The terrorism that Tunisia experienced in the 1980s erupted in Algeria in the 1990s. The wave of terrorist activity later spread west to Morroco. Then in 2005 Mauritania to the south became engulfed in the political violence sweeping north Africa. On June 4, in a first assualt against the army, some 150 terrorists attacked a military barracks in the Lemgheity region. The outcome was 15 soldiers dead and 15 wounded. Six terrorists were killed. The country was plunged into turmoil.
The attack was widely condemned by Mauritania’s political partes, whose members took to the streets to voice their anger.
Just two days later, the US administration, which had planned to make Mauritania a barrier against the spread of terrorism, launched operation Flintlock. Its aim was to support Mauritania in the fight against terrorism.
France was at first opposed to American intervention in what was traditionally its area of influence. But, according to diplomatic sources, Paris accepted it, not wanting to be in the frontline of an anti-terrorism battle. Then the US withdrew its military cooperation with Mauritania after General Abdel Aziz seized control in a military coup August 2008.
Terrorism had not been completely rooted out.
The gunmen struck in December 2007 near Ghalaouiya, killing three soldiers and again in February 2008. The Israeli embassy,which had never been targeted since diplomatic relations were established in 1999, was attacked. Three French citizens were injured.
General Abdel Aziz ordered the embassy to be closed after Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.
More assualts against the army were to follow. Twelve soldiers were killed in an ambush in September. Their bodies were decapitated.
Western intelligence services reported Al Qaeda had numerous members embedded in Mauritania. Some characterised this entire region of Africa as the new Afghanistan — a claim strongly denied by Mauritania’s foreign minister.
Alnaha Bint Djaddi Oueld Meknes said: “I would stress that there are neither Al Qeada cells nor training camps in Mauritania. Without doubt some have infiltrated from neighbouring countries. But we’re trying to bring an end to this dangerous phenomonen.”
We went to the information ministry where we were told the same thing — everything is under control.
Information Minister Mohamed Oueld Al-Bukhari said: “We have well-equipped, well-trained military units which go out on patrol to protect border regions and other areas that could be targeted by terrorist groups. In general Mauritania enjoys security and is under control, thank God.”
And when asked about the question of military cooperation the minister was not forthcoming on the grounds that such matters are considered state secrets, and a red line that can’t be crossed.
France, which is becoming increasingly concerned about issues of illegal immigration and terrorism, sent a senior military officer to explore the possibility of security cooperation between the two countries.
Defence chief Jean Louis Georgelin said: “We’ve spoken with the General, primarily about the situation in the region and above all about military cooperation that could bring our two armies closer together. We’re considering training that we could do together.”
Does Islam play a big role in this upsurge in terrorism? We visited the main mosque in the centre of the capital. The faithful came and prayed quietly and left. There were no signs of extremism in the sermons.
Mauritania has an active Islamic political party. We spoke to its leader. Mohamed Ghoulam Al-Haj Sheikh said: “Those who kill innocent people in Algeria and Mauritania and other countries, they claim to do it in the name of Islam. Muslim scholars have disassociated Islam from these kinds of acts and in no case does Islam condone murder. Islam is far removed from all that, but extremists exist in our country as they do in Western countries.
There’ve been killings in the name of religion in Ireland and other Christian communities, but that’s never blamed in Christianity itself and no one points the finger at the Christian faith. It never incited people to murder. But it’s seen differently.
Bombs have been set off in the Japanese metro. Why have we not sought to blame religion there?”
So what other causes can there be for the bloodshed in Mauritania? We met the leader of the Progressive Party, who rejects the idea that poverty is a major factor. Mohamed Oueld Mouloud said:
“We can’t say that poverty is a cause of terrorism because Mauritania has long been a poor country just like many Arab countries. But we have never seen this phenomonen before. Terrorism appeared in Africa in the form of armed mafia-type groups. We also find these groups in Congo or in non-Muslim countries in South America or in Asia. So this phenomonen of resentment is rooted in southern countries.
The Muslim world has struggled with problems of humiliation and justice in many Muslim and Arab countries, as is the case in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya. In these countries Muslims feel humiliated and victimised.”
The Mauritanian press still has some degree of freedom. It maintains in successive articles and stories that the battle against terrorism is far from being won.
The government clearly takes a very different view but many in the country question its approach to tackling the problem.
General Abdel Aziz, now an elected president, came to power through military might. That has not prevented others using from force to challenge his authority.