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Posts tagged ‘alqaeda’

State Dept: African-Based Terror Group Poses Greatest US Threat.

The State Department says the Africa-based Murabitoun terror group, led by Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, poses the “greatest near-term threat to U.S. and Western interests” in the Sahel region of Africa, The New York Times reported.

ObamaCareYou Can Win With The Facts 

Belmokhtar is described as “adventurous,” “reckless” and with a “penchant for carrying out headline-grabbing attacks against Western interests,” according to the Times.
The notorious Belmokhtar who lost an eye to shrapnel, fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan and returned to Algeria in the 1990s where he became a leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
He broke with the al-Qaida affiliate in 2012 to form the Mulathameen Battalion. Over the years, Belmokhtar has been behind the kidnapping of a Canadian diplomat, the attack on an Algerian gas plant that killed 38 civilians, among them three Americans, and other deadly attacks in Mali and Niger.
In August 2013, Belmokhtar merged the Mulathameen Battalion with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa to form Al Murabitoun or “Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade.”
In declaring the merger, the groups said they wanted to unite jihadists from the Nile to the Atlantic “to confront the Zionist campaign against Islam and Muslims,” according to the Guardian.
“Splinters can become even more consequential than their parent organization,” terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman told the Times.
This new Al Murabitoun group “concerns us more than any in the region,” a State Department source told the Times.
Some analyst think Belmokhtar still takes orders from the central al-Qaida leadership despite breaking with its North African branch, according to The Long War Journal.
Belmokhtar’s new faction has been officially designated as a foreign terrorist group by the United States. No decision on targeting Belmokhtar militarily has yet been made by the Obama administration, the Times reported.
Meanwhile, Fox News reported that the reward for Belmokhtar stands at $5 million. His precise whereabouts are not known.

ObamaCare: You Can Win With The Facts 

Belmokhtar’s zone of operation, the Sahel, stretches across the African continent from Senegal and Mauritania in the west to Chad and Eritrea in the east and is home to 50 million inhabitants.
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© 2013 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

By Elliot Jager

An Interim Choice for Syria.

Image: An Interim Choice for Syria

An University student shows Syrians how to prepare for a chemical attack in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. (Getty Images)

In the northeastern part of Syria — contiguous to Iraq and Turkey — lies al-Hasaka or the Triangle, also known as al-Jazeera province.

As large as Lebanon, this area is inhabited by roughly four million Kurds, one million Christians and a half million Arabs. Assad forces have practically left the area, and Kurdish militias have set up patrols, stopping al-Qaida militias trying to enter these districts.

This region should be the foundation for a free Syria. Here we should nurture a free zone inside Syria with the potential to grow rapidly and defeat both the Assad regime and the Jihadists.

With U.S. and western help, the Kurds, Christians, and Arabs who populate this region can establish a liberated zone with its cities, rivers and expanded airports that should serve as the receiving area for aid.

The current Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups can be invited to join in this region. This pluralist “smaller Syria” would become the basis for liberation of the country — and the establishment of a pluralistic and peaceful society for all Syrians.

Sound unrealistic?

I would argue this is no more unrealistic than the hope that Vladimir Putin and the Russians will broker an honest peace in Syria.

In fact, if you examine the three current Beltway solutions to the Syrian crisis, we should recognize why turning to this plan will offer a real, long-term hope for a pluralistic and peaceful Syria.

President Obama has made the case for a “limited strike” against Assad and the forces who are presumed responsible for the horrible chemical gassing of more than a thousand civilians — after more than 100,000 Syrians have already been brutally killed in the civil war.

The president wanted this limited strike to force a weakened Assad to negotiate a settlement to the conflict. But seasoned observers know there will be no mediated solutions to this conflict. It has gone too far and divisions are too deep.

I would also argue that other Beltway solutions offer no more hope than those offered by Obama.

The isolationist argument is to simply allow both sides to fight it out because America has no horse in this race. “Let Allah sort it out,” says Sarah Palin. This “safe option” is incredibly dangerous.

If there are two radical forces — those of Assad and al-Qaida — in the game, each will receive more reinforcements and eventually settle their battles via some Islamist medication — or worse still, a manufactured war with Israel. Even if that war is avoided, we will be left with two extremist and heavily-armed terror groups in Syria.

