The Shooting of President Mohamed Ould Abd al-Aziz Revisited, in a Mauritanian Courtroom

In October 2012, Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abd al-Aziz was shot and wounded at a checkpoint by a soldier. He was flown to France for medical treatment and recovery, and returned home some six weeks later. Mauritanian authorities stated that Ould Abd al-Aziz had been accidentally shot by a soldier who did not realize the president’s identity. Coming as it did just four years after the coup that brought Ould Abd al-Aziz to power, and moreover coming in the waning phase of a protracted conflict between Mauritania and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the incident raised more than a few eyebrows at home and abroad.

Recently, the dispute has resurfaced over what exactly happened at that checkpoint. This month, a trial began for Mohamed Ould Ghadda, a former senator and opposition member originally arrested in August 2017, just after last summer’s constitutional referendum (which he had opposed). Some more background on his arrest and charges can be found here. Ould Ghadda’s arrest also occurred in the context of the presidency’s charges against businessmen Mohamed Ould Bouamatou (see some background on that here).

The first session (Arabic) of Ould Ghadda’s trial was 9 August in Nouakchott, the capital. One central topic of the initial proceedings has been Ould Ghadda’s role in disputing the official story concerning the shooting of Ould Abd al-Aziz. In 2017, Ould Ghadda disseminated a video where a soldier named Mbarik (my transliteration), reportedly the companion of the soldier who fired on Ould Abd al-Aziz, cast doubt on numerous parts of the official story.

I have had some trouble reconstructing exactly what Mbarik said, so I want to a bit cautious here in how I describe things. Some of the video is available here, prefaced by Ould Ghadda’s remarks (wherein he called for Ould Abd al-Aziz to resign, due to what Ould Ghadda said was obfuscation surrounding the incident of the shooting). Ould Ghadda’s Facebook post commenting on the video has been reproduced in various places, including here (Arabic). From what I can tell (and here I may be wrong due to either sourcing problems or lack of Hassaniyya competency – commenters, please correct/add as necessary), neither the video nor the commentary advanced a full, alternative account of how and why Ould Abd al-Aziz was shot; rather, they raised doubts about parts of the official account. Among other comments, Ould Ghadda noted that the two soldiers were trainees who were not permitted to fire unless their training camp was directly under attack.

In any case, back in the present, Mbarik has recanted (Arabic) what he said in the video and has testified that Ould Ghadda pressured him to record the video and promised to pay him for it. The court has also heard testimony (Arabic) from the soldier who, according to the official account, accidentally shot Ould Abd al-Aziz; that soldier, whose surname I would transliterate as Ould Ahaymad, testified that the official story from 2012 is the truth. For his part, in court Ould Ghadda maintained that Mbarik had been forced to recant under pressure. The Mauritanian press seems more interested in the various recantations and counter-testimonies in the present than it does in the substance of the doubts raised about the official account. Significantly, however, the press has also noted that this is the first time the shooting has been discussed in any Mauritanian court.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter what happened in October 2012 – whether it was an accident or an assassination attempt, Ould Abd al-Aziz survived and remained in power. But in another sense, the questions surrounding the incident continue to reverberate periodically in Mauritanian politics, symbolizing – for the president’s critics and opponents – their doubts about transparency and secrecy in his administration.




Three Recent Reports on Jihadism in the Sahel

A few recent treatments of jihadism in the Sahel have appeared:

Anouar Boukhars, “The Paradox of Modern Jihadi Insurgencies: The Case of the Sahel and Maghreb.” Here are the first two paragraphs:

One of the nagging questions about the persistent wave of insurgencies in the Maghreb Sahel region is that they continue to be characterized and defined by extremist ideologies. After violent jihadists discredited Algeria’s insurgency in the late 1990’s, the assumption was that dissident rebels may want to avoid the adoption of extremist ideology, as it alienates the majority of local populations, fragment the ranks of rebels, and scare away external supporters. Given such negative marginal returns, it is puzzling that transnational and local Salafi jihadism remains the insurgent repertoire in the Maghreb-Sahel crises. More perplexing is that this extremist ideology has become the tool of war par excellence as well as the ideological focal point that rallies the support of different kinds of aggrieved populations. Since Algerian terror groups relocated to Northern Mali in the early 2000’s, rebel leaders evolving in the Sahel have become more inclined towards adopting Salafi jihadism as a means to survive, recruit and outcompete other contending armed actors.

