By Raby Ould Idoumou
Mauritanian gendarmes Saturday (May 12th) arrested two men for allegedly planning large-scale kidnappings of senior Mauritanian army officers on behalf of al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
“Some Mauritanian security agencies were aware of al-Qaeda’s terrorist plan,” Sidi Ali, a Mauritanian army officer, said. “Therefore, certain units were instructed to keep a close eye on it.”
The two suspects were a part of a four-member terrorist cell that entered Mauritanian soil two days before their capture in Bassiknou, near the Malian border, according to security sources.
“A number of security forces received initial information on the nature of terrorist cells that planned to enter the country through Mali using public transportation vehicles to deceive the Mauritanian security forces stationed not far from the Malian refugee camp,” said “Ould”, a Mauritanian officer who spoke to Magharebia on the condition of anonymity.
“The terrorist cell was then divided into two teams that entered Mauritanian soil via a border crossing in the city of Fassala, a town located near Bassiknou, where the Malian refugee camp which is run by a Mauritanian military garrison is located,” he added. “This has caused confusion for the camp soldiers.”
The officer confirmed that Mauritanian security forces managed to arrest one of the two-member teams following a series of large-scale tracking and combing operations that included evacuating the refugee camp for hours amid fears of the infiltration of suspicious elements.
Sidi Ali added in his interview with Magharebia that the detainees were transferred to Bassiknou under tight security and that a search was underway for the remaining suspects. “A special military unit supervised the transfer of suspects to the Mauritanian gendarmes command in Bassiknou under tight security. Meanwhile, combing and search operations are underway for the rest who are believed to have hidden somewhere in the city.”
Military units in Bassiknou had obtained intelligence about a plan by AQIM to target senior Mauritanian army officers, as well as alternative plans to kidnap senior officials. Last year, the terror network abducted a Mauritanian gendarme and demanded ransom and a prisoner swap for his release.
According to eyewitnesses, the attackers infiltrated Mauritanian soil disguised in civilian clothes on public transport, accompanied by a female Malian refugee. The use of refugees as a cover could be a new tactic for the terrorist organisation, according to Mauritanian authorities.
A number of Malian refugees in the Ambra refugee camp said that women and children were frightened by the security scare. The army combed the camp and separated women and children from men in search of the alleged al-Qaeda elements.
“The soldiers who searched the camp arrested at least one person in the western side of the camp, and that military vehicles were stationed at its main gate,” Abu Bakr Ould Amadou, a Malian refugee, told Magharebia.
For his part, Hanani Ould Sheikh Afia, a Bassiknou journalist, voiced his concern over “the volatile security situation in town, given its proximity to areas of tension in northern Mali, the terrorist organisation’s control of that area and the influx of Malian refugees to the city”.
He added that it was possible there were “links between some terrorist organisation elements and people in the refugee camp who are supposed to have been linked in drug trafficking and the provision of some services to organisation elements, especially in view of complete absence of government authority in the region”.
Ould Sheikh Afia also voiced his concern over “the border city of Bassiknou turning into an AQIM stronghold because most of its residents don’t have much knowledge about the danger of terrorism”.
“Security authorities in town have already monitored attempts by the terrorist group to recruit residents, especially the disadvantaged groups,” he added.