Another option put forward by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona is equally dangerous. He wants to fully arm the rebels in an attempt at toppling Assad. The naïveté of this choice is that it can be manipulated by Islamist lobbies who will redirect U.S. assistance to their radical brethren inside the opposition, instead of to secular forces.

This could end up empowering al-Qaida and producing future Benghazi-like attacks in Syria.

Meanwhile, all of these positions could lead to war with Iran and Hezbollah or, in view of this administration’s natural tendency toward retreat, could culminate in another victory for radicals.

That is why I suggest a practical, but irreversibly winning option for the creation of a free Syria. We have in this region a group of vetted allies in place and al-Qaida and the Nusra Front contained. We have a region in which the Assad regime is not omnipresent. Those in the U.S. who are concerned about aiding two menacing forces can partner in the al-Hasaka region with free and independent Kurds, Christians and Arabs.

Those who want to arm the rebels will have an area ready to be supported.

If the administration wishes to conduct punitive raids against regime targets without aiding al-Qaida, it can, over time, empower the real allies to move forward from this particular zone. The development of a free Syria is the most viable option for the United States, Europe and the rest of the international community. This is where endangered minorities can be protected and joined with liberals and secular members of the Arab Sunni majority.

The United States and Russia have been attempting to find negotiated solutions to the chemical weapons crisis, and have declared that they reached a compromise. Assad is supposed to allow the UN to move in and dismantle the weapons of mass destruction and the opposition is supposed to accept the deal.

The latter rejected the deal because it keeps Assad untouched. The Russians state they will pressure the dictator but only if the opposition recognizes his role at the Geneva talks. In addition, it is less likely the Jihadists of al-Nusra would go along, and not likely that Moscow would accept a Chapter 7 resolution targeting its ally in Damascus.

It is also unlikely that the Obama Administration will transform any limited strike into a regime changer campaign, for fear of clashing with the Iranians and Hezbollah. The bottom line is clear: Putin and Obama are not partners on ending Syria’s ordeal. They are producing a pause to find another status quo after Assad breached it with the use of chemical weapons in August.

The war will go on, and what is needed is a game changer on the ground. The third option we’re proposing is the most efficient way to free more Syrians and weaken both Assad and al-Qaida.

Syrians yearn for freedom. Americans yearn for effective foreign policy. Let’s start building toward that end.

Dr Walid Phares is the author of The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East which in 2010, predicted the Araab Spring and its evolution. He serves as a Co-Secretary General of the Transatlantic Parliamentary Group on Counter Terrorism. Read more reports from Walid Phares — Click Here Now.

© 2013 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

Allen West: Eric Holder ‘Is Scarier’ than al-Qaida Leader.

Former Rep. Allen West says Attorney General Eric Holder is “scarier” and more of a threat to the United States than al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

In an email to raise money for the Allen West Guardian Fund, the Florida Republican argues Holder is the “bigger threat to our Republic,” Politico reports.

“AlQaida is a very serious and persistent threat, but I trust the U.S. military to protect us from future attacks,” West tells potential contributors to his political action committee. “I cannot say the same about President Obama and his Justice Department.”

“I’ve been warning for a long time that there may be a day we wake up and America is no longer America. The more time Eric Holder spends as Barack Obama’s right-hand man, the closer we are to this day. We must stop this dangerous duo today,” he adds.

According to The Washington Post, the West email opens with a picture of Holder displayed next to one of al-Zawahiri, and asks: “Which of these men scares you the most?”

© 2013 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

By Courtney Coren

Iraq Captures al-Qaida Cell Planning Poison Gas Attacks.

BAGHDAD — Iraq has captured a suspected al-Qaida cell that planned to produce chemical poisons such as mustard gas to attack Iraqi forces and to ship overseas for attacks on Europe and the United States, the government said on Saturday.

The announcement was made as investigators look into allegations over the use of sarin nerve gas in next-door Syria where rebels and President Bashar al-Assad‘s forces have blamed each other for using chemical weapons.

During the height of the Iraq war, al-Qaida in Iraq used chlorine gas in its explosives to poison areas where their bombs detonated and Saddam Hussein used chemical gas to attack Iraqi Kurdish villages in the north.

Five men were caught before they could manufacture any gas or chemical weapons in makeshift factories in Baghdad and another province, Mohammed Al-Askari, a defense ministry spokesman told reporters.

