Friday, August 20, 2010

French Raid on Al Qaeda Paves Way for Spanish Hostage Release

Last month’s French-Mauritanian attack on Al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa failed to liberate a 78-year old French hostage, but in an unexpected twist, has driven a wedge between the jihadists and their Tuareg tribal allies in the region and is fomenting tension between Al Qaeda commanders, according to Western and West African intelligence sources.

The emerging divide between the affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Tuareg who accuse the Malian government of failing to implement a 2008 agreement that was supposed to end their tribal insurgency and grant the Tuareg greater rights offers President Amadou Toumani Toure as well as US, French and British counterterrorism efforts in the region an opportunity to substantially weaken the jihadists to whom local tribes provide a crucial lifeline. It has also provided an opening for the release of two Spanish hostages held by the jihadists.

AQIM commander Abdelhamid (Hamidu) Abu Zaid has accused the Tuareg of assisting the French-led attack in which six jihadists were killed by pinpointing the whereabouts of the AQIM operatives. To revenge the betrayal, Abu Zaid last week abducted and killed Mirzag Ag El Housseini, a Tuareg customs officer whose brother is senior commander in the Malian army. In a statement, AQIM’s leader in Mauritania, Abu Anas al-Shanqiti, warned that his group would retaliate against the “traitorous apostates, children and agents of Christian France” who had cooperated in the raid. The French Foreign Ministry says its forces are “fully mobilized” to counter “threats uttered by assassins.”

Mauritania, despite the threats, this week threw the jihadists a bone by extraditing to Mali a key Malian AQIM operative, Omar Sid'Ahmed Ould Hamma, who was convicted to 12 years in prison for kidnapping three Spaniards last November. Alicia Gomez, one of the hostages, was released in March. Analysts say the extradition was designed to set the stage for the release of the two remaining Spanish hostages and fuel differences of opinion between AQIM commanders about the fate of the Spaniards. The analysts and Malian officials say Abu Zaid is urging AQIM’s leader in Algeria, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, under whose control the Spaniards are, to execute them in retaliation for the French-Mauritanian raid.

Mali has been quietly negotiating with Belmokhtar the release of the hostages. Malian officials say that the extradition of Hamma may enable Belmokhtar, who is demanding a ransom, to cut a deal and claim political success. Hamma’s extradition contrasts starkly with Mauritania’s participation in the French-led raid and its past refusal to negotiate with the jihadists. Mauritanian relations with Mali soured earlier this year after the government in Nouakchott accused Mali of being soft on terrorism by releasing in February four AQIM operatives in exchange for French hostage Pierre Camatte.

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