US ramps up ‘terrorism’ fight in Mauritania

Amid alleged threat from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the two countries have boosted security co-operation.

President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was re-elected in a widely criticised vote last month [AFP]

Citing shared goals of peace and security, the United States last month gave Mauritania a $21m pair of military aircraft outfitted with advanced surveillance equipment.

The gift came as senior staff from US Africa Command, which advances US security interests on the continent, met with Mauritania’s defence minister and army chief of staff to discuss methods of strengthening counter-terrorism.

The US has provided some form of security assistance to Mauritania for decades, having established its embassy in the capital Nouakchott in 1962.

But cooperation between the two countries deepened in recent years, amid a growing threat from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The benefits are mutual: In exchange for access to US resources, Mauritania presents the US with a strategic asset in its ongoing “war on terror”, experts say.

“Mauritania is a base for upsetting regional stability in West Africa, and that could have repercussions on the United States,” Jacob Zenn, an African affairs analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, told Al Jazeera. “Historically a lot of the key militants in the Sahel … have come from Mauritania, [so] a strong Mauritania that has security over its borders and stability within the country is a plus for the entire region.”

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Although Mauritania has been independent from France for more than half a century, that European country has long remained Mauritania’s most significant security partner. To the US, meanwhile, Mauritania has historically been “as close to irrelevant as you could get”, said David DesRoches, a professor with the Washington-based Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.

That changed after September 11, 2001. As the US launched its “war on terror”, Mauritania – where AQIM has steadily gained influence over the past decade – took on a new relevance, DesRoches told Al Jazeera.

“The fact that they’re right on the front lines, particularly of AQIM … makes the country a lot more significant,” he said. “If there wasn’t an al-Qaeda organisation, because of things like slavery, female genital mutilation, the coup and all that, our security cooperation would be extremely minimal.”

Mauritania has re-organised its intelligence gathering and border security in recent years, especially after an attempted suicide bombing in Nouakchott in 2011.

by - Andrew Lebovich, researcher on North Africa and Sahel,

Slavery remains an active practice in Mauritania despite repeated pledges to end it, human rights groups say, while the country’s governance has been dictated by a series of military coups – most recently in 2008, when incumbent President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz seized power. He was re-elected last month in a widely criticised vote.

On the security front, US assistance to Mauritania comes in the form of military equipment, training, and intelligence sharing, noted Andrew Lebovich, a New-York-based researcher and analyst focused on North Africa and the Sahel.

Their counter-terrorism relationship has existed since the advent of the 2002 Pan-Sahel Initiative, the precursor to the broader Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, a US project to assist African governments stem the flow of armed groups.

“Mauritania has re-organised its intelligence gathering and border security in recent years, especially after an attempted suicide bombing in Nouakchott in 2011,” Lebovich told Al Jazeera, pointing to previous Mauritanian intervention in Mali against AQIM camps in that country.

One of Abdel Aziz’s key priorities as president has been to battle “terrorism” in the region, cementing his role as a Western ally. “The United States government sees stability in the Sahara/Sahel largely through the lens of counter-terrorism … The government wants to avoid what it sees as ‘ungoverned spaces’ where they believe terrorist groups can develop and flourish, and Mauritania has made itself a willing and effective partner for American and French counter-terrorism operations in the region,” Lebovich said.

The Mauritanian National Army did not respond to Al Jazeera’s multiple requests for comment on the matter, but in an online statement, the army said the latest US visit “focused on the relationship of military cooperation between the two countries and the ways and means to further strengthen them”.

Marion Wohlers, a spokesperson for the US embassy in Nouakchott, lauded the partnership, telling Al Jazeera: “We are focusing our efforts on providing the Mauritanian military the proper tools, such as aircraft, training, and advanced counter-terrorism techniques, that will enable the military to secure the border and react quickly and decisively to any terrorist incursions … Mauritania remains an important partner in the Sahel in terms of establishing regional security.” 

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In the years ahead, Zenn said, Mauritania must look to tackle some of its core problems, such as corruption, which could fuel future conflicts. Mauritania scored 30 in the 2013 Transparency International corruption index; a score of 0 is considered “highly corrupt” and a score of 100 is “very clean”. Mauritania was 119th out of 177 countries in the global ranking.

“That could become a grievance of the people,” Zenn said. “[Mauritania must also] make sure that its political system is inclusive of various ideologies in the country.”

Faced with the classic problems of a failed state, DesRoches added, Mauritania has an underfunded army and about two-thirds of the country is desert, an area that is tough to police. Decisions are made by a privileged few, ethnic strife prevails and Mauritania’s security forces are increasingly challenged to defend their turf. “It is a very difficult security environment,” he said.

Meanwhile, the threat from AQIM continues to escalate. The group’s attack last year on a refinery in neighbouring Algeria, which claimed dozens of casualties, served as a sobering reminder of AQIM’s capabilities.

“Algeria is very, very serious about protecting its cash-generating infrastructure, and the fact that AQIM can mass and take over some of that – that was a real wake-up call for a lot of people,” DesRoches said.

Follow Megan O’Toole on Twitter: @megan_otoole

Source: Al Jazeera