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.
In December 2017, a European diplomat spent a holiday weekend with his family and some colleagues at a remote fish camp a couple of hours north of Nouakchott. Far from the Mauritanian capital’s dust and hustle, the Europeans swam in the Atlantic and lazed in the sun during the day. At night, they gathered round drinking beer under the stars while the diplomat’s young children watched Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. projected onto the side of a tent.
The weekend was seemingly unremarkable. But on his way up to the fish camp from Nouakchott, the European diplomat and his family passed the very same spot on a sandy stretch of macadam where eight years earlier—nearly to the day—al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) kidnapped three Spanish aid workers.1 The aid workers’ kidnapping was but one in a series of AQIM incidents that rocked Mauritania from 2007 to 2011. But since 2011, AQIM and other terrorist organizations in the Sahel and Sahara have avoided Mauritania. In fact, even as the number of terrorist organizations and the pace of terrorist activity in the Sahel and Sahara has increased exponentially,2 Mauritania has remained calm and immune.
But while Mauritania remains free of terrorist attacks, it is hardly free of terrorist activity. To the contrary, while AQIM’s offensive activities take place outside of Mauritania, the country is a central node for passive activities for the group. And worryingly, a May 8, 2018, AQIM communiqué suggests that this may change, with AQIM encouraging its members and sympathizers to undertake attacks from Libya to Mauritania.
The Heyday of Jihad in Mauritania
Coinciding with the ‘Algerianist’ salafi Group for Preaching and Combat’s (GSPC) transformation into the more ‘globalist’ AQIM in 2007, Mauritania became a central node for AQIM’s activities. One attack followed another followed another. Even prior to officially changing its name to AQIM, the GSPC had dispatched one of its Mauritanian fighters, Khaddim Ould Semmane, to Nouakchott from a training camp in northern Mali to set up a cell to carry out future attacks. It then sent another Mauritanian fighter, Sidi Ould Sidna, to scout for potential targets.3 In 2005, presumed GSPC members attacked a Mauritanian military base in the north of the country, killing 17 Mauritanian soldiers.4 In December 2007, AQIM members, including Ould Sidna, murdered four French tourists near the southern Mauritanian town of Aleg, and three days later, they killed three Mauritanian soldiers in Ghallawiya.5 A little more than a month after the Ghallawiya attack, presumed jihadis attacked the Israeli Embassy in Nouakchott.6 In April 2008, Nouakchott witnessed a sustained firefight between security forces and alleged members of AQIM who had participated in the Aleg murders.7 In June 2009, AQIM claimed responsibility for the murder of an American aid worker who was shot early in the morning on a Nouakchott street.8 On August 8, 2009, Mauritania experienced its first suicide attack near the French Embassy in Nouakchott.9
The next month, AQIM and Mauritanian forces joined battle at Hassi Sidi.10 Two months later, the aforementioned Spanish aid workers were kidnapped on the Nouakchott/Nouadhibou road, and on the opposite side of the country near the Malian border, AQIM kidnapped an Italian couple.11 In August the following year, AQIM claimed responsibility for an attack against a Mauritanian military barracks in Nema in southeastern Mauritania. And then in February 2011, AQIM targeted the Mauritanian president himself in a failed assassination attempt in Nouakchott’s outskirts.12
But then terrorism in Mauritania stopped.