This is a strategic choice, which is more informed by strategic conditions on the ground than by automatic commitments to a core set of extreme beliefs. In other words, rebel entrepreneurs and their rank-and-file supporters and sympathizers do not have to be die-hard ideologues, or violent religious extremists, to lead or buy into transnational or local groups defined by a radical ideological platform. They just need to think that that their choice would yield dividends in contexts of deeply polarized societies that are run by illegitimate, abusive states. As such, this article focuses mostly on the benefits that insurgents and their supporters calculate they may accrue from adopting Salafi jihadism as a tool of insurgency in the Sahel-Maghreb crises. In so doing, it illustrates how jihadi rebels are slated to remain the dominant challengers to existing regimes in the region even if ironically their chances of achieving lasting victories is slim.

Hamza Cherbib, “Jihadism in the Sahel: Exploiting Local Disorders.” An excerpt:

The implantation of Jihadist groups in the Sahel has been a twenty-year process, which adapted to the 2013 French military intervention by exploiting rural insurgencies. Overall, this strategy allowed groups to blend with the local population, find new recruits and fight security forces through guerrilla tactics. So far, Sahel states and their partners have been unable to sustainably neutralize these groups, and instead jihadist recruitment has improved and the level of armed violence has increased. In order to break what amounts to a vicious cycle of military operations feeding local jihadist insurgencies, Sahelian states and their partners should consider alternative options. There is a need to tackle the root causes of armed violence in rural areas, often more connected to socioeconomic grievances, inter-communal tensions and a loss of faith in the State rather than violent extremism. To limit jihadist groups’ ability to recruit from marginalized communities and implant in rural areas, Sahelian states should work at restoring capacities to deliver services and peacefully manage local conflicts.

Geoff Porter, “The Renewed Jihadi Terror Threat to Mauritania.” Here’s the abstract:

A decade ago, terrorism was rampant in Mauritania, but then it stopped, even as terrorist activity was rapidly proliferating all around it. Instead of being a target of terrorism, Mauritania became a node of passive jihadi activity. Various explanations were proffered as to why this was happening: Mauritania was good at counterterrorism; the government had made a deal with the devil; jihadi groups respected Mauritania’s neutrality. On May 8, 2018, however, al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb issued a communiqué that specifically mentioned Mauritania in a call for attacks, signaling a possible renewed jihadi terror threat to the country.

Also worth reading is MENASTREAM’s recent post on the death of a jihadist commander in northern Mali.

The New Mauritanian G5 Joint Force Commander and His Chadian Deputy

Late last week French and Mauritanian media that the new G5 Sahel Joint Force commander will be Mauritanian General Hanena Ould Sidi. He replaces Malian General Didier Dacko, whose removal was one outcome of the 2 July meeting of Sahelian and French heads of state in Nouakchott, Mauritania.

Ould Sidi is Mauritania’s Vice Chief of Army Staff. He is mentioned in a few brief news items at the Mauritanian Army’s website (example), but other than that I can’t find much information about him, either in French or in Arabic (here is the Arabic spelling of his name, for those curious).

La Tribune reports that at the G5 Sahel Joint Force, Ould Sidi’s deputy will be Chadian General Oumar Bikimo Jean, whose French-language Wikipedia page (which is pretty well sourced) is here.

Sahelian Governments’ Readouts of the 2 July Nouakchott Meeting on the G5 Sahel

On 2 July, amid the African Union summit in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, the presidents of France and five Sahelian countries (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad) met to discuss Sahelian security generally and the G5 Sahel Joint Force specifically. One outcome of the meeting was the sack of the Joint Force’s commander, Malian General Didier Dacko.

For French speakers, though, I thought it would be useful to round up all the official readouts of the meeting I could find. The Chadian presidency and the Nigerien presidency released official statements, while Mali’s president did a wide-ranging interview with France24 on the margins of the summit and (so far as I could tell) Burkina Faso’s president did not release a readout, just two comments on Twitter. As for Mauritania, the official Agence Mauritanienne d’Information released a readout here. Finally, the French president’s remarks to the press can be found here.

To me the most interesting readout was the Nigerien version, which had a few highlights (other than the main theme of the meeting, which seems to have been “let’s get this thing going a lot more”):

  • The G5 countries will now move to rebuild the damaged force headquarters in Sévaré, Mali;
  • They will continue to pursue a United Nations Chapter Seven mandate for the force (more backstory here), which might help resolve some of its financial problems; and
  • The regional governments will meet again in Nouakchott on 6 December.

On the G5 Sahel Joint Force’s Change of Command

On 29 June, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM, a Saharan jihadist formation that is part of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb) attacked the headquarters of the G5 Sahel Joint Force in Sévaré, central Mali. JNIM has claimed responsibility for several other recent attacks as well.

