by: Maggie Fick
After years of being the country in the Sahel with the biggest al-Qaeda problem, Mauritania now stands as a model to governments across the region grappling with militant Islam.
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The remarkable shift would have been difficult to foresee when jihadis from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were kidnapping and killing European tourists in the desert, attempting to shoot their way into embassies with suicide bombs and later, in 2011, threatening to kill President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
But in the nearly five years since security in the fragile and impoverished Sahel began to deteriorate after the fall of Muammer Gaddafi in Libya, Mauritania has become a zone of relative calm. Neither AQIM nor any other Islamist militant group has carried out a successful attack in the country since 2011.
This has boosted the Aziz administration’s attempts to lure foreign investment. But regional security experts say the recent release of documents by the US government suggests there could be a more complicated reason for the halt in attacks.
According to documents released by Washington in March that had been seized during the US raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hide-out, al-Qaeda leaders discussed a plan in 2010 to broker a peace deal with Mauritania.
Though the government has since denied such a deal was ever struck, the documents have caught the attention of Sahara security watchers perplexed in recent years over why jihadist attacks — and arrests of suspected terrorists — have slowed.
“A number of people are looking at these documents and saying that this could help explain why,” says Andrew Lebovich, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations focusing on north Africa and the Sahel.
“Mauritanians have traditionally formed an important contingent of AQIM” and were at the core of the leadership of an offshoot known as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, he says. The escape in recent years of high-profile jailed extremists imprisoned for their role in AQIM attacks also raised eyebrows.
Deal or no deal, analysts credit the government’s combination of being both tough on security and open to talking to the Islamist extremists they jailed as improving security. This change is even more pronounced relative to other countries in west Africa that are afflicted by the spread of extremist violence and the ambitions of AQIM as it attacks countries beyond its north African desert strongholds.
Defence minister Diallo Mamadou Bathia says the government’s prioritising of security has been costly. “We learnt very early that this battle would require great efforts, and the president directed a lot of resources towards this to the detriment of other sectors like health and education,” he says. “It was a huge sacrifice by our people but it was necessary — had we not done this, we would be a country in danger, like Mali.”
The minister says the government prioritised security spending at a time when the country had the advantage of high iron ore prices — its main export — and when economic growth was above 6 per cent. It was then that the US stepped up its support for Mauritania’s security. In 2014, the US gave Mauritania two military aircraft equipped with surveillance systems worth a combined $21m.
Those supportive of the government’s approach say the range of security measures it has taken over several years have turned the tide in Mauritania. The defence minister says these initiatives — reforming the army, strengthening surveillance and intelligence capabilities, and training a rapid intervention force — are one of two essential pillars of the government’s approach.
The other is ensuring that the Islam practised in the country is moderate. This effort is known as “security of thought” and is as essential as the military battle, says minister of Islamic affairs Ahmed Ould Ehil Daoud. But the government’s focus is not only on promoting a more moderate interpretation of Islam. It is also on controlling more radical versions.
“We have antennae everywhere”, says Mohamed Sid Ahmed Tfeil, director of mosques for the ministry. “If an imam says two words that have hatred in them that go against the state or our Islam, I call him and tell him not to do that.”
Asked how he learns if the imam has erred, Mr Tfeil says the ministry relies on “secret police” in the country’s more than 8,600 registered mosques as informants. This tight control stands in contrast to regulation of Islam in other countries in the region, which are not Islamic states, have indigenous Christian populations and do not have ministries devoted to regulation of the faith.