Mauritania media opens window on Saharan Islamist world
By Laurent Prieur
NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - 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 away.
"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 neighboring 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 world.
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. Continued...