Russia’s Phantom Military Exercise in Algeria: Is the War in Ukraine Damaging Moscow’s Ability to Project Power and Influence Abroad?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report on Ukraine no. 8

December 2, 2022

Over the last year, growing military ties between Russia and Algeria seemed to be at odds with Algeria’s traditionally non-aligned approach to international affairs. Algeria’s leadership seems intent, however, on continuing to pursue a policy of deriving maximum benefit from both the West and Russia, generating enormous revenues from providing gas to a desperate Europe while entering a military dalliance with Russia that requires little commitment from Algiers but promises access to modern weapons that could support Algeria’s determination to be regarded as a “regional power” by the international community.

“Exercise Desert Shield,” a mysterious two-week joint Russian-Algerian military exercise in the isolated Hammaguir region of Béchar in the Algerian desert suggests that Russia may be experiencing difficulty in providing both the arms and troops necessary to project Russian power and influence abroad as a result of its war on Ukraine.

Map of Algeria showing Béchar beside the Moroccan border.

On the evening of November 28, the day the exercise was to conclude, the Algerian Ministry of Defense used national television to make the surprising announcement that no such deployment had taken place: “This joint military exercise was scheduled as part of cooperation with the Russian army within the framework of counter-terrorism. However, it did not take place” (, November 29, 2022; Atalyar [Madrid], November 29, 2022).

The Ministry further suggested that such an exercise had never reached the organizational stage, but with detailed reports of such organization (including timing, numbers, location, scope, etc.) appearing in international media for nearly a year without refutation, the timing of the Ministry’s denial seems extremely late and exceedingly odd. At the time of publication, the Kremlin had not issued a comment on the affair.

Official Russian news source Sputnik reported on November 15 that the counter-terrorist exercise would begin the next day (Sputnik [Moscow], November 15, 2022). The announcement was strange, given that by November 15, the Russian Ministry of Defense would likely have been aware the exercise had either been cancelled or had never been approved by Algiers in the first place. Did Algiers cancel the exercise at the last minute under pressure from Europe and the United States, or were highly-trained members of the hard-pressed Russian military simply unavailable at the last minute? The former seems likelier, as the latter would indicate an almost unimaginable loss-of-face for the Russian military, especially as Defense Ministry agents and Wagner Group operatives seek to convince restless African states that Russia can be a reliable and professional ally in place of Western nations like France or the United States.

Diplomatic and International Consequences

Algeria’s growing ties to Russia, its status as the world’s third-largest purchaser of Russian arms and its refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine led 17 Members of the European Parliament to call for a reassessment of EU relations with Algeria on November 17 (, November 17, 2022). The sale of Russian arms provides badly-needed revenues Moscow needs to continue its war on Ukraine, but the catch is that Moscow’s battlefield needs must take precedence over military exports.

Well armed by Russia and other sources, Algeria’s 130,000-man military is both large and politically influential. An oil-revenue-powered willingness to deploy modern military weaponry helps ensure its sovereignty and secures its substantial energy reserves.  Algeria, Africa’s largest exporter of natural gas, has been able to take advantage of Europe’s misguided energy “green shift” to fill its foreign exchange coffers at a time when Russia seeks to apply pressure on Western Europe by restricting oil and gas exports. Italy has been at the front of the European queue for Algerian gas, signing a deal in July to import billions of additional cubic metres via an undersea pipeline from the North African coast.  The resulting windfall has helped Algeria double its military budget.

Morocco Reacts to Russians on its Borders

Moscow has been mildly supportive of Algeria in its diplomatic cold war with Morocco over the disputed status of the Western Sahara. Algeria’s arms buildup and military cooperation with Russia naturally alarms its western neighbor, though it is not without its own resources and contacts. Algeria and Morocco severed ties in August 2021 and Algeria’s plan to assume the largest military budget in Africa by increasing its defense budget by 130% in 2023 is of great concern in Rabat. To draw NATO’s attention to the matter, Moroccan media has tried to portray Russian military activities in Algeria as a threat to southern Europe.

While Algerian troops were supposed to be receiving Russian training, Moroccan paratroopers from the 2e Brigade d’Infanterie Parachutiste joined a company of Britain’s Parachute Regiment for “Exercise Jebel Sahara,” three weeks of training in November that included a six-day war game with live fire exercises. Morocco’s 2e Brigade’s operational history includes a confrontation with Algerian forces during the 1963 “Sand War.” Morocco also conducted a 25-day joint exercise with French forces in March 2022 in a new military zone along the border with Algeria.

Despite experiencing major differences since both nations achieved independence, Algeria and Morocco have avoided an all-out war, preferring to fight through proxies in the Western Sahara while using national media to snipe at the allegedly perfidious behavior of the other side.

Increased Algerian-Russian Military Cooperation

The first joint exercise involving Russia and Algeria occurred in October 2021, when Algerian forces joined counter-terrorist exercises conducted in North Ossetia. Less than a year later, one hundred Algerian troops were part of the September 2022 Vostok (“East”) combined arms exercise held in the Russian Far East. Algeria was the only African nation invited to participate, joining 50,000 troops, 140 warplanes and 60 ships from Russia, China, India, Belarus, Central Asian states, and several other Asian nations.

Russian and Algerian Troops in North Ossetia, October 2021 (Algeria Press Service)

This Russian-sponsored recognition of Algeria’s military helped promote pro-Russian attitudes in parts of the Algerian officer corps. The exercises were observed in person by Vladimir Putin, turning them into a kind of show of support for Russia’s campaign in Ukraine. In Algiers, participation was confirmation that Algeria was now recognized as a “regional power.”

Though the French government expressed little interest in Algeria’s participation in the exercise, it alarmed former French foreign intelligence chief Alain Juillet, who expressed concern: “Very close to us, on the other side of the Mediterranean, there is a country that ultimately works with the Russians and that obviously does not agree with what is happening in Europe” (VA+, November 6, 2022).

