* Little-known agency had access to top al Qaeda cadre
* Carried exclusive updates on Algerian gas plant raid
* Religious, ethnic links open channels to Islamists
* ANI editor rejects allegation of "terrorist propaganda"
By Laurent Prieur
NOUAKCHOTT, Feb 13 Shortly after al Qaeda gunmen
stormed a giant gas plant deep in the Algerian desert last
month, taking hundreds of workers hostage, their leader switched
on his satellite phone to ring a journalist thousands of miles
"He told me 'I am Abu Al Bara and this is my number. Call me
whenever you want'," said Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Aboulmaaly,
editor-in-chief of the Nouakchott News Agency (ANI), a news
website in Mauritania's capital on West Africa's Atlantic coast.
"After that, we spoke many times."
Aboulmaaly's exclusives on what was happening inside the In
Amenas gas facility, including the raiders' demand for a halt to
French air strikes on Islamist rebels in neighbouring Mali,
obliged foreign newspapers and television to rely heavily on ANI
during the worst international hostage-taking in recent years.
His unfettered access to the kidnappers highlighted how
Mauritanian media, including ANI rivals Sahara Media and Al
Akhbar, are opening a window into the shadowy world of Islamist
groups operating in the vast, lawless Sahara.
An Islamic republic on the desert's western edge, bordering
both Algeria and Mali, Mauritania has long wrestled with an
Islamist threat within its own borders. Twice the size of France
but with just 3 million people, its desert has been periodically
infiltrated over the last decade by militants who have killed
dozens of soldiers - and four French citizens.
Sharing their language and religion, and sometimes coming
from the same tribe, Mauritanian journalists have become a
conduit for Saharan jihadists to transmit their message to the
One of the attractions is that the country's media writes in
both Arabic and French, allowing their news to penetrate
directly to Western Europe. Another is that they are seen to be
among the region's most independent and aggressive.
Since a 2005 military coup, Mauritania has strongly advanced
in its press freedom, now far greater than Algeria's. The media
watchdog Reporters Without Borders says Mauritania has the most
robust press freedom in the Arab world.
While other journalists fled after the Islamists seized
control of northern Mali, Sahara Media kept a correspondent in
the ancient caravan town of Timbuktu, documenting how al Qaeda's
north African wing AQIM imposed violent sharia law, including
amputation of limbs, and destroyed sacred Sufi mausoleums.
"The Mauritanian press is seen as more open and independent
than journalists in other neighbouring countries," Aboulmaaly
"Members of these groups have seen me speak. They were able
to hear my reporting on the radio or read my articles. That is
how they contacted me," he said.
For militants operating in remote desert locations, a call
to a media outlet is a much faster means of disseminating their
message than trying to upload a communique or video.
"The usual jihadi forums are password-protected so you have
to know it to use them," said Aaron Zelin, fellow at the
Washington Institute for Near East policy, who runs
jihadology.net, a website monitoring Islamist activity online.
"Using Mauritanian media provides a much wider audience."
The three competing websites have published a string of
communiques and videos from al Qaeda-linked Saharan Islamists
announcing kidnappings and executions of foreigners, becoming a
central part of the groups' media strategy.
Even the Boko Haram militant group in northern Nigeria has
used Mauritanian media to publish its videos.
"All these armed jihadists groups now have Mauritanian
spokesmen," said Mohamed Fall Ould Oumeir, editor of the
country's weekly newspaper La Tribune.
"These media have journalists from maraboutic tribes who
have studied religion, sometimes even with the same guys who are
now jihadists fighting in northern Mali," said Oumeir, referring
to tribes led by marabouts, who are respected religious leaders
in West Africa.
MET WITH BELMOKHTAR
ANI (from the French L'Agence Nouakchott d'Information www.ani.mr/)
is owned by the private group Mauritanienne de Presse,
d'Edition, de Communication et d'Impression (MAPECI), which also
edits two Mauritanian dailies, Nouakchott Info et Akhbar
Nouakchott, and has a radio station.
