A Mauritanian Routine: strike, frustrate and repeat

Western Sahara Info. has a terrific post up on the AQIM attack in Mauritania. The attack killed 12 east of Zouerat, in an ambush on a 16 car caravan. The unit’s commander was among the dead. Although AQIM is believed to be rather sickly (but not pusillanimous), it seems that it is most successful in Mauritania, where the border region with Algeria, Mali and the Western Sahara is permeable and law enforcement intermittent. Such attacks are to be expected in such an environment, and have gone on over the past couple of years on and off, and have become a sensitive issue for Mauritanians. Not only do AQIM attacks scare off tourists and make investors feel shaky, they also make the government look weak and inept. They are also symptomatic of age old flaws in the North African state system.

WSI does well by pointing out that, despite what some in the wire services are writing, the attack is not a part of any kind of real “retaliation” against the junta in Nouakchott — a reading that derives from a shallow reading of the communique that AQIM put out immediately after the 6 August coup. As alle writes, AQIM has been attacking Mauritanian military targets for a few years now, AQIM could care less about how the government came to power, they are carrying on as usual. Mauritanians I spoke with have said that street level responses have revolved around, as they usually do, “How could they attack other Muslims?”

They've got guts

The attack exposes one of the weaknesses of the country’s contemporary junta: General Abdel Aziz, who had taken up residence in the military HQ after the attack, invited the American military attaché into his bunker to discuss the attack; the arms attaché responded by saying that he would not do so because the government of the United States of America does not recognize the legitimacy of the HCE. The Mauritanians are hopping mad about the manner in which this snub has compounded the damage done the government by the attack — though it is arguable that a meeting with the American attaché would not have produced anything particularly meaningful in substance, thought it could have offered the junta a hint of the international legitimacy it so desperately wants.

The junta has attempted to make itself appear useful to Western states by highlighting its anti-Islamist /terrorist credentials (“Islamist” has to become an insult in the Mauritanian political vocabulary as it has in many other places), vowing to take on al-Qaeda with such terms as “crush” “destroy” “wipe out” and so on. The recent attack shows the country’s continued vulnerability, regardless of where the country is in its game of musical chairs. While Mauritania’s Moorish and West African traditions provide a strong buffer against hardcore Islamism, the system has cracks, as AQIM’s efforts have shown. It was much less than a year ago that a major terrorist escaped custody by duping guards at a courthouse in Nouakchott (by asking to go to the bathroom), fleeing as far as Gambia before being returned to police custody. More recently, a large gunfight broke out in an upper class neighborhood of the capital. Many of the same factors that make it difficult for al-Qaeda to recruit in Mauritania also facilitate its deadly activities: the tribal connections that lead to the reenforcement of traditional Moorish Islam also produce the corruption that makes patrolling the country’s sandy borders difficult by smoothing way for smugglers, drifters and terrorists. And that corruption goes rather far up the food chain in all societies concerned. As good as Mauritania’s traditions are at keeping young men from becoming terrorists, the country’s tribal networks and culture have not stopped AQIM from becoming a rather prominent nuisance to the government. AQIM is the result of the failings of the Maghrebine state system, whose fringes are easily navigable by just about anybody interested in doing so and several of whose states have failed to fulfill their end of the social contract. It is no wonder AQIM flourishes at the nexus of where state capacity is lowest and the integrity of the law enforcement networks the weakest.

Mauritania, as the weakest of the North African states, will continue to be the place where the organization hits as often as it can; Morocco, Tunisia and Libya’s intelligence services are adept at breaking up cells. Algeria’s have become grown used to low intensity combat and stoic enough to carry on business as usual in the face of it. Mauritania will have to develop one, the other or a combination of both in order for the junta (and whomever follows them) to maintain order. The recent attacks are routinely described as “unacceptable” by those in the military establishment; al-Qaeda-style terrorism is out of character for Mauritania and leaders are struggling to find a way to keep it that way. In the short term, AQIM is not going anywhere, which is (cynically speaking) good for military leaders looking for justifications for military aid and assistance (and international recognition). It bodes poorly for just about every other aspect of the country.

The attacks earlier this year were a source of exacerbation with the Abdallahi government among the population and the military. The junta is loathe to allow themselves to be perceived as being weak on al-Qaeda. But as compromise on the political front vis-a-vis the release of former president Abdallahi (a popular position in the country now advocates for Abdallahi to be reinstated so that he can formally resign; plans to put him and his wife Khatou on trial are also circulating), may lead to more international support which would ideally help the government address the terrorist problem more effectively.

As it is written: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” AQIM does not yet pose a dire threat to stability in Mauritania, as vulnerable as the country is. The pattern with these attacks seems to be that AQIM, or some affiliated group or individuals, attacks some aspect of the state, frustrating the bureaucracy and population. The physical impact is quite minimal, but it serves as a direct insult to the prestige of the government. Vows to stomp the aggressors are made. Time passes. The process is repeated. This takes place over months or years. There is little that can be done by Mauritania individually to stop it; the problem has its origins beyond Mauritania’s borders and in aspects of the country’s frontier culture that will endure regardless of what Nouakchott, Algiers, or Rabat do. In the near term AQIM will not be made wholly inoperable anywhere in North Africa, but greater cooperation at patrol efforts on the part of Mauritania, Algeria (and its Saharawi clients) and Mali would do some good. AQIM is the result of weak state infrastructures: this is why it is least powerful in Tunisia and Libya and most powerful in Algeria and Mauritania. The long term solution is a less schizophrenic Maghrebine state. The probability of that is far off, though.

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