Al-Qaeda Infiltration of the Western Sahara’s Polisario Movement

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 19

Jihadi forum participants were excited about a posting entitled: "Al-Qaeda penetrates the Polisario army and the Mauritanian army is in danger" (, April 20). Endeavors to penetrate the Polisario Front of the Western Sahara have long been on al-Qaeda’s agenda.

The posting gives a short brief about Polisario’s desert army, now supposedly infiltrated by al-Qaeda. Polisario is a nationalist political/military organization, founded in 1973 to end Spanish control of Western Sahara. In the last years of Spanish occupation the territory was divided into two parts: Saguia al-Hamra (the Red Canal) and Rio d’Oro (The Gold Coast). [1] The Sahrawis of the Polisario Front proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) when Spain withdrew from Western Sahara in 1976, but independence was preempted when Morocco and Mauritania decided to split the ex-colony between them, with Saguia al-Hamra going to Morocco and Rio d’Oro going to Mauritania. The small and disinterested Mauritanian army was expelled by Polisario fighters in 1979, but Morocco then decided to annex Rio d’Oro, leaving only a small portion of economically useless and largely uninhabited desert in the hands of the Polisario. Based in refugee camps in the Tindouf province of western Algeria, Polisario conducted raids on Moroccan bases until new Moroccan defensive measures (including the construction of an enormous sand berm) forced a ceasefire in 1991. Algeria continues to sponsor Polisario, but is wary of allowing the movement to spark an unwanted war with Morocco (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 10, 2001). The ceasefire was a turning point for the Polisario in its transition from a closed, disciplined and authoritarian movement to an open and loose society vulnerable to external influence. The Islamic movements in refugee camps and their religious manipulations weakened the political loyalty of the Polisario fighters to their leadership.

The rise of the global jihad movement calling upon all Muslims to fight Christians and Jews and topple the “treacherous” secular regimes in the Islamic world attracted some Sahrawi fighters. At present, many Polisario members openly support the jihadi movement to counteract foreign interference in northern Africa. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been making significant efforts to exploit the confusion among the Polisario ranks, demoralized by decades of unsuccessful attempts to expel the Moroccans. Consequently, many Sahrawi fighters are adherents to the jihadi ideology rather than the nationalism that has been the traditional core of Polisario ideology since the onset of the movement’s struggle for independence from Morocco. Therefore, the military capabilities of the Sahrawi army may be at AQIM’s disposal in case of any major development on the Polisario front. Jihadi forum members anticipate the presence of foreign troops [possibly referring to A.U. peacekeepers or even U.S. troops] and the mass killing and arrests of Polisario fighters by Moroccan forces, which will further accelerate the shift to extremism and loyalty to AQIM (in practice, Morocco has offered the Sahrawis autonomy within the Moroccan state, an offer that has led to the defection of many former Polisario leaders). The Salafi-Jihadi adherents in the Polisario army are also expected to attack the Mauritanian military patrolling the border, despite Mauritania’s recognition of the SADR since 1979.

The first indication of Polisario’s involvement with AQIM was the arrest of one of Polisario’s most prominent Imams, Mahjub Muhamad Seedi, at his home in the Polisario refugee camp in the Algerian town of Tindouf. The Algerian forces found weapons, explosives and letters between the Imam and AQIM leader Abd al-Malik Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Musab Abdul Wadud) (, January 6). In the same context, the Mauritanian army arrested three members of Polisario who were suspected of ties with al-Qaeda in al-Nuss gorge, 60 km east of Um Karin (, January 27).

Jihadi forum members hailed the report about al-Qaeda’s penetration of the Polisario army. Some members posted briefs about the difficult internal situation of the Polisario, which makes it easier for al-Qaeda to recruit members. Moroccan nationalists supporting the annexation of the Western Sahara got into heated arguments with Salafi-Jihadi adherents. One nationalist said, “There is no al-Qaeda in the Islamic Moroccan country. There are Algerian dogs and thugs. All the heinous and terrorist crimes attributed to al-Qaeda are mere lies fabricated by the communist regime [i.e. Algeria]." Salafi-Jihadis from the SADR alleged that al-Qaeda is present in Moroccan territory and watching the tyrants. "Thank God, the appearance of al-Qaeda gave us hope of independence and eradication of the occupation."

One Polisario member stated several reasons for supporting AQIM:

"Morocco is the third strongest power in Africa, yet does not use this might to protect Islam, the Shari’a and jihad against infidels. On the contrary, its army protected the king, the constitution and the Jews and Christians. The Moroccan army was used to suppress Muslims in Morocco and the desert. This army will become weak once we abandon the king and his throne and seek to fight to uphold God’s word and organize [an] Islamic army. The Moroccan army is not an Islamic army. If it was an Islamic, Shari’a-applying army, it would be striking the infidel evils and liberating al-Andalus [Spain], France and other [regions] (, January 28)."

Comments from opponents of the Salafi-Jihadi elements in Morocco accused refugees in the Tindouf camps of resorting to religion every time they feel they are losing the struggle. One anti-Polisario Sahrawi wrote, "Thank God, the lie of the so-called desert people came to light. The desert people will become simply a terrorist group. Morocco has 36 million Muslims willing to fight the terrorists and win martyrdom. They are mere communists pretending to be jihadists fighting the grandchildren of the true mujahideen” (the “communist” description refers to Polisario’s early Marxist-Leninist “national liberation” ideology, which has long since been abandoned by the movement).

Some believe the mishandling of the western desert struggle with Morocco by the current leaders of the Polisario led to the emergence of radical Islam in the refugee camps. According to supporters of al-Qaeda, the religious awakening brings with it very serious political reforms which will embarrass the “corrupt Polisario government.” As part of this drive for political reform, AQIM is preaching the merits of jihad to rid the desert of infidels and gain independence for Western Sahara. Though nationalism remains at odds with al-Qaeda’s overall ideology, AQIM is apparently prepared to support the lesser evil against the greater evil with the option of reversing their support for Sahrawi nationalism if the Salafi-Jihadi ideology is not adopted.

An unstable internal security situation in the desert republic would weaken the negotiating position of Polisario with Morocco. To prevent al-Qaeda from disrupting the peace process with Morocco, the SADR/Polisario movement will be forced into direct confrontation with AQIM. This would represent a very favorable situation for AQIM, which believes a broad wave of internal repression designed to root out al-Qaeda elements in the Tindouf camps will actually convince sympathizers to join the movement.



1. In the movement’s official name, Frente Polisario, the latter word is an acronym for (Frente) Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro).