Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mauritania's first suicide bombing, targeting the French embassy in Nouakchott

A quick reaction to the suicide bombing that took place today against the French embassy in Nouakchott. According to the AP, a man detonated the explosive belt he was wearing outside of the French embassy (the local media is more vague about the location, saying it was a little further down the road). Two security guards and a woman were lightly injured, while the kamikaze was killed.

Mauritania’s first experience of terrorism on its soil is recent. In 2005, the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), which rebranded itself Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in early 2007, attacked the Lemgheity military post. In 2007, four French tourists were killed in Aleg, in the south of the country. In early 2008, shots were fired against the Israeli embassy, and in September of that same year, 15 soldiers were taken hostage and beheaded near the town of Zouerate. Finally, in June, an American aid worker was killed in what appeared to be an attempted kidnapping. AQIM claimed responsibility or was found responsible for all of these incidents.

Today’s event represents the first occurrence of a suicide bombing in Mauritania. There had been warning signs. When the first Mauritanian blew himself up in Bouira (Algeria) during the summer of 2008 as part of an AQIM operation, this triggered a fear that his example may inspire other extremists recruited in Mauritania. Over the past year and a half, the Mauritanian police has raided several AQIM safehouses in Nouakchott and found arms and explosives, including explosive belts—suggesting that one or more people were already, at the time, willing to blow themselves up.

The suicide attack before the French embassy today represents the realization of this worrisome prospect, and follows the line of attacks targeting either the Mauritanian army or Western expatriates. This attack is also, in all likelihood, a strong message sent to the newly-elected (and already contestated) President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who has sworn to rid Mauritania of terrorism. This new incident--which has not yet been claimed by anyone--also suggests that the terrorist threat, although recent in Mauritania, may be there to stay. The dismantling of the Mauritanian branch of AQIM and the numerous arrests in early 2008 did not prevent the group from reforming.

It will be interesting, in the next few months, to observe how the recent surge in the Malian army’s effort to go after AQIM on its territory (with the help of the Tuareg community who knows well the terrain and is well versed in the art of guerilla warfare) will impact on neighboring countries. The area of the Sahara between Mauritania, Algeria and Mali has long been a lawless zone and a sanctuary for AQIM’s southern cells. If Mali is successful in chasing AQIM out of its territory (and assuming they can keep that territory clear), and if the Algerians are able to do the same on theirs, will these cells relocate to Mauritania ?


  1. Well, the ifs compound, don't they Alma?

    If he was Tuareg... If we was affiliated with AQIM... If he was protesting the Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz coup... If he was protesting France...

    I suspect AQIM, based on the latest reports and the 2007 slaying of the four French tourists.

    According to AFP, the bomber -- un kamikaze --detonated near two (apparently western) security guards of the French embassy, on a road by the courtyard's wall.

    They were left shocked, but uninjured.

    AFP also is reporting that local police believe the suspect was 20 years old, a Mauritanian born in the capital and most likely a jihadist.

    The later report says that the employees were jogging, and now one of them was slightly wounded in the chest. A woman from Mauritania also was treated for a minor shrapnel wound.[tt_news]=34937&tx_ttnews[backPid]=36&cHash=48b9e590e7

    Not a particularly good bombing, from the terrorist's perspective.


  2. SNLII:

    Thanks for the additional info.

    Chances that it was a Tuareg are nil: Tuaregs don't blow themselves, either in front of embassies or elsewhere. There was not a single instance of use of suicide bombing during any of the Tuareg insurgencies of 1962, 1990-1996 or 2006-2009. Actually, there was never an instance of use of explosives beyond grenades and mines. Plus the Tuareg population in Mauritania is very, very small. and Tuaregs generally could not care less about Abdel Aziz or France. This is not to say that some individual young Tuaregs can not be radicalized and recruited by AQIM--not sure if this has happened already, but it is definitely something that could happen.

    The use of an explosive belt suggests that the guy who blew himself had some sort of logistical network behind him, including a bomb expert. This points towards AQIM, and I would be very, very surprised if they did not claim this bombing in the next few days.

    And yes, it was not a particularly good bombing, especially since the French embassy in Nouakchott has one of the most lax security I have ever seen (especially when you compare it to the German and US fortified castles a few blocks away). I honestly can't believe this guy could not have gotten at least inside the compound, had he tried to.

  3. I don't think it's a Tuareg hit, Alma. BUt there was some speculation in the local media, perhaps because many there consider the Tuareg as their own sort of Basque movement.

    Having lived with the Tuareg, I've always found this specious.

    Perhaps someone could pen a dissertation someday on how many times franchises of al Qaeda aren't seen as the original instigators of the violence, even when they wield weapons and methods that are alien to the blamed party but standard for Salafi suicide cells.

    Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, etc, etc, etc.


  4. Well said, Soldier No Longer Living With The Tuaregs (SNLLWTT?).

    Maybe you could pen an article instead of a dissertation?

  5. I wasn't proposing this for me, but for perhaps a young grad student who might stop by and read the comments, Alma.

    I've already written on the Tuareg. I have nothing more to add about them, nor am I competent enough to explore why the Spanish, et al, tend to blame old dogs for new tricks.