Algerian-Russian Naval Exercises

Algeria’s Navy has also intensified cooperation with Russian naval forces in the Mediterranean. Joint tactical exercises in November 2021 were followed by a three-day visit to Algiers in July 2022 from two ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the hydrographic/intelligence ship Kildin and the oil-tanker Vice Admiral Paromov. In September 2022, there were reports of a Russian Navy minesweeper participating in joint exercises with the Algerian navy out of the small port of Jijel. Still trying to perfect a balancing act between the West and East, the modern commercial port of Djen Djen (10 km from Jijel) hosted the American Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Farragut on September 19 for a short training exercise with the Algerian navy.

Russian Intelligence Ship Kildin, Algiers (Ministry of National Defense-Algeria)

In October a four-day Russian/Algerian exercise in the Mediterranean involved the Stoikiy (545) and the Soobrazitelny (531), both Stereguschchiy-class corvettes of Russia’s Baltic Fleet (TASS, October 21, 2022). Algeria is still awaiting delivery of several corvettes of this class from Russian shipyards, though under current conditions, delivery may occur well in the future, if at all.

Algeria has also expressed interest in acquiring four Russian Project 22160 patrol ships. However, the poor performance of these ships in the Ukraine conflict has forced the Russian Navy to abandon plans to build more ships of this class.

The Exercise that Never Was

Exercise Desert Shield was supposed to be the first time Russian troops have operated on Algerian soil, with some 80 to 100 Russian Special Forces members joining a similar number of Algerian troops. The exercise in Béchar was to focus on detecting and eliminating terrorist formations in desert conditions.

The French Rocket Facility in Colomb-Béchar

Only 50 kilometers from the tense border with regional rival Morocco, Béchar (known as Colomb-Béchar in colonial times) was home to a Foreign Legion post before it became the first home of France’s space and ballistic missile program in 1947. The base remained in the hands of the French Air Force until 1967 (five years after Algerian independence), when it was finally transferred to Algerian control under the terms of the 1962 Evian Accords. Most of France’s space program relocated to French Guiana.

According to reports, the exercise was to include training on the tactical use of Russian-made BMP infantry fighting vehicles (Atalayar [Madrid], November 15, 2022). Algeria is interested in purchasing the latest variant of the BMP, but enthusiasm may be dampened by the vehicle’s performance in Ukraine, where some 200 have been destroyed, abandoned or captured. Replacing these vehicles may cause a delay of several years before the manufacture of export versions can resume.

Political Influence May Follow Ammunition Supply

While Algeria would assert its foreign policy is strictly non-aligned, it is commonly viewed in the West as receptive to the influence of Russia and China. This, in consequence, determines the degree of cooperation and engagement Algeria experiences in its relations with the West.

A key question is how long Algiers is prepared to be seen as a possible or potential ally of a Russian nation that is unable or unwilling to extricate itself from a conflict that has had enormous costs in material, lives and reputation. Security partnerships are customarily sought with states with a proven history of military success. The failure so far of Russia’s armies, training and equipment to overcome a former Soviet republic does not increase its attractiveness in this regard.

Trade is in decline between Russia and Algeria while the US remains the largest source of foreign direct investment in Algeria. China is a rival to Russia’s wooing of Algeria, convincing Algiers to sign on to its “Belt and Road Initiative” (a.k.a. the New Silk Road) as well as agreeing to a $7 billion phosphate extraction scheme. Both Algeria and Morocco are major consumers of Chinese arms; Algeria’s navy operates three Chinese-built Adhafer-class frigates and is awaiting delivery of six Chinese Type 056-class corvettes. Morocco and Algeria have also both purchased Chinese-made military drones.

Last year’s deal enabling an Algerian purchase of $7 billion worth of Russian arms, including advanced fifth-generation Su-57 multi-role fighter-jets, alarmed many members of the US Congress. An October 2022 letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken from a bipartisan group of US congressmen called for sanctions against Algeria under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) on the grounds that such arms sales would help finance the Russian war in Ukraine:

It is critical that President Biden and his administration prepare to sanction those who attempt to fund the Russian government, and its war machine, through the purchase of military equipment (al-Arabiya, September 29, 2022).

Some sources suggest the $7 billion deal may soon be supplanted by a $12 to $17 billion agreement that would see Russia provide military supplies to Algeria for ten years (Asharq al-Awsat, November 2, 2022).

The new model Su-57 multi-role fighters would augment Algeria’s existing stock of Russian-made MiG-29 and Su-30 fighter-jets, though sanctions affecting the availability of electronic and other parts are making it difficult for Russia to meet its own needs. Russia’s stocks of arms, armored vehicles, warplanes, missiles and ammunition are greatly depleted at the moment. The training and maintenance personnel that normally accompany large transfers of arms will also likely be unavailable for some time. Russian efforts to make up its battlefield losses are already hindered by manpower shortages in the defense industry. There is every chance Russia will not be able to meet its commitments under the existing deal with Algeria, much less expand it going forward.

Export revenues for Russian arms are already well off this year. It will take years for Russia to rebuild its military regardless of the success or failure of its war on Ukraine. In the meantime, Algeria might turn to China or Turkey to make up the arms deficit without having to deal with the human rights complications that might be involved in dealing with Western nations (Middle East Eye, September 1, 2022). Otherwise, there will be intense competition with other African and Middle Eastern nations reliant on the Russian arms industry for weapons, parts and ammunition. If Russia is unable to supply its clients, there may be lasting damage to the Russian arms industry. Based on tactics being used in the Ukraine war, there may be a new global emphasis on purchasing drone technology rather than conventional weapons systems, and it will be Turkey’s Bayraktar drones that will be in the highest demand based on their performance in Ukraine.

In the meantime, the war has threatened Algeria’s heavily subsidized food supply and forced a local ban on exports of many categories of food earlier this year, depriving Algeria of revenues. It is yet another collateral consequence of Russia’s war on Ukraine.


