Terrorism and Politics in Mauritania

The last two weeks or so have seen Mauritanian politicians positioning themselves in different ways with regard to the issue of terrorism and Mauritanian cooperation with Europe against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Mauritania remains committed to a largely military strategy, and in a sense nothing has changed since earlier this summer/fall, when the Mauritanian army clashed several times with AQIM forces. Still, the remarks of both the regime and parts of the opposition suggest that Mauritanian politicians of various stripes see potential benefits in continuing to politicize an issue that has already been the subject of much discussion in Mauritania.

Last Sunday, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz addressed the opening session of a five-day anti-terror forum. Abdel Aziz promised additional attacks on AQIM in Mauritania and northern Mali and praised Mali’s president, indicating a continued attempt to bridge a rift between the two countries that developed last February over disagreements about ransom payments to AQIM. Abdel Aziz’s support for further attacks found an echo in Defence Minister Hamadi Ould Hamadi‘s call last week for an “offensive and dynamic strategy” that will involve expanding the presence of the Mauritanian military “throughout the country including parts ‘which has not had a physical presence of our forces for 34 years’.” Hamadi said the military will soon receive additional funding.

The forum itself yielded a number of recommendations, including the creation of an anti-terrorism charter, a center for teaching moderation, and policies to fight poverty and other perceived root causes of terrorism. Participants also called for dialogue with terrorists who surrender and lay down arms. Proponents believe these policy measures will complement military efforts.

As the regime and its allies have been outlining their position, opposition figures have been expressing disagreement. “Most” opposition groups boycotted the forum, though some opposition leaders attended. And the Islamist party Tawassoul spoke out against Mauritanian cooperation with France, cooperation the regime had seemed to favor. Kal points out that Tawassoul “has a miniscule following among average Mauritanians,” but goes on to say that Tawassoul’s stance is a sophisticated exercise in positioning that could increase its political relevance.

The regime appears to have substantial political muscle when it comes to the terrorism issue, but it is interesting that opposition parties see an opening for making their own mark in the debate. I wonder if that will tie the regime’s fortunes partly to how it performs in the fight with AQIM. Kal writes,

Notice that Tawassoul, like the rest of the political class, is not opposed to fighting AQIM but rejects assistance from those with “colonial backgrounds” in the region. Most Mauritanians in the opposition agree with this position but see little to gain from such outright opposition and share the same fears over Mauritania not being able to afford an aggressive, pre-emptive campaign against AQIM outside of the country, which lends them to a less categorical view of foreign military assistance (my emphasis).

If the opposition supports the goal of dismantling AQIM but rejects the details of the regime’s framework for doing so, they get to maintain patriotic credibility while potentially gaining the chance to saddle the regime with the political cost of military failures. If upcoming battles go against the regime or prove inconclusive, opposition parties could find themselves in a stronger position than they are now.

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