The government of Mauritania, a vast nation on the West African coast with an increasing jihadist presence, is on the hunt for an Islamist militant who escaped from prison, where he was awaiting execution for his part in a plot to assassinate President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
A statement released on public television late on Saturday urged residents to provide information on the militant, whom authorities named as Cheikh Ould Saleck. It did not say when or how he escaped. Ould Saleck was sentenced to death in 2011. An unidentified source told the AFP news agency the prisoner went missing at some point on December 31.
"His absence from group prayers in the evening alerted his fellow Islamist inmates, who went to get him and found his cell locked," the source said.
Ould Saleck was arrested in 2011 over alleged links to three vehicles containing explosives heading for Mauritania's coastal capital, Nouakchott. One of the vehicles was said to have been meant for Abdel Aziz, who had ordered military strikes in Mali against jihadist bases in 2010 and 2011.
Abdel Aziz, who was elected in 2009 after seizing power in a coup that ended the tenure of the country's first democratically elected president, was hospitalized in 2012. The official explanation was that soldiers had accidentally shot him.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the plot to assassinate the president in a statement released on jihadist forums, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.
Islamist groups took advantage of a rebelleion by Tuareg nomads in early 2012 to seize Mali's desert north. A French-led intervention scattered them a year later, and they were largely driven out of northern Mali in 2013. But in 2015, the Islamist fighters stepped up attacks in the region.
Jihadists believed to have links with each other and with other groups beyond West Africa have claimed various acts of violence in the region, including the November attack on a luxury hotel in Mali that killed about 20 people. Two other militant groups also claimed responsibility for the Radisson Blu Hotel attack in the capital Bamako.
In December, AQIM leader Abu Yahya al Hammam, an Algerian, released a video statement discussing a range of topics, including intentions to attack troops from both France and Mali. He also confirmed a recent merger between AQIM and another regional militant group, al Murabitoun — a group that had previously splintered off from AQIM and earlier this year had briefly claimed an allegiance with the Iraq and Syria-based militant group Islamic State.
"We in the Greater Sahara region… in the Islamic Maghreb are speaking in regard to the blessed joint operation announced by our brothers in al Murabitoun – the attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in the heart of the Malian capital," Hammam said, according to a translation from SITE Intelligence and analysis from the Long War Journal.
The jihadist commander said strikes wold be coming against the French, seeking revenge for taking lives in West Africa. He also said French culture was made up "of prostitution and degradation." Referencing the hotel attack, he said "You have only tasted a bit of what you made the Muslims taste in the past decades."