Algeria will undoubtedly continue to act cautiously when formulating its foreign relations – alignment with Russia and/or China could easily turn into an unwanted political and strategic liability. In this respect, Algiers appears determined to keep its options open; despite lingering bitterness in Algeria over the conduct of French forces during Algeria’s War of Independence (1954-1962), high-ranking French authorities have made visits to Algiers in recent weeks, including Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne and President Macron.

Putin meets Tebboune in January 2020 as Egypt’s al-Sisi looks on (Fabian Sommer)

Algerian president Abdelmajid Tebboune is scheduled to visit Moscow this month to sign an agreement concerning a Russian-Algerian strategic partnership (Al-Monitor, November 15, 2022; al-Mayadeen [Beirut], November 30, 2022). The threat of Western sanctions in the event of an Algerian alliance with Russia appears to have caught the attention of Algeria’s government. Even if implementation of such sanctions is unlikely with the prospect of parts of Europe facing a long, cold winter without Algerian gas deliveries, the threat alone may at least make Algiers think twice about intensifying cooperation with Moscow.

Yahya Abu al-Hammam: France Eliminates Leading Saharan Jihadist

Andrew McGregor

March 5, 2019

French commandos tore through the desert north of Timbuktu on February 21, in hot pursuit of a leading jihadist who had been detected as part of a three-car convoy by a Reaper surveillance drone. As the commandos caught up, the militants opened fire. Five French helicopters moved in and quickly destroyed the convoy, killing 11, including the main target, Algerian Yahya Abu al-Hammam (a.k.a. Djamel Okacha), a top al-Qaeda financier and strategist (Jeune Afrique/AFP, February 22;, February 22).

Yahya Abu al-Hammam

Al-Hammam was the second-in-command of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin (JNIM), al-Qaeda’s Sahel/Sahara affiliate. There are reports that al-Hammam may have been ill and decided to seek medical treatment elsewhere (Malijet, February 23). According to a Malian security source, Abu al-Hammam had been tracked for three months through his telephone (AFP, February 22). Al-Hammam was the third JNIM leader to be killed within a year as French forces work to decapitate the JNIM leadership in the hopes of destroying the Salafi-Jihadist movement in the Sahara/Sahel region.

The announcement of al-Hammam’s death came only hours before French Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe arrived in Mali, where French troops have been fighting militants and terrorists since 2013. An upbeat Phillipe told a gathering of French, Malian, British, and Estonian troops that they had “managed to destroy [the jihadists’] means of combat, to intercept their logistical flows, to dry up their resources… every day our enemies suffer significant losses…” (Ouest-France, February 24).

Born on May 9, 1978, in the Reghaïa commune of Algiers province, al-Hammam began his career in 1998 as a militant with the Algerian Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA – Armed Islamic Group) and later, after 18 months of imprisonment, the Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat (GSPC – Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat).

Al-Hammam arrived in northern Mali in 2004 with the controversial GSPC commander ‘Abd al-Razzak al-Para (Malijet, February 23). From bases there, al-Hammam left an explosive trail through Mauritania, where, under the direction of Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abu Hamid ‘Abd al-Zaïd, he and his fellow militants exploited Mauritanian military weakness in a series of deadly attacks that killed dozens of Mauritanian troops between 2005 and 2008 (Malijet, February 23). In 2009 he was a suspect in organizing both the murder of American missionary Christopher Leggett and a suicide attack on the French embassy in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital.

In 2009, as commander of the Katiba al-Furqan, al-Hammam ordered the assassination of Mali’s intelligence chief in northern Mali, the Timbuktu-based Colonel Lamana Ould Bou, a Bérabiche Arab. Though the killing was a setback for security forces, it reportedly provoked a disagreement between al-Hammam and his former sponsor, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who had spent years cultivating relationships with the Bérabiche of northern Mali (Malijet, August 13, 2014).

From 2009, al-Hammam became heavily involved with kidnappings, particularly those of Western tourists or workers.

Al-Hammam led AQIM gunmen into Timbuktu in April 2012 as part of the Islamist uprising and occupation of northern Mali. As governor, he oversaw a rigidly strict Shari’a regime that destroyed much of the city’s Islamic heritage and applied corporal and capital punishments to its people for offenses against their interpretation of Islam.  He was rewarded in October 2012 when AQIM leader ‘Abd al-Malik Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wadud) appointed al-Hammam the new amir of AQIM’s Saharan affiliate in October 2012. (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, October 4, 2012; Le Monde, February 22). Unlike many of his fellow militants, al-Hammam survived the 2013 French-led Operation Serval that dispersed the Islamists and assumed ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Zaïd’s command when the latter was killed by a Franco-Chadian patrol in February 2013.

The founding of JNIM: Yahya Abu al-Hammam (left), Iyad ag Ghali (center), Abu Hassan al-Ansari (right, killed by French forces in February 2018).

Remaining aloof from the rival Islamic State group, al-Hammam appeared in the March 2017 video that announced the establishment of the al-Qaeda-affiliated JNIM alliance of four Sahara/Sahel jihadist groups under veteran Tuareg militant Iyad ag Ghali (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], January 10, 2016, MaliActu, March 2, 2017).

Al-Hammam last appeared in a November 8, 2018 video, in which he sat alongside ag Ghali as Amadou Kufa, the Fulani leader of the Force de libération du Macina (FLM – Macina Liberation Front), and called on his fellow Fulani to “make jihad” wherever they are (Le Monde/AFP, November 9, 2018). Two weeks later Koufa died in the Wagadou Forest after being mortally wounded by a French attack. With al-Hammam now gone as well, the priority of French forces will be the elimination of JNIM leader Iyad ag-Ghali. Al-Hammam could be succeeded by Abd al-Rahman Talha al-Libi, the current commander of the Katiba al-Furqan, though there are rumors that Talha may have been one of those killed in the attack on al-Hammam’s convoy (Malijet, February 23).

This article was first published in the March 5, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.