“They got some programs from al-Qaida outside Iraq, they were working . . . to produce mustard gas . . . and other gas,” he said. “There are some confessions about organized cells to smuggle them outside Iraq through a neighboring country in order to target Europe, America and different capitals.”

Officials showed reporters three suspects dressed in yellow jumpsuits with their heads covered by masks. They also displayed bottles of chemicals and other lab equipment as well as remote controlled toy helicopters authorities said the men planned to use to disperse the gas.

Bolstered by the Sunni Muslim rebellion against Assad in Syria, al-Qaida in Iraq is regaining ground and since the start of the year has stepped up its campaign of attacks to stoke sectarian conflict in Iraq.

Western powers, including the United States and Britain, say there is growing evidence of chemicals weapons use in the conflict in neighboring Syria, where fighting has killed more than 80,000 people in two years.

© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

Huge Cut in Obama’s Anti-Terrorism Drone Strikes.

Image: Huge Cut in Obama's Anti-Terrorism Drone Strikes

U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone.

By Sandy Fitzgerald

The number of targeted drone strikes aimed at killing suspected terrorists is well down, despite their use being central to President Barack Obama’s anti-terror strategy.

The rate of strikes peaked in Pakistan in 2010 but it has gone down sharply since then, The New York Times reports.

In Yemen, the number of drone strikes rose sharply last year while the United States supported efforts by authorities to reclaim territory taken over by the local al-Qaida branch. However, numbers have declined sharply there too and now equal about half of last year’s total – and there were no drone strikes at all in the country in February or March. There have also been no strikes in Somalia in more than a year.

Obama is set to make a major address to the National Defense University on Thursday, when he is expected to lay out his justification for the strikes in detail. This follows his State of the Union pledge to define the “legal architecture” for strikes.

He may explain, during the speech, the reasons for the declining use of drone strikes. Officials have said the reasons include a shrinking list of important targets, or changing opinions about the benefits of targeted strikes.

Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel says there are many reasons for the declining drone strikes, “but a growing awareness of the cost of drone strikes in U.S.-Pakistan relations is probably at the top of the list. They are deadly to any hope of reversing the downward slide in ties with the fastest growing nuclear weapons state in the world.”

The strikes are often used by al-Qaida for propaganda purposes. They have been used as justification for attacks such as the attempted car bombings in Times Square in 2010 and a failed attack on a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009.

A growing list of former Bush and Obama security officials have expressed their concerns that the drone strikes gains are outweighed by long-term strategic costs.

“I think the strikes have been tremendously effective,” said Michael Hayden, who, as CIA director in 2008 oversaw the first drone strike escalations in Pakistan. “But circumstances change. We’re in a much safer place than we were before, and maybe it’s time to recalibrate.”

Hayden said with the diminished terrorist threats, the negative effects of drones should be considered, including alienation the leadership of the countries where drones are used and losing intelligence from allies, along with “creating a recruiting poster for al-Qaida.”

An administration official said last week that Obama, in his speech, will also review his efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and lay out ways of dealing with al-Qaida and other terror groups.
© 2013 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

5 truths about the drone war.

Maybe Jacques Derrida, the French dauphin of deconstruction, was right: in the beginning and end was the word. Logos. In war, words matter. Take our drone war, which is not, in point of fact, a war, and involves “drones” only incidentally. And yet the concept of hovering, amoral surveillance machine with missiles attached to them is pretty much the way everyone describes a much different reality.

1. The drone war is not fought primarily with drones. The United States targets members of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda affiliates and now, apparently, affiliates of those affiliates, using a comprehensive array of technical intelligence resources, backed up by fighter jets with conventional bombs, submarines that launch missiles, other platforms that launch missiles, and, sometimes, missiles attached to remotely piloted vehicles. The policy is best described as targeted surveillance and killing of the aforementioned groups. In certain areas, it is easier to fly airplanes; it certain places in Pakistan, RPVs launched by Afghanistan will do the job. The munition and vehicle used depends on the target, his location, his importance, and the resources available to the military and CIA at the time.

