While the focus of international community and media in last years has been mainly on the situation in the Middle East where extremist groups have been gaining momentum, North Africa and the Sahel have become home to an array for radical armed forces looking to expand, including the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Morocco has been successful in countering domestic terrorism threats, yet the situation in the Sahel presents a different set of challenges.
An Alarming Situation
In the beginning of March, 2017, five leaders of four radical groups operating in the Sahel region appeared in a video announcing the merger of their organizations.
Led by veteran Tuareg militant Iyad Ag Ghaly, Ansar Dine, the Sahara branch of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Mourabitoun, and Katibat Macina merged to form Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (the “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims”).
The merger has signaled the increasing threat of extremist armed organizations in North Africa and the Sahel.
“The region has become very dangerous today because it is an area where both ISIS and al Qaeda are making their presence felt,” El Moussaoui El Ajlaoui, a researcher at the Institute for Africa and Middle East Studies (IAMES), told MWN.
He explained that the region is caught between expansion attempts by radical groups. Al Qaeda operates in Northern Mali, seeking to infiltrate the middle and the south of the country as well as the northwest Burkina Faso, while Boko Haram is seeking control over the Chad Basin.
In addition, an axis has been established between Ghat in southern Libya and Kidal in northern Mali.
“This axis is the hardcore of jihadist groups and transnational crime organizations active in cocaine, arms and human smuggling,” said Ajlaoui.
The presence of ISIS along the Libyan coast, where it formerly held control of the city of Sirte and other minor territories, in addition to its ties with loyal splinter groups in Tunisia, add to the fears of established terrorist networks in North Africa and the Sahel.
The danger of the situation in the region is highlighted by the number of terrorist attacks carried out by radical groups. According to the Long War Journal, al Qaeda and other allies and affiliated groups launched at least 257 attacks in Mali and the wider West Africa region in 2016.
The creation of the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims will only give impetus to these extremist organizations to carry out other attacks, larger in number and scale.
“The threat is big,” warned Abdelfattah El Fatihi, a Western Sahara and Sahel specialist, in conversation with MWN. “These groups have the potential to grow even more and enhance their capabilities, exploiting the safe haven the vast and uncontrolled desert provides.”
In addition to this geographical safe haven, these groups benefit from their ties with local ethnic communities and tribes, as well as the weakness of some central governments.
“We have before us a very complex and constantly changing radical map, where these groups have ties with ethnic groups and operate in complete absence of regional states,” said El Ajlaoui.
The Polisario Connection
In a newly published book, “Sahara, deserto di mafie e Jihad” (Sahara: A Desert of Mafia and Jihad), Italian journalists and researchers Massimiliano Boccolini and Alessio Postiglione shed light on the deteriorating security situation in North African and Sahel desert, including the Polisario-run Tindouf camps.
The authors state that the zone that extends from South Tindouf to northern Mali has turned into a “new Afghanistan,” threatening the security of foreigners while falling “under the control of al Qaeda and smugglers.”
The book confirms what several reports have said concerning the danger of the Polisario-run area in Algeria, pointing to the group’s crossover into radical and criminal activities.
“Because there is no hope on the horizon, because of the instrumentalization of the misery of the Tindouf camps residents for personal interests, young people in the camps are turning to smuggling and cross-border crimes,” said El Ajlaoui. “Jihadist movements have connections with these activities.”
In April, Abdelhak El Khiam, the head of Morocco’s anti-terrorism Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations (BCIJ), revealed that 100 Polisario members joined the ranks of ISIS. The news points to the connections between Polisario, ISIS and other radical groups in the area.
El Fatihi explained that Polisario is seeking to diversify its sources of financing, which until now have come largely from Algeria.
“Polisario is facing a shortage of money so it had to look for it elsewhere. The only way to do so was to establish links with these groups which operate in a large unsecured area in the Algerian desert, Mali and Mauritania.”
The links between Polisario and radical groups are not recent. A report by European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center (ESISC) published in 2010 cited Mustapha Bouh, a former member of the group’s political bureau, who said that Polisario’s connections with the radical organizations dates back to the 1980s, when members of the group made contacts with the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria.
Later on, the group maintained relationships with militant and terrorist groups emanating from Algeria, such as the Islamic Armed Group (GIA), and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which would form the basis of AQIM in 2007.
The connection between Polisario and these organizations suggest the group may have taken part in terrorist activities. In 2003 members of Polisario carried an attack on the headquarters of la Societé nationale mauritaniene de l’industrie minière (SNIM), Mauritania’s national mining company, stealing 153 bottles of inflammable products and 12 km long of detonating cord, suspected of being destined for use in terrorist activities.
Two years later, Polisario armed vehicles were used by GSPC armed men in a deadly attack against a military barrack in Lamghiti, northern eastern Mauritania. Fifteen soldiers were killed, 17 others injured, and two went missing.
Polisario’s links with radical organizations are also furthered by the fact that some notorious jihadists in the Sahel are former members of the group.
In 2009, Omar Ould Sid Ahmed Ould Hamma, known as Omar Al Sahraoui, was hired by veteran AQIM terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar to kidnap three Spanish aid workers from the NGO Barcelona Accio Solidaria.
Adnane Abou Walid Al-Sahraoui, another former Polisario member, made himself known between 2011 and 2015 as a leading member of Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) and Al-Mourabitoun before joining ISIS.
In 2016 Abou Walid Al Sahraoui appeared on a video on Al Jazeera making threats against Morocco, calling for terrorist attacks to be carried against tourist attractions and security buildings in the kingdom.
To counter this trans-border terrorist threat, regional cooperation is paramount. Yet, Morocco has deplored lack of cooperation from Algeria, which raises serious questions about the reasons behind this reluctance.
Polisario’s terrorist connections, as mentioned earlier, is likely one of them.