Political Stalemate Heightens Appeal of Religious Extremism for Western Sahara Youth

Andrew McGregor

June 24, 2016

The death from illness on May 31 of the Polisario Front’s long-time leader Mohamed Abdelaziz has brought the exiled Sahrawi independence movement of the Western Sahara to an ideological crossroads. The Polisario nation, known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), is effectively a state without land, save for a small strip of desert optimistically known as “the Free Zone.” Nonetheless, the SADR is recognized by 46 nations and is a full member of the African Union.

Western Sahara Map(GlobalSecurity.org)

The Sahrawi community is led by its sole political expression, the secular, left-wing Polisario Front (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro – Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro), founded in 1973 to combat Spanish colonialism. Ninety-one years of Spanish colonialism in the Western Sahara was replaced in 1975 with a 16-year war against Morocco and Mauritania, who sought to split the former colony between them. Spain effectively abandoned its West Saharan territories, leaving the region of Saguia al-Hamra (The Red Canal) to Morocco and Rio de Oro (The Gold Coast) to Mauritania. The latter eventually withdrew from Rio de Oro, but Morocco quickly occupied the area. Under the terms of a 1991 ceasefire, a UN mission was to register Sahrawis for a referendum on independence or acceptance of a Moroccan offer of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. This process has yet to start; in the meantime, Morocco has developed the region’s fisheries and phosphates industry and is now in the early phases of oil and gas exploration, much to the dissatisfaction of the exiled Sahrawi community.

While the Polisario leadership will use a 40-day mourning period to decide whether a leadership change should reflect the desirability of new directions for the movement or the persistence of the status quo, Morocco, which lays claim to Western Sahara, will simultaneously be seeking new openings to break the lingering impasse. During this crucial period, the Sahrawi exile community, most of whom live in a complex of six refugee camps surrounding the southwest Algerian town of Tindouf and are reliant on international donations of food and other aid, must deal not only with leadership succession, but also with:

  • Morocco’s expulsion of the UN mission charged with organizing an independence referendum;
  • The attraction of the Islamic State and other extremist factions to alienated Sahrawi youth; and
  • The political implications of offshore oil exploration contracts negotiated by Morocco without Polisario involvement.

Morocco insists it is merely reclaiming territory (its so-called “Southern States”) that had been occupied by the Spanish up until 1975. Polisario regards the Moroccan presence as colonialism, “an international crime against the Saharawi people, as well as a continuing threat to peace and regional security” (Ennahar [Algiers], June 15).

The dispute has been absorbed into the wider rivalry between Morocco and its Maghreb neighbor, Algeria, contributing to its intractability.

The Leadership Question

Mohamed Abdelaziz was elected as Polisario Front secretary-general and president of the SADR in August 1976, ruling with the help of a small but powerful group of loyalists. At the time of his death, he was serving his 12th consecutive term as president. The interim leader is one of Abdelaziz’s closest associates, Khatri Adouh, the president of the Sahrawi National Council (the SADR’s governing body).

Among the candidates for the SADR presidency are Brahim Ghali, who will likely have Algeria’s approval; Mohamed Lamine Bouhali, the current defense minister and a former Algerian army officer; Prime Minister Abdelkader Taleb Omar; Reconstruction Minister Mohamed Salem Ould Salek; and Bashir Mustapha Sayed, the brother of Polisario Front founder El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed (North Africa Post, June 1).

Polisario has always been as much a social movement as a political one. It has a strong focus on eliminating tribalism through the eradication of tribal identities and the pursuit of Arab nationalism and (at least initially) Marxist-style collectivism and anti-colonial ideology derived from political theorist Franz Fanon and various African liberation leaders of the 1960s. Its claim to a collective purpose expressing the common will of all Sahrawis and its pervasiveness in Sahrawi refugee life precludes for the Polisario leadership any possibility of internal opposition to the movement. Since the SADR’s existence depends on external aid and all such aid is funneled through Polisario-friendly Algeria, the leadership has the means of enforcing this opinion.

Western Sahara FuneralScene from the Funeral of Mohamed Abdelaziz (Ramzi Boudina/Reuters)

Polisario anti-colonialism, however, carries within it a fatal contradiction – the SADR is based on the amalgamation of several territories defined by colonially-imposed boundaries. Rejection of these boundaries as the basis of the SADR would tend to validate the Moroccan position that no state existed in the region prior to Spanish occupation aside from a handful of local tribal chiefs, many of whom at one time or another had pledged allegiance to the Moroccan Sultan or established economic relations with the Kingdom.

