Alex Thurston the vigorous author of the Sahel Blog wrote an important post yesterday on “Popular and Opposition Perspectives on Counterterrorism in the Sahel”. He writes that in both Mali and Mauritania, the areas of greatest worry where violence from groups like AQIM are concerned, there is skepticism about both foreign and domestic counterterrorism efforts. Here, popular refers to the view of ordinary Malians that AQIM violence could increase rather than diminish if American “support” were conspicuous in the form of bases or troops. One should quickly agree that a heavy American military presence would be stupid and counter productive (and “heavy” in the Sahel should be considered relative to elsewhere). Additionally, he quotes Ahmed Ould Daddah, head of Mauritania’s main opposition party, the RFD on the recent revisions to the anti-terrorism law passed by a parliament dominated by acolytes of Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. Ould Daddah says it “contains articles contradictory to the shari’a, to morality, and to Islamic values as well as principles of democracy and liberty.” Strong words. Many others in the opposition agree with him as well. These are not “appeasers” or Droukdel enthusiasts. But like many Mauritanians, he knows that the government’s talk about fighting terrorism is a way of consolidating power and using the parliament to give a glossy sheen to an incompetent leader unserious about terrorism, or much else apart from sitting in office.
One must at all times consider the local political dynamics driving language like that. Elite and common Mauritanians do not consider AQIM or “terrorism” to be a grave threat to their well-being. Recent kidnappings, the beheading of an American, a botched suicide bombing and frontier skirmishes have not brought many to see AQIM as anything thing more than boys playing shoot ‘em up in the desert. At worst, such people worry, the group’s activities are bad for the country’s publicity as a tourist destination or sound host for investments. The less shameless look at the rise of Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood tendency among young people as a threat to traditional tribal and religious authority figures and therefore social order. Many look on these movements as funnels that wrap up dim-witted or lonely boys into destructive activities in the bush. Others see a lot of criminals disguised as mudjahidine. The current government has an opinion not far from this one. Like most people, Mauritanians get tense and paranoid after terrorist attacks, but quickly put them into broader context afterwards. The government’s claim that it needs a stronger anti-terror law to pursue militants by monitoring their phones and rummage through their homes and belongings with ease does not impress the opposition. These powers recall arbitrary and despotic tendencies, used under the Ould Tayya regime to suppress dissent be it secular or lefist, Ba’thist or Islamist.
A Mauritanian in the opposition considers two things. Firstly, he considers AQIM’s popular support. This consistently cruises right above a value of “nil,” and many collaborators and plotters have been napped up on the advice of their friends or family members (according to those who handed them over, not the police). In this same bracket he looks to the overall ideological environment: hardly any Mauritanians look at the “jihadist” ideology driving AQIM as compatible with their own view of religion or politics. In fact, a good many look at it as being altogether foreign.
In the second place he considers the character and conduct of Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz. Here is a man who rose to power first by operating as gear in the Ould Tayya system, sniffing out coup-plotters and sucking off the teat of power. Then, when he was called on to engage a the GSPC, the proto-AQIM, in 2005 he became so paranoid that his transfer to remote Tiris Zemmour where the attack occurred was actually an underhanded way for Ould Tayya to diminish his political power. So this is not a man with a track record of taking terrorism seriously. Then, one must consider that he was in charge of anti-terrorism efforts during the time of Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi, when terrorists engaged police and military forces in gun battles in the most opulent sections of the capital and when jailed terrorists escaped by asking to step outside to “pray.” He is the same fellow who used his own failures as political ammunition to bolster his illegal ejection of an elected president. He has used corruption and anti-Israel sentiments as platforms for demagogy, and has not acted much differently where terrorism is concerned. He fires ministers and officers in fits of rage without regard to anyone’s particular responsibility for failures. These send “messages” and make military officers grumble. When he finishes huffing and grunting, one wonders: what now will be done? For Ould Abdel Aziz these are matters with which to play politics and win foreign aid, not calls to action to improve living conditions in the country or make needed administrative reforms. He is also a president who came to power through patently illegal processes and then through a manipulated and contested election. He has found friendship with western countries who were quick to reject his coup by raising the threat of terrorism. So too did Ould Tayya. Western nations have been quick to abandon the semblance of principle when faced with “radical Islam,” be it imaginary (as it mostly was under Ould Tayya) or a lot of zealots wearing turbans and breaking their wrists while playing with guns in the couscous outback. In a country with a history of authoritarianism, this effort to take on ever more invasive powers under the guise of a “crisis,” then comes off less like a way of fighting terrorism but consolidating power and retreating into old-timey oriental despotism.
Those looking on the anti-terror law and the government’s intentions with suspicion are not necessarily opposed to stronger legislation to deal with terrorism but generally ask for protections on civil and human rights that are just as strong. As a Tawassoul activist put it: “What use is there in fighting some bandits with a law like this if Aziz becomes a dictator because of it?”
None of that is to detract from real threat that AQIM poses in Mauritania and Mali, but it is to say that if any outsider is going to try and assist or support anti-terrorism activities in the region (or anywhere else) he has to consider that it is not exactly the number one priority on the ground. No one sees AQIM as an unserious threat, but many feel they have bigger, more mephitic and duplicitous fish to fry. Many worry, though, that like Ould Abdel Aziz’s wars on corruption, ignorance and poverty his war on terror has become a phony war — a dangerous for the country’s battle against violent extremism and its flailing democratic institutions. Terrorism in a hungry pot-bellied nation like Mauritania, many say, is too serious to be used as a political football. A stupid and half-run campaign taken on for ulterior political motives risks doing irreparable harm. For them, the terrorism problem can still be solved by attacking its social, economic and political “root causes” before wide-scale “rehabilitation” or “re-integration” clinics for jihadis are necessary — and having a leadership that addresses them in a serious way rather than for show.