2. The CIA does not “fly” drones. It “owns” drones, but the Air Force flies them. The Air Force coordinates (and deconflicts) their use through the CIA’s Office of Military Affairs, which is run by an Air Force general. The Air Force performs maintenance on them. The Air Force presses the button that releases the missile. There are no CIA civilians piloting remote controlled air vehicles. The Agency has about 40 unmanned aerial vehicles in its worldwide arsenal, about 30 of which are deployed in the Middle East and Africa. Most of these thingies are equipped with sophisticated surveillance gear. A few of them are modified to launch missiles. The Air Force owns many more “lethal” RPVs, but it uses them in the contiguous battlefield of Afghanistan.

3. The targeted killing policy is the best of all worst options for two reasons. One: the United States does not have a coherent and legitimate capture and detention policy. (Thank the CIA torture program, Abu Ghraib, Congress, and the Obama administration’s weak efforts to create one.)  Two: human intelligence collection has atrophied to the point where there are not enough people on the ground to facilitate the capture and detention of wanted targets. This means: the US over relies on technical intelligence, and on signals intelligence in particular. In Pakistan, it relies on tips from the Army and the ISI. Often, the member of AL Qaeda core who’s been identified by the ISI is not, in fact, a member of Al Qaeda core, but is instead A Pakistani Taliban or militant who is not sufficiently pro-Pakistan. The U.S. has gotten better at vetting these tips, but the policy generally is that it’s best not to let the sufficient be the enemy of the reliable. Yemen’s government does the same thing. The U.S. MUST rely on allied intelligence services because it cannot rely on its own. So: bad guys exist. Can’t capture ’em. Can’t figure out who they are without help. What’s the answer? You kill them.  If you oppose the policy of targeting killing of Al Qaeda operatives, then you ought to support a viable detention system as well as a significant increase in our indigenous human intelligence capacity.  Special operations forces and the CIA really would like to capture these guys and interrogate them, because these guys will often give up their comrades. But they can’t. So they don’t. And the President won’t take any chances in letting someone potentially dangerous slip through his grasp.

4. Al Qaeda core has not successfully pulled off a plot against the West since 2005, according to Peter Bergen. Most of the militants targeted by the U.S. in Pakistan today have absolutely no interest in attacking the U.S. homeland. They DO have an interest, a series of very parochial interests, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. At some point, it makes no sense to chase down every person who ever uttered a threat against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The threat from Al Qaeda affiliates — and still the intelligence community bickers over the definition of what an affiliate is — is less than the threat from Al Qaeda core.

5. RPVs are NOT the future of warfare. They are a future part OF warfare. Wars are still mostly fought by people in the theater with guns and ammo and communication trucks. RPV technology is advancing, but it is still hard to get one of those buggers to hover in place for an hour and THEN shoot something, and then hover for hours.  It’s doable, but hard. (Most battle damage assessments are done with other UAVs). That’s why the RPVs “orbit.” Their courses are programmed; they can deviate off-track and be rapidly reprogrammed, but physics still prevents complete freedom of movement especially if the UAVs have large ordinance on board. If an intelligence source has the exact coordinate of a known Al Qaeda operative, the weapon of choice used to kill him will be the platform that is closest, available, and would provide the least collateral damage and most accuracy, depending upon the mission and its own operational security needs.


Marc Ambinder

Insight: Islamist inroads in Mali may undo French war on al Qaeda.

  • Malian soldiers patrol in the village of Kadji in this March 1, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Joe Penney/Files

    View PhotoReuters/Reuters – Malian soldiers patrol in the village of Kadji in this March 1, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Joe Penney/Files


  • A boy walks past metal doors and windows on a house in Gao in this February 26, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Joe Penney/FilesView PhotoA boy walks past metal doors and …
  • Radical Islamists arrested by French and Malian authorities in Timbuktu region sit in handcuffs in the military police headquarters in Gao, Mali, in this February 26, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Joe Penney/FilesView PhotoRadical Islamists arrested by French …

By David Lewis

TIMBUKTU, Mali (Reuters) – Residents who slipped into a non-descript mud-brick house after Islamist fighters fled Mali’s desert town of Timbuktu uncovered a trove of arms, ammunition and documents – the workings of the local al Qaeda recruitment office.

“We found lots of IDs, passports and birth certificates,” said El Hadj Garaba, who searched through the house with neighbors before French intelligence officers arrived.