In the absence of a political system that accommodates opposition viewpoints, dissenting Sahrawis tend to vote with their feet, defecting into Moroccan-governed territory to reunite their divided families. Morocco claims over 10,000 Sahrawis have done this so far, but the process is strongly discouraged by the Polisario, which recognizes that the only thing keeping the SADR from becoming a purely virtual state is its ability to claim the loyalty of a significant portion of the Sahrawi population. Protests continue in the Moroccan-administered area against rule from Rabat, often resulting in excesses by the Moroccan police.

Failure of MINURSO

Formed in 1991, the UN mission in the Western Sahara, known as MINURSO (Misión de las Naciones Unidas para la Organización de un Referéndum en el Sáhara Occidental – United Nations Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara) continues to fulfill its mandate to monitor the 1991 ceasefire, but it has yet to begin its task of registering voters and preparing a referendum on the Western Sahara’s future. Many officers of this expensive peacekeeping mission have instead passed the time by vandalizing the region’s prehistoric rock art with spray-painted graffiti (The Times, February 7, 2008). Furthermore, thanks to French opposition in the UN Security Council, MINURSO remains the only UN mission without a human rights component, tying its hands when confronted with human rights abuses.

Both the Polisario and Morocco oppose MINURSO efforts at voter registration, given disputes over the eligibility of the large number of Moroccans who have settled in Moroccan-ruled Western Sahara since 1975 and the number of Malians, Mauritanians and Algerians who have joined the SADR camps. A census in the Tindouf camps might also reveal a smaller number of refugees than are currently claimed by authorities, putting at risk the ability of Algerian and Polisario authorities to siphon off an over-supply of humanitarian aid that eventually appears in regional markets. In the event MINURSO is kept from fulfilling its mission, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned of “escalation into full-scale war” and the presentation of new opportunities for “terrorist and radical elements” to exploit the situation (al-Jazeera, April 19).

The UN secretary-general enraged Moroccan authorities when he referred to Moroccan “occupation” of the Western Sahara during a March 5 visit to the Sahrawi refugee camps around Tindouf (al-Jazeera, March 29). Following accusations that the UN had abandoned its neutral stance on the issue, Morocco expelled U.S. aid staff from the region, ordered the UN to withdraw civilian personnel, and closed a MINURSO military liaison office despite profuse apologies from the secretary-general’s office.

Ban’s call for negotiations without precondition between the SADR and Morocco seems bound for the same UN black hole in which most calls tend to disappear. No matter what UN officials might say, such negotiations would be widely regarded both internally and externally as Moroccan recognition of the SADR’s existence. Morocco is instead playing out a long-term strategy to create a set of facts on the ground that would make a separate Western Saharan state inconceivable. Most important of these is a 1,250-mile-long sand berm separating the economically useful section of Western Sahara from the lightly populated “Free Zone.” Equipped with radar, motion detectors, rapid response teams, air support, and some of the world’s largest minefields, this sand wall has proved an effective counter to Polisario’s military qualities of mobility and intimate knowledge of local terrain.

Attraction of Islamic State and Other Extremist Groups

More than 50 percent of the population of the Polisario refugee camp is under 18 and few have ever set foot in their “homeland.” Limited employment opportunities mean many young Sahrawis are joining the 6,000 to 7,000 strong Ejercito de Liberación Popular Saharaui (ELPS or Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army), the military wing of the Polisario Front. Deeply unhappy with the lack of diplomatic progress in resolving the independence issue, many young Sahrawis are calling for a return to the battlefield.

Though internal pressure could drive the Sahrawis back to war, the outcome of any conflict with the larger, better armed and better trained Royal Moroccan Army is predictable. With Algeria unlikely to support renewed conflict in any substantial way, there is a danger veteran jihadis might be able to offer valuable battlefield support against a Moroccan regime, while introducing Salafi-jihadist ideology to the struggle. Similar situations have been seen in the past; in the Chechen anti-Russian resistance, jihadism developed at the expense of secular nationalism as a result of an influx of much-needed, but religiously motivated, foreign fighters.