Conventional Counterterrorism Measures
One explanation is that President Ould Abdelaziz effectively employed conventional counterterrorism measures. Mauritania was one of the first countries in the region to leverage partner capacity-building programs offered by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which was stood up in 2008, the same year that Abelaziz came to power. In particular, it was an early and central participant in the U.S.-initiated Trans Saharan Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP), whose objectives included “improving basic infantry and special forces skills … increasing communications and logistics capabilities … improving partner nation capacity to synchronize intelligence … facilitating conferences … [and] participating in Flintlock, an annual AFRICOM-sponsored JSOTF-TS-conducted regional counterterrorism exercise.”13
From the outset, President Ould Abdelaziz’s willingness to engage with partners to augment Mauritania’s counterterrorism capabilities paid dividends. According to the scholar Anouar Boukhars, the government had simply “driven the most hardened militants out of the country and some would-be jihadists have voluntarily left.”14 In 2009, Mauritania created a rapid reaction force specifically to boost its interdiction capacity.15 In 2010, Abdelaziz redoubled his efforts and initiated a wide-ranging restructuring of the entire Mauritanian military.16 A 2014 evaluation of the TSCTP’s effectiveness credited Mauritania’s increased counterterrorism capacity in 2010 and 2011 directly to Abdelaziz’s outreach to allied countries for help.17 Nouakchott’s ties with Washington reached their zenith in 2013, when Mauritania hosted the 2013 iteration of AFRICOM’s Operation Flintlock.18
Ould Abdelaziz also took advantage of European partner capacity-building programs. In particular, the 2011 European Union “Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel” identified Mauritania as a core focus for its efforts to combat violent extremism and radicalization, saying “the situation in Mauritania is particularly worrying in terms of risks of radicalisation and recruitment of youth by AQIM.”19
Alongside conventional counterterrorism approaches, Ould Abdelaziz also embraced a nuanced approach to terrorism, introducing deradicalization programs and limited amnesties for convicted members of terrorist organizations. For example, in 2010, to mark the end of Ramadan, President Ould Abdelaziz pardoned 35 AQIM members and released them from prison where the men had participated in a deradicalization program spearheaded by the government in conjunction with Mauritanian religious leaders.20 Ould Abdelaziz also initiated a deradicalization program that relies on reinterpreting jihadis’ preferred religious texts in ways that steer them away from violence and toward forgiveness.21 The program subsequently received support from the TSCTP.22
However, in 2016, evidence emerged that pointed to a more nefarious explanation for the reduction in terrorist violence than simply the Ould Abdelaziz government successfully deploying a full spectrum of counterterrorism measures. After all, plenty of other countries threatened by jihadi terrorism had taken the same or similar steps as Ould Abdelaziz but failed to achieve the same neat results. In 2016, the United States’ Office of the Director of National Intelligence declassified a letter that was recovered from al-Qa`ida leader Usama bin Ladin’s Abbottabad compound.23 The letter reveals that AQIM leadership in Algeria sought guidance from al-Qa`ida’s central leadership about the legality of striking a truce with the Mauritanian government. The letter argued that a truce would be helpful because it would allow AQIM to “put cadres in safe rear bases available in Mauritania” and let it “focus on Algeria.”24 AQIM would refrain from attacking targets in Mauritania, and Nouakchott would pay “between 10 to 20 million euros annually, so long as the contract is in effect or upon renewal if the time had expired.”25
Curiously, evidence indicates that the proposal was broached within al-Qa`ida sometime in the first half of 2010.26 There is no indication whether al-Qa`ida signed off on AQIM’s proposal or not, nor is there any indication that Nouakchott entered into any agreement with AQIM. Nevertheless, 12 months after AQIM raised the notion of extorting Nouakchott to sue for peace, terrorist attacks in Mauritania ceased.
The Proliferation of Jihadi Groups in the Sahel and Sahara
At the same time that terrorism in Mauritania stopped, jihadi activity was intensifying dramatically in neighboring Mali. Cyclical unrest in northern Mali was being catalyzed by the outflow of weapons and fighters from Libya, which had disintegrated in the aftermath of the 17 February (2011) revolution there. In Mali, jihadi groups began to proliferate beyond just AQIM to include Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), al-Mourabitoun, and the Macina Liberation Front. In 2017, all of these groups were brought under the umbrella of Jama’a Nusrah al-Islam wa al-Muslimin (Islam and Muslims’ Support Group or JNIM), with the motto “one banner, one group, one emir.”27 Groups affiliated with or with an affinity for the Islamic State also began to appear, including the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and the Islamic State in West Africa. These groups carried out attacks in Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria, Burkina Faso, and the Ivory Coast, and there were reports of possible attacks in Senegal as well.28 Yet despite all this activity, there were still no jihadi attacks in Mauritania.