The documents – from Mali, nearby African nations and distant countries like Saudi Arabia and Britain – suggest the Islamist groupsused their 10-month occupation of northern Mali to stretch their tentacles across West Africa and beyond.

Their recruitment drive suggests the French-led war against al Qaeda and its allies could drag on long after France starts withdrawing from Mali next month, spilling across borders and destabilizing the broader region as Islamist groups fragment.

Two months in, the offensive has wrested northern Mali from Islamist occupation, killed scores of fighters and driven survivors into mountain caves and desert hideaways stockpiled with arms and supplies.

But the documents – alongside interviews with residents of liberated towns – show that Islamist ranks, previously dominated by North Africans led by veterans of Algeria’s civil war, have been swelled by hundreds of fighters from Mali and neighboring countries – brought together by opportunity as well as ideology.

Garaba listed Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria amongst nationalities represented. “But there were lots from Mali – including from the south,” he added, picking through a courtyard still scattered with ammunition cases but now occupied by goats.

When France launched airstrikes in Mali on January 11, it billed its dramatic intervention as a bid to prevent Islamists seizing control of the whole of the landlocked nation of 16 million people and using it as a base to launch attacks on neighboring African countries and the West.

The French-led campaign has dealt the Islamists a heavy blow, killing many of their leaders. The reported death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, one al Qaeda’s top regional commanders, in the Amettetai Valley would be a major scalp, if confirmed.

But the risk remains of the Islamists, particularly their new West African recruits, melting away into neighboring countries and regrouping once offensive operations ease up.

“Abou Zeid’s death will decapitate them but they’ll find new leaders,” an ex-senior Malian intelligence official said. “Their ideas have spread. They’ll probably split into smaller factions.”


Algerian-born Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, another top Islamist whose death was claimed but not confirmed, led the two southern units of al Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM.

Operating across the Sahara, south of the main body of fighters in Algeria, their bands found wealth and notoriety by kidnapping Westerners for ransom and exploiting smuggling networks criss-crossing the vast stretches of desert dunes.

In the process of exchanging goods and services with remote Malian communities abandoned by the state, they forged personal and ideological ties that would prove crucial to their takeover of the country’s desert north – an area the size of Texas.

“What you had was a slow indoctrination of their beliefs. It wasn’t just a 10-month brainwashing — it had been going on for years,” said Rudy Atallah, a former senior U.S. counter terrorism official focused on Africa. “It wasn’t the bulk of the population but they reached out to some people, no doubt.”

Fighting alongside and then hijacking a Tuareg separatist rebellion launched early last year, the Islamists stitched together a patchwork of groups mixing ideology and criminality that then carved up northern Mali.

France’s liberation of Timbuktu and Gao in late January was greeted with jubilation by flag-waving residents, who had been forced to endure months of strict sharia Islamic law, including whippings and amputations of limbs for certain crimes.

Residents are now enthusiastically helping security forces identify fighters and collaborators. But elders in Timbuktu and Gao paint a more complex picture of life under the Islamists.

Arab communities in both towns, who had a history of collaborating with AQIM, helped to engineer the Islamist takeover and backed the occupation, partly in order to protect their own interests.

When Islamists seized power, sidelining the unpopular and ill-disciplined Tuareg separatists who had looted and pillaged, they also enjoyed a degree of popularity with the broader black African population that channeled in recruits.

Abdelmalek Droukdel, the Algerian emir of AQIM, urged his fighters last year to integrate with local tribes and cautioned against imposing sharia too abruptly. For a while, it seems, they followed his advice.

Mahamane Qoye Tandina, a senior member of Timbuktu’s crisis committee that met regularly with Abou Zeid, said Islamists successfully played on conservative strains in society.

“Some people appreciated that they wanted to change girls’ behavior and cut back on alcohol and tobacco,” he said. “But when they started to chop off hands, they went too far.”

In Gao, Soumeylou Maiga, head of programming at Radio Aadar Koima, said the Islamists tricked residents, promising to replace a distant government that had abandoned them and to respect their moderate form of Islam.

“This helped them get recruits. They went to the madarassas and recruited people without jobs. They took aid and got recruits in return,” he added. “For some it was about religion. For others, it was about the money.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch documented the recruitment of hundreds of children in the Gao and Timbuktu region.

A young recruit could earn about $300 per month, residents said, a huge sum for the desert north’s stagnant economy.

