June 3, 2013:
Once more, al Qaeda has been chased out of a place (northern Mail) so quickly that there were enough stray documents for even intrepid journalists to scoop up. This happened in Afghanistan in late 2001. Then, as now, the inner workings of al Qaeda were revealed, rather than being classified and kept secret by the intelligence agencies. The latest revelations come mainly out of a long letter of complaint from al Qaeda to an ambitious but undisciplined Algerian warlord named Moktar Belmoktar. Passed over for promotion by al Qaeda, Belmoktar set himself up as a bandit in northern Mali a decade ago after fleeing Algeria. Belmoktar was one of the Algerian Islamic terrorists who survived the defeat of Algerian Islamic terrorist uprising of the 1990s and decided to leave the country rather than face certain death at the hands of the relentless counter-terrorism operations. In northern Mali he still pledged allegiance to al Qaeda but would not follow orders. That was explained in the letter sent to him. But once al Qaeda took over northern Mail in 2012, Belmoktar was motivated to finally do something spectacular for the cause. He planned (but did not lead) a January raid on the Algerian Tiguentourine natural gas facility. The raid was a failure but a spectacular one that is popular with al Qaeda. In the Algerian natural gas facility three terrorists were taken alive and revealed many details of how the operation was planned and carried out. Security forces rescued 685 Algerian and 107 foreign workers. The terrorists killed 37 foreigners and one Algerian. Only one of the 32 terrorists was from Algeria, making it clear that Belmoktar had been successful at attracting foreign recruits to his organization. In response to the gas facility attack, Western counter-terrorism amped up the hunt for Belmoktar, and it was believed he was killed in the mountains of northern Mali in March. But this was not confirmed and apparently Belmoktar was alive, as he claimed responsibility for another spectacular failure in May, when his men attacked a French uranium mine in Niger (as well as a military base 240 kilometers away). So now the counter-terror forces in northern Mali are redoubling their efforts to find and kill or capture Belmoktar.
The intel agencies keep secret details of these captured documents so that the terrorists don’t know what the enemy knows about them. This makes it easier to track down and kill terrorist leaders. In the last decade this effort has been very successful, which explains how an inept egomaniac like Belmoktar could eventually become a “major” terrorist leader. Belmoktar’s superiors apparently still consider him a liability but since he is carrying out high-profile attacks and keeping a lot of counter-terrorism forces occupied, he is at least helping out a bit. The same pattern came out of the captured documents in 2001, in Afghanistan. A lot of al Qaeda middle management who ignored orders did little for the cause and failed to account for the money they were given. The documents and prisoner interrogations in northern Mali indicate that not much has changed, except that the quality of leadership has declined further because of the constant attrition.
The other reason French troops are staying longer in northern Mali has to do with what intelligence analysts continue to find among all the captured documents and interviews with terrorists and civilians up there. New material is still being found. So far the analysts have discovered that al Qaeda (AQIM, or al Qaeda in the Maghreb, which is what Arabs call North Africa) and the two other Islamic terror groups (Ansar Dine and MUJWA) in the area had different goals and types of members. Ansar Dine is composed largely of Tuaregs while MUJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) is unique because its leadership is black African. There has long been a lot of tension between Arabs and black Africans. The Arabs disdain the blacks and that causes a lot of anger and resentment. MUJWA is an AQIM splinter group striving to show they can be more extreme and effective than the Arab dominated al Qaeda. The AQIM leadership is mostly, like Belmoktar, survivors of the 1990s uprising in Algeria. These fellows tend to be better educated and have a higher opinion of themselves than the sub-Saharan (and largely black, rather than Arab) Islamic terrorists.
Before the French moved north in January, Ansar Dine offered to work with the Mali government to destroy al Qaeda control of the north in return for autonomy for the Tuareg tribes that predominate up there and the continued use of Sharia (Islamic) law. The southerners were willing to discuss the former but were hostile to the latter. Meanwhile, Ansar Dine and their less religious Tuareg allies found that they lacked the firepower to prevent AQIM and MUJWA from calling all the shots in northern Mali.
When the French moved north in January, there were about 3,000 armed Islamic terrorists in the north, but only a third of them were terrorist veterans. The rest were recent recruits. About half of these recruits were from northern Mali and were in it mainly for the money (although for some, religion was the main draw). The other thousand were mostly Africans from countries like Nigeria, Togo, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Somalia, Mauritania, and Niger. There were several hundred from North Africa (mainly Algeria and Libya) and other Middle Eastern nations, as well as Europe and North America. France was aware that al Qaeda was calling for new recruits from all over the world. France had informants inside their own Moslem community who reported that this was happening, and a growing number of young men were quietly leaving home for parts unknown. Now the French know where some of those terrorist recruits were headed. Some died in northern Mali, but others, more ominously, got away. French intelligence has collected names, but they realize that some of the French recruits were unidentified and if they go back to France they could form terrorist cells and do some damage. It’s the same with all the new recruits that got away and had no past record of being Islamic terrorists. Belmoktar has apparently welcomed these Western Islamic terrorists, although so far he seems to use them in one-way (suicidal) missions.
AQIM was already running training programs, when the French invaded, and were rapidly expanding that. The plan was to train thousands of new recruits a year and show them how to set up terrorist cells back home and operate, and communicate, without getting caught. French intelligence also discovered the extent of the AQIM bases in northwest Mali near the Algerian border. Also discovered was how AQIM, Ansar Dine, and MUJWA had made a lot of money in the past decade via kidnapping, drug smuggling, and extortion. The French got some leads on who worked with the terrorists on these money-making endeavors and where some of the cash was. One of the leads was Belmoktar, who is now near the top of the “most wanted” list.