Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, Northwestern University
Mauritania, straddling West Africa and the Maghrib, could easily be classified as the Sahel region’s weakest security link. With its history of repeated coup d’états, lingering ethnic tensions, and poor governance, this sparsely populated desert nation exemplified state weakness. Yet, when AQIM (Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) waged a terror campaign there over a six years period (2005-2010), the self-styled Islamic Republic managed (2011-2013) ultimately to suppress jihadi activism even amidst the extreme volatility of the Sahel-Maghreb region and the post-Arab revolts of 2011. Interestingly, Mauritania thwarted the jihadi threat while the country was emerging from a cycle of leadership instability: a military junta had just toppled two elected presidents, respectively in 2005 and 2008 (Foster, 2011). While over the following years, more stable and democratic states (Mali) nearly collapsed under jihadi pressure, Mauritania became a showcase for effective countering violent extremism (CVE) policies(Simpson, 2018).
External observers puzzled for quite some time over this “Mauritanian paradox”. One tantalizing theory emerged from an unlikely place: Osama Bin Laden personal archives. According to documents seized by U.S. Navy Seals when they raided Bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout in 2011, Al Qaeda leaders seemed to have discussed a plan in 2010 to arrange a truce with the government of Mauritania[i]. This theory was vehemently denied by local authorities, and few foreign commentators lent it credibility. More significantly, this narrative provides an insufficient explanation as to why a weak country such as Mauritania has been able to stabilize its government, break the jihadist cycle and address its security concerns.
I propose an alternative explanation for Mauritania’s surprising resilience. Drawing on a careful reconstruction of the country’s recent political trajectory, I argue that while remaining essentially a weak state, Mauritania has been nevertheless able to take advantage of a number of strategic opportunities in order to effectively use a combination of internal stabilization efforts, security policies, and political engagement and de-radicalization programs. Although the sustainability of such a success story of sort is open to question, this case could potentially complicate our approach of the resilience of African and Arab states to security threats.
An Islamic Republic against Islamists
Mauritania is officially an Islamic Republic. Yet, with the exception of President Ould Haidalla (1980-1984), a notoriously pious army colonel who proclaimed Sharia as the main source of law, all the country’s leaders opposed non-state political Islam (Ould Ahmed Salem, 2013: 103-126). This was especially the case under the regime of President Maaouya Ould Taya (1984-2005). In a 1990s regional context marked by concerns across the region over the Algerian civil war, the Taya regime openly harassed Islamist currents, institutions and networks. Taya’s enthusiasm for the war on terror and his aggressive anti-Islamist policy ultimately backfired, attracting jihadism to the country and contributing to the regime’s downfall.
The first regime crackdown on non-state religious networks took place in 1994. Many clubs, associations, and Islamic foundations previously authorized as part of the “democratization process” were abruptly closed down and their activities banned. Leaders of the tiny Muslim Brotherhood network were forced to make self-incriminating confessions on National TV only to be released shortly thereafter. A similar scenario repeated itself in 1998. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA, the government enthusiastically joined the global war on terror. In 2003, the Mauritanian Islamist movement organized itself more effectively, orchestrating a variety of demonstrations denouncing the government’s alliance with the West, especially its diplomatic ties with Israel. When a bloody military coup was foiled on June 8, 2003, Taya immediately blamed “Islamism”[ii]. During the following presidential campaign, the Islamist current backed Taya’s challenger, former president Haidalla. Taya won a third six-year term in November 7, 2003, but the campaign had turned unusually bitter (Ould Ahmed Salem, 2012).
Local national events were hardly disconnected from other regional security concerns and developments. In 2002, the GSPC (Salafist Group for Predication and Combat) abducted over thirty German tourists in Southern Alegria and transported them to their new safe haven in Northern Mali. By then, Western nations had already started discussing an anti-terrorist strategy in the African Sahel. In 2003, Mauritania joined the US-led Pan-Sahel Initiative and, later, the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism partnership. Perhaps not coincidentally, the government decided to step-up its repression of Islamic organizations, especially between 2003 and 2005. At that point, Mauritanian intelligence services had been monitoring a few young Mauritanian recruits in the GSPC. Taking advantage of the growing internal discontent with the government and the rise of Islamism, the GSPC launched an aggressive terror campaign on Mauritania.
The Islamic Republic under jihadist attacks
On June 3, 2005, a GSPC commando attacked Lemghaity, a military outpost, killing 15 soldiers. This was but the first of a wave of jihadist operations against Mauritania. With this attack however, GSPC somewhat precipitated the fall of the Taya regime (ICG, 2005). On August 3, 2005, colonels M. Ould Abdel Aziz and Ely Ould Mohamed Vall overthrew Ould Taya. The new “Military Committee for Justice and Democracy,” they created promised to reestablish democracy and civilian rule. Following a 19-month transition, a new president, former cabinet minister Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, was elected. The jihadist attacks did not stop, however; it was quite the contrary. On December 24, 2007, three French tourists were killed outside Aleg, a southern town. Quickly arrested in Guinea, four AQIM operatives confessed to the crime in January 2008. On December 27, 2007, another remote northern military outpost called Al- Ghallawiya suffered a violent attack, resulting in three deaths. In February 2008, a series of coordinated attacks targeted the Israel embassy and a night-club in Nouakchott (the capital city). A few weeks later, the authorities dismantled an AQIM cell following a bloody clash with a group of Mauritanian jihadists hiding in plain sight in Tevragh Zeina, an affluent Nouakchott neighborhood (Ould Ahmed Salem, 2011).
In the meantime, an unrelated political crisis quickly unfolded. Following a rather tense standoff between the new president on one hand and the army and the parliament on the other hand, General Abdel Aziz ultimately overthrew President Abdallahi on 6 August 2008. While the opposition parties resisted pacifically the new putsch during several months, Abdel Aziz was finally able to strike an accord with the main political players who opposed his coup. The accord allowed him to run for and ultimately win the new presidential election held on 18 July 2009 (Foster, 2011). The new President pledged to “spare no effort in attacking terrorism and its causes”, gaining in the process much-needed international legitimacy and support. The following events immediately put him to the test.
In September 2008, AQIM claimed responsibility for the massacre of twelve Mauritanian soldiers in Tourine, a northern Mauritanian hamlet. On the morning of June 23, 2009, John Legget, an American evangelist, was gunned down in broad daylight in downtown Nouakchott. On August 9, 2009, the first Mauritanian suicide bomber, Ahmed Vih al-Barka, blew himself up near the French embassy in Nouakchott. In 2009, three tourists from Spain were abducted on a busy national road. In August 25, 2010, another suicide bomber, Idriss Mohamed Lemine, attacked a military garrison located in Bassiknou, in the eastern part of the country. In February 2011, Mauritanian authorities intercepted another explosive-laden car just hours before it reached its target: the presidential palace. However, this foiled attack was the last one AQIM was able to plan on Mauritanian soil ever since. (Boukhars, 2016)
During the wave of terrorist attacks, the government had reacted forcefully in two ways. First, it systematically investigated the attacks, arresting their perpetrators and trying them. Second, it started a preventive war, bombing terrorist hideouts in Northern Mali, for example. A securitization strategy started to emerge, including key measures such as: security sector reform and increase in military spending; a much tougher anti-terrorism law; better controls along the 2,200-kilometre border with Mali; closer collaboration with western allies; and a new biometric identification/civil registration system.