In both towns, Islamists made locals the face of the occupation — though foreign fighters retained leadership.

In Timbuktu, it was Sandou Ould Boumana, a Malian Arab from the trading town. Although an established member of AQIM, he spoke in the name of Ansar Dine, a Malian Islamist group.

In Gao, Aliou Toure, a Songhai, went from trading animal skins in the towns market to head the feared Islamic police.


One of the starkest changes was the rise of MUJWA, whose name – the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa – reflected its aim of breaking with AQIM leadership dominated by veterans of the Algerian civil war.

The mix of black Africans from Mali and neighboring countries recruited in the MUJWA’s fiefdom of Gao pointed to a degree of success.

A Malian intelligence officer said Islamists’ identity cards seized in Gao came from countries including Togo, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Niger.

Seid Abdoulaye Toure, a senior local imam in Gao, said the MUJWA cleverly targeted the region’s poor who had been exposed to some Islamic education in Koranic schools but lacked the ability to question the form of Islam being imposed.

“The reality of the problem is here. We should not look too far,” he said.

Many in Gao look just across slow-moving, brown waters of the Niger River to a small town called Kadji.

The village contains one of the pockets of ultra conservative Wahhabist Islam that have existed in Mali for decades, fed by an influx of foreign preachers.

“All the youth from there were with MUJWA,” said Zouhairou Kowa, a Kadji resident, referring to the Dar es Salaam neighborhood. “They took them into the hills, they trained them and they came back.”


Before the offensive, which Paris says has killed hundreds of rebels, it was estimated there were 2,500-3,000 Islamist fighters in Mali. The U.S. military estimated 800-1,200 of these were hardcore jihadist.

Prisoners captured during the French-led offensive highlight the increasingly broad make-up of the Islamist ranks. A Reuters reporter travelling with Chadian forces in Tessalit earlier this month saw eight captured Islamist fighters from Morocco, Tunisia, Burkina Faso and Nigeria.

For years, intelligence sources have said militants from Nigeria’s Boko Haram have linked up with Islamists in Mali for training, though the group has remained largely focused on its fight to impose sharia law in northern Nigeria.

In recent weeks, however, Boko Haram statements point to some factions becoming more ideologically aligned with international jihadists.

Gunmen claiming to be from Boko Haram cited France’s military offensive in Mali as justification for their kidnapping of a French family of seven in Cameroon last month.

Ansaru, a Boko Haram splinter group which said it executed 7 hostages last weekend, has also directly allied itself with international jihad.

January’s mass hostage taking at Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant, masterminded by Belmokhtar, showed the ease with which militants can glide across regional borders.

Andrew Lebovich, a Sahel analyst, said the make-up of Belmokhtar’s group and the routes used in the attack pointed to cooperation between militants in Mali and Libya.

This challenges the perception of Mali’s conflict as principally threatening the Sahel – a 5,400-km band running east-west across Africa, south of the Sahara desert.

Islamist activities fanning north and south from Mali to Nigeria, Algeria and Libya have raised concern among British officials. “We don’t see it as a threat to London or Birmingham but we have a lot of interests in that region,” said one.

For now, France and its African allies are still finding out if the Islamists’ new recruits and foreign links will allow them to survive the unprecedented offensive on their positions.

“Will they have had the time to become hardliners? I don’t know,” said one senior West African official, who has had direct contact with the armed groups in recent years.

For now, the battle appears far from over.

“If the Islamists are able to keep moving, hiding, it will be endless war – like Afghanistan,” said one Western security official with years of experience in the region.

(Additional reporting by Joe Penney and Emmanuel Braun in Gao, Madjiasra Nako in Tessalit; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Anna Willard)


By David Lewis | Reuters

France sees northeast Mali secure by end-March.

  • A French soldier talks to his comrade on a radio as a local points in the direction of munition stored by radical Islamists outside Gao, Mali, March 9, 2013. Picture taken March 9, 2013. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun

    View PhotoReuters/Reuters – A French soldier talks to his comrade on a radio as a local points in the direction of munition stored by radical Islamists outside Gao, Mali, March 9, 2013. Picture taken March 9, 2013. REUTERS/Emmanuel …more 

PARIS (Reuters) – French and Chadian forces expect to have secured the northeast region of Malithat is the stronghold of Islamist militants by end-March, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French media.

