North Africa Theater
Some of the worst enemies of the Tuareg people are Westerners who make their livelihood by spreading fear and hatred for an entire population that they do not know. Several days ago, USA Today published an article [Feb. 14] by a young American reporter who wrote that "Tuaregs have long kept slaves," and implied that Tuaregs are still "taking slaves" today and holding them captive. This is incorrect. The Tuaregs do not own slaves today, and do not capture people or hold them as slaves. The reporter based her article largely on propaganda she heard from one individual in southern Mali.
Under an agreement signed Jan. 30 in the port of Agadir, 1,400 US Marines and 900 Moroccan soldiers will join in April on the North African country's Atlantic coast for a training exercise dubbed "African Lion." The joint forces will land more than 200 vehicles at Agadir and advance with weapons and equipment 300 kilometers before returning to the starting point where they will disassemble the equipment for re-embarkation within 24 hours. The forces will deploy long-range missiles that can reach targets more than 60 kilometers away accurately—a first for an exercise involving Morocco.
More than 3,000 Tunisians, led by the father of assassinated opposition figure Chokri Belaid, marched through the capital Feb. 23 in a protest against the government's "slow" investigation into the slaying. The case has become a focal point for widespread grievances against the ruling Islamist party and the country's economic state. (AP, Feb. 23) Tunisian authorities say they have arrested an unspecified number of suspects in the killing, but Belaid's family says members of the ruling Ennahda party were behind the assassination, and are being protected. (Middle East Online, Feb. 21)
President Obama announced Feb. 22 that about 100 US troops have been mobilized to Niger to help set up a new base for supposedly unarmed Predator drones to conduct surveillance in the region. The new drone base is to be located for now in the capital, Niamey. The only permanent US base in Africa is in Djibouti, but Niamey may now constitute a second. (NYT, Feb. 22) Also Feb. 22, Chad announced that 13 of its soldiers and 65 Islamist rebels were killed in a fierce battle in the mountain region of Adrar des Ifoghas, on Mali's border with Algeria. In other fighting that day, at Tessalit, on the edge of the mountains, two vehicles carrying civilians and members of the MNLA Tuareg rebel group exploded, killing three and wounding several others. (VOA, Feb. 22) A second car bomb attack in Khalil, on the Algerian border, left five MNLA fighters dead. (Reuters, France24, Feb. 22)
A Rabat military court on Feb. 17 handed prison sentences, including eight life terms, to a group of 24 Sahrawis accused of killing members of the security forces in Morocco-occupied Western Sahara in 2010. Four received 30-year terms, while 25th defendant was tried in absentia and given a life sentence. The charges, including "forming criminal gangs, and violence against the security forces leading to deaths and the mutilation of corpses," stemmed from violence surrounding the November 2010 eviciton of a protest encampment at Gdim Izik outside Laayoune, capital of the occupied territory. Amnesty International condemned the military trial as "flawed from the outset," and called for an investigation of claims that incriminating statements had been made under torture. (Reuters, Al Jazeera, Feb. 17)
Britain's The Telegraph on Feb. 13 reports on a document reportedly found by their reporter in the ruins of a Gendarmerie Nationale barracks outside Timbuktu that had been used by the jihadists and then destroyed in a French air-strike. The document, purportedly the notes from a March 18, 2012 leadership meeting of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), chaired by AQIM "prince" Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud, is said to lay bare AQIM's plan to consolidate control of northern Mali, stating: "We had to think of the necessity to draw a plan to command and control the jihad activities there at this critical moment and target all efforts to achieve the required goals." The supposed document is portrayed as especially expressing concerns over Ansar Dine, the faction that controlled Timbuktu, as too independent. An AP account claims their own reporter found the document, and identifies Wadoud as nom de guerre of Abdelmalek Droukdel, the AQIM top commander supposedly appointed by Osama bin Laden.
Tension remains high in Gao after a pitched battle over the weekend as French troops beat back an attempt by MUJAO fighters to retake the remote northern Malian city. Jihadist fighters succeeded succeeded in taking a custer of buildings in the center of town, including the former administrative building that had been used by MUJAO "Islamic police." After the builging was destroyed in a French helicopter assault, fighting ensued for hours over the ruins. French President Francois Hollande said his goal is that "not one space of Mali's territory be under the control of terrorists." A death toll could not immediately be established, but Col. Mamadou Sanake of the Malian army said, "Many Islamists were killed."
For days we have been wondering about the fate of Kidal, the last town in northern Mali that remains under rebel control. Unless you are paying close attention, you would not know that the rebels in Kidal are not jihadists—they are secular Tuareg separatists of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), who took the town from the local jihadist faction, Ansar Dine, at the same time that combined French and Malian forces were driving the jihadists from Timbuktu and Gao last month. French-led forces reportedly captured Kidal's airport last week but have held back on entering the town itself—an implicit acknowledgement of the sensitive situation, a desire to avoid opening a new insurgency with the MNLA but also to stop short of allowing them a zone of control. Now the French military says it is 1,800 soldiers from Chad that have entered Kidal. An astute choice.