The politics of anti-terrorism in Mauritania

All for show

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.

Too used to poppin' gats and stuff

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.

M. Ould Abdel Aziz: professeur de la démagogie

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.


13 thoughts on “The politics of anti-terrorism in Mauritania

  1. Thanks Kal and I agree with some of your analysis and disagree with some. Which ones? I have to re-read again. First you seem to have forgotten the bigger picture and why all this terrorism and the game behind GIA-GSPC-AQIM. Not one word about Algeria, the origin of all this, including exporting its problems to Mali, then to Mauritania.

    I recently put a hand on the latest issue of Menas’ Sahara Focus 2009:4 (December 2009) and that big picture is well described there and it is not rosy at all, with the risk of waziristaning or talibanizing the whole area because of few bedfellows want it that way for reasons related to oil, gas, iranium and partly gold. The excellent piece from Geoff D. Porter in CTC Sentinel (AQIM and the Growth of International Investment in North Africa) we discussed here is still relevant. Also the issue of the tuareg ” territory” in resourch rich areas in Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso is making all these countries to manipulate the tuaregs for some and exterminate for the others. I suggest you get a copy by your means as I cannot pass it to you because it is copyrighted.

    Today the silence of General Aziz regarding the causes surrounding the hostage takings – it is not religion, but pure banditry associated with manipulating by our own security services – will just put Mauritania in the same situation as Mali today. Hardening the already hard anti-corruption law, with a fatwa from a salafist/wahabist (Imam Ould Dedew) is not likely to solve any problem soon. Putting food in the mouth of the destitutes in Mauritania is a mid to long term solution to violent salafisme. The best solution for General Aziz is to strengthen the link with ATT of Mali and stand up on their feet together against those 200 or so salafists well equipped and well fed by part ransom and part by states sponsoring terrorism. Mali and Mauritania are the weakest among the stakeholders inn this game and will lose rather than win anything. I may say that General Aziz might have played that game to accuse Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi of weakness towards islamists to kick him out of power. As you have rightly said, the General was only interested in power and he was helped by France and probably the US with other countries in between. Recall the General was in charge of the security and remember that it is France that discovered the hideout of the salafists in Tevragh Zeina, that played well in pushing Ould Cheikh Abdallahi out. Everything is made to confuse the picture and the article from Maliweb above and others are just doing that.

    The above is, in a nutshell, what I believe in the absence of declarations from General Aziz, ATT, Mr. Gadhafi and Mr. Bouteflika on really what is going on with AQIM, the real or the fabricated one. With the demand of AQIM to release some jailed salafists, I am guessing it is a way to make evidences of manipulation disappear. I might be wrong of course.

    More later on this if someone reacts.

    • Tidinit:
      Thanks as always for the links and comments.

      I have not mentioned Algeria here, because I wanted to focus as much as possible on Mauritania. The Algerian angle will get another post, but this was more inspired by Alex’s post and by the idea behind that, which I thought was important to highlight at the moment.

    • RE: The risk of “Talibanization” or “Waziristanization”; I do not doubt the real risks AQIM poses the region, but I also want to be on the record saying that the risks have structural and criminal/economic drivers and that the exploitation of that risk by politicians wanting to gobble up power and foreign aid money is as dangerous as the actual threat from AQIM by itself, maybe even more so.

      Also, on the demand to release Salafists, I agree with you on that point.

  2. Really enjoyed this post Kal, and the background on Abdel Aziz’s roles in previous regimes really helps put the current politics of counterterrorism in Mauritania in context.

    Do you take Daddah’s views as expressing the sentiments of his constituency, or do you think he is simply playing politics with the issue?

    • Alex:

      He’s playing politics, along with Aziz, but he’s articulating actual concerns from civil society and others.

      I think, as Hannes wrote, that his constituency holds a view that is not much different from a lot of the rest of the political class. Hannes is right, though, most Mauritanians beyond that segment have other/different priorities.

  3. Very slick post, Kal. I agree with everything. The sad thing is that Aziz’s strategy is working. Flows of international aid money serve to make his unsustainable way of governance sustainable and thus finance the establishment of a full blown authoritarian political system applying repressive instruments à la Taya.

    @ AT: Of course Daddah is always playing politics, but as someone who draws his support from the urban and educated part of the population his statement does probably express popular sentiments. Apart from this group though, few people in Mauritania will be worried about the anti-terror law.

  4. Let’s hear what Pravda is saying. They are joining the conspiracy theorists. Below the link and below that what attracted my attention.

    Trying to think what suit Putin most: no stability in the area and no gas for Europe to avoid making Russia’s bargaining power with Europeans irrelevant.

    Peace is so good for everybody! There should be a way to eat your cake and still have it. Hope Mali and Algeria will cool it off. Otherwise, they both lose.



    “In other words, the participants of the Pan African summit had good reasons to be alarmed. On the other hand, as mentioned above, so far the US military aid has not yielded positive results in the struggle against several hundred militants. Under the circumstances, the opinion of an Algerian expert Jamal Gessel shared with was quite surprising.
    He said that there was very reliable information suggesting that the Islamist group was supported by CIA. Analysts of the French and Algerian Special forces (e.g., DGSE, France) are convinced that this is done to destabilized the situation in North African countries rich in natural resources (both oil and uranium). The other goal is to force French and Spanish oil-extracting competitors out of the area. The expert believes this is precisely why the Islamist group’s attacks are aimed against the French and Spanish, and why the American presence in the region is not effective.
    Additionally, the expert does not rule out the situation when the US declares the region its strategic zone, like it happened in the Persian Gulf, and instills its hegemony in the area.
    The conclusion is the following: the hopes of North African countries to receive aid from the West greatly depend on what they mean by “West”, the USA or EU.”

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