Road connecting Nouakchott to Nema, Sahara desert, Mauritania. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Mauritania as a Locus of Passive Jihadi Activity
Mauritania, however, is a very important country for regional jihadi organizations. It is an ideological wellspring. It is a source of personnel. And it is a communications channel.a
Mauritanian jihadis like Mahfouz Ould Walid (aka Abu Hafs al-Mauritani), Abd al-Rahman Ould Muhammad Hussein Ould Muhammad Salim (aka Younis al-Mauritani), Ahmed Ould Noman, Ahmed Ould Abdelaziz, Mohamedou Ould Salahi, and Ould Sidi Mohamed all played core leadership roles within al-Qa`ida.29 Mauritanians also held key roles in al-Qa`ida’s regional affiliates and allied groups. The Mauritanian Mohamed Lemin Ould al-Hassan (aka Abdallah el-Chinguetti) was considered one of AQIM’s chief ideologues. He was killed in February 2013 and replaced by another Mauritanian, Abderrahmane (aka Talha). Another Mauritanian, Hassan Ould Khalil (aka Jouleilib), was al-Mourabitoun leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s right-hand man and one of the original al-Mourabitoun lieutenants. He was killed in November 2013.30 Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou, from southern Mauritania along the border with Senegal, joined AQIM as a bomb technician, and worked alongside Tayib Ould Sidi Ali, another Mauritanian. Kheirou eventually founded MUJAO in 2011.
And it was not just a question of Mauritanians leaving Mauritania to join al-Qa`ida and its affiliates. Al-Qa`ida leaders had spent time in Mauritania. Al-Qa`ida ideologue and potential bin Ladin successor Mohamed Hassan Qaid (aka Abu Yahya al-Libi) had gone to Mauritania for religious training in the 1990s.31 Others also went to Mauritania for the same reason, including a young Canadian who was eventually arrested on terrorism charges in 2011. The man in question, Aaron Yoon, traveled to Nouakchott and then to a Qur’anic school at Boutilimit in the countryside. Yoon’s recruiter was allegedly Mohamed Hafez Ould Cheikh, who was reportedly the cousin of Hassan Ould Khalil, Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s aforementioned associate.32 Yoon’s companions, two other Canadians, traveled on from Mauritania, ultimately linking up with Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Mouaqioun bil-Dam and participating in the terrorist attack at the Tigantourine Gas Plant in In Amenas, Algeria in 2013.33
The FBI has also identified Americans who displayed jihadi sympathies while in the United States and subsequently traveled to Mauritania only to drop off the radar and disappear.
Mauritania’s appeal for bona fide and would-be jihadis alike is at least in part due to its reputation for rigorous religious education. Among jihadis, Islamic education in Mauritania is seen as legitimate both because of the authenticity of the curriculum and the austerity of the locale. Mauritania’s mahadras (madrasas) restrict themselves to a narrow canon of classical texts.34 In addition, jihadis deemed Mauritanian learning more authentic because of the privation students suffered in Mauritanian mahadras where authoritative knowledge is seen to correlate with the degree of suffering endured to acquire it.35
Saharan and Sahelian jihadi groups consistently use Mauritanian media outlets to broadcast communiqués and propaganda videos. Alakhbar.info, Sahara Médias, and l’Agence Nouakchott d’Informations (ANI) have all relayed communiqués from al-Qa`ida and related groups for more than a decade. For example, ANI’s Mohamed Mahmoud Aboumaali interviewed Mokhtar Belmokhtar in November 201136 and then again in October 2012, just prior to the launch of France’s Operation Serval in Mali (and in the midst of planning for the Tigantourine Gas Plant attack). Belmokhtar’s group subsequently used ANI as a communications channel during the Tigantourine attack itself.b In 2016, Yahya Abu al-Hammam used an interview with al-Akhbar.info to articulate a new al-Qa`ida strategy for the Sahara.37 In 2017, Sahara Médias, headed by Abdallah Mohamedi, published a message allegedly from Belmokhtar urging support for al-Mourabitoun.38 More recently, ANI was the first outlet to confirm that the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara claimed responsibility for the attack on U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Tongo Tongo, Niger.39
The question then is why Saharan jihadi groups use Mauritanian media outlets instead of media outlets in the countries in which they operate like Mali or Niger. One explanation is that it is easy: many spokesmen for Saharan and Sahelian jihadi groups are Mauritanian like Abdallah el-Chinguetti and Jouleilib; regional jihadi groups have been using Mauritanian media outlets for more than a decade and that breeds a sense of trust and familiarity; regional jihadi groups know that their messages will reach both Francophone and Arabic-speaking audiences because Mauritanian media is typically bilingual French and Arabic; and lastly, Mauritanian news outlets have historically not edited or censored jihadi communiqués and have redistributed them as is. According to this explanation, there is no ideological affinity between Mauritanian news outlets and jihadi groups; it is simply a matter of convenience.
