thoughts during this holy month.

These images speak for themselves and thank you to International Rescue Committee (IRC), International Committee for Red Cross (ICRC), Medecin Sans Frontiere (MSF), OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) Niger, UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), and others who shared these telling images with us through twitter.

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Libya as a Source of Weapons to Mali Through Northeast Niger

By Rida Lyammouri

March 18th, 2016

 Important: This post provides information about weapons, drugs, and other illicit trafficking seizures in Northeastern Niger between September 2014 and May 2015. Please note that information provided is taken directly from a recent Libya United Nations (UN) report published March 2016. However since the report is long I decided to summarize important information related to trafficking and violent extremist organizations (VEOs) operating in the Sahel. I also included more seizures based on open-source reporting where necessary, and my own comments and analysis where necessary to provide more context.

  1. My Own Key Takeaways and Analysis Based on Information Provided at the UN Report:
  • Fighting against increased pressure from French, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and Malian forces in Mali, AQIM [and allies] will continue to seek access to weapons and explosives from Libya. Since its intervention in Mali January 2013, French forces discovered and destroyed important number of arms caches belonging to AQIM and allied groups in Northern Mali.
  • VEOs and non-state actors operating in Mali have contacts based in Libya to facilitate movement of weapons.
  • Libyan weapons still and will continue to make its way to Mali despite increased pressure by operation Barkhane in Northeastern Niger in collaboration with Nigerien forces. This could be explained by continued violent attacks in Mali throughout 2015 and early 2016. Violence in Mali was not limited to VEOs but included rival secular movements, such as the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) and Malian government backed militia, Groupe d’Auto-Défense Tuareg Imghad et Alliés (GATIA). Despite peace agreement signed between armed groups and Malian government tensions remain high. Tribal tensions likely to complicate further the implementation of the peace accord.
  • Demand of weapons from non-state armed groups will also continue.
  • While security is not the main concern to Nigerien population, French forces presence in Northern Niger not only limited movement of weapons but also prevented VEOs from conducting violent attacks in the area. No major attacks took place in northern Niger since May 2013 when Mokhtar Bekmokhtar orchestrated simultaneous operations on Agadez and Arlit.
  • Communities living on the borders depend on cross-border licit trade. This likely to suffer and be limited due to French increased presence to combat movement of weapons and VEOs activities in Northeastern Niger.
  • For protection purposes organized criminal networks in charge of moving drugs through the Sahel to Europe or to the Middle East will continue to rely on weapons smuggled from Libya through southern borders.
  • Economic and financial gains through licit and illicit trafficking in Southwest Libya will remain one of key driver of tribal and domestic tensions between different groups in the area.

Continue reading

Key Events That Led to Tensions Between Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi Before Splitting

By Rida Lyammouri

December 7th, 2015

Northern Mali saw the creation of al-Murabitun in August 2013. The group was a result of an allegiance between the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and the al-Mulathamun brigade, both of which were Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) splinter groups. Joining forces was initially perceived as an optimistic move to counter the aggressive intervention against jihadist groups in the area by foreign troops, led by France. Moreover, it was a result of an ongoing rift between Belmokhtar and AQIM leadership. Simultaneously, Belmokhtar’s ties with MUJWA had been expanding since the occupation of Gao City in northern Mali. In June 2012 Belmokhtar was living in Gao where he participated in a battle that expelled the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) out of the city.

In 2015 interesting and confusing dynamics between al-Murabitun’s founders, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, began to surface. Abu Walid al-Sahrawi reportedly pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in May 2015, while Belmokhtar confirmed his allegiance to al-Qaeda only two months later in July 2015. Belmokhtar and AQIM also reconciled their relationship and he was appointed as the new emir of al-Murabitun, as the group was expected to be the face of al-Qaeda in Mali and in West Africa.

Lack of information about Belmokhtar’s death, lack of information about jihadist groups in Mali, and the three-way claims of having orchestrated the Radisson Blu attack make any attempt to understand the dynamics among jihadist groups operating in Mali very challenging, if not impossible. This research is a result of social media monitoring, and open-source research.

At the creation of al-Murabitun, Belmokhtar and MUJWA leader, Ahmed Ould Amer [aka Ahmed Tilemsi], agreed none of them would claim the role of emir of the group. As a result, Abu Bakr [al-Muhajir] al-Masri was named emir of al-Murabitun. A little known fact about Abu Bakr al-Masri is that he supposedly had experience fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviet and American forces, which was enough to earn him the appointment as first emir of al-Murabitun. However, the selection of Abu Bakr al-Masri was not as seamless as it seemed. Hamada Ould Mohamed Khairou [aka Abu Kaakaa], another important figure from MUJWA, and Abu Walid al-Sahrawi initially refused to pledge allegiance to al-Masri. Abu Walid al-Sahrawi changed his position eventually and pledged allegiance, while Khairou continued to resist. Abu Walid was named member of the Shurah Council of al-Murabitun, and Khairou decided to leave the group. On April 2014 the French forces killed Abu Bakr al-Masri and the Shurah Council selected Ahmed Tilemsi to be al-Murabitun’s new emir after Belmokhtar allegedly refused the position because of his agreement with Abu Walid al-Sahrawi.

Soon, al-Murabitun found itself without an emir again when French forces killed Ahmed Tilemsi in December 2014. While Belmokhtar was supposedly outside northern Mali, Abu Walid al-Sahrawi was named the new emir. This led to tensions and divisions between MUJWA and al-Mulathamun brigade members that initially formed al-Murabitun. Belmokhtar and his men refused to pledge allegiance to Abu Walid al-Sahrawi. In addition to claiming his selection was illegitimate, members of the al-Mulathamun brigade considered Abu Walid young, inexperienced, and claimed he lacked the required intellectual and ideological knowledge to be fit for the position.

Tensions further intensified between Abu Walid and Belmokhtar when the latter supposedly began reconciliation talks with AQIM to integrate al-Murabitun. On top of being in conflict with Belmokhtar, Abu Walid al-Sahrawi has a history of being in conflict with AQIM and al-Qaeda in general that led to the split and creation of MUJWA in October 2011. These tensions explain in part the surprising announcement on 13 May 2015 by Abu Walid al-Sahrawi pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on behalf of the entirety of al-Murabitun. The announcement should be taken with caution, however, as it is unclear and unknown if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did confirm the allegiance. Additionally, this pledge does not appear to have generated wide praise on social media similar to allegiances pledged by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Jund al-Khilafa in Algeria, for instance.

The allegiance by Abu Walid created confusion as many quickly started reporting that Belmokhtar joined the Islamic State as Long War Journal explained. However Belmokhtar responded quickly releasing a short statement on 14 May 2015 denying the reports that he had swore allegiance to al-Baghdadi and reaffirming his and al-Murabitun’s allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda. Allegedly, Belmokhtar refused to join forces with IS after meetings held in Darna, Libya with different high-ranked jihadists in March 2015. While reports are difficult to confirm, IS issued a notice on 22 August 2015 stating they wanted Belmokhtar dead indicating that he is currently fighting in Darna, Libya. On 18 May 2015 Abu Walid said his group was holding a Romanian hostage kidnapped 04 April 2015 in Burkina Faso in an attempt to defy Belmokhtar and reaffirm his total control over al-Murabitun.

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Comment by a Twitter User Familiar with Jihadist Groups in Northern Mali.

After weeks of silence al-Murabitun then released a new statement on 21 July 2015. In the release, the Shurah Council of the group appointed Belmokhtar as the new emir of al-Murabitun, and distanced itself from Abu Walid al-Sahrawi. While the group clearly confirmed its allegiance to al-Qaeda and following the path of its founder Usama Bin Laden, it referred to Belmokhtar as emir of al-Murabitun and not as emir of al-Qaeda in West Africa as was widely reported. On 15 August 2015 the group released a short correction to deny the name change. The statement indicated that adding “West Africa” was an error made by the designer, and was not a rebranding to “Al-Qaeda in West Africa.” The statement was circulated on Twitter on 16 August by user @almourabitoune. The Arabic statement roughly translated to: “Clarification of the error by our brother the designer in Al- Murabitun’s statement by adding “In West Africa.” We apologize for this.”

Belmokhtar and AQIM needed each other to respond to the rise of IS in north Africa and its possible attempt to push south to Sahel countries. The brutality of IS already attracted the deadliest group in Africa, Boko Haram. Although it is unclear if Boko Haram is benefiting from operational support from IS, the group is getting more attention and coverage than in the past. Also it would be immature to neglect the possibility of weapons and missionaries being smuggled south from Libya through Niger to Nigeria. AQIM could not afford loosing Belmokhtar who is known for orchestrating spectacular attacks. Additionally, French forcers discovered and destroyed a large number of AQIM’s arms, explosives, and logistical caches in northern Mali. Belmokhtar could provide an alternative source with his established networks in the region. Belmokhtar has also a unique and unmatched access to local communities throughout the Sahel, especially northern Mali.

Based on the information available it is quite difficult to say if IS a real threat to Mali and the Sahel in general. However it would not be shocking to see in coming months more AQ allied groups in the area defecting to pledge allegiance to IS. Weakened and destabilized brigades might use this as an incentive for recruitment and publicity. Also splitting and defecting is not uncommon among jihadist groups in the Sahel. Young jihadists in North Africa, especially in Tunisia and Libya, became increasingly fascinated by IS and if not dealt with, it’s just a matter of time before it reaches Mali and other parts of the Sahel.

 

AQIM MAKING NOISE AGAIN IN TIMBUKTU REGION – NORTHERN MALI

By Rida Lyammouri

December 3rd, 2015 

On 01 December 2015, Al Akhbar published a video of an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader speaking to a local crowd in northern Mali. The quality of the video is very poor and the event reportedly took place in Boujbeha, a remote village located 150km northeast of Timbuktu city arounf the 25 – 27 November 2015. The speech was in Arabic and directed to a crowd of Oulad Ich, a clan of Bérabiche tribe of Arab decent. The speech was supposedly delivered to a group of local Arab tribal leaders who were attending a gathering referred to as a “festival of Arab ethnic tribes.” According to an Al Alkhbar article, the AQIM leader was identified as Abu Talha al-Libi, head of al-Furqan brigade (sometimes also referred to as al-Quds brigade). This brigade is a branch of Sahara Emirate that is led by Yahya Abu al-Hammam. Sahara Emirate resurfaced in the past two weeks when it claimed to have played a role in the Radisson Blu attack in Bamako, Mali in collaboration with al-Murabitun.

Abu Talha insisted in his speech that AQIM has nothing against Arab tribes in northern Mali, in particular, and other ethnic groups, in general. Abu Talha accused France of attempting to turn local people against each other. Abu Talha claimed that France recruited and used locals as informants and spies after failing to defeat jihadist groups on its own in northern Mali. A masked member next to Abu Talha, reading through a written statement, warned against any further collaboration with French forces operating in the area. The crowd repeatedly chanted in support of the speech throughout the video that lasted little less than five minutes.

Sahara Emirate of AQIM is operating mainly in the Timbuktu Region and has been responsible for several executions and attacks. In early September 2015, the brigade released a video claiming responsibility and demonstrating a staged ambush north of Timbuktu city on United Nations troops killing five peacekeepers. Reportedly, on 27 November 2015, the brigade released a statement claiming responsibility for the execution of two members of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA). The group justified the executions by claiming that both members were working as spies for French forces. Speaking to Al Jazeera Arabic on the phone, a spokesman of Sahara Emirate, referred to as Abu Abderrahmane al-Muhajir, stated the group will continue to conduct similar acts until all spies are eliminated. Furthermore, on 21 November 2015, most likely the same brigade posted a pamphlet on the door of a city hall in Ber, a small town located 60km east of Timbuktu city. The village is controlled by the MNLA in addition to United Nations troops conducting periodic patrols there. At the same village, unknown gunmen executed an MNLA commander on 09 October 2015. Little over a year ago, on 16 September 2014, AQIM kidnapped five men accused of assisting international forces at Zouéra, Timbuktu Region. On 23 September 2014, the body of a beheaded man was found near the village, about 80km north of Timbuktu. In April 2014, members of AQIM entered a local market in Zouera in theTimbuktu Region and distributed a pamphlet warning locals against supporting international forces.

AQIM succeeded at establishing itself in the Timbuktu Region by gaining the heart and mind of the local population and rarely ever carrying out violent acts against locals. However AQIM has strayed from that position since the French intervention in January 2013 as recent executions and warnings against locals have demonstrated. Since France’s intervention in northern Mali, international forces led by France have relied on information provided by locals. AQIM is well aware of this and of the value of human intelligence in an area where access to information depends on support from the locals. Major cities like Timbuktu city have been liberated and are less exposed to attacks by violent extremist organizations, but remote villages like Boujbeha, Zouera, Ber, and many more remain vulnerable and helpless. Because of fear, the local population in the Timbuktu Region, in particular, and in northern Mali, in general, will likely become more hesitant to provide priceless human intelligence to French, United Nations, and Malian forces unless those forces provide some protection to the locals.