Defense or Domination? Building Algerian Power with Russian Arms

Andrew McGregor

Eurasia Daily Monitor 13(122), September 5, 2018

Algeria is undertaking a major arms acquisition program designed to enhance its regional standing and make it difficult for terrorists or insurgent forces to operate on Algerian territory. To this end, it has become a major purchaser of Russian arms that are often battle-proven in Syria.

When it was initially formed in 1962 from anti-colonial guerrilla units, Algeria’s Armée nationale populaire (ANP) possessed only captured or abandoned French arms as well as some Chinese and Egyptian equipment. Within a year, the Soviet Union began offering arms on credit at very favorable terms. By the time of the Soviet collapse, some 90 per cent of the ANP arsenal was Soviet in origin. [1]  With the military gear came thousands of Soviet advisors, but, still wary of encroachments on its hard-won independence, the Algerians declined to allow the establishment of a Soviet naval base at the port of Mers al-Kabir, a strategically vital former French naval base close to the Strait of Gibraltar.

To re-establish Russia’s role as Algeria’s main arms supplier, President Vladimir Putin cancelled a Soviet-era Algerian military debt of $4.7 billion dollars in 2006 in return for an Algerian commitment to buy $7.5 billion worth of Russian arms (BBC, March 11, 2006). Aided by an upsurge in energy prices that helped fund the purchases, Algeria became Russia’s third largest customer for military goods (Sputnik, February 19).

A quick look at some of Algeria’s most recent Russian arms purchases illustrates how Algeria is building a modern and capable army:

  • Two hundred modernized Russian T-90SA “Tagil” main battle tanks (MBTs) were delivered to Algeria in 2016 (Defence-Blog, July 15, 2016; Interfax, July 18, 2016). This year, Algeria is taking delivery of roughly 300 BMPT Terminator II armored fighting vehicles intended for protection of MBTs, particularly in urban warfare situations. Carrying both anti-armor and anti-personnel weapons, the BMPT can engage multiple targets at once (DefenceWeb, September 11, 2017).

The TOS-1 Buratino Heavy Flamethrower System (RIA.Ru)

  • In May, Algeria became the fifth known purchaser of Russia’s TOS-1A Buratino “Blazing Sun” multi-barrel mobile rocket launcher, consisting of 24 rockets armed with thermobaric warheads fired from a modified T-72 tank chassis (Jane’, May 14). Battle-tested in Afghanistan, Russian thermobaric weapons were successfully used against Chechen positions in the 1999 battle for Grozny and have since been used in combat by Iraq, Azerbaijan and Syria. The TOS-1A’s fuel-air explosives are especially effective against fortified positions (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, August 26, 2017).

The Iskander-E Short-Range Mobile Ballistic Missile Launcher (Army Recognition)

  • Earlier this year, Russia began delivery of four regiments of the Iskander-E (SS-26 Stone) short-range mobile ballistic missile system. Each regiment consists of 12 launchers and about 30 support vehicles. The Iskander system was used against Georgian forces in 2008 (Kommersant, March 5; net, March 5).

The Pantsir-SM Mobile Anti-Aircraft System (Army Recognition)

  • In a sign of the enhanced defense cooperation between Russia and Algeria, the latter field-tested the new Russian Pantsir-SM mobile anti-aircraft system in June. The system is a greatly improved version of the Pantsir-S1 system, using phased-array radars for target acquisition and tracking. Algeria is expected to be a major purchaser (ru, April 7).

The Rezonans-NE Radar System

Precision targeting of Algerian weapons will be much improved by June’s ten-year agreement to allow Algeria military use of the GLONASS satellite navigation system. [2] India is the only other nation to be granted use of the system, and Algeria agreed not to pass the technology on to third nations or try to reverse-engineer the system (Le Monde, June 30). Algeria also acquired the Russian-made Rezonans-NE “over-the-horizon” radar system capable of long-range aerial surveillance and response coordination at a distance of up to 1,100 km (, April 3).

Military helicopters, first widely used by French forces during the Russian-supported Algerian independence struggle (1954-62), continue to be the most useful tool in combating militants in the forests, mountains and deserts of Algeria. With this in mind, Algeria has obtained 14 Russian-made Mil Mi-26T2 heavy-lift transport helicopters since 2016. Capable of carrying tanks and artillery as well as personnel, this new type incorporates electronics that enable the craft to operate 24 hours a day in a variety of inclement conditions (El-Khabar [Algiers], February 21, 2016, via BBC monitoring). [3]

This summer, Algeria is receiving the last of its 42 Russian Mi-28NE “Night Hunter” attack helicopters, an all-weather, two-seat attack helicopter designed to target armor, but also useful for reconnaissance and operations against ground forces. [4]

The ANP is also taking delivery of 39 upgraded Mi-171Sh “SuperHip” military transport helicopters, refurbished in Russia with the addition of an optronic ball, the Shturm-V precision guided-missile system and Ataka supersonic missiles. In addition to its transport role, it can also provide fire support to infantry forces and med-evac for wounded personnel (, May 17, 2018;, 2018).

In September, Algeria will take delivery of its first Russian-made Project 22160 patrol vessel. Three more of the 1300 ton ships will be built in Algeria. Armed with “Klub-K” anti-ship missiles, Igla SAMs and cruise missiles, the ships were purchased based on their successful use against Syrian rebels (DefenceWeb, May 29). Other naval acquisitions include:

  • Four Russian-made Project 636 Varshavyanka Kilo-class submarines, with one already delivered and another undergoing sea trials. These new submarines are an improvement on the two Project 636M Kilo-class submarines already in Algerian service and are largely intended for coastal defence, particularly of Algeria’s rich offshore oil and gas deposits.

Project 22160 Patrol Ship (World Naval News)

  • In May, Algeria purchased one new Russian-made Project 22160 patrol ship and placed an order for three more to be built in Algeria under a technology-transfer agreement (ShephardMedia, May 22; Sputnik, June 15). The ships will incorporate stealth technology and be fitted with modern communications and jamming equipment (Algérie Monde Infos, April 24).

