Unknown gunmen attacked the Israeli Embassy in Mauritania on Feb. 1. The incident comes in the wake of two other attacks targeting foreigners and military personnel in the North African country. The attacks appear to be the work of a fledgling al Qaeda franchise with the potential to gain more attention and resources from the North African node of the militant group.
Unidentified gunmen attacked the Israeli Embassy in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott on Feb. 1. Several bystanders at a nearby nightclub — including at least one French national — were wounded in the attack, which caused no casualties to embassy personnel. Witnesses said between three and six men dressed in turbans and robes approached the embassy on foot after exiting a nearby vehicle, then opened fire on the building at approximately 2 a.m. local time. The embassy guards quickly returned fire, and the gunmen fled without being captured. Although Mauritanians historically have been involved with the global jihadist movement, the country does not have a history of sustained militant activity carried out by local groups. However, these latest attacks do not appear to be the work of a well-organized group, but rather a fledgling node of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Qaeda's North African node. The embassy incident follows a recent uptick in militant activity in the country apparently linked to AQIM. On Dec. 24, four French tourists were shot dead in southern Mauritania in an attack that the government suspects AQIM carried out. On Dec. 27, gunmen shot and killed four Mauritanian soldiers; AQIM later claimed responsibility for that attack. Several aspects of the embassy attack suggest it was the work of a group with little operational experience. Whereas bomb attacks have been a favorite of AQIM nodes in Morocco and Algeria, the attacks in Mauritania have all involved guns, suggesting that the group has yet to acquire a bombmaker. The embassy attack in particular also appears poorly planned and coordinated, since no damage was reported to the building and the attackers fled quickly after the guards returned fire. Staging the attack at 2 a.m. suggests that the attackers were more concerned about sending a message and easily escaping than about conducting a high-profile attack that had the potential to cause casualties at the embassy. Despite the relative ineptitude of this incident, Mauritanians have been involved at various levels of the global jihadist movement. Perhaps the most prominent was Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, who occupied a leadership position in al Qaeda before 9/11. More recently, several Mauritanians were among the founding members of AQIM. Until now, the country had not experienced significant sustained militant activity carried out by a local group. Although there is concern the group in Mauritania will gain attention — and eventually resources — from AQIM cells in Algeria, the Algerian group is likely far more concerned with its current battle with security forces there. Should the Algerian government make real progress in its fight against militants there, the spillover effect of militants attempting to escape security forces could enhance the capabilities of the group in Mauritania.