Alternatively, a quick or even extended collapse of Sahrawi military resistance in renewed combat could lead to a loss of faith in the nationalist cause on the part of young fighters and an increase in smuggling, an important source of income for young Sahrawis that inevitably puts them in contact with traffickers from extremist groups. Integration with extremist networks such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) often follows, whether as paid employees or ideologically committed jihadists.

The 2010 Algerian arrest of a Polisario imam discovered with arms, 20 kilograms of explosives, and correspondence with AQIM leader Abd al-Malik Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud) and the kidnapping the next year of three European aid-workers from a Tindouf camp by a Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA) cell that included Sahrawis were strong indications that extremism has penetrated the Polisario camps. [1]

By July 2012, Sahrawi Defense Minister Bouhali admitted that there were 20 to 25 Sahrawis involved in Islamist militancy, divided between AQIM and MUJWA (ABC.es [Madrid], August 11, 2012). The statement was a break from Polisario’s usual insistence that AQIM holds no attraction to Sahrawis. In March 2013, Mali’s foreign minister insisted that Polisario “mercenaries” had been recruited by the radical MUJWA for monthly salaries running between 200 to 600 Euros (Le Mag [Marrakesh], March 16, 2013).

The best known of the Sahrawis who have committed to religious extremism is Abu Walid al-Sahrawi – a former member of the ELPS, MUJWA, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitun organization – who joined Islamic State in 2015 and now calls for Moroccans and Sahrawis to support the Islamic Caliphate in the Maghreb. In May, Abu Walid threatened to launch attacks on MINURSO personnel, tourists and foreign assets in the Sahara (al-Jazeera, May 4; North Africa Post, May 6; al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], May 13, 2015). Like many Sahrawis, Abu Walid was educated in Algeria and Cuba. Algerian universities often expose young Sahrawis to more militant strains of Islam than those that usually prevail in the camps.

Offshore Oil Exploration

When Morocco began awarding contracts for oil exploration in the Western Sahara in 2002, the UN called for a legal opinion to define the legality of such measures in the absence of recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the area. Known as the Corell Opinion, the statement remains the guiding principle for Moroccan-negotiated foreign investment in the region, but the opinion has been subject to much interpretation and has been used to both justify and condemn Moroccan development undertaken without consultation with the Sahrawi people. [2]

Mustapha al-Khalfi, Morocco’s minister of communications, insists that investment and the region’s natural resource management are driven by the needs of the population. He also maintains that the participation in investment decisions of democratically elected representatives of the Sahrawi community means that “the exploitation of the natural resources in the Sahara takes place within the framework of international law with the involvement of the population and for its benefit” (al-Jazeera, July 10, 2015).

The current controversy over resource extraction is fueled by the Moroccan-authorized offshore exploration activities of Texas-based Kosmos Energy in the Cap Boujdour area, approximately 70km off the shore of Western Sahara and part of the larger Aaiun Basin. Kosmos defends its activities by noting that, at this point, they are “focused solely on exploration and do not involve the removal of resources… We believe, however, that if exploration is successful, responsible resource development in Western Sahara has the potential to create significant long-term social and economic benefits for the people of the territory.” [3]

The absence of substantial international opposition to the operations of foreign resource extraction firms in the contested region constitutes an important step in the explicit or de facto recognition of Moroccan claims in the Western Sahara.

Conclusion: The “Sahrawi State”

With the slow-moving machinations of international diplomacy and commerce working against them, Polisario’s chances of forming a legitimate state diminish with each passing year. The “Sahrawi State” is in the uncomfortable position of existing solely at the sufferance of Algiers. While an Algerian-Moroccan rapprochement seems unlikely in the short term, any future mending of their relationship would make Polisario and all its trappings of a “virtual” state entirely expendable. The future of the republic lies with its restless youth rather than Polisario’s aging first generation. Without jobs or meaningful futures, many desire a return to conflict. However, such a war, like all else, cannot happen without Algerian approval, and this might prove difficult if not impossible to obtain.

Polisario allows Algiers to affect a certain moral superiority over Morocco on the international stage, but a Polisario return to war would immediately be regarded as Algerian-sponsored and would be of little advantage to either party. A more likely scenario is a growing attraction to religious militancy as the foundation of a new state potentially free from both Moroccan and Algerian domination, especially if the option is the perpetuation of a stifling status quo in the isolated camps of Tindouf.