This effort constituted a shift in the government’s resolve to secure the country and fight al-Qaida. Mauritania started quickly to showcase its newly acquired military capacities with countless arrests of smugglers and raids to free western hostages or negotiate their liberation without paying any ransoms. For example, Mauritanian intelligence officers were able within days to identify, track down in Northern Mali, and abduct a certain Omar al-Sahrawi, the leader of the crew who had abducted three Spaniards back in November 2009. The suspect was then transported to Nouakchott. The authorities later exchanged him for the liberation of the hostages he had himself abducted. This operation made a great impression on the country’s strategic western partners and neighbors. In this particular case, it seemed that Mauritania had revived its decades old intelligence networks among Arab and Tuareg communities in Northern Mali to obtain first-rate intelligence on AQIM. AQIM later identified some of these embedded informants. The gruesome videos of their executions were later circulated on the jihadi websites (Ould Ahmed Salem 2013:143-184).
From De-radicalization to strategic opportunism
Even though the Aziz regime sought early on to appear as “tough on terror”, it claimed equally to be open to dialogue, engaging as early as 2010 in a de-radicalization project targeting its jihadist detainees. In engaging its de-radicalization program, the government hoped to delegitimize the radical discourse among the Muslim public.
The original proposal came from Muhammad al-Hassan Dedew and Jamil Mansour, respectively, spiritual leader and president of the main Islamist political party Tawassoul (Muslim Brotherhood) (Cavatorta, Ojeda Garcia 2017). President Aziz has been popular in moderate Islamist circles ever since he decided to sever all diplomatic ties with Israel back in 2008. After months of preparation, the dialogue between ulama and extremists finally began in January 2010. It took the form of a formal debate over the lawfulness of AQIM jihad (Wehrey, 2019). The entire group of roughly seventy detained “extremists” with ties to terrorism (most of whom were AQIM soldiers) agreed to engage the government sponsored ulama. Eventually, fifty-five detainees finally repented and renounced their pro-jihadi views. In return, the state promised to offer spiritual support, freedom, care packages and economic opportunities. The dialogue did not include those jihadis already convicted for their involvement in criminal acts. Other detainees who were serving sentences qualified in theory to the program but were not allowed to secure an early release. (Ould Ahmed Salem 2013:143-184)
Even though it campaigned against it and warned its militants not to accept its premises, the de-radicalization process somehow affected AQIM hostility towards Mauritania (Ould Ahmed Salem 2013: 143-184). In the meantime, the combination of securitization policies and de-radicalization programs put the country in a better position to seize on additional strategic opportunities afforded by the geopolitical context.
Mauritania resisted the pressure of Islamist armed groups and later consolidated its status as a jihadism-free country. While the government policies described earlier could explain this positive outcome, Mauritania owes part of its success to its ability to take advantage of a number of structural and conjunctural opportunities.
First, unlike Mali or Niger, Mauritania has neither a separatist movement nor a powerful jihadi group established on its territory. Second, an armed confrontation between Mauritania and jihadists ended before the Tuareg militias returning from Libya allied with AQMI insurgents to take control of Northern Mali in mid-2012. Third, by the time Mali witnessed a new military coup in March 2012 and faced an aggressive jihadist threat, Mauritania had already stepped up its military engagement and finalized its de-radicalization process.
Fourth, Mauritania benefited from the Malian crisis and the collapse of the Qaddafi regime as jihadists shifted their attention to the Libyan battleground. In addition to the effective use of these structural and conjunctural opportunities, Mauritania declined to join the French military intervention in Mali after January 2013, securing thus a much- needed neutral position. After a full blown civil war started in Mali, Mauritania hosted hundreds of thousands of Tuareg refugees, reinforcing thus its already strong channels of communication with the main leaders of the Tuareg groups. Some of those have already joined forces with AQIM against the French-led international intervention in Mali in January 2013. By that time, jihadi groups were too busy fighting other battles on other fronts (Algeria, Libya, Niger, Libya, and Burkina Faso) or fighting France and the UN in Mali. Mauritania seemed of little strategic value. As AQIM withdrew from the country, Mauritania continued its commitment to the global war on terror. It offered for example support to the French army and opened its military bases for their logistical needs. In addition, the government engaged in international coalitions and initiatives aimed at building an international alliance against jihadism in the region. President Aziz spearheaded the regional anti-terrorism initiative called “the Nouakchott process” (2013) that would later become the Sahel G-5, a security organization regrouping in addition to Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina and Chad.
