A cross border raid carried out on June 4 against a military post by at least 150 members of the Algerian Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) on Mauritanian territory left 15 Mauritanian soldiers dead, with 17 wounded. The night-time raid at the town of Lemgheiti in the border zone between Mauritania, Mali and Algeria, set off an extended gun battle, during which, in addition to the Mauritanian military casualties, also resulted in the theft of six military vehicles. Nine GSPC members died in the raid.
The attack stunned the country and Mauritanian troops were placed on maximum alert following an emergency meeting of top military commanders. There was initial confusion as to the identity of the perpetrators — the Fursan al-Taghyir (Knights of Change) militant group were suspected — but a communiqué posted on June 5 on the GSPC website claimed the action as "revenge for our brothers who were arrested by the apostate Mauritanian regime over the recent period, and as a support for the oppressed Muslims there." The message went on to celebrate what it termed "the first action of this kind" and its role as a clear message indicating that the activities of the GSPC will not be confined to the internal [Algerian] enemy, but will extend to enemies "wherever they may be found" [www.jihad-algerie.com]. The Mauritanian news site Nouakchott Info gave extra details. It quoted anonymous security sources as establishing that ‘the Lemghaiti attackers, numbering 100 to 150, were led by two lieutenants of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Abu Hafs and Abu Harith, and that there were Mauritanian nationals among the group [www.mapeci.com], confirming recent reports in Mauritania that the GSPC were extending recruitment in the country.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar is the leader of a faction of the GSPC named the Groupe salafist libre (GSL) who operates in Algeria's far south largely independently of the GSPC group led by Abdelouadoud. The group was responsible for the kidnapping in February 2003 of 32 European hostages, for which they received $6 million ransom from the German government. Their activities are characterized more my organized crime and smuggling than political Islamic goals, and therefore, the attack may be retaliation for the interruption of this activity through the steps taken by the Mauritanian government forces. In its public propaganda, however, it retains the Islamist stamp. The forum message on the attack concluded with the threat that the GSPC can answer blow for blow, and "will lie in wait for all those who oppose the application of the Shari'a, and will not remain silent in the face of the oppression by the servants of the Cross against our monotheist brethren wherever they are" [www.jihad-algerie.com].
A subsequent posting by the ‘Information Committee of the GSPC', picked up by the Mauritanian Nouakchott Info site on its Arabic language section, gave more details on how the attack was carried out and confirmed the presence of Mauritanian members, whom it labeled ‘The Scions of Tariq' (the 8th century commander of forces that crossed over into Spain) and ‘The Sons of Uqba bin Nafi' (the 7th century conqueror of North Africa). It went on to accuse the Mauritanian government of being agents of the Jews, and labeling the President, Maaouya Ould Taya, another ‘Hamid Karzai' [www.mapeci.com]. In addition to a strike on behalf of their imprisoned brethren, the statement touted the attack as a blow to the ongoing US-led ‘Operation Flintlock' which is bringing together some 3000 African soldiers in a training program as part of the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorist Initiative.
The Mauritanian government is vulnerable to GSPC propaganda on several fronts. The President angered the Arab constituency by shifting support from Saddam Hussein to the United States and the War on Terror. Moreover, Mauritania stands out as only the third Arab League member country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, visited Mauritania early last month, an event that set off a string of violent protests. In addition Mauritania, which hopes to benefit from recent oil discoveries, is an active participant in the U.S.-led campaign to tighten up controls over the deserts between Mauritania, Mali, Algeria and Niger. At the beginning of April more than 6,000 soldiers participating from Algeria, Mauritania and Mali took part in NATO exercises aimed at developing greater anti-terrorist capacity in the region.
Meanwhile the Islamist opposition in the country has been severely damaged by this incident, and the indications it gives of the existence of militant Mauritanian mujahideen. The opposition has accused the government of exaggerating the level of Islamist militant threat in order to win more assistance from western donors and provide a political pretext for a crackdown. Over the recent period Mauritania has arrested around 50 suspected Islamists and alleged that some 20 Mauritanians have been trained in GSPC camps for fighting abroad in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and the Palestinian territories. The attack on the military post and the ensuing statements by the GSPC have re-focused minds on a specifically internal threat to Mauritania's stability, and have handed President Ould Taya all the political capital he needs to tighten the squeeze further.