This attraction may co-exist with a greater willingness on the part of other Sahrawis to accept Morocco’s offers of regional autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, combining to eventually shatter the Polisario’s independence ambitions.


  1. “The Algerian Foreign Policy on Western Sahara,” in Anouar Boukhars and Jacques Roussellier (eds.), Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalisms and Geopolitics, Lanham, 2014, p.115, fn.32
  2. Hans Corell, “Letter dated 29 January 2002 from the Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, the Legal Counsel, addressed to the President of the Security Council, United Nations Security Council,” February 12, 2002, http://www.arso.org/UNlegaladv.htm
  3. See position statement: Kosmos Energy: On Hydrocarbon Exploration Offshore Western Sahara, February 2014, www.kosmosenergy.com/pdfs/PositionStatement-WesternSahara-English.pdf

This article first appeared in the June 24, 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

AIS Update, July 13, 2016: Unsurprisingly, a Congress of the Polisario Front chose the candidate with the closest ties to Algeria as the new president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and the secretary-general of the Polisario Front on July 9. Brahim Ghali, the new president, promptly announced his first official visit would be to Algiers.

Brahim GhaliNew President of the SADR, Brahim Ghali

Born in 1949, the former ambassador to Algeria was a founding member of the Polisario Front. He began a military career in a Spanish unit of Sahrawi volunteers in the 1960s. By 1969 he was deeply involved in anti-colonial activism and was jailed several times. Shortly after he participated in the founding of Polisario in 1973, he was one of the leaders of the Front’s first raid on a Spanish Army post, a successful affair that helped arm the independence movement.

Oil Exploration and Political Stalemate Threaten to Trigger Renewed Conflict in the Western Sahara

Andrew McGregor

November 28, 2013

The decades-long unresolved conflict over the Western Sahara threatens to heat up again as Algeria and Morocco dispute the future of the region and young members of the Sahrawi Polisario Front (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro –Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro) urge a return to arms against Moroccan “occupiers” rather than spend further decades in refugee camps located in the remote Algerian desert. A general international indifference has preserved the political impasse, in which native Sahrawis demand a referendum on independence and the Moroccan administration offers regional autonomy within a “Greater Morocco.” Giving impetus to the return of the issue to international attention is the growing Moroccan exploitation of the Western Sahara’s resources, including phosphates, fisheries and, potentially, oil and gas.  Omar Mansour, a member of the Polisario’s National Secretariat, has warned: “If the U.N. does not take this seriously to ensure self-determination and that human rights are respected, then we are heading towards a war with regional implications” (Reuters, April 22).

Northwest Africa in the Colonial Period


The Polisario Front was established in May, 1973 with the intent of expelling Spanish colonialists from the colony of Spanish Sahara (1884 – 1973). It gained strength in 1975 when locally-raised Spanish troops began to desert to the Polisario with their weapons. When Spain calculated the cost of retaining the colony in a world increasingly unsympathetic to colonial projects, it decided to defy a UN resolution and simply abandon the region, ceding the larger part of the colony, Saguia al-Hamra, to Morocco, with part of the Rio de Oro going to Mauritania in the 1975 Madrid Tripartite Accords.

The native Sahrawi resistance proclaimed the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976 in response, which Algeria soon recognized in the hope of preventing regional expansion by Morocco. The Sahrawis then launched a costly guerrilla campaign with Libyan support against both Morocco and Mauritania. By 1979, Mauritania, with limited resources and exhausted by years of fierce desert fighting, decided to abandon its claim to the southern Rio de Oro after a military junta arranged a ceasefire, though Morocco quickly stepped in to expand its own claim to the entire Rio de Oro. The Polisario Front was recognized by the UN as the official representative of the Sahrawi people in the same year. The Sahrawis’ conflict with Morocco became increasingly bitter, with both sides committing human rights abuses in a war the international community barely noticed.

Rabat offered to hold a referendum on independence in 1981, but soon withdrew the offer, deciding instead to build a huge and heavily garrisoned sand berm to isolate the Polisario guerrillas in the economically useless and uninhabited regions of the former colony. 1250 miles long and 15 to 30 feet high, the berm is equipped with sensors, landmines and surveillance equipment; any attempt to cross the berm brings out Moroccan fighter jets ready to attack infiltrators in open country. The berm separates inhabitable, resource rich land near the coast from the largely lifeless desert to which the rebel Sahrawis fled in the 1970s and 1980s.

