The Importance of the Western Sahara to Maghrebi Security

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 8

On March 11, 2004, as the world focused on the Madrid commuter bombings, there were reports that armed forces from Chad, Niger, and Mali had engaged a large group of operatives from the Algerian Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), and had inflicted significant casualties on this notorious organization (El Watan, March 11, 2004; Le Matin, March 9, 2004). Details of the operation were at first nebulous and most greeted this development with skepticism or disinterest. On March 15, however, U.S. European Command released a statement corroborating these reports (Press Release, March 15, 2004).

After being chased out of Mali, the GSPC was engaged by Nigerian security forces in the north of the country. Realizing they were soon to be overrun, the GSPC cadres crossed into Chad for refuge. Unbeknownst to them, Chadian and Nigerian forces were in collusion and enjoyed the ongoing logistical and intelligence support of U.S. personnel. As a result, Chad’s defenses were prepared and were able to overpower the Salafis with only minimal casualties. Ultimately, Saifi Ammari (known as Abderrazak El Para), a regional kingpin and the reputed mastermind of the summer 2003 hostage saga, was apprehended at first by the Movement for Chadian Democracy and Justice and later by Libyan security forces (The Village Voice, Spring 2005).

This operation could not have been nearly as successful had it not been for the high level of cooperation and integration among the security services of Chad, Niger and Mali. This case study demonstrates how regional unity and integration can have a significant impact on the North African Salafi-Jihadist threat.

The Western Sahara

On March 21, when King Mohammed of Morocco was visiting Laayoune in the disputed territory of the Western Sahara, rumors began to circulate that he was there to announce a breakthrough in the political stalemate between Rabat and the Polisario Front, representing the Sahrawi people of the Western Sahara. The following day, the press reports carried a statement from the Moroccan communications minister, Nabil Benabdellah, stating that Morocco will consult the people of the Western Sahara on the plan to give the territory greater autonomy, which it is to submit to the United Nations soon (Maghreb Arabe Presse, March 22). On the surface, this appeared to be another Rabat stunt to dangle the prospect of a referendum in front of the Sahrawi people. As will be elaborated upon later, however, this is the most recent—and earnest—development in ongoing negotiations.

In terms of the Salafi-Jihadists residing in the Maghreb and Sahel region, the prospects for peace in the Western Sahara are viewed as anathema to their desires and goals. As long as Algiers and Rabat are at odds and Morocco is not a member of the African Union, these groups are able to traverse the region with near impunity. This point of regional unity has been noted by officials from both Washington and London, and it was also recently reiterated by Chad’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and African Integration Ahmat Allami (Maghreb Arabe Presse, March 18 and 22). For the region to form a united front against the Salafi threat, the Western Sahara issue must be immediately resolved so that Moroccan relations with Algeria and the AU can thaw.

Why Salafis Thrive on the Status Quo

In October 2004, the African Union established its African Center for the Study and Research on Terrorism in Algiers. In essence, this center is intended to serve as a medium for cooperation among all member states in the continent’s fight against its endemic terrorist threat. Since its formation, however, the center has been plagued by a number of deficiencies, not the least of which is its inability to secure an individual to assume the directorship. Aside from the usual troubles the AU has in establishing such centers, the fundamental obstacle is membership. As Kurt Shillinger states, the center’s effectiveness is contingent on its ability to build “strong cooperative ties between the center in Algiers and the key states where concerns about terrorism and capacity to respond converge…[This] requires resolving the conflict over Western Sahara in order to integrate Morocco—the only African state not in the AU—into continental counter-terrorism strategies” (Business Day (Johannesburg), October 7, 2005).

The non-involvement of Morocco is excellent news to the Salafi insurgents operating in the Sahel. Not only is intelligence not being circulated among key interlocutors, such as Algeria and Morocco, but these same countries would remain unlikely collaborators in counter-terrorism operations. This point was underlined by U.S. Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism Henry Crumpton when he made a number of very poignant remarks toward the end of his February 2006 speech in Algiers, noting Morocco’s absence from the AU and the crucial role the kingdom can play in helping resolve regional security issues.

Prospects for Change

Despite the ongoing 31-year impasse in negotiations, there is reason to believe that a resolution is on the horizon. In late April, Rabat will be submitting its latest proposal to the UN. The details are yet to be determined; however, it is expected to call for Western Saharan autonomy within the borders of Morocco and will not offer a referendum to the Sahrawi people. Despite this, it is rumored to be the most generous offer made thus far by Rabat to the Polisario Front, and it may mark a considerable climb-down in the king’s hard-line stance. In fact, recent developments have been so encouraging that Hammati Rabbanim, the former Polisario executive who has recently returned to Morocco, noted that “things are changing and that realism prevails” (Maghreb Arabe Press, March 21).

The Madrid commuter bombings may prove to be the single event that brings about the resolution to the Western Sahara issue. The attacks, perpetrated by North Africans residing in Spain, brought considerable scrutiny and shame to the Moroccan monarchy. More importantly, the 11-M attacks raised awareness—both in Spain and Morocco—of the threat posed to Spain by North African Salafi-Jihadists. In response to this and the almost daily news reports of illegal North Africans migrating to Spain from the Western Sahara, Madrid will likely advocate a just and widely acceptable solution to help stabilize its southern border.

If there is to be a settlement over the Western Sahara, however, the U.S. must remain actively involved in the negotiations. In the past year, U.S. interests in the region have increased dramatically, even from their post-September 11 high. Not only has the U.S. invested heavily in the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative to combat the local Salafi-Jihadist threat, but the U.S. has also found in North Africa an alternative fuel source.

Washington’s need to identify and exploit new fuel resources will translate into direct U.S. intervention in the negotiations over the Western Sahara to help ensure a stable supply of fuel into Western markets. With individuals knowledgeable about this conflict now firmly entrenched in the UN, such as Ambassador John Bolton, the U.S. has the motivation, the political tools, and the necessary personnel in place to break the deadlock between Rabat and Polisario. Recent statements, events, and the worsening oil situation indicate that a resolution may in fact come sooner than expected.


Although close cooperation between Algiers and Rabat cannot be assumed initially, a widely acceptable Western Sahara resolution will significantly contribute to a thawing of relations between these two capitals. In any case, Maghrebi security is certain to be the primary beneficiary; with Morocco integrated into regional counter-terrorism operations and intelligence-sharing, Salafi-Jihadist groups will be faced with a united front. No longer will they be able to operate across the region’s borders with impunity, or access weapons, finances and auxiliary personnel with the same level of ease. Their connections to related terrorist networks and cells in Europe may also be affected. This best-case scenario, however, must be approached with more than a touch of realism: balanced against it are the difficulties inherent to a 31-year-old stalemate, plagued by inertia and stubbornness on all sides.