Le Drian said that while the results of DNA tests were still being awaited, it seemed likely that top al Qaeda leaders in the region had been killed in recent fighting and that is was now a matter of flushing out foot soldiers.

His view on the timetable was in line with France’s goal to start winding down its eight-week-old military intervention in Mali in April and handing over to African forces.

“We are taking back this territory almost metre by metre. There will doubtless be other violent battles. Three weeks from now, if all goes as planned, we will have covered all of this territory,” Le Drian told Le Monde in an interview published Monday.

Asked whether that meant the rebels’ sanctuary around the Ifoghas mountains would be safe, even if some Islamist militants were still hiding out there, Le Drian said: “Overall security will have been restored in this space. I am not going to tell you that we are going to hunt them down to the last man.”

Le Drian said on Friday at the end of a brief visit to Mali that French forces were now deep in the Islamists’ stronghold in the remote valleys of northern Mali and had uncovered big caches of weapons stockpiled by the al-Qaeda-linked fighters.

Chad has said its soldiers killed al Qaeda’s two top leaders in the region, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar. If true, that would be a major coup, but Le Drian cautioned that hundreds of lower level militants had been found in the area.

“We have clearly killed leaders and lower-level chiefs. Even if it still needs to be confirmed, it’s likely that Abou Zeid is gone. That does not solve everything,” he told Le Monde.

He said the fact that neighbouring countries had shut their borders with Mali made it harder to hunt down fighters, including mercenaries, who had fled abroad.



France to secure Mali before handing over mission.

GAO, Mali (Reuters) – France will only hand over to African troops in Mali when security is restored, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told his forces during a surprise visit to the rugged north of the country where they are battling Islamist rebels.

Reviewing the ranks of French soldiers in the dusty Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, Le Drian paid homage to the courage of troops engaged in fierce fire-fights with al Qaeda militants in the desolate desert region near the Algerian border.

An eight-week, French-led offensive has broken the control of al Qaeda-linked Islamists over the northern two-thirds of the impoverished landlocked nation, though pockets of resistance remain in the desert and mountains.

“Our mission is to liberate Mali, strengthen the country, and to assure sovereignty,” Le Drian said in Gao, the main town in northern Mali, shortly after he visited troops in the mountains. “The security of Mali, and the security of our country, go together,” he said.

France launched a ground and air operation on January 11, saying the Islamist rebels’ hold of Mali’s north posed a risk to the security of West Africa and Europe.

Having halted a push southward by Islamist rebels, French forces have driven militants out of major towns and, alongside hundreds of Chadian soldiers, are now seeking to clear rebels from cave redoubts in the Adrar des Ifoghas.

“We are in the last phase, the most decisive phase,” Le Drian said. “This phase entails some very violent combat. When the liberation of the whole country is complete, then we will hand over responsibility to African forces.”

President Francois Hollande said on Wednesday that France would start to draw down its forces in Mali from April, a month later than previously forecast.


France is keen to hand responsibility for operations in Mali to an 8,000-strong African-led force AFISMA, some three-quarters of which has already deployed to the landlocked country.

Paris is pushing for the Mali mission to be given a U.N. peacekeeping mandate once offensive military operations have finished. The Security Council is expected to discuss this in the coming weeks.

A Malian soldier who was involved in fighting with Islamists who killed a French soldier on Wednesday said the resistance was still fierce just 90 km from Gao.

“I cannot say how many (rebels) there were but gunfire was coming from every direction,” the soldier told Reuters, asking not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the press.

“We killed them all, but it is not over. They have reinforcements … They are in the forests and they are not leaving,” he added.

Chad has claimed to have killed al Qaeda’s two top leaders in the region, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Hollande said on Wednesday that “terrorist leaders” had been killed in the operation, but did not provide further details.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said DNA testing was being carried out on the bodies of hundreds of dead Islamist fighters.

“To identify the two or three leaders who have been cited, we have to carry out precise tests with DNA and that is what the army services are doing,” he told RTL radio. “We should know fairly quickly.”

France’s Liberation newspaper reported on Thursday that a French citizen fighting in the Islamist ranks had been taken prisoner by the French.