With versions in both Arabic and French, it carries mostly
news about Mauritania, but also about the Western Sahara and
Western Sahel region, publishing for example reports by news
agency AFP on the French-led military campaign against the
Islamist insurgents in Mali.
It also carries opinion pieces on Mauritanian and regional
affairs and advertisements in French and Arabic.
Sahara Media also covers regional news and affairs,
especially from Algeria and Morocco, in French, and has chat
forums and ads as well. Its Mauritanian editor was unavailable
It is ANI's high-profile access to the jihadists that has
attracted the most attention, as well as the most controversy.
After the gas field incident in which 38 hostages and 29
militants were killed, Algeria's independent newspaper El Watan,
whose editor narrowly escaped two assassination attempts by
Islamist radicals, denounced ANI as a "privileged channel of
Aboulmaaly accepts he is in a unique position. He is one of
a handful of reporters to have met al Qaeda's top operative in
Africa, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed Algerian founder of the
Mulathameen brigade that carried out the In Amenas attack.
He first communicated with Belmokhtar in 2011 by email and
telephone, publishing a lengthy interview in which the Islamist
revealed that weapons taken from Libya after Muammar Gaddafi's
fall were now fuelling jihad in the Sahara. Then, last year,
Aboulmaaly arranged a meeting through AQIM contacts in Mali.
He waited for two weeks before being summoned to the
northern Malian town of Gao, then under rebel Islamist
occupation but retaken last month along with Timbuktu by French
and Malian troops.
"When I met Belmokhtar in Gao, I did not publish an
interview but I learned a lot about him and his movement and how
they operate," said Aboulmaaly.
Belmokhtar, who lost his left eye handling explosives on a
mujahideen bomb-making course in Afghanistan, was long
considered to be more of a criminal than a devout militant -
making millions from cigarette smuggling and kidnapping. In
recent years he has sought to ditch his reputation as "Mr
Marlboro", espousing global jihad under the al Qaeda brand.
His group had carried out an attack on a Mauritanian army
outpost in 2005 which killed 17 soldiers, and kidnapped Canadian
diplomat Robert Fowler in Niger in 2008. But it never attempted
anything as big as the In Amenas strike, led by his trusted
lieutenant Abu Al Bara, who died in the raid.
"I saw a quiet man, very calm, who listens a lot and speaks
with a low voice. I met him for two hours and he barely moved
from his chair, sitting laid back during the whole discussion,"
The exclusives published by ANI during the Algerian
hostage-taking provided tantalising clues about direct links
between the Mulathameen and al Qaeda.
The brigade, whose name means the 'Masked Ones', echoed the
classic demands of al Qaeda's central leadership: the release
from U.S. prisons of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian
sheikh jailed for a 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, and
of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, whose uncle by
marriage was Sept. 11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammad.
That suggested that Belmokhtar - a former member of
Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) - was
making good on his pledge in December to distance himself from
the regional franchise AQIM, led by Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud.
"AN INDEPENDENT JOURNALIST"
With Mauritanians rising in influence among the region's
Islamist cells, Belmokhtar's is not the only group with close
ties to the country's media, however.
Another splinter group from AQIM, the Movement for Unity and
Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), was founded by Mauritanian Hamada
Ould Mohamed Kheirou, angry at Wadoud's failure to give
leadership posts in AQIM to non-Algerians.
Since then, MUJWA has used Mauritanian media to relay its
messages, sending ANI a statement in September announcing it had
executed an Algerian diplomat in Gao.
Aboulmaaly has been summoned by Mauritania's media regulator
HAPA, which accused him of playing the hostage takers' game and
damaging Mauritania's relations with Algeria.
He defended himself by saying he resisted the Islamists'
request to speak live on the radio or even to broadcast live
appeals from their hostages as some other media did, including
France 24 and Al Jazeera.
He also refused to print the kidnappers' appeal to Algeria's
army not to attack fellow Muslims.
"I asked them to tell me their message and told them we
would publish it in context," he said. "For me it is simple: I
am an independent journalist."
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis and Daniel Flynn; Editing by
Pascal Fletcher and Sonya Hepinstall)