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The history of the POLISARIO front (acronym for Frente Popular de Liberation de Saguia el Hamra y Rio de Oro) is one of those African tales that begins with a war for self determination and independence (obtained after over a century of Spanish dominion). It continues through the occupation suffered from a neighboring country (the Moroccan Green March in 1975) and the struggle turns into a fight amongst regional (Morocco versus Algeria) and neo-colonial powers (France against Spain). The issue of Western Sahara will go on forever thanks to the inertia of a poorly lead negotiation under the careless eye of a notoriously ineffective organization (UN's MINURSO). The Saharawi's fight for independence is now confined to a few refugee camps in south-western Algeria where survival depends on international pittance and what was once a dream is now mere destitution.

Today the POLISARIO is at its last stage: the organization representing a righteous cause has turned into an anti-democratic one party system (and will probably remain as such until a very unlikely independence) under the unrivaled reign of a President that has been in office since 1976 (Mohamed Abelaziz was re-elected for the 11th time in 2011 with 96% of the votes) with a plethora of corruption and nepotism. Unfortunately Africa is a continent where the meaning of justice, the search for democracy and the struggle against rampant poverty are rare and not overriding phenomena. Hence, the Saharawi issue remains unreported.

What should have become an independent country – emphatically called Saharawi Arabic Democratic Republic (RASD) – is today a virtual State with a population of approximately 200 thousand people living in four big refugee camps along the Algerian border. Their names refer to the Western Sahara territories that were never conquered or ruled (Laayoune, Awserd, Smara, Dakhla). Two smaller settlements are named after the date of the declaration of independence (27 February) and the capital of Western Sahara (Rabouni). Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony 266 thousand square kilometers large with an estimated population of 1 million people. The portion currently controlled by the RASD is 15-20% of the entire territory.

Its people are not a people because of the UN's marvelous intuition – born out of French and Moroccan pressure and lobbying – of subjecting the destiny of the area to a referendum on self-determination that stumbled on the recognition of who is a Saharawi and who is not (and could hence take part in the vote). In a country inhabited by nomads, with low literacy rates and where a civil registry has never existed, the compilation of the list containing the electoral body was left to the parties; both Morocco and RASD have constantly expressed contrasting views that have blocked any progress in the negotiations (the resulting stall was also caused by the increasing Moroccan migration – part of a government strategy – into Saharawi territories).

The picture of the Saharawi issue is the same as it was 30 years ago: Moroccans occupy Western Sahara undisturbed and use the iron fist, they exploit the phosphate mines and the oceanic fishing reserves (that have been the object of specific deals also with Europe) over the 1100 km of a particularly rich coastline. On the other hand, the Saharawis live in refugee camps and have given up their traditional nomadism and their land. Even though the RASD has been recognized by the African Union (and thus Morocco is not part of the continental organization) and by around 80 countries around the world, it cannot still act or feel like a State.


It is not clear what the main cause has been: the frustration of a broken dream, the desire to live new adventures away from the motionless refugee camps, economic difficulties or, even worse, the contagion from Islamic fundamentalism dominating over the sub-Saharan belt. Or maybe the hope that extremism could lead to a better future.

If the cause is unclear, the effect is known: an increasing number of Saharawis in northern Mali and in the ranks of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) dedicating their efforts to banditry, extortion, kidnappings and drug trafficking to finance Islamic terrorism. Whatever the reason behind the move towards AQIM or to other criminal activities in the region, this is a potentially dangerous social phenomena.

It is one of the reasons that has lead Mali, around 2 years ago, to back down from its recognition of the RASD and to criticize Algeria, that hosts and finances the POLISARIO and who, since 1991, is terribly susceptible to any spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the Maghreb. The circumstance of a potential alliance between the Saharawi Front and Islamic terrorism highlights two major dangers: on one side the military manpower of Al Qaeda in sub-Saharan Africa would be strengthened and, on the other, terrorism could be exported to Moroccan controlled portions of Western Sahara.

Rossella Urru

Cases involving Saharawis in both these activities are on the rise. The kidnapping on October 23 2011 in Rabouni of an Italian humanitarian worker, Rossella Urru, and of her two Spanish colleagues and, a month later, of two French nationals were both undertaken by Saharawis connected to AQIM (and/or its splinter group MUJAO, Movement for Unity and Jihad in Western Africa) who then controlled the negotiations that lead to the release of the hostages (July 18 2012) and to the payment of a ransom (in the Italian case).

As early as 2003 police in Mauritania had arrested a Saharawi for theft of explosives on behalf of the then Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (that was later renamed AQIM). A few months later, always in Mauritania, a terrorist recruitment cell was discovered. In 2005 news emerged of Saharawis fighting alongside the Salafists. The circumstance was confirmed by terrorist attacks in 2006 (in Algeria) and in 2008 (the failed attempt to kill the Israeli ambassador in Mauritania and the attacks in Niger). In December 2010 a network of cigarette and drug traffickers was dismantled in Tindouf. These are all signals of an increasing social desegregation. Today around 80 to 100 tons of cocaine are smuggled through the Sahel and the Saharawis are an active part of that business.

The Saharawi leap to Islamic terrorism is only a recent phenomena and has also been caused by other concurrent events.

The first factor is basically financial: Geddafi's Libya, together with Algeria, was one of the main financiers of the POLISARIO. The dictator's fall and the civil war that followed have struck the cash-ridden funds of the Front. To this we have to add Algeria's growing uneasiness towards Saharawi involvement in terrorism that has lead – at least for now – to an increased control over the refugee camps, but that could also turn into a cut in financing. If Algeria were to withdraw its support to the Saharawis there would be no more hope for their demands.

