In comments June 25 before the Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Gen. Carter Ham of US Africa Command warned of growing coordination between three major terrorist networks across the African continent: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. “Each of these organizations is, by itself, a dangerous and worrisome threat,” Ham said. “But what really concerns me is that the three organizations are seeking to coordinate and synchronize their efforts.”
Bloomberg went to town with the comments, seeking corroborating opinions from the ranks of beltway military wonkdom. “Right now, these groups are not threatening the US homeland in any way comparable to what al-Qaeda was doing three or four or five years ago,” before drone strikes weakened the network’s core, said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). But he added: “From a pure counter-terrorism perspective, Africa is a growing concern for sure. Terrorists need ungoverned spaces. They need resources.” And they have both in the remote interior Sahara, flooded with arms since the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in Libya.
The new ability of AQIM to funnel weapons and training to regional networks has “created a witch’s brew of opportunities for local terrorist groups,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University. “It gives al-Qaeda the opportunity, even while the center is being pulverized, to expand the movement on the periphery and extend its longevity.”
Islamists gain ground in Azawad
AP reports June 27 that heavy fighting has broken out in Gao, one of the major towns in Azawad, the breakaway northern region of Mali. The clashes pit the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the main Tuareg rebel force, against the Islamist faction MUJAO. The secular MNLA, which had been in control of at least the government administration buildings in the city, was forced to retreat by MUJAO fighters, who seem to have now usurped full control of the city.
South Africa’s IOL quotes a Gao resident who was reached by telephone: “The MNLA and MUJWA [sic] are launching rockets at each other between the two markets of the town and the governor’s building. Right now the only people in the streets are the two armed groups fighting each other. Everyone else is staying at home.” (Note the typical confusion and inconsistency about group names in reportage on this region; the correct rendering is MUJAO, and it is a French acronym for Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.)
Who is Iyad Ag Ghali?
France 24 on June 12 featured an in-depth portrait of Iyad Ag Ghali of Ansar Dine, the most prominent Islamist leader in Azawad (apparently in control of Timbuktu). As recently as 2007, the “current luxuriantly bearded” warlord known to his followers as the “Lion of the Desert”—then about to leave for a Malian diplomatic post in Saudi Arabia—had been invited for a high-level meeting at the US embassy in Bamako, where he requested assistance for “targeted special operations” against AQIM.
But a year later, Ag Ghali was back in northern Mali, jockeying among the Tuareg rebel leadership. WikiLeaks released a 2008 US diplomatic cable from the embassy in Bamako speculating that “ag Ghali is playing both sides of the issue”—meaning factionalism between Tuareg groups that had accepted a peace dialogue and the hardline faction led by the late Ibrahim ag-Bahanga. “Ag Ghali continues to cast a shadow over northern Mali,” the cable notes before adding, “Like the proverbial bad penny, ag Ghali turns up whenever a cash transaction between a foreign government and Kidal Tuaregs appears forthcoming.”
Kidal is one of the three administrative regions of northern Mali/Azawad, along with Gao and Timbuktu. (See map.) The “foreign government” in question is almost certainly Libya. Ag Ghali was born (probably in the ’50s) into the noble Iforas clan of Kidal, that claims the status of sharif—ancestral links to the Prophet Mohammed. He served in Moammar Qaddafi’s mercenary legions in the ’80s, fighting in Chad and (by his own boasts) against the Israelis in Lebanon. In the early ’90s, he returned to Mali to join the Tuareg rebellion before helping to negotiate a peace deal. During the rebellion he encountered preachers from Tablighi Jamaat, a Pakistan-based fundamentalist movement then attempting to proselytize in the Sahel. But, ironically, his real conversion to jihadism seems to have been during his diplomatic posting in Jiddah.
Today, his Ansar Dine appears to serve as a regional extension of AQIM. Ag Ghali’s cousin, Abdel Krim, is said to operate under senior AQIM leader Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, who heads one of the most violent AQIM katibas (or brigades), responsible for a spate of kidnappings over the past few years, including of European tourists and aid workers.
State Department schmoozes terrorist —ooops
The US State Department is currently reviewing how it granted a visa to an Egyptian lawmaker who met with top Obama administration officials despite being identified as a member of a terrorist group—affording a bonanza of fodder to the right-wing blogosphere.
Hani Nour el-Din, during a DC visit by newly elected Egyptian lawmakers, met with deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough and deputy secretary of state William Burns—despite the fact that he is purportedly a member of Gamaa Islamiya, a State Department-listed “foreign terrorist organization.” Since the story was broken by the Daily Beast, the State Department and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars have been batting back and forth responsibility for having invited el-Din like the proverbial hot potato. The coverage (e.g. (JTA, Jennifer Rubin’s Right Turn blog in the WP) has been long on smirking and gloating, and short on accuracy. For instance, we are told that Gamaa Islamiya is “now a registered party, but during the regime of Hosni Mubarak was an armed Islamist group that clashed with authorities.” Not so. A CNN report (seen on YouTube) tells us that the registered electoral entity is the Building and Development Party, seen as a front for Gamaa Islamiya—but (as none of the reports cited here note) the militant group has maintained a ceasefire for over 10 years now.
So this isn’t as sinister as it sounds, and is probably a sign that Gamaa Islamiya has been domesticated. However, other Islamist cells have carried out occasional attacks in Egypt over the past decade—most recently in the Sinai—and the volatile situation in Egypt at this moment means that jihadis will have plenty to do there in the coming months.