Moscow hopes that arms sales and military cooperation agreements will bolster their position in Algeria, but its goal of establishing a naval base at the port of Mers al-Kabir still appears distant. Algeria continues to try to establish some balance in its international arms purchases, but has let it be known that it is increasingly interested in technology-transfer agreements to permit the development of its own arms industry.

Algeria maintains its constitutional prohibition on military deployment outside Algeria and a strict policy of regional non-interference. While some of the Russian equipment is useful for counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism work, the rest seems better suited for defensive use against Moroccan, Libyan or European opponents. With Russian assistance, the ANP is now the second-most powerful military in Africa.


  1. US Library of Congress Country Studies – “Algeria – Foreign Military Assistance,” 1994,
  2. Globalnaya navigatsionnaya sputnikovaya sistema – GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System).
  3. See also: “Algeria reveals new MI 26T2 Transport and Multi role Helicopter,” Algeria Today, YouTube, June 27, 2016,
  4. Algeria’s efforts to secure the Mi-28NE for use against AQIM were described in: “Algeria Seeks New Russian Attack Helicopters for its Campaign against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” Terrorism Monitor, June 17, 2011,


Algeria Fighting a Two-Front War with Islamist Militants

Andrew McGregor

May 15, 2014

The continuing break-up of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb into northern and southern factions under rival commanders Abd al-Malik Droukdel and Mokhtar Belmokhtar has presented Algerian authorities with the necessity of fighting a two-front war against factions interested in establishing their dominance by striking security targets within the country.

Algerian Security Forces on Patrol in Southern Algeria

Algerian security operations along the border with the Kidal region of northern Mali led to the death of a dozen Islamist militants in the southern Tamanrasset region (Algeria’s 6th military district). The May 5 military operation by the Algerian Armée nationale populaire (ANP) took place in the Taoundert Commune, some 80 kilometers west of the border town of Tin-Zouatine, a regional smuggling center. Recently re-elected Algerian president Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika later claimed that the group of 20 to 30 militants were attempting to infiltrate Algeria and included elements from Mali, Libya and Tunisia, though its exact destination and purpose remain unknown (Reuters, May 7).

The operation provided some measure of revenge for the ANP after at least 11 Algerian soldiers were killed in an ambush carried out by AQIM on a military convoy in the mountainous Tizi Ouzou region east of Algiers (Algeria’s 1st military district) on April 19 (BBC, April 20). The troops were returning to base after having secured polling stations in Tizi Ouzou for the presidential election.

According to Algerian security sources, much of the seized weaponry was traced to Libyan military stocks looted by NATO-backed Libyan rebels in 2011. Arms and other materiel recovered after the clash included Kalashnikov assault rifles, anti-tank mines, mobile phones, three all-terrain vehicles, two motorcycles, satellite phones, GPS equipment, solar plates, grenades, a grenade launcher and a shotgun (Echorouk [Algiers], May 5). [1]

At roughly the same time, security forces in the Djanet district (Algeria’s 4th military district) close to the border with southwestern Libya uncovered another cache of what appeared to be weapons looted from Libyan armories, including 87 Russian S-5KO rockets, a relatively inaccurate Russian-made rocket designed for use by aircraft and helicopters but re-adapted for use from a truck-bed or a man-pad system in Libya (Algeria Press Service, May 6). Found buried in the sand with the rockets was an improvised rocket launcher (al-Watan [Algiers], May 7). A further gun battle near Tin Zaouatine resulted in the death of two militants, bringing the death toll up to 12 (, May 12).

The April 30 pledge of allegiance by Mokhtar Belmokhtar (a.k.a. Khalid Abu al-Abbas) to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (in which he called al-Zawahiri “our Amir”) and his recognition of the legacy of Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam appears to be yet another demonstration of his rejection of the leadership of AQIM leader Abd al-Malik Droukdel (AFP, May 1). At the moment, Droukdel’s AQIM and Belmokhtar’s Libyan-based al-Murabitun movement seem to be engaged in a bitter rivalry at the moment, though so far their contest is being carried out through attacks on Algerian targets rather than group-on-group clashes like those witnessed between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda sponsored al-Nusra Front in Syria. With Droukdel’s faction operating in northern Algeria and Belmokhtar’s faction operating in the remote south, such inter-Islamist clashes appear unlikely in Algeria.

Though the United States has opened the possibility of supplying Algeria with surveillance drones to help monitor the vast desert wilderness of southern Algeria, it has refused to supply Algeria (or other nations, for that matter) with attack drones of the type deployed by the CIA and the U.S. Department of Defense (al-Jazeera, May 9). Meanwhile, Algeria has denied a U.S. proposal delivered by Secretary of State John Kerry to set up a base for drone operations in southern Algeria (al-Jazeera, May 11).


1. Ministère de la Defense Nationale d’Algérie: “Neutralisation de terroristes à Tamanrasset / Bilan de l’opération,” May 6, 2014,

This article was first published in the May 15, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

The Jihad Alternative in West Africa: Hamada Ould Kheirou and the Founding of MUJWA

Andrew McGregor

April 1, 2014

Much of West Africa has strong traditions of jihad in its Black communities dating back to the early 19th century Islamic kingdoms that dominated the region. Their roots in Islam go back centuries earlier. When Arab and Tuareg jihadists established control of northern Mali in 2012, it became apparent that the Arab-centric jihadist movement was failing to attract Black recruits in the numbers necessary to spread Islamist extremism in the rest of Mali and beyond. This situation was addressed by a 44-year-old Mauritanian, Hamada Ould Muhammad Kheirou (a.k.a. Abu Qum Qum). As leader of the Harakat al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad fi Gharb Afriqiya (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa – MUJWA), Ould Kheirou sought to expand the recruitment pool of the regional jihadist movement beyond its Arab core. Initially successful, Ould Kheirou briefly became one of the most powerful individuals in northern Mali.