This tactic effectively ended Polisario strikes in the Moroccan-held Western Sahara and forced a 1989 ceasefire. A 1991 ceasefire agreement called for a UN referendum asking Sahrawis whether they wanted independence or integration into Morocco. However, preparations for the referendum broke down when UN organizers experienced difficulty in determining who was or wasn’t eligible to vote from amongst the scattered Sahrawi population.  By this time, Morocco preferred the facts on the ground and has yet to conduct the referendum. Disappointed Polisario leaders have since referred to their homeland as “the last colony in Africa” (Sahara Press Service [al-Aaiun], October 31).

Growing Anger in the Refugee Camps

Cut off from the inhabitable parts of the Western Sahara, the exiled Sahrawis now live in six refugee camps housing 150,000 people centered around the Algerian town of Tindouf, home to an Algerian military base. Twenty-six thousand additional refugees live in Mauritania. The four main camps are named for towns in the Western Sahara – al-Aaiun, Smara, Awserd and Dakhla. “February 27” is a small camp and the administration is run from the Rabouni camp. There are reports of widespread malnutrition and related illnesses in the camps, which rely largely on shipments of food and other aid from the international community (Sahara Press Service [El-Aaiun], November 13).

Political development in the refugee camps has calcified, with government remaining in the hands of an old guard led by Muhammad Abdelaziz, who was elected as Polisario Front secretary-general and president of the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic in August 1976 and has remained in these posts ever since, ruling with the help of a small but powerful group of loyalists.

The sole political formation is the Polisario Front, a creation intended to put aside local political rivalries in the interests of presenting a common front demanding self-determination for the Western Sahara. However, this state of affairs is increasingly unable to restrain a growing number of youths (over 50% of the population in the camps is now under 18) who have never set foot in their “homeland,” see no future in the refugee camps and are growingly inclined to resume the armed conflict with Morocco in the face of the apparent satisfaction of the international community with the status quo.  As even President Abdelaziz concedes, “Patience has its limits” (Global Post, November 13).

Abdelaziz has been clear that renewing the armed conflict remains the legitimate right of Sahrawis, but is seeking to avoid new clashes with a far stronger power that could easily devastate the Sahrawi community in open warfare. Time is not working in favor of the Sahrawis holding out for independence in the refugee camps – with the gradual return of some refugees and a growing population of Moroccan migrants, the Western Saharan administrative capital of al-Aaiun alone now holds twice as many people as the combined refugee camps in Algeria.

Security in the camps is provided by Polisario internal security forces and the 6,000 to 7,000 man Ejercito de Liberación Popular Saharaui (ELPS – Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army), the military wing of the Polisario Front. The ELPS fields a variety of vintage Soviet equipment donated by Algeria and a range of equipment captured from the Spanish, Moroccans and Mauritanians. The Polisario administers its own justice and maintains its own detention facilities. Sahrawi dissidents accuse the movement of human rights abuses, including the torture and disappearance of dissidents (Sahara News, August 7).

Morocco has the upper hand in the constant propaganda warfare with the Polisario Front, disseminating its views and castigating the Polisario for alleged human rights abuses and purported ties to Islamist terrorist groups in a number of English-language websites designed to influence Western (especially American) opinion. For its part, the Polisario accuse Rabat of paying former refugees to produce lurid accounts of torture, illegal imprisonment and repression in the Polisario camps.

The Moroccan Approach

Morocco has devised a plan for regional autonomy as an alternative to holding a referendum on independence and has tried to gain international support for its claim by announcing an $18 billion investment plan intended to double the region’s GDP and create 120,000 jobs (African Energy, November 25).

Though efforts to obtain diplomatic recognition of its claim over the Western Sahara have faltered, Morocco has proceeded with the economic development of the territory based on an ambiguous legal ruling issued by the UN in 2002. Morocco inherited a major phosphates mining operation from Spain and is in negotiations with the EU to expand its fishing zone to include the profitable waters of Western Sahara. Now Kosmos Energy and partner Cairn Energy plan to begin oil exploration in a Moroccan-licensed offshore block next year. This latest development has enraged the Polisario Front, which stated that it was against “exploiting the sovereign resources of the Saharawi people without their consent while we remain under an illegal occupation… Western Sahara remains occupied as a matter of international law and so the taking of petroleum is clearly a war crime” (African Energy, November 25).

