By Raby Ould Idoumou and Bakari Gueye
In the once calm city of Kiffa, 600km east of Nouakchott, residents are still trying to overcome shock and disbelief after their town became a destination for young terrorists.
A week ago in the Angar neighbourhood Mauritanian security agencies arrested three young al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) suspects, Kiffa News Agency reported.
The men, who were later released, include 23-year-old former Salafist Hafiz Ould Cheikh, who benefited from a presidential pardon. Tools used in repairing cell phones were found in his possession according to Cheikh Ould Ahmed, director of Kiffa News Agency.
Dahid Ould Mohamed and Mohamed Ould Moustapha had arrived from Congo Brazzaville just days before their arrests in the December 28th police action. Cell phones and a small amount of African francs were found in Ould Moustapha’s possession.
Ould Ahmed told Magharebia that the men were unarmed when arrested. “One of them claimed to the security forces that he came to attend his cousin’s wedding, while another claimed that he came to open a shop,” he added.
“The gathering of the three elements in one place has attracted the attention of central security agencies and warned them that things may not be fine,” terrorism researcher Iselmou Ould Moustapha said.
Four days earlier, the security agencies in town arrested a suspected member of AQIM – Valy Ould Abdarrahman.
According to information provided by a security source in Kiffa, the suspect entered Kiffa from Mali in a Nissan vehicle carrying Malian number plates. He was then arrested and transferred to Nouakchott where he would be investigated, Taqadoumy reported.
“The terrorists were arrested by special forces that were brought from Nouakchott to carry out the mission,” journalist and Kiffa resident Sid Lehsen Ould Lmrabt told Magharebia. “There is a real security movement in the city that has always been calm and immune to terrorism thanks to its geographical location and history of coexistence between minorities and its rejection of violence.”
A security source who preferred not to be identified told Magharebia that were “fears that more terrorist elements may sneak to Kiffa, one of the calm cities in the middle of the country where no terrorist activities have ever been reported”.
Poet and filmmaker Mohamed Ould Idoumou, a Kiffa native, told Magharebia that that the city has never seen cases of terrorism before because of its isolated location in the desert.
“It’s terrible that the news is now about arrest of terrorists and the presence of special commando forces,” Ould Idoumou added. “It’s really a source of worry.”
Kiffa social activist Ibrahim Ould Mohamed said his city was no longer immune to terrorism, adding that terrorists could enter the city at any time to conduct operations. “This is scary,” Ould Mohamed said.
“The incident brought back to minds the fact that the Salafists who were released from prisons go to calm cities around the country to start new co-ordination operations away from the eyes of central security forces that focus on major and border cities near hotspots in what is now known as the war on terror,” journalist Mohamed Ould Sid al-Moctar said.
The arrests in Kiffa come on the heels of new international arrest warrants for several alleged terrorists. On December 28th, Mauritanian courts issued a warrant for Moustapha Ould Limam Chavi, a Mauritanian national accused of collaborating with al-Qaeda.
A judiciary source told Magharebia that Ould Limam Chavi was charged with “financing terrorism, providing intelligence to terrorist groups and giving financial and logistical support to terrorist groups operating in the Sahel”.
According to political expert Mohamed Yeslem Ould Cheikh, Ould Limam Chavi “has a good reputation among AQIM fighters. This is why he has already led negotiations with AQIM several times with a view to the freeing of Western hostages in the Sahel-Sahara strip.”
But political analyst Sidati Ould Cheikh said that Ould Limam Chavi was a political opponent of the Mauritanian president. The analyst said Ould Limam Chavi accused the president of failure in the fight against terrorism and endangering Mauritanian citizens.
The Mauritanian Human Rights Observatory has labelled the warrant for Ould Limam Chavi as “a flagrant attack on freedom of expression”. The Democratic Opposition Co-ordinating Body issued a similar statement, accusing President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of “seeking to hijack international regulations in order to suppress his opponents”.
The charges against Ould Limam Chavi came at the same time as warrants were issued for three other Mauritanians, including Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou, the suspected leader of AQIM splinter group Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The new terror group has claimed responsibility for the recent aid worker abductions from a Polisario-run refugee camp in Rabuni.
“The other two Mauritanians wanted for affiliation with terrorist groups are influential members of the branch of AQIM led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, alias Laaouar (‘The One-Eyed Man’), from Algeria. They are Elhacen Ould Khlil and Vawaz Ould Ahmed,” the judicial source added.