Hamada Ould Muhammad al-Kheirou (al-Akhbar)

Ould Kheirou, born in Mauritania in 1970, attended a Koranic school as a child, developing a reputation as a poet in classical Arabic (outside of religious studies, Mauritanians typically speak the Hassaniya dialect of Arabic common to northwest Africa). The Koranic student grew up at a time when Salafist interpretations of Islam were penetrating Mauritania with support and funding from Saudi Arabia.

Eventually, Ould Kheirou became a preacher, known for his provocative sermons in Nouakchott denouncing the “innovations” of traditional Islamic practices in Mauritania. There is little doubt the fiery preacher came to the attention of Mauritanian security services as former president Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya initiated a crackdown on Salafists and other opponents of his regime in 2003. Perhaps not coincidentally, Ould Kheirou is reported to have left to join the jihad in Iraq the same year (Magharebia, December 10, 2012).

“True Islam” and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Back in Mauritania, Ould Kheirou was arrested in Nouakchott with two other men in 2005 for committing acts of violence against worshippers in a mosque he claimed did not engage in “true Islam” (Jeune Afrique, October 3, 2012; Sahara Media, January 12, 2012). Mauritanian Islam is dominated by two Sufi orders, the Tijaniya and Qadiriya, though Ould Kheirou has been known to even criticize other Salafists if they are unwilling to take up arms. Ould Kheirou escaped detention with two other Islamists dressed as women a few months later in April, 2006. Unconfirmed rumors suggested that Ould Kheirou fled to neighboring Senegal, but in June 2007, an in absentia judgment found Ould Kheirou not guilty on all charges.

Shortly after this, Ould Kheirou appears to have joined Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mulathamin Battalion, one of the armed wings of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operating in the Sahara. During this period, Ould Kheirou began developing skills as an AQIM bomb-maker, assisted by fellow Mauritanian Tiyib Ould Sidi Ali.

In 2009, Ould Kheirou and Ould Sidi Ali were arrested in Bamako for bomb-making activities after their workshop blew up and were additionally charged with sending supplies to the forces of AQIM amir Mokhtar Belmokhtar in northern Mali. His stay in prison was again short; his release the following year appears to have been part of the terms for AQIM’s release of French hostage Pierre Camatte in February 2010 (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], August 27, 2010; Jeune Afrique, October 3, 2012). By August of the same year, Ould Kheirou was making his first AQIM video, explaining al-Qaeda’s objectives in the Hassaniya dialect of Arabic in a video entitled On the Occasion of Ramadan Fighting is Ordained for You.” Despite a severe approach to religion, Ould Kheirou has a reputation amongst his fellow fighters for his sense of humor and his poetry recitals, which he punctuates with gunfire (Sahara Media, January 9, 2012). His poetry, designed to appeal to the warrior caste of the Mauritanian tribes, has featured prominently in AQIM videos.

Diversifying Jihad

Despite existing differences with the AQIM leadership over the domination of the movement by Algerian commanders and problems regarding the distribution of ransoms, Ould Kheirou’s creation of MUJWA in mid-2011 appears to have been less of a split within the movement than an effort at expansion through the creation of an organization with greater appeal to Black West Africans by appealing to their own traditions of jihad.

MUJWA’s first video, released on December 12, 2011, displayed three European aid workers abducted from the Polisario camp in Tindouf in October 2011. A second video released in December 2011 presented the ideological basis of the group, praising the 19th century jihads of West African Islamic rulers such as Amadou Cheikou, Umar Tall and Uthman Dan Fodio in what appeared to be a break from al-Qaeda’s usual Arab-centric narrative designed to entice Black Africans to join the West African jihad (AFP, December 22, 2011). Despite the new approach to recruitment, MUJWA’s leadership remained almost exclusively dominated by Malian Arabs and Mauritanians. Suggestions that the creation of the new movement marked a split within AQIM were gradually dispelled by the apparent cooperation between the two movements after the “split” and MUJWA’s continued focus on the Algerian targets favored by AQIM.

Despite the explicit attempts to appeal to Black Muslims, MUJWA described itself as an alliance incorporating Arabs, Tuareg, Black Africans and various muhajirin (foreign fighters). The movement accused the Tuareg of the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) of racism, claiming that Blacks had no rights in the secular Tuareg independence movement. [1] However, MUJWA’s sole Black African commander, Hisham Bilal, quit the movement and returned to his native Niger with his men in November 2012, complaining that the Arab commanders of MUJWA viewed Black jihadists as “cannon fodder” and believed “a black man is inferior to an Arab or a white” (AFP, November 9, 2012). For the duration of its existence, most of the leadership of MUJWA remained firmly in the hands of Lamhar Arabs from Tilemsi (Gao region of northern Mali) and various Mauritanian jihadists such as Ould Kheirou and his companions.

According to regional analyst Wolfram Lacher, MUJWA’s core leadership was drawn mostly from Lamhar Arabs who were heavily involved in narcotics trafficking and kidnapping activities with support and financing from Lamhar and Songhai businessmen. [2] These origins have sparked suspicions that the movement was more about putting a political and religious face on a criminal enterprise than bringing Islamic rule to the Sahara/Sahel region (RFI, August 9, 2012).

In early January 2012, only days after Mauritania issued an international arrest warrant for his arrest, Ould Kheirou appeared in a new video to “declare war on France, which is hostile to the interests of Islam… The jihad will be exported everywhere it is necessary and for God, we must be ready for anything” (AFP, January 3, 2012). Only a year later, Ould Kheirou’s movement would find itself face-to-face with French troops.

The Northern Mali Caliphate

When the MNLA and the Tuareg Islamist Ansar al-Din movement seized control of northern Mali from January to April 2012, an opportunity was presented to regional jihadists to establish an Islamist administration based on their own interpretation of Shari’a. Working in cooperation with Ansar al-Din to drive out the secular MNLA, AQIM soon found itself in control of Timbuktu Province, while Gao Province came under the control of MUJWA.

Relying on their old relationship, Ould Kheirou and Mokhtar Belmokhtar worked closely together during the Islamist occupation of northern Mali, including joint operations against the Tuareg MNLA. MUJWA’s governance in Gao alternated between strict application of Shari’a and attendant hudud punishments and greater leniency when faced with protests from local residents. Ultimately, MUJWA sought to impose its will on Gao by recruiting local Songhai (the majority in Gao) to form the core of the Islamic police. Some attempt was made at providing a working administration but the movement’s focus on enforcing Shari’a overshadowed these attempts.

Ahmad al-Tilemsi

In July 2012, al-Kheirou was added to the US Specially Designated Nationals sanctions list by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, along with his jihadi colleague, Ahmad al-Tilemsi (a.k.a. ‘Abd al-Rahman Ould Amer), a Lamhar Arab from northern Mali and commander of MUJWA’s Osama bin Laden katiba (battalion). [3] Al-Tilemsi’s allegiance to jihad came late and may have been primarily motivated by a desire to maintain his business and drug-trafficking interests after the sudden Islamist occupation of the north.

Also in July, Ould Kheirou was falsely reported to have crossed the border to surrender to Algerian authorities in Tamanrasset (Echourouk al-Youmi [Algiers], July 8, 2012). Ould Kheirou was again reported captured, this time by the MNLA in February 2013, but the report was never confirmed (Tass, February 4, 2013).

Though MUJWA was supposedly a new movement with an independent agenda, its focus on Algerian targets in this period was virtually indistinguishable from AQIM’s agenda and confirmed that the movement was more interested in using northern Mali as a launching point for jihadist attacks than running a competent Islamic administration:

  • March 3, 2012: MUJWA claims responsibility for a suicide car-bombing on the Algerian Gendarmerie Nationale headquarters in Tamanrasset that killed the bomber and wounded 24 people, including ten to 15 gendarmes (al-Arabiya, March 3; Echorouk [Algiers], March 3). The bomber used a Toyota 4×4 packed with explosives.
  • April 2012: MUJWA kidnaps seven Algerian diplomats in Gao, demanding 15 million Euros and the release of dozens of jihadists from Algerian and Mauritanian prisons (al-Watan [Algiers], May 3, 2012). One of the diplomats was executed on September 2, 2012.
  • June 29, 2012: A car bomber drove a Toyota 4×4 loaded with 1300 kilograms of explosives into a police station in Algeria’s Ouargla Oasis, killing one policeman and injuring three. MUJWA claimed the attack, saying it was in retaliation for Algeria “pushing” the MNLA to fight the Islamist mujahideen in northern Mali (Tout sur l’Algérie [Algiers], June 30, 2012; Reuters, June 29).

Friction began to build between the various Islamist movements in northern Mali as preparations continued for a French military intervention in the region and Ansar al-Din sought to move closer to its Tuareg brethren in the MNLA to present a united front in negotiations underway in Ouagadougou. Shortly after a major battle between the MNLA and MUJWA on November 16, 2012, a leading member of Ansar al-Din’s military command referred to MUJWA as the “common enemy” of both the MNLA and Ansar al-Din (Le Temps d’Algérie, November 27, 2012).

MNLA Fighters with the Azawad Flag (Maliweb)

By early January, 2013, Ansar al-Din was engaged in a broad effort to unite the various Islamist movements active in northern Mali under its own “native” leadership. MUJWA lost its Salah al-Din katiba when its commander, Sultan Ould Badi (a.k.a. Abu ‘Ali, a.k.a Abzou Aïcha), took his fighters over to Ansar al-Din (Sahara Media, January 2, 2013). Ould Badi, another Lamhar Arab, was a former smuggler and member of AQIM before becoming a founding member of MUJWA (Echourouk al-Youmi [Algiers], September 2, 2012). His departure appeared to be part of an exodus of members after the group received a UN terrorist designation.

Merger with Mokhtar Belmokhtar

The French-led military intervention in northern Mali that arrived in January 2013 ran into little opposition from MUJWA as the movement and their fellow Islamists returned home, melted into the local population or fled to hidden bases in the rugged Adrar des Ifoghas region of northeastern Mali. On February 21, 2013, the UN Security Council added Ahmad al-Tilemsi and Ould Kheirou to its al-Qaeda sanctions list. Both were listed as MUJWA leaders. [4]

However, Ould Kheirou’s partnership with Mokhtar Belmokhtar had not come to an end. The two were identified as co-planners of the May 23, 2013 dual suicide bombings in Niger against a military post in Agadez and the French uranium mining facility in Arlit (RFI, May 30, 2013). The partnership was formalized in August 2013, when a statement announced the merger of MUJWA with Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mulathamin Brigade “to achieve the unity of Muslims from the Nile to the Atlantic as part of a single project to face the Zionist campaign against Islam and Muslims.” The statement announcing the creation of a new post-merger movement called al-Murabitun went on to threaten French interests across the world while confirming the precedence of Osama bin Laden’s methods and ideals. The movement also swore allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar and al-Qaeda chieftain Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, August 22, 2013). The place of Ould Kheirou in this new structure is unclear – Belmokhtar himself has pledged not to lead the group in order to make room for “a new generation” of Islamist militants, possibly including Ould Kheirou.


AIS Update 2022 – What Happened to the MUJWA Leadership?

Ahmad al-Tilemsi – The jihadist commander was killed by French forces on December 11, 2014.

Sultan Ould Badi – After 2017, Ould Badi joined the Islamic State movement. He surrendered to Algerian authorities on August 11, 2018 to take advantage of an ongoing amnesty for former jihadists.

Hamada Ould al-Kheirou – The MUJWA leader appeared to have joined the Islamic State in 2014, but disappeared from public view shortly after. One report suggests he was killed in an airstrike in Libya in July, 2017.


