ISIS, AQIM, and Polisario: How Do Terrorist Threats in the Sahel Affect Morocco?

Rabat - While the focus of international community and media in last years has been mainly on the situation in the Middle East where extremist groups have been gaining momentum, North Africa and the Sahel have become home to an array for radical armed forces looking to expand, including the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Morocco has been successful in countering domestic terrorism threats, yet the situation in the Sahel presents a different set of challenges.

An Alarming Situation

In the beginning of March, 2017, five leaders of four radical groups operating in the Sahel region appeared in a video announcing the merger of their organizations.

Led by veteran Tuareg militant Iyad Ag Ghaly, Ansar Dine, the Sahara branch of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Mourabitoun, and Katibat Macina merged to form Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (the “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims”).

The merger has signaled the increasing threat of extremist armed organizations in North Africa and the Sahel.

“The region has become very dangerous today because it is an area where both ISIS and al Qaeda are making their presence felt,” El Moussaoui El Ajlaoui, a researcher at the Institute for Africa and Middle East Studies (IAMES), told MWN.

He explained that the region is caught between expansion attempts by radical groups. Al Qaeda operates in Northern Mali, seeking to infiltrate the middle and the south of the country as well as the northwest Burkina Faso, while Boko Haram is seeking control over the Chad Basin.

In addition, an axis has been established between Ghat in southern Libya and Kidal in northern Mali.

“This axis is the hardcore of jihadist groups and transnational crime organizations active in cocaine, arms and human smuggling,” said Ajlaoui.

The presence of ISIS along the Libyan coast, where it formerly held control of the city of Sirte and other minor territories, in addition to its ties with loyal splinter groups in Tunisia, add to the fears of established terrorist networks in North Africa and the Sahel.

The danger of the situation in the region is highlighted by the number of terrorist attacks carried out by radical groups. According to the Long War Journal, al Qaeda and other allies and affiliated groups launched at least 257 attacks in Mali and the wider West Africa region in 2016.

The creation of the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims will only give impetus to these extremist organizations to carry out other attacks, larger in number and scale.

“The threat is big,” warned Abdelfattah El Fatihi, a Western Sahara and Sahel specialist, in conversation with MWN. “These groups have the potential to grow even more and enhance their capabilities, exploiting the safe haven the vast and uncontrolled desert provides.”

In addition to this geographical safe haven, these groups benefit from their ties with local ethnic communities and tribes, as well as the weakness of some central governments.

“We have before us a very complex and constantly changing radical map, where these groups have ties with ethnic groups and operate in complete absence of regional states,” said El Ajlaoui.

The Polisario Connection

In a newly published book, “Sahara, deserto di mafie e Jihad” (Sahara: A Desert of Mafia and Jihad), Italian journalists and researchers Massimiliano Boccolini and Alessio Postiglione shed light on the deteriorating security situation in North African and Sahel desert, including the Polisario-run Tindouf camps.

The authors state that the zone that extends from South Tindouf to northern Mali has turned into a “new Afghanistan,” threatening the security of foreigners while falling “under the control of al Qaeda and smugglers.”

The book confirms what several reports have said concerning the danger of the Polisario-run area in Algeria, pointing to the group’s crossover into radical and criminal activities.

“Because there is no hope on the horizon, because of the instrumentalization of the misery of the Tindouf camps residents for personal interests, young people in the camps are turning to smuggling and cross-border crimes,” said El Ajlaoui. “Jihadist movements have connections with these activities.”

In April,  Abdelhak El Khiam, the head of Morocco’s anti-terrorism Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations (BCIJ), revealed that 100 Polisario members joined the ranks of ISIS. The news points to the connections between Polisario, ISIS and other radical groups in the area.

El Fatihi explained that Polisario is seeking to diversify its sources of financing, which until now have come largely from Algeria.

“Polisario is facing a shortage of money so it had to look for it elsewhere. The only way to do so was to establish links with these groups which operate in a large unsecured area in the Algerian desert, Mali and Mauritania.”

The links between Polisario and radical groups are not recent. A report by European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center (ESISC) published in 2010 cited Mustapha Bouh, a former member of the group’s political bureau, who said that Polisario’s connections with the radical organizations dates back to the 1980s, when members of the group made contacts with the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria.

Later on, the group maintained relationships with militant and terrorist groups emanating from Algeria, such as the Islamic Armed Group (GIA), and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which would form the basis of AQIM in 2007.

The connection between Polisario and these organizations suggest the group may have taken part in terrorist activities. In 2003 members of Polisario carried an attack on the headquarters of la Societé nationale mauritaniene de l’industrie minière (SNIM), Mauritania’s national mining company, stealing 153 bottles of inflammable products and 12 km long of detonating cord, suspected of being destined for use in terrorist activities.

Two years later, Polisario armed vehicles were used by GSPC armed men in a deadly attack against a military barrack in Lamghiti, northern eastern Mauritania. Fifteen soldiers were killed, 17 others injured, and two went missing.

Polisario’s links with radical organizations are also furthered by the fact that some notorious jihadists in the Sahel are former members of the group.