According to ANI’s Aboumaali, jihadi groups’ use of Mauritanian media outlets is due to the legwork Mauritanian journalists put into reporting on Saharan and Sahelian jihadis. Aboumaali himself began investigating Mauritanian jihadis who went to northern Mali after the 9/11 attacks, which then allowed him to establish a network of sources and correspondents in the region long before the outbreak of trouble in northern Mali in 2011.40 The way he puts it, jihadis turn to Mauritanian media outlets because they know the journalists.
Is a Change Afoot?
Until recently AQIM communiqués conveyed via Mauritanian media outlets rarely mentioned Mauritania itself. Mauritania was a conduit for AQIM’s animosity, not the target of it. This changed on May 8, 2018. In a communiqué, AQIM specifically identified western companies, and especially French ones, in Mauritania as privileged targets.41 The communiqué defined the “Islamic Maghreb” as being from Libya to Mauritania.
The specific mention of Mauritania could be dismissed as AQIM’s need to define a geographic area that does not readily correspond to the borders of any modern nation-state. (This is something that jihadi organizations do the world over, referencing historical regions instead of contemporary states as a way to underscore their opposition to the very notion of modern nation-states.)
However Aboumaali, the ANI reporter, argues that the mention of Mauritania and its inclusion on AQIM’s list of viable targets was due to Nouakchott’s participation in the G5 Sahel—the coalition of Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania—that is intended to restore stability in the Sahel and Sahara.42 The G5 Sahel concept was initially broached in 2014 and formalized in the summer of 2017, but it only started to gain traction in the spring of 2018. According to Aboumaali, as long as Mauritania remained on the sidelines of Operation Serval and then Operation Barkhane, the two French-led military operations to combat jihadi groups in Mali, then AQIM left Nouakchott unmolested. However, with Mauritania’s entrance into the G5 Sahel, AQIM’s views of Nouakchott’s neutrality changed and Mauritania for them became a permissible jihadi target. Aboumaali suggests that AQIM’s intention in singling out Mauritania was not to carry out attacks there, but to warn it away from participating in the G5 Sahel. If this was indeed the case, Mauritania has seemingly dismissed AQIM’s warning. On July 12, 2018, General Hanena Ould Sidi, Mauritania’s Deputy Chief of Staff of Army, was appointed to lead the G5 Sahel initiative.43
There is another possible reason that Mauritania is now in the crosshairs. It is a fraught time politically in Mauritania, with presidential elections slated for 2019, and it is still unclear whether Ould Abdelaziz will seek to run again. The outcome of the elections could alter Mauritania’s attitude toward combating AQIM beyond its borders, and Mauritania’s inclusion in the AQIM communiqué could be AQIM’s way of reminding Mauritania of its precarious circumstances. After all, the spate of AQIM attacks and kidnappings that rocked Mauritania were less than 10 years ago.
Lastly, Mauritania is experiencing an unprecedented influx of foreign direct investment (FDI) from foreign companies, including prominent international oil companies as well as other extractive industries firms and logistics, security, engineering, procurement, and construction companies. Hitherto, there has only been limited offshore investment in Mauritania’s oil and gas sector, and the mining sector has been concentrated in the northwest of the country, particularly around Tasiast and Zouerate. It is not known whether Mauritania’s FDI windfall prompted AQIM’s changed disposition toward Nouakchott, but along with FDI comes a flurry of high-value targets including expatriate personnel and the expansion of critical infrastructure, particularly the kind that AQIM identifies in its communiqué. Moreover, AQIM has shown a penchant for attacking the natural resources sector, including the Tigantourine Gas Facility at In Amenas44 and Krechba at In Saleh45 in Algeria and Areva’s Arlit facilities in Niger.46
Terrorist organizations evolve and adapt as circumstances change, and this may be the case with AQIM’s communiqué regarding Mauritania. After a steady pace of destructive operations in the mid-2000s, AQIM’s priorities shifted elsewhere. Conditions in Mauritania became more difficult. New fronts opened. But Mauritania remained an important passive node for jihadi activity in the Sahel and Sahara. Now, however, after nearly a decade, AQIM may be looking to reactivate its Mauritania networks as circumstances change yet again. The emergence of new targets and potentially a new president who may have different approaches to combating terrorism raises the prospect of a return to a country in which jihadi organizations have very deep, but currently latent, roots. The May 8, 2018, communiqué signals the possibility that what has been a conduit and mouthpiece for Saharan and Sahelian jihadi groups for nearly a decade could once again become a battleground. CTC
Geoff D. Porter is the president of North Africa Risk Consulting and a non-resident fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Follow @geoffdporter
[a] Whether jihadi groups use Mauritania for other activities, like fundraising, training, and logistics is less clear, although rumors abound in Nouakchott.