The second factor is the flow of arms that has flooded the sub-Saharan belt following the Arab Spring and that has favored the Tuareg uprising in northern Mali. These two elements have created a geographical space for illegal traffics and associated terrorist events. Lastly, several Saharawis were filling the ranks of the mercenaries that fought alongside Gaddafi's loyalists and who then fled Libya and resurfaced in northern Mali. According to sources in the new Libyan authorities, at least 500 Saharawis were captured by rebels during the conflict.

In the wider regional chaos and turmoil several Saharawis have picked the opportunity to shift sides (given the stalemate in the struggle for self-determination) and to find new sources of revenue (banditry, illegal traffics, kidnappings). On the other, we should also consider that Saharawis are nomads and are likely to sympathize with Tuareg claims and – a factor that should not be underestimated – they are capable of living in northern Mali's desert. The journey from the camps in Tindouf to Mali does not meet any geographical difficulty nor border control.

To date there aren't any reliable figures on the number of Saharawis fighting for Al Qaeda. In 2009 they were estimated around 60 to 80 individuals. The figure could now be four to five times greater. As happens with other non-sedentary communities, the Saharawis are often confused with Mali's indigenous Tuareg (Berabic Arabs) and Mauritania's Moors, but their language, the Hassanyah, makes them identifiable. Saharawis were already part of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and of Droukdal's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, both of whom then merged to form AQIM in 2007. Some of them have also held leading roles in these organizations.

Just like other sub-Saharan nomadic communities, traditional Islam has never been fundamentalist. This was true especially for older generations, but their world is now under attack from the influence of Salafists. Islamic extremism was spread by Saharawi students enrolled in Algerian universities during the days of Madani's FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) and/or by those indoctrinated by the propaganda of the Saudi Theological Institute in Mauritania's capital Nouakchott. Those ideas were then imported in the mosques in the refugee camps. Regional upheavals have done the rest.


The transhumance of Saharawis in the ranks of sub-Saharan terrorists groups has had consequences on POLISARIO's independence claims. For young generations the Saharawi cause is not as attractive or perceived heralding any appreciable result in the near future. This inevitably leads the youth to adhere to other ideologies or struggles.

A first element the unfading President Mohamed Abdulaziz should evaluate is his people's disaffection to the Front and its fight. This has lead the POLISARIO to a policy shift. During the last Congress of the Front that took place in Tifariti in December 2011 (where Saharawis from the camps, the Diaspora and the occupied territories met) the option of returning, after almost 20 years of useless UN lead negotiations, to an armed struggle against Morocco was put to votes. Apparently the majority of delegates voted in favor.

This does not mean the POLISARIO currently has the military capability of confronting the overwhelming Moroccan military forces (15/20 thousand scarcely equipped men against an army of 150 thousand Moroccans). But it surely serves the purpose, at least in the eyes of the Front's leadership, of reviving the nationalist struggle for independence. In practice, it is a means of addressing the frustration and will to fight of all those Saharawi youth now leaning towards fundamentalism.

POLISARIO's interventionist stance could theoretically deprive terrorism of some men, but could also backfire: the Saharawi struggle could become attractive for regional Islamic terrorism. And if this were to happen, it could yes have some positive effect on independence claims, but could also negatively impact the three countries neighboring Western Sahara: Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco. These are all countries that were lightly brushed by the Arab Spring.

Refugee camp near Tindouf

The Tindouf refugee camps have been the ground for the recruitment of terrorists for a while.

POLISARIO's return to war can only be avoided by a new round of negotiations that will put the current status quo into question. Morocco has no intention of allowing for Saharawi independence (Rabat is available for some form of autonomy under the crown), discussions over the referendum on self-determination are blocked by vetoes and by the United Nations' lack of resolve, even though they are lead by a US official (Christopher Ross, before him it was the turn of former US Secretary of State, James Baker, and in the future it could possibly be Colin Powell). There is basically no negotiated solution in sight. From this perspective, the Saharawis are a people without a future, citizens of a State without sovereignty.

The present is also dim, as reported in Amnesty International's yearly reviews. Abuses on the population, restrictions to freedom of expression/association, detention and torture, violations of human rights, individuals gone missing are all recurrent in the territories under Moroccan occupation. The same happens under the POLISARIO where abuses are against dissidents and on some war prisoners.

As opposed to Kurds, Armenians or Palestinians, the POLISARIO has never resorted to terrorism in its struggle. Their military actions have always been addressed against military objectives (facilities or Moroccan troops) and have tried to avoid the involvement of civilians. It is thus a paradox that such a movement has become one of the sources feeding north-African terrorism.

Regardless, rumors have it that young Saharawis are initially contacted in the refugee camps and are then taken to northern Mali where they immediately receive a four thousand euro bonus before being taken to the AQIM and MUJAO training camps. Following their training they are supplied with weapons and assigned to one of the Emir's katibahs (battalion).


The Saharawi issue is the classic example of how many opportunities and room there is for Islamic terrorism in the African continent every time rights are neglected, poverty is rampant and abuses are widespread. If terrorism is now concentrated in the south of Algeria, northern Mali, northern Nigeria and Somalia, it could soon extend to other areas:
        •    in Western Sahara thanks to the Saharawis,
    •    in Mauritania where a poor country is under a military dictatorship
    •    in Niger, that shares with Mali the same conflict between the Tuareg and central authorities
        •    in Chad, whose dictator/president Idriss Deby reigns since 1990 against an     opposition lead by the local Toubou Tuareg chiefs

The list could continue forever following the logic of cause and effect in the spreading of terrorism in Africa: Deby is part of the Zaghawa tribe that has lead the uprising in Darfur against Khartoum... Chadian opposition bases are in Benin and Burkina Faso... Burkina's president Blaise Compaoré has been ruling undisturbed since 1987...