The danger in the desert - Monocolumn | Monocle


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20 December 2009

Western Saharan activist Aminatou Haidar is finally homeward bound after a month-long hunger strike, yet her stint on the floor of Spain’s Lanzarote airport has drawn attention once again to one of the world’s most neglected conflicts – the clash between Morocco and the Polisario Front over phosphate-rich Western Sahara (Haidar’s stretch in Lanzarote began after she left her homeland to collect a human-rights prize in the US and Moroccan officials said that they would not allow her to re-enter the territory).

Following Spain’s evacuation of the Western Sahara in 1975, Morocco took control, which in turn sparked the Polisario Front independence movement. Algeria actively backs Polisario’s demands for a separate state for the Sahrawi people, many of whom live in refugee camps. Now a resolution to this 30-year dispute is not only critical to Morocco’s economic and regional standing but also to global security, which faces new threats from the spread of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The Western Sahara’s extensive borders with Algeria to the east and Mauritania to the south are overrun with traffickers and contraband merchants who, experts say, are using the money they make to breathe new life into regional terrorist networks. According to a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report in November by AQIM expert Jean-Pierre Filiu, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is using smuggling networks in the Sahel region as a base to promote its ambitions for global jihad. And, US officials say, the threat posed by AQIM is growing.

In November, armed AQIM militants abducted three Spanish aid workers from a convoy travelling through Mauritania. In the same week, a French businessman in Mali was also abducted, sparking fears that ransoms paid would be used to finance new aggressions against local governments or foreign targets. AQIM has also claimed responsibility for this summer’s suicide attack on the French embassy in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, and has engaged in skirmishes with Algerian and Mauritanian security forces.

Last Wednesday, US State Department counter-terrorism coordinator Daniel Benjamin urged nations around the world “to adopt a no-concessions policy toward hostage-takers so we can diminish this alternative funding stream in regions like the Sahel”.

With the world’s attention back on the Western Sahara, it’s important a more consistent diplomatic approach to the issue be developed. Patchwork efforts of the kind that secured Haidar’s