[b] Of special interest is the outlet l’Agence Nouakchott d’Informations (ANI), which was founded in 2008 by the Mauritanian press group Mauritanienne de Presse, d’Edition, de Communication et d’Impression (MAPECI). MAPECI also owns two other news outlets: the French Nouakchott Info and the Arabic Akhbar Nouakchott. ANI is run by Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Aboumaali, who is also MAPECI’s executive director. MAPECI is owned by Cheikhna Ould Nenni, whose niece is married to Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz’s Army Chief of Staff Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. Justine Spiegel, “Mauritanie: le jeu dangereux d’ANI et Sahara Média avec Aqmi,” Jeune Afrique, April 22, 2013.
 The diplomat is an acquaintance of the author. Laurent Prieur and Jason Webb, “Three Spanish aid workers kidnapped in Mauritania,” Reuters, November 29, 2009.
 “Soldiers killed in Mauritania attack,” Al Jazeera, June 5, 2005.
 Mhamd Elarby, “ratissage contre alqaida en mauritanie,” YouTube, July 20, 2008.
 “Le premier attentat suicide survenu, le 8 août, à Nouakchott, la capitale de la Mauritanie, rend désormais incontestable le menace terroriste dans ce pays,” Jeune Afrique, August 11, 2009.
 “Un attentat d’Al-Qaeda visant le president mauritanien déjoué,” Libération, February 2, 2011.
 Warner, p. 76.
 “In the African Desert, an Oasis of Cooperation and Partnership: Flintlock 2013,” United States Africa Command, March 14, 2013.
 “Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel,” European Union, p. 3.
 Ferdaous Bouhlel, “At-Tawba, expérience mauritanienne de redéfinition de la violence ‘légitime’: entre repentance, médiation et exercice fiqhi en matière de djihad,” Sahel: Éclairer le Passé pour mieux dessiner l’avenir, GRIP (2014).
 Warner, p. 44.
 “Letter about matter of the Islamic Maghreb,” posted by Office of the Director of National Intelligence, dated March 5, 2010.
 “‘Ansar al-Islam’ jama’a wahdat islami al-sahil,” Sahara Media, March 2, 2017.
 Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, “Managing the Sahelo-Saharan Islamic Insurgency in Mauritania: The Local Stakes of the Sahelian Crisis,” Sahel Research Group Working Paper No. 003, University of Florida, August 2014.
 “Le bras droit de Mokhtar Belmokhtar tué au Mali,” CRIDEM, November 11, 2013.
 “Convicted terrorist Aaron Yoon says he was tortured in Mauritania: Amnesty International,” QMI Agency, June 26, 2013.
 “Foreign Students of the Mahadhra in Mauritania, courted by Jihadists,” Dune Voices, March 12, 2015.
 Geoffrey David Porter, At the Pillar’s Base: Islam, Morocco and Education in the Qarawiyin Mosque, 1912-2000, Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 2002.
 “Entretien exclusif avec Khaled Abou Al-Abass, alias ‘Belaouar’: ‘L’armée de Ould Abdel Aziz au Mali n’a jamais été un obstacle devant nous pour arriver à nos objectifs en Mauritanie,’” Agence Nouakchott d’Information, November 9, 2011.
 “‘Al-murabitun’ tatabaa muqatil ‘asharat al-junud fi shmal mali,” Sahara Media, January 18, 2017.
 “Embuscade de Tongo Tongo : Un groupe affilié à l’EI revendique l’attaque d’octobre au Niger,” Actu Niger, January 14, 2018.
 “Statement to Reject French and Western Companies and Institutions and to Warn Muslims Working for Them in the Countries of the Islamic Maghreb and the Sahel,” al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb, May 8, 2018.
 “The Al-Qa`ida Threats to Western Companies, Any Impact on Mauritania?” Muhammad Mahmud Abu al-Ma`ali, May 9, 2018.