Even though there is no end in sight for the cycle of violence and terror in the region, Mauritania continues to escape the regional turmoil and is increasingly praised as a stabilizing force. However, since success in addressing security concerns often trump more relevant state capacity considerations, Abdel Aziz government has been both unable and unwilling to find real solutions to the daunting economic, political and social challenges it continued to face. Under President Aziz, the Mauritanian regime utilized the “secure country label” to increase its internal political control, curb demands for democratization and plunder the national resources. Yet, surprisingly, in 2019, Abdel Aziz complied with the Mauritanian constitution and stepped down at the end of his second presidential term in mid-2019. A new president, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, has now been elected and sworn in office in August 2019 (Thurston, 2019). An ex-general, long-time army chief of staff and defense Minister, Ghazouani is unlikely to change the national security strategy he had himself partly designed and implemented. However, the threat of extremism and terror will remain as long as extremist groups are able to take advantage of the drivers of insecurity that still persist in Mauritania and the region, namely poverty, absence of democracy and development, corruption, and inequality. Yet, it is undeniable that Mauritania’s recent trajectory challenges our understanding of weak states’ resilience to “terrorism” and the interplay between transnational insurgencies, domestic policies and regional politics.
Boukhars Anouar (2016). Mauritania’s precarious stability and Islamist undercurrent. New-York. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. February.
Francesco Cavatorta and Raquel Ojeda Garcia, “Islamism in Mauritania and the Narrative of Political Moderation” Journal of Modern African Studies 55, no. 2 (May 2017): 313.
Foster, Noel (2011). Mauritania: The Struggle for Democracy, Boulder Co, Lynne Rienner Publishers.
International Crisis Group (2005) Islamism in North Africa IV: The Islamist challenge in Mauritania. Threat or Scapegoat? Report 41, Middle East and North Africa, May 2015.
Ould Ahmed Salem (2007), “Islam in Mauritania Between Political Expansion and Globalization: Elites, Institutions, Knowledge, and Networks,” in Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa edited by Benjamin F. Soares and Rene Otayek. New York: Palgrave MacMillan:27-46.
Ould Ahmed Salem Zekeria (2011), “Islamic Radicalisation in Mauritania,” in Islamist Radicalisation in North Africa: Politics and Process, ed. George Joffe (London: Routledge):179-205.
Ould Ahmed Salem, Zekeria (2012) “The Paradoxical Metamorphosis of Islamic Activism in Mauritania,” (in English) Cahiers d’études africaines, no. 206–207 (2012/2): 4.
Ould Ahmed Salem, Zekeria (2013). Prêcher dans le desert. Islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie, Paris, Karthala.
Simpson Chris(2018), “Debunking Mauritania’s Islamist Militancy Mythology,” New Humanitarian, August 23, 201.
Thurston Alex (2019) “Mauritania: An Ould Ghazouani Presidency?,” Sahel Blog, January 29, 2019, https://sahelblog.wordpress.com/2019/01/29/mauritania-an-ould-ghazouani-presidency/.
Wehrey Frederic (2019). “Control and Contain: Mauritania’s Clerics and the Strategy Against Violent Extremism”, New-York, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Paper, MARCH 29. https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/03/29/control-and-contain-mauritania-s-clerics-and-strategy-against-violent-extremism-pub-78729
[i] See: Connor Gaffey, “al-Qaida Leaders Considered Truce With Mauritania: Bin Laden Documents Reveal”, Newsweek, 03/02/2016. See also: Marco Hosenball, “Al Qaida leaders made plans for peace deal with Mauritania:documents”, Reuters, 03/02/2016.
[ii] On these events, see the 1994 report on Mauritania by Amnesty International: https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/184000/afr380031994en.pdf.