Even once fighting is over, a durable peace in Mali will also require unifying the country’s south, home to the capital Bamako, with the vast desert north, where Tuareg separatists launched a rebellion last year that was hijacked by Islamist fighters.

Many in southern Mali now feel deep resentment toward the northern Tuaregs and light-skilled Arabs, associated with the Islamist fighters, complicating prospects for peace.

President Dioncounda Traore’s government, which aims to hold national elections in July, announced the creation of a Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission on Wednesday, charged with identifying human rights abuses during the conflict and deciding which armed groups were eligible to participate in talks.


By Emmanuel Braun | Reuters

Chad calls for urgent African help to fight Islamists in Mali.

  • Chad president Idriss Deby smiles after arriving at Khartoum Airport on an official visit February 7, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

    View PhotoReuters/Reuters – Chad president Idriss Deby smiles after arriving at Khartoum Airport on an official visit February 7, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

YAMOUSSOUKRO (Reuters) – Chad’s President Idriss Deby appealed to West African leaders on Wednesday to urgently speed up deployment of their forces to northern Mali where Chadian and French forces are locked in bitter fighting with al Qaeda-linked rebels.

Chad’s contingent of some 2,400 troops has borne the brunt of battles with die-hard Islamists holed up in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains after a six-week French-led campaign pushed the militants into the desolate region by the Algerian border.

France, which said Islamists’ seizure of northern Mali last year was a threat to international security, hopes to start withdrawing its 4,000 troops from March but is waiting for the effective deployment of a U.N.-backed African mission, AFISMA.

“It’s no longer time to talk, but time for action. The enemy is not waiting,” Deby told his West Africancounterparts at a meeting of the ECOWAS bloc in Ivory Coast’s capital Yamoussoukro. “We call on ECOWAS’ joint staff to be quicker in sending troops to liberated areas to protect the population.”

The Chadian death toll rose to 25 on Wednesday after a soldier died from his wounds in fierce fighting at the weekend in the Adrar des Ifoghas. Mali’s army, expelled from the region in April by a Tuareg-led revolt subsequently hijacked by the Islamists, has yet to return to the country’s far north.

“To my Malian military brothers, your place is at the front to defend the integrity of your territory,” Deby said. “We are waiting for you on the edge of the Algerian border.”

Some 70 percent of the 8,000 troops expected under the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) have already deployed to Mali, according to its own figures.


Regional heavyweight Nigeria has deployed some 1,200 soldiers in a bid to snuff out links between the alliance of Islamist groups in Mali, which includes al Qaeda’s north African wing AQIM, and its home-grown Boko Haram militant movement.

But most African units remain in southern Mali, leaving French and Chadian forces responsible for security in the recaptured northern towns and offensive operations in the mountain and desert wilderness near the Algerian border.

An Islamist raid last week in Gao, the main city in northern Mali, was only repelled thanks to the intervention of French forces, despite the presence of Nigerien and Malian troops.

Despite this week’s casualties, Chad remained committed to the fight and would increase troop numbers if needed, Deby said.

“The Chadian soldiers will stand alongside the African troops to completely wipe out these jihadis and by that I mean in the entire Sahel region,” he told Reuters.

The ECOWAS summit, which continues on Thursday, is expected to back calls from France and the United States for the mission in Mali to receive a U.N. peacekeeping mandate.

“We should lean towards transforming AFISMA into a U.N. peacekeeping mission,” said the summit’s host and ECOWAS chairman, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara.

A mounting wave of suicide bombings and Islamist raids on northern towns has highlighted the risk of the coalition becoming entangled in a bloody and long-lasting guerrilla war.

Seven people were killed in a suicide car bomb attack by suspected Islamist militants on Tuesday in the remote northern Malian town of Kidal.

Despite the worsening security situation, Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore vowed his government would stick to a timetable to hold elections before the end of July, completing a transition to democracy after a military coup in March.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting Paris on Wednesday, voiced Washington’s support for speedy elections as the only means of addressing Mali’s long-term problems.

“Our shared goal now should be for African and U.N. entities to step up so that France has the ability to step back,” Kerry said, flanked by his French counterpart Laurent Fabius.

In Bamako, AFISMA spokesman Yao Aldjoumani said that U.S. drones operating in northern Mali would help troops more easily track down Islamists holed up in an area the size of France.


By Ange Aboa | Reuters

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