On 2 July, at the African Union summit in Mali’s neighbor Nouakchott, Sahelian heads of state, in consultation with French President Emmanuel Macron, decided to remove (French) the commander of the G5 joint force (see the readout of the meeting here). That commander was Malian General Didier Dacko.

You can read a bit of background on Dacko here (French). Dacko had long experience fighting jihadists and rebels in central and northern Mali, although with a mixed record. The French newspaper L’Express has also written (French) that he had ties to the northern pro-government militia leader El Hajj Ag Gamou, and that his ties to Ag Gamou enmeshed him in a web of northern contacts that includes some pretty shady people. (Arguably, this is true of many northern Malian elites and other senior military officers). In any case, Dacko headed the G5 Sahel Joint Force for a little over a year.

According to multiple sources, Dacko will be replaced by a yet-to-be-named officer from Mauritania, while Dacko’s Burkinabé deputy will be replaced by an officer from Chad. One prominent French blogger concludes, “One thing seems certain. The French army prefers to count on the much more seasoned armies of Chad and Mauritania than on their Malian partner.”

Finally, one might point out that the G5 Joint Force’s problems run quite deep – deeper than one commander.


Mauritanian Ulama Debate a Third Term for the President

Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abd al-Aziz will reach the end of his second term next year, and with it the limit of what the current constitutional provisions allow him to serve. Talk of a third term, however, has circulated for quite some time, and now the country’s religious scholars – ulama – are joining the debate. Recently, one of the most prominent senior shaykhs in the country, Hamdan Ould al-Tah, led a delegation that met the president and urged him to seek a third term. The expression of support is not necessarily surprising – Ould al-Tah has been close to different governments in Mauritania almost throughout the postcolonial period, and served as Minister of Islamic Affairs in addition to serving on various official religious bodies. Moreover, from a religious point of view, many ulama see political stability as preferable to the potential risks of change.

On the other side of the religious debate is Mahfoudh Brahim Ould Vall, vice president of Markaz Takwin al-Ulama (the Center for the Training of Ulama). The Markaz’s president is the globally famous Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew, who is also a symbol of sorts for the Islamist movement in Mauritania, though he is not a member of the Islamist Tawassoul party. I assume that Ould Vall speaks for a broader constituency within the Islamist movement. Ould Vall argues that president, like any state functionary, is morally bound to fulfill his original commitments – i.e, to serve only what he initially said he would serve. RFI sees a generational split in this debate, but I think it may be more about which ideological tendency one affiliates with.

A third perspective comes from another globally famous Mauritanian shaykh (and former Minister of Islamic Affairs), Abd Allah Bin Bayyah. In a recent interview, Bin Bayyah said in a general sense that he believes ulama should leave politics to a country’s rulers. He did not, however, comment specifically on the third term issue in Mauritania.

On a Mauritanian Fatwa Against Operation Serval – at The Maydan

Today’s post is outsourced to The Maydan, which is a publication of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University. I discuss a 2013 fatwa that a group of Mauritanian scholars released. The fatwa argued against Mauritanian participation in the French-led Operation Serval, which sought to disperse jihadists in northern Mali and restore Mali’s territorial integrity. From the piece:

In the eyes of the Fatwā’s authors, supporting a Western-led (i.e., infidel-led) military intervention in northern Mali would violate the unity that is essential to the preservation of Islam. In this context, the Fatwā referenced the doctrine of al-walā’ wa al-barā’ (“loyalty to the believers and disavowal of the unbelievers”), which emphasizes loyalty to the Muslim community in exclusive preference to partnerships with non-Muslims. The doctrine of al-walā’ wa al-barā’ is often a core theme within jihadist circles.

The Fatwā did not address the Mauritanian government or make formal recommendations concerning its foreign policy; rather, the text asserted obligations and responsibilities that Muslims have toward other Muslims. Nevertheless, the authors spoke as Mauritanians. At several points, the text stated that Mauritanian Muslims have a special duty, given their proximity to Mali, to show solidarity with the Muslims of Mali. Invoking the idea of Islamic solidarity implied that the government of Mauritania, officially an “Islamic Republic,” should not endorse or participate in any Western-led military operation that might harm Muslims in northern Mali. The Fatwā, appearing just days after Operation Serval began, seemed aimed in part at the government. In this sense, the text fits within a broader context of Islamic discourses in Mauritania that have attempted to influence the government’s foreign policy.

If you read the piece, I welcome any comments you may have.