Nine United Nations peacekeeping troops from Niger were killed yesterday in an ambush by unidentified assailants in the Gao region of Mali. No group has yet claimed the attack, but the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and the Al Mourabitoun Brigade have been behind most of the recent attacks in Gao.
According to a UN spokesman, armed gunmen on motorbikes “were targeting a convoy that included a fuel truck, knowing full well that an attack on a fuel truck would cause an even greater number of casualties, which adds to the horrendous nature of the crime.” The attack was tactically different than other recent operations conducted by jihadist groups in the area.
The ambush came just two weeks after five Chadian troops were killed when they drove over a mine in the Kidal region of northern Mali.
Yesterday’s attack is the worst on MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping force, since it assumed security responsibilities in July 2013 following a French-led operation to oust jihadists from northern Mali. The latest attack brings the total number of MINUSMA fatalities in Mali to 20.
In response to the jihadists’ takeover of much of northern Mali in 2012, French forces commenced Operation Serval in January 2013, a joint French and Malian operation to regain control of the area. The successful operation pushed the jihadists and their leaders from the northern cities they had ruled. In July 2014, Operation Serval officially ended and it was replaced by a new counterterrorism operation dubbed Operation Barkhan. In this ongoing effort, 1,000 French troops are currently in Mali assisting MINUSMA, the UN mission, to maintain the stability and security of the northern portion of the country.
Although most UN deaths in Mali have been caused by IEDs or landmines detonated under vehicle convoys, at least 15 suicide bombing attacks have taken place in Mali since the first one in February 2013. In addition to the 12 suicide attacks in Mali tallied by The Long War Journal as of May 2013, suicide attacks were also carried out in September 2013 and in July and August of this year. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Qaeda’s official affiliate in North Africa, took responsibility for the Aug. 16 suicide bombing that killed two UN troops in Ber, a town close to Timbuktu. In the same statement, AQIM also claimed two other attacks near Timbuktu in June. AQIM is just one of several jihadist groups known to operate in northern Mali.
Jihadist groups in northern Mali
The Gao region of northern Mali is home to the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an al Qaeda breakaway faction; MUJAO is also known to operate in Kidal, another northeastern region. In 2011, the group officially broke away from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb due to apparent dissatisfaction over the ethnic makeup of the leaders of AQIM. The US government added MUJAO and two of its leaders to the list of global terrorists and entities in December 2012. Two months later, on Feb. 9, 2013, MUJAO conducted the first-ever suicide bombing in Mali, targeting a Malian military checkpoint.
Another group that operates in Gao is the Al Mourabitoun Brigade. In 2013, the brigade was formed in a merger between MUJAO forces and the forces of jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar. A longtime al Qaeda commander who fought in Afghanistan, Belmokhtar disaffiliated from AQIM after a dispute arose between him and the top leadership of the group. Belmokhtar bristled at taking orders from AQIM, and often communicated directly with al Qaeda’s central leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan region. In May of this year, Belmokhtar sided with al Qaeda central and its emir, Ayman al Zawahiri (whom Belmokhtar referred to as “his emir”), in the infighting between the group and the Islamic State.
Despite openly breaking with AQIM, Belmokhtar continues to take orders from al Qaeda’s central leadership and conducts joint operations with AQIM units in Mali and elsewhere in North and West Africa. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda central tightened control over hostage operations.] The official merger between Belmokhtar’s forces and MUJAO in the summer of 2013 was not a surprise, as the two groups had previously conducted operations together. In May 2013, they conducted joint suicide attacks in Niger, targeting a military barracks in Agadez and a uranium mine in Arlit that supplies French reactors. Al Mourabitoun and two other groups affiliated with Mokhtar Belmokhtar were added to the US State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in December 2013.
The Al Mourabitoun Brigade has claimed a suicide attack in the Gao region that killed a French soldier in July. And just a few days ago, four jihadists affiliated with the Al Mourabitoun were arrested in a French military raid in Gao.
The al Qaeda-linked group Ansar Dine is also known to have operated in Gao and Kidal. Throughout 2012, Ansar Dine worked with AQIM, MUJAO, and local Tuareg separatists to push the Malian government from control of northern Mali, in an attempt to form a Muslim state ruled by sharia law. AQIM viewed Ansar Dine as its local arm in Mali; in a “confidential letter” from AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel that was found in Timbuktu in early 2013, he instructed his followers to mask their operations and “pretend to be a ‘domestic’ movement” under Ansar Dine so as not to draw international attention and intervention. Despite being known to operate in Gao and Kidal, Ansar Dine has not claimed an attack in the region this year.
In addition to MUJAO, Al Mourabitoun, and Ansar Dine, AQIM is also known to operate in Gao and Kidal, but its attacks in Mali this year have been located near Timbuktu.
The Long War Journal has compiled a map of the major attacks in Mali against UN or French troops this year based on reporting from Malian news or wire services such as Reuters.