In 2009, Omar Ould Sid Ahmed Ould Hamma, known as Omar Al Sahraoui, was hired by veteran AQIM terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar to kidnap three Spanish aid workers from the NGO Barcelona Accio Solidaria.

Adnane Abou Walid Al-Sahraoui, another former Polisario member, made himself known between 2011 and 2015 as a leading member of Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) and Al-Mourabitoun before joining ISIS.

In 2016 Abou Walid Al Sahraoui appeared on a video on Al Jazeera making threats against Morocco, calling for terrorist attacks to be carried against tourist attractions and security buildings in the kingdom.

To counter this trans-border terrorist threat, regional cooperation is paramount. Yet, Morocco has deplored lack of cooperation from Algeria, which raises serious questions about the reasons behind this reluctance.

Polisario’s terrorist connections, as mentioned earlier, is likely one of them.




  • The Moroccan Gold Eldorado

    The Moroccan Gold Eldorado, a Myth or a Reality?

    Rabat - Recently, a conspiracy theory video about a large gold discovery in Morocco is making rounds online. The video claims that a substantial gold reserve was discovered and is being extracted by a Canadian mining company called Maya Gold and Silver. We Moroccans are very proud human beings, we love our country and cherish...

  • Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani

    Qatar: How the Tables Are Turning in The Gulf

    Rabat - Amidst harsh sanctions and a long list of demands from its neighbors, Qatar’s ability to thrive under pressure may prove to be problematic for Saudi Arabia. As Saudi Arabia and its coalition attempt to wait out Qatar, the recent spat in the Gulf continues to become more and more global, and severely against...

  • FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2015 file photo, a plume of steam billows from the coal-fired Merrimack Station in Bow, N.H. If the nation doesn’t do more, the U.S. probably won’t quite meet the dramatic heat-trapping gas reduction goal it promised in last year’s Paris agreement to battle climate change, according to a new study. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)

    Climate Change : If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Fix It

    Chefchaouen - Climate change is happening at home and around the world. Chefchaouen is doing its part by embracing clean energy climate solutions and engaging its citizens in climate action. When it comes to fighting climate change, cities and local leaders are best positioned to lead that charge. Local leaders from coastal to landlocked communities are...

  • 20

    India Orders Internal Probe into Mistaken Use of Morocco-Spain Border Picture

    Hyderabad - The Indian Ministry of Interior on Wednesday ordered an internal investigation to find out how a picture of Morocco-Spain border was used in its annual report to show floodlights along the India-Pakistan border. What is most embarrassing is that the annual report of previous years was tabled during the Budget Session of Indian...

  • Amid Growing Tension, Thousands of Moroccans Stage Pro-Rif March in Rabat

    Neglect in Harsh Soil: The Deep Roots of the Rif Crisis

    Rabat - The ongoing protests in northern Morocco started almost eight months ago, but they have their origin in nearly a century of violent repression by the state. The Rif has, in spite of itself, got involved into a peaceful revolt since the death of the fishmonger Mohcine Fikri at the end of October 2016, a...

  • Tamim Bin Hamad al Thani emir of Qatar

    The Qatar Crisis: What Does It Mean?

    Rabat - The recent diplomatic fallout between Qatar and the rest of the Middle East could have serious economic and geopolitical consequences across the globe. Earlier this week, Qatar’s diplomatic crisis took an extreme turn as several Arab states severed diplomatic ties with the Gulf nation.  The original list of countries in the coalition against...

  • Moroccans spend Laylat al-Qadr, the 26th day of Ramadan, at the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca.

    Ramadan: Not just Abstinence from Daily Intakes 

    By Abdellatif Oudra Rabat - The observance of Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam, compels Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset. But it is not just about abstaining from food or drink.  Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is observed in commemoration of the revelation of Qur’an to the prophet Mohammad,...

  • Morocco Threatens to Terminate Agriculture Agreement with Europe

    Morocco and the EU: Managing the Future

    Rabat - Morocco enjoys proximity to Europe and is at an advantage of being favoured by the European Union as a close partner on political, economic, and cultural levels. Historical archives and political legacies tie Morocco directly with at least three influential European countries: France, Spain, and England. Demography, kinship, and immigration compel other EU...

  • The Educational and Cultural Implications of the Arab Spring

    The Educational and Cultural Implications of the Arab 'Spring'

    Rabat - In the last ten years or so, the Arab world has seen unprecedented collapses in the realms of politics and economy, among others. World NGOs regularly release area-specific rankings, in which Arab nations commonly rank at the bottom of lists in education, human rights, and income for instance while they top those of...

  • Thousands Hold Peaceful Demonstration in Memory of Mouhcine Fikri

    Al Hoceima and the Pedagogical Exercise

    Ottawa - What makes a democracy different from non-democracy? This is the classical and historical question asked by philosophers over the centuries and deeply questioned in the discipline of political science. Democracy cannot prevent inequality as the case in the United States where inequality is the highest globally. Democracy cannot stop corruption like in Brazil...