Al-Qaeda Murders Its Way Across the Sahara

It barely made the news.

On the evening of August 8, a suicide bomber wearing a belt full of explosives approached the exterior walls of the French embassy in Mauritania’s capital city of Nouakchott. He shouted “Allahu akbar” and blew himself up. Two embassy security guards, or gendarmes, and another person were injured.

Ten days later, al-Qaeda’s North African arm -- al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) -- claimed responsibility. Reuters identified the bomber as a local jihadist named Abu Obeida Musa al-Basri.

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is one of those countries that 99 percent of the people on the planet outside of Mauritania would not be able to place on a map. Located north of Senegal and south of Western Sahara and Algeria, it is one of the poorest, most illiterate, most draconian places in the world. Slavery, allegedly outlawed in the 1980s, remains in full bloom. Former Mauritanian slave and human rights activist Boubacar Messaoud recently told legislators in Washington that an estimated 500,000 people among the country’s population of 3.3 million still live as slaves.

What a perfect place for al-Qaeda to sow seeds. But why now?

Six weeks ago, an American missionary named Christopher Leggett was shot in the head and killed as he crossed the street in Nouakchott, Mauritania's capital; al-Qaeda claimed responsibility. In 2007 four French tourists, including two children, were killed in the southern Mauritanian town of Aleg; three AQIM jihadists are awaiting trial. But before the French embassy was attacked, there had been no suicide bombings on record in the country.

"This operation came in reaction to the hostility of the Crusaders -- led by France -- and their apostate agents against Islam and its people," AQIM declared in a statement earlier this week, which included photographs of the now dead suicide bomber posing with weapons on a desert backdrop.

Targeting France is a leap from AQIM’s earlier stated goal, which focused on targeting Jews and Americans. The Jamestown Foundation reports that AQIM leader Abu Anas Abd al-Rahman al-Shinqiti recently appeared in a video denouncing any form of democracy in Mauritania and promising attacks on Western facilities throughout North Africa for meddling. “Democracy will lead to Jewish-American occupation [of Mauritania] and to the proliferation of the parties of Satan," he declared.