Mauritania and the GSPC spectre

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 9

Recent developments in Mauritania, including an alleged crackdown on Islamist GSPC linked rebels, are neither encouraging for the United States in the war on terror nor, as is claimed, an indicator of future political stability in that country. On April 28 the government at Nouakchott claimed to have arrested the leaders of a terrorist cell linked to al-Qaeda. According to a government statement, those arrested are allegedly from the Group Salafiste pour la Prédiction et le Combat (GSPC) that has operated in Algeria for over a decade.

The events are of significance to a country that is becoming of importance to the United States, both for its recently discovered oil reserves and for its role in the war on terror, particularly since the launch in 2004 of the Pan-Sahel initiative to strengthen the anti-terrorist capacity of regional security forces. The recent announcement taps into fears that al-Qaeda is setting up cells in African states whose weak political and economic infrastructures leave them vulnerable, and chimes in with U.S. Defense officials’ concerns about the GSPC’s recruiting in the region. The arrest of up to 18 suspects follows news from a few weeks ago of 20 Mauritanians departing to train in guerrilla camps in the remote southern Algerian desert. Seven have since been arrested on their return to Mauritania. Current investigations, reported by the Mauritanian online publication Akhbar Nouakchot, are unearthing what appear to be the beginnings of a jihadist network — training and dispatching mujahidin abroad and financing the ideological instruction of jihadist imams to develop the movement’s propaganda and recruitment activities [].

But Mauritania’s political opposition dubbed the ‘terrorist arrests’ a ploy to crack down on Islamist political opposition, as it has done in the past. A reputed wanted list of 70 suspects also includes the political figures Shaikh Muhammad al-Hasan Ould Eldedou, and Professor Al-Mukhtar Ould Muhammad Musa, implicated in a failed coup in June 2004 and released earlier this year (Terrorism Focus Volume 1 Issue 9). Islamists rejected the connection with the GSPC as fanciful, arguing, according to Akhbar Nouakchott, that just about the only thing linking them with salafist jihadist organizations is the sporting of beards []. The announcement instead is put down to an attempt to strengthen ties with the United States and prepare the ground for the visit by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Nouakchott in the first week of May.

The purge appears closely connected to the increasing isolation of Mauritania’s government from its public opinion. President Maaouiya Ould Taya’s foreign policy stands out in marked relief from all other Arab states for its establishment in 1999 of full diplomatic relations with Israel. This and Mauritania’s stridently pro-US policy have alienated its public on Arab patriotism grounds. Its overt secularism antagonizes the Islamist tendency. A protest on May 2 at Sharon’s visit held by hundreds of Islamists ended peacefully enough, but President Ould Taya’s high-risk political intimidation policy may end up giving more flesh to the spectre of violence.