The Rise in Terrorist Attacks in the Western Sahara

by Lt. Colonel Mohamed Taghioullah Ould Nema [ Cabinet of the Mauritanian National Army ]

The Mauritanian government is taking steps to prevent Al-Qaeda’s terrorist acts, including suicide bombings and kidnappings in the region. Added to this threat are the explosives Al-Qaeda obtains from landmines and unexploded ordnance scattered throughout the region after years of conflict in Western Sahara. The United Nations Development Programme and various countries work to remove these landmines and items of UXO, which is complicated by the lack of a Landmine Impact Survey to access the contamination’s extent.

In 2009, while driving toward the French embassy in Nouakchott, Mauritania, I suddenly encountered a large blast. As I approached the scene, I saw the worst sight I have ever seen—the results of a suicide bomber explosion. The 20-year-old man had blown himself up trying to kill two innocent embassy staff members while they were exercising. The explosion split the mans corpse into three parts: His head to stomach was dismembered and lying in the center of the path; his lower part was thrown about 12 meters (13 yards) away; and pieces of his legs and other small bits were strewn about on the pavement. He committed this action during the daytime, in front of everyone, and I saw it myself.

Immediately following the attack, fear paralyzed the people nearby. No one wanted to move because they were shocked and revolted by the explosion, and they were worried about additional attacks.

A sentry guards the approach road to a lightly guarded Mauritanian Army munitions supply point, visible in the background, in a fairly remote location in the Sahara Desert. A sentry guards the approach road to a lightly guarded Mauritanian Army munitions supply point, visible in the background, in a fairly remote location in the Sahara Desert.
All photos courtesy of John Stevens, PM/WRA, U.S. Department of State
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Al-Qaedas Terrorism in Mauritania

This was the first suicide bombing in the country and the beginning of many Al-Qaeda el Maghreb Islámi (AQMI or Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb) attacks in Mauritania. For example, the Israeli embassy in Nouakchott was blown up by a grenade and assaulted by terrorist fighters, wounding three people. Three French tourists were killed at Aleg (in the deep country). Finally, AQMI killed French captive Michel Germaneau in retaliation for a French raid that killed six AQMI militants.1 AQMI had kidnapped Michel Germaneau in Niger on the border with Mali and Algeria, but where he was killed remains unknown.1,2

The Mauritanian government is determined to fight terrorists. Many specialized units in counterterrorism are stationed on the borders between Algeria, Mauritania and Mali. The soldiers comprising these units were highly trained in counterterrorism techniques by American and French counterterrorism experts. In addition, the Mauritanian government essentially provided all the needed equipment to the units (e.g., helicopters, vehicles, radar, an armored personnel carrier, night-vision goggles, etc.).

Using technology and satellite data, Mauritanias counterterrorism team is gathering accurate intelligence extending beyond the country’s borders to stop the extremists before they can launch new attacks. A joint tactical-operational center was created in Algeria. This center provides updated intelligence information, assesses the security situation and coordinates shared actions against AQMI.

Other bandits, arms traffickers and drug sellers are located in the same region as the AQMI fighters and can collaborate with them in terms of resupply or equipment support, although AQMI members govern all the military actions. Many AQMI fighters are former soldiers of Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (Algerian Islamic insurgents). AQMI is building its capacities in many ways: It recruits young people and trains them through Islamist conditioning; it kidnaps hostages for ransom; and it obtains weapons and ammunition from abandoned minefields and fragile military camps.

Various arms and explosive remnants of war that can be utilized illicitly are readily available to terrorists in the Western Sahara region. This area was a battlefield, and it has not been cleared of the UXO. This means AQMI and others can take advantage of this situation to resupply their arms coffers. Moreover, many government weapons stockpiles and military bases are not built according to modern standards. Some of these ammunition and light-weapon warehouses, therefore, are not secure, and AQMI fighters could conceivably penetrate them without too much difficulty and obtain weapons from them.

Mauritanian Army officers and an official from the NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency, during an assessment visit to one of Mauritania’s remote and lightly guarded munitions supply points. NAMSA, the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, and Italy are working together to assist Mauritania to improve the physical security and stockpile management of its arms and munitions, and to destroy munitions that are excess to Mauritania’s national security needs or that have deteriorated to the point that they are a humanitarian threat to civilians who live in proximity to some of the depots.
Mauritanian Army officers and an official from the NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency, during an assessment visit to one of Mauritania’s remote and lightly guarded munitions supply points. NAMSA, the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, and Italy are working together to assist Mauritania to improve the physical security and stockpile management of its arms and munitions, and to destroy munitions that are excess to Mauritania’s national security needs or that have deteriorated to the point that they are a humanitarian threat to civilians who live in proximity to some of the depots.

Remnants-of-War and Minefield Removal

Mauritanias humanitarian-demining office has cleared many minefields since signing the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction. More than 150,000 mines of various types were removed, but the danger continues because many battlefields from the Western Sahara have not been cleared. Data is lacking about the exact mine and UXO locations since no comprehensive Landmine Impact Survey has been completed in the region.3 Western Sahara is contaminated following years of Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguia el Hamra y Río de Oro (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro, or Frente POLISARIO) and Morocco conflict. The UXO and mines are especially prevalent along the walls called “berms” created by Morocco to protect against the Frente POLISARIO. In addition, terrorists can easily reactivate some minefields (marked areas that are not entirely cleared but have a small safe path within them) by adding one or two landmine strips to change the pattern. While military-camp security is very tight in the main towns, the situation is far less secure in the deep country, which makes it easy for terrorists to obtain weapons.

The main mine-action actors are the Mauritanian Army Engineering Corps and a few Mauritanian nongovernmental organizations. The United Nations Development Programme, Canada, the United States and France have supported mine-clearance and mine-risk education programs. However, the lack of accurate assessment and Technical Survey, coupled with a lack of good management, have undermined Mauritania’s success in making its lands safe. As a result, mines can still be found in many locations along Mauritania’s northern frontier and these weapons are used by bombers, terrorists or arms traffickers, who can sell these devices to extremists. J

Biography

Mohamed Ould NemaLt. Colonel Mohamed Ould Nema is a graduate of the Mohamed V University in Rabat, Morocco. He participated in several training programs, including courses in France, Egypt, Algeria and Syria, as well as the UNDP Senior Managers’ Course presented by the Mine Action Information Center at James Madison University. Formerly Head of the Mauritanian National Demining Office, he is now Inspector in the Cabinet of the National Army Chief Of Staff.


Mohamed Ould Nema
Inspector
Cabinet of the Mauritanian National Army Chief of Staff
P.O. Box 208
Nouakchott / Mauritania
Tel: +223 727 3795
E-mail: ouldnema(at)yahoo.fr

Endnotes

  1. “Sarkozy Condemns Killing of Hostage Michel Germaneau.” BBC. 26 July 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-10760892. Assessed 1 February 2011.
  2. “Al Qaeda Claims Kidnap of French Man in Niger: TV.” Reuters. 6 May 2010. http://reut.rs/gANqgb. Assessed 1 February 2011.
  3. “Western Sahara.” Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. 2002. http://www.the-monitor.org/index.php/publications/display?url=lm/2003/western_sahara.html. Assessed 1 February 2011.