Once only a minor concern, al-Qaeda’s presence in North Africa has grown into a threat with potential consequences for Europe and the United States. The 2006 alliance between al-Qaeda and the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat led to the creation of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which continues to expand its presence in the poorly controlled border areas of Maghreb and Sahel countries. In 2005, the United States began a largely military initiative, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, and called on Algeria, Morocco, and several Sahel countries to combat terrorist networks in their midst. But the effort has borne little fruit. Algeria and Morocco could confront al-Qaeda by mounting coordinated offensives, but relentless antipathy over the ongoing Western Sahara conflict has dogged their efforts.
What began as a messy postcolonial land squabble after the Spanish withdrawal and the subsequent Moroccan annexation of the Western Sahara in 1975 has turned into a festering thirty year conflict over the contested territory. Today, the area is still claimed by both Morocco and the Polisario Front, a rebel movement exiled in and supported by Algeria, and it has become a liability for both countries.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb thrives in the lawlessness of the isolated desert regions of southern Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, northern Mali, and the Western Sahara. The loose alliance appeals to disaffected youth and sustains itself by smuggling drugs and other goods and by kidnapping people for ransom. The 2003 Casablanca bombings, 2004 Madrid train bombings, attempted 2007 bombing of the U.S embassy in Morocco, and attacks later that year targeting the Algerian president and prime minister have all shown that the stakes are high and rising for Morocco and Algeria alike.
The international community is beginning to recognize the importance of North African security. On March 19, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos urged greater international involvement in resolving the Western Sahara dispute, calling on France and the United States in particular to help mediate. In January 2009, the UN Secretary General appointed U.S. diplomat Christopher Ross as his new special envoy for the Western Sahara, a job formerly held by Dutch diplomat Peter Van Walsum and former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, both of whom ran into familiar patterns of intransigence. Ross inherits an unenviable portfolio; Morocco remains as unlikely as ever to agree to a referendum that offers independence for the territory, and the Polisario and Algeria will settle for nothing less.
To date, UN proposals have all been unsatisfactory to at least one of the three parties. The proposed UN referendum on independence signed in 1991 died when the Polisario and Morocco disagreed over who in the Western Sahara should have the right to vote. In 2001, Morocco signed on to the first version of the Baker plan, under which the Western Sahara would become an autonomous region of Morocco, but Polisario and Algeria predictably rejected the plan. In 2003, Baker revised the plan to include autonomy and a referendum of the entire Western Saharan population, including the Polisario aligned refugees in camps in Algeria. Algeria and Polisario signed on, as did the UN Security Council, but without Morocco’s cooperation the deal fell through. Today, Morocco offers “greater autonomy” for Western Sahara, but without any concrete details.
A fifth round of UN-sponsored negotiations is expected, but promises little immediate progress. In a recent interview with an Algerian newspaper, Polisario leaders threatened to return to armed resistance if Morocco tried to obstruct UN efforts. Yielding to Algerian and Polisario demands would be extremely unpopular among Moroccan nationalists. Similarly, Algerian moderates find themselves in a game they cannot win; giving in to Moroccan demands would make them appear complicit in a colonial enterprise, not to mention losers in a regional power play. UN Envoy Ross’ prospects seem poor unless he can bring Algeria to the negotiating table by making the Western Sahara part of a broader deal that would include reopening the borders between Morocco and Algeria, and even economic cooperation.
Although a solution for Western Sahara seems as far away as ever at present, the international community’s need to control the rapidly degenerating situation in the Sahel and resulting terrorist threats might eventually change the dynamics. With their internal sovereignty already in question, Algeria’s leaders should be mindful that it is not in their interest to have another failing state on their border. And Morocco should realize that the Polisario challenge to traditional notions of territorial integrity might no longer be the greatest threat facing the monarchy.
Intissar Fakir is assistant editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin and was previously program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa program at the Center for International Private Enterprise.