Map Showing the Division of the Western Sahara by the Berm

Diplomatic Tensions Between Morocco and Algeria

Despite Morocco’s efforts to depict an atmosphere of calm satisfaction in the Western Sahara, demonstrations in al-Aaiun demanding the immediate withdrawal of Moroccan forces from the Western Sahara and an end to resource exploitation in the region erupted into clashes with police as the protesters raised the banned Sahrawi flag during an October visit by Christopher Ross, the UN Secretary General’s envoy to the Western Sahara (Sahara Press Service [al-Aaiun], November 12).  The Polisario claimed over 100 injured during a crackdown by authorities, but local government in al-Aaiun claimed the incident involved only “children who wanted to throw stones at the security forces”(Agencia EFE [Madrid], October 20). Pro-Moroccan sources accused “infiltrators” of disguising themselves in Moroccan police uniforms before entering homes, abusing residents and looting valuables (Polisario-Confidential.org, October 24).

In an October 29 speech (read on his behalf by Algerian justice minister Tayeb Louh), Algerian president Abdelaziz urged new responsibilities for the UN peacekeeping force operating in the Western Sahara: “The necessity to set up a human rights monitoring mechanism in Western Sahara is more topical than ever… Algeria remains convinced that the expansion of the MINURSO (Misión de las Naciones Unidas para la Organización de un Referéndum en el Sáhara Occidental – United Nations Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara) mandate to include human rights monitoring is a necessity” (Sahara Press Service [al-Aaiun], October 29). At present, MINURSO does not include human rights monitors amongst its roughly 250 uniformed and civilian personnel.

An outraged Morocco recalled its ambassador to Algeria on October 30, though Algiers described the move as “an unfortunate decision based and spurious motives and detrimental to the sovereignty of Algeria” (Institute for Security Studies [Addis Ababa], November 11). Bouteflika’s remarks were interpreted by Moroccan foreign minister Salaheddine Mezouar as an indication of Algeria’s direct involvement in trying to influence the West Sahara issue and its “calculated plans” to challenge Morocco’s territorial integrity (al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 8). Morocco’s monarchist Istiqlal Party issued renewed calls for the government to retake the southeastern provinces of Tindouf and Bechar, transferred to Algeria by France during the colonial era. Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra called Istiqlal’s statement “totally unacceptable and irresponsible” (al-Arabiya/AFP, October 30; North Africa Post, October 31). Morocco tried unsuccessfully to retake the provinces as part of its “Greater Morocco” strategy in 1963’s “Sand War” with Algeria. The war did, however, see the introduction of massive defensive sand berms by Morocco, a tactic later successfully applied in Western Sahara to isolate the Polisario.

Morocco’s King Muhammad VI declared that his nation would not be lectured to by “those who systematically trample on human rights.” Bouteflika’s remarks also sparked a November 1 (Algeria’s national day) demonstration outside the Algerian consulate in Casablanca in which a young Moroccan member of the Jeunnesses Royalistes (Royal Youth) tore down the Algerian flag in the consulate compound. Though authorities charged the individual, Foreign Minister Lamamra protested that the detainee was treated as a hero in some quarters of Morocco and termed the incident an “insult” to Algeria (AFP, November 14; North Africa Post, November 11). Lamamra, a veteran diplomat, is considered an expert on the West Saharan issue and can be expected to take a hardline on the matter. Algeria’s press called the incident a deliberate provocation and “an attack on the sovereignty of the country” (Le Jeune Indépendant [Algiers], November 2; Le Quotidien d’Oran, November 2). The Polisario Front jumped into the dispute as well, expressing its “outrage against this despicable act which once again confirms the contempt of the Moroccan State in respect of international law, values of brotherhood and good neighborliness and diplomatic practice” (L’Expression [Algiers], November 6).

In a speech given on November 6, the 38th anniversary of the “Green March” that claimed the Western Sahara for Morocco, King Muhammad VI accused Algeria of paying various human rights organizations to produce reports critical of Morocco’s administration in the Western Sahara. Other critics “unfairly and inimically believe anyone who claims that his rights were trampled or that he was tortured,” adding that all nations had the right to preserve their own security in the face of dangers. Referring to the Polisario specifically, the King said: “Anybody who takes issue with Morocco only has to go down to Tindouf and witness violations to the most basic of human rights…” (Al Monitor, November 8).

Bouteflika’s position on human rights monitoring in the Western Sahara was nearly identical to that advanced by the United States at the UN in April before angry reaction from Rabat and Paris convinced Washington to move more quietly on the issue.  Rabat is extremely sensitive to accusations of human rights abuses in Western Sahara, going so far as to declare the UN Secretary General’s envoy to Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, persona non grata in Morocco after he made a statement on the issue last year.

The Western Sahara issue has prevented the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) from achieving anything of consequence, with its two largest members at permanent odds. There are very real costs associated with this disharmony: according to the African Economic Commission, a functioning Maghreb Union would result in a five percent growth of GDP in each of the five member nations, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania (al-Jazeera, July 31). Bachir Mustapha Essayd, a member of the Polisario’s National Secretariat, recently suggested that the 1975 Madrid Agreement and Morocco’s interpretation of it pose a significant obstacle in developing relationships between Maghreb region nations: “Morocco is the only [country] responsible for the instability in the region… These agreements stand as an obstacle to all Maghreb countries… Spain gave territory to Morocco that did not belong to it” (Sahara Press Service [al-Aaiun], November 14).

The border between Algeria and Morocco was closed in 1994 after Rabat accused Algeria’s secret services and the Islamist militant Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) of the bombing of a hotel in Marrakesh in which two Spaniards were killed. Algeria in turn accused Rabat of hosting the GIA and the border has been closed (except to an active smuggling trade) ever since.

A Growing Security Threat?

Cooperation between Morocco and Algeria on security issues and other matters has reached low ebb. A mid-November conference of 17 regional foreign ministers hosted by Rabat and intended to strengthen border security in north and west Africa was forced to go ahead without the presence of an Algerian deputation, a crippling absence given that Algeria is the largest and most powerful nation in the region (Middle East Online, November 14). Regional security efforts mean little when the two strongest militaries in the region refuse to cooperate.

Malian foreign minister Tiéman Coulibaly claimed in March that the al-Qaeda-associated Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) was recruiting Sahrawi youths from the refugee camps as mercenaries (LeMag [Marrakesh], March 16). A Sahrawi was among those captured after the battle in northern Mali in which AQIM commander Abu Zeid was killed (Le Figaro [Paris], March 1). There are also reports that Sahrawis from the Polisario camps are participating in smuggling networks that cross the region, though it appears that the opportunity for young unemployed Sahrawis to make money is a greater factor than ideology in leading individuals to the criminal and terrorist networks operating in the Sahel-Sahara region. The camps remain a potential source of militants for AQIM and MUJWA, but at the present, young Sahrawi youth appear to be more interested in resuming a nationalist fight against Morocco than in joining the global jihad.

The kidnapping of three European aid workers from the Tindouf camp by AQIM operatives in October, 2011 appeared to be a sign that the North African jihad was beginning to encroach on the Sahrawi refugee camps, with Moroccan sources suggesting the abductions were carried out by Polisario itself in league with jihadists working under the late Amir Abu Zeid (Polisario-confidential.org, December 2, 2011; AFP, October 30, 2011). Pro-Moroccan sources said the kidnappings had confirmed “the active complicity between Polisario elements and AQIM,” though incriminating details were not forthcoming (Polisario-confidential.org, November 14, 2011). The hostages were eventually freed in Mali in July, 2012 after payment of a ransom.

Cooperation between the secular Polisario Front and the Islamist extremists of the type suggested by Morocco seems unlikely – as Polisario president Muhammad Abdelaziz notes, the Islamists don’t consider Polisario to be a Muslim movement: “They will not forgive us for being a democratic movement. They will not forgive us for having equality for men and women” (PBS, October 25).