  1. Statement from the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, Gao, November 23, 2012
  2. Wolfram Lacher, “Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 13, 2012,
  4. UN Security Council, “Security Council Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee Adds Two Individuals to its List,” February 21, 2013,

Berber-Arab Clashes in Algeria’s Mzab Valley

Andrew McGregor

February 6, 2014

The ongoing Berber cultural revival in North Africa has gone hand-in-hand with a new political assertiveness. In nations such as Libya, Algeria and Mali, this has resulted at times in armed clashes and protests demanding linguistic rights and political recognition of Berber (Amazigh) communities. The latest of these confrontations is ongoing in the south Algerian oasis of Ghardaïa, where Chaamba Arabs have clashed repeatedly with the indigenous Mozabite Berbers, forcing Algiers to send security forces to restore law and order in the region.

Communal violence broke out in May, 2013 following an alleged attempt by Chaamba Arabs to use forged property records to take over a Mozabite cemetery (Algérie Presse Service, May 8, 2013). The dispute degenerated into sword-wielding youth gangs throwing petrol bombs at each other in the streets of Ghardaïa, the largest city in the M’Zab Valley. Shops were also burned in Berriane as the violence spread to the other cities of the M’Zab (El-Watan [Algiers], January 26).

For years, Berbers have accused the Algerian Gendarmerie Nationale of pro-Arab bias and of even encouraging Arab rioters, charges that seemed to have been confirmed when three officers were suspended after a video emerged showing their participation in violence that resulted in the death of a young Berber (AP, January 29). According to a local Mozabite activist, “We are Algerian citizens first. We want justice and the truth to be told about what happened in Ghardaïa and that crimes be punished. Those officers whose bias has been proven need to be punished. We say no to violence, no to impunity, yes to tolerance” (El-Watan [Algiers], January 26).

Violent clashes between the Arab and Berber communities in Berriane began in March 2008 and continued at lesser levels throughout that year until mass violence broke out again in April 2009 (El-Khabar [Algiers], May 20, 2008; Tout sur l’Algerie, April 17, 2009). Heated protests against endemic unemployment in the midst of an oil-producing region were common in the first half of 2013, reflecting growing tensions in the area. Much of the violence has been carried out by youth gangs from the Berber and Arab communities.


The fighting pits the Chaamba Arabs, who follow the Maliki madhab (one of the four orthodox schools of Islamic jurisprudence) and the Mozabite Berbers, who follow the non-orthodox Ibadite form of Islam. Ibadite Islam is a more moderate offshoot of the early Islamic Kharijite movement, whose advocacy of jihad against rulers they deemed insufficiently Islamic led to nearly two centuries of conflict in the Islamic world. The Ibadite movement retained a socially conservative attitude with an emphasis on the Quran and a more tolerant attitude towards other forms of Islam. Most remaining Ibadites are found in Oman, but smaller communities can be found in isolated oases and islands in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Zanzibar. Mozabite conservatism is now under stress from both young Mozabites who have been educated elsewhere and from new non-Mozabite arrivals in the M’zab Valley. Despite the insularity of the Mozabite community, the Mozabites have nonetheless built a commercial network linking the M’zab with the cities of the Mediterranean coast.

The Berbers of the M’Zab can trace their lineage back to the regional Berber capital of Tiaret in northern Algeria. When Tiaret was taken by the Fatimid Shiites in 933, Ibadi Berbers began to move south, first to Ourgla Oasis, and finally on to M’Zab in the early 11th century.  They were followed by other Ibadi Berbers escaping pressure from new waves of Arab tribesmen arriving from the Arabian Peninsula (particularly the Banu Hillal). Ghardaïa, the largest city in the M’zab with over 90,000 residents, was first settled in 1097. The valley is now home to over 400,000 people. The traditionally nomadic Chaamba began settling in the M’Zab oases one hundred years ago, a process that has been accelerated in recent decades by the growth of the petroleum industry, loss of pastures and government discouragement of nomadic lifestyles. The two communities have never integrated in M’Zab. Whenever communal violence breaks out, both communities typically blame the other. However, despite the sectarian and ethnic differences between the Berbers and Arabs, many residents claim the fighting is actually being fuelled by rivalries between drug smuggling networks working in the area (AFP, January 30).

The M’zab consists of seven cities about 600 kilometers south of Algiers,, including a cluster of five in the south (the “pentapolis”); Ghardaïa, al-Atteuf, Melika, Bani Isguen and Bounoura, with two other more isolated communities, Berriane and Guerrara, lying further north. The strategic location of the M’zab Valley at the upper edge of the Sahara desert made it an important crossroads for various trans-Saharan trade routes. After the arrival of the French in Algeria in the mid-19th century the Mozabites paid a tribute in exchange for autonomy but the entire region was eventually annexed by France in 1882.

Aside from the death of three Mozabites in the latest sectarian violence, the most shocking development was the Chaamba destruction of the tomb of Amir Moussa, a UNESCO designated world heritage site (Agence Kabyle d’Information, January 14). The Amir was a Mozabite leader of the 16th century who is ironically remembered for leading efforts to integrate the Arab nomads into the M’zab community in 1586 (AFP, January 30). The ancient Mozabite cemetery in Ghardaïa was also destroyed by marauding Arab youths.

On January 27, Mozabite activist Dr. Kameleddine Fekhar issued a statement purportedly speaking on behalf of the Mozabite community that demanded the departure of the Abd al-Malik Sellal government and urged a boycott of April’s upcoming presidential election. The statement complains of the “racist aggression” of police-supported militias armed with swords and knives that pillage and burn at will. Arrests followed by torture are determined solely on a racial basis, according to the statement (Siwel – Agence Kabyle d’Information, January 29). Prime Minister Sellal visited M’Zab in January when tensions seemed to be easing, but fighting erupted with new intensity only days after his departure.

This article first appeared in the February 6, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

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).