According to Veryan Khan of the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, the great under-the-radar terror threat comes from an expanse of the Sahara Desert in Mauritania, where ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram are working together to train Western recruits for jihad, including terror attacks in Europe and North America.
“The situation in Mauritania is a powder keg very few people are talking about,” Khan told Fox News.
When the first stories about Boko Haram’s idolization of ISIS broke, some analysts were confident the two terror groups would never work together, because the Islamic State was supposedly too racist to cooperate with their African fan club. That analysis disintegrated completely over the past few months, as ISIS officially embraced Boko Haram as a franchise of their “caliphate.” Operational cooperation, especially in the form of tactical training badly needed by the enthusiastic but sloppy Boko Haram terrorists, would be the next logical step.
Khan’s organization has a source in Mauritania that says at least 80 trainees — including recruits from the U.S., Canada, and Europe — are quartered at the camps, which are located in the sparsely-populated desert interior of the country. “Signs in English can be seen in videos and photos obtained by TRAC inside one of the main camps at the Maatamoulana Mosque, providing unmistakable evidence of westerners’ presence,” writes Fox News.
The joint terrorist training project got a big shot in the arm when Mauritania’s government released five top terrorists following a prison riot in which they took two guards hostage and threatened to not only kill the hostages, but hunt down and slaughter their families as well. The five were prominent members of al-Qaeda and one of its parent organizations, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. Several of them have experience with jihadi recruitment and training.
It is not clear from the Fox News report if any of these five are thought to be actively participating in the Mauritania camps, or if their release was more of a morale-booster and propaganda coup for the camp management. The article does run down a list of headline-grabbing terrorists who made trips to Mauritania, which offers little in the way of amenities for jihadis besides the desert training facility. Suspected veterans of the training program include three Canadians who joined al-Qaeda in a bloody attack on an Algerian gas plant in 2013, a Florida-based cleric who allegedly used his seminary to funnel terrorist recruits to Mauritania, and a French citizen involved in the execution of ISIS hostage Peter Kassig.
As for Boko Haram’s involvement, it is noted that the leader of the Nigerian gang has claimed some of his thugs were trained in Mauritania, and indeed Boko Haram’s ideology was incubated there. “There also are links between Mauritania and Boko Haram evident in its interaction with Al Qaeda for training and the supply lines for finance and weapons,” Khan told Fox News. “In addition, there are recruitment centers and organized crime networks in Mauritania facilitating ISIS expansion in North and Central Africa.”
Mauritania has also arrested several suspected ISIS terrorists who bragged that the Islamic State was “on its way to that country,” and a major Mauritanian terrorist brigade recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. It was not merely a rhetorical salute, as a couple of Mauritanian terrorists were subsequently arrested trying to smuggle a load of cash and weapons into Mali.
The Mauritanian terror gangs have been quite active, according to Fox News:
Within Mauritania, there have been several terrorism related incidents waged by jihadists since 2005, including the assassination of four French tourists in Aleg by Al Qaeda, attacks on the Israeli and French embassies, clashes between Al Qaeda members and Mauritanian forces in Tevragh Zeina, the beheading of 12 Mauritanian soldiers, the murder of Christopher Ervin Leggett, a U.S. citizen, the kidnapping of three Spanish citizens, the kidnapping of an Italian couple kidnapped and other embassy attacks that were prevented.
CNN recently ran a disturbing profile of African terrorism that cited Jane’s Defense Weekly’s description of Mauritania as “an aspirational target for jihadist groups due to its military co-operation with France and Algeria.” The World Policy blog proposed Mauritania as part of an urgently-needed African “security belt,” and wondered how al-Qaeda’s interests in Africa would respond to the encroachment of ISIS — “will AQ affiliates strengthen when challenged, or will they pledge bayat [allegiance] to IS like Boko Haram has done?” If all three groups are cooperating at terror camps in Mauritania, we may have the beginnings of an answer to that question, and it’s not a good answer.