Growing resource development and the spread of Islamist militancy in the region are both capable of either intensifying the Western Sahara conflict or compelling a final settlement. The existing ceasefire has allowed the West, the UN and the African Union to assign a low priority to such a settlement, but changing conditions will demand action on this front. Renewed U.S. and French interest in resolving the problem is a promising development, but both parties will have to deal with the competing narratives offered by Morocco (an independent Western Sahara will represent a regional security threat) and the Polisario and their Algerian sponsors (Sahrawis have the right to self-determination as mandated by the United Nations). Should international indifference continue, the leaders of the Polisario Front will experience growing difficulty in keeping frustrated Sahrawi youth trapped in the camps of Tindouf from renewing the armed struggle and shattering the political solidarity and common purpose that is the cornerstone of the Polisario Front. Given that the resumption of such a conflict using guerrilla tactics would be largely futile against Moroccan defenses and overall military might, this would raise the possibility asymmetric tactics such as bombings, assassinations and kidnappings could be introduced to press Morocco to accept a vote on self-determination. Though the Salafist-Jihadist ideology has yet to make significant inroads in the refugee camps, an assault on the Polisario political consensus would likely create new political/militant formations, some of which might be agreeable to accepting assistance from the Islamist militants operating in the region.

This article first appeared in the November 28, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Saharan Mercenary Employed by al-Qaeda Freed in Hostage Exchange

Andrew McGregor

September 9, 2010

While mercenaries have played an important role in the war on terrorism from the beginning, the use of private forces has until recently been associated with counter-terrorism efforts. However, since al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) began establishing a Saharan front, they have been compelled to hire local guides and suppliers, much like every other non-native interloper in the region. Many of the AQIM leaders in the Sahara are Arabs or Arabized Berbers from the coastal mountains of Algeria, nearly 2,000 miles from their current zone of operations in the desert near the Mali border.

Sahara MercenaryOmar Sid Ahmed Ould Hamma

Omar al-Sahrawi (the nickname of Omar Sid Ahmed Ould Hamma) is one such employee of al-Qaeda participating in AQIM’s lucrative kidnapping operations without necessarily sharing the same ideology. In late August he was freed from captivity in Mauritania as part of a hostage exchange and ransom deal demanded by AQIM in return for the release of two Spanish captives.

Reports from Spain claim the hostages were released in exchange for between $4.8 million and $12.7 million as well as the release of al-Sahrawi (El Mundo [Madrid], August 23; ABC [Madrid], August 23). The two captives, Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta, were kidnapped in Mauritania on the road from Nouakchott to the coastal town of Nouadhibou (formerly Port Étienne) in November 2009 (Afrique en Ligne, August 29). The men are employees of the Barcelona-based NGO Accio Solidaria. A third Spanish hostage taken at the same time, Alicia Gamez, was released by AQIM in March. It is believed a ransom was paid in this case as well.

In a telephone interview with a French reporter, al-Sahrawi declared, “I have nothing to do with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Me, I do business, and if you sell something to someone who is from AQIM, it does not mean that you are from AQIM. I am a businessman (AFP, August 24). In his homeland of Mali, security sources identified al-Sahrawi as a cigarette smuggler and transporter of illegal immigrants.

Al-Sahrawi had been sentenced by a Mauritanian court to 12 years of hard labor for his role in the abductions. Following his release and extradition to Mali, where the hostages were being held, al-Sahrawi was reported to have been present at the release of the hostages so AQIM could see if he was alive and in good health. Mauritanian TV footage showed al-Sahrawi joking with the hostages (AFP, August 25). On his return, Al-Sahrawi reportedly celebrated his release by declaring, “I have come back free to Mali” (Nouakchott-Info, August 26).

Referring to the failed Mauritanian-French effort to free a French hostage in July that resulted in the death of seven AQIM operatives and later the execution of the hostage, AQIM said the release of the Spanish hostages was a “lesson for the French secret services to take into consideration in the future” (al-Jazeera, August 24). Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said the release marked a “day of celebration.” He made no mention of the ransom (Ennahar [Algiers], August 23).

Algiers is reported to be displeased with the ransom, some of which will likely be used to buy arms for further attacks within Algeria (Ennahar, August 25). Mauritania has also failed to garner AQIM’s good-will through the release; only two days later a would-be suicide bomber was killed by security forces as he tried to ram an explosives-laden truck into the Nema military barracks, 750 miles east of Nouackchott (al-Jazeera, August 25; AFP, August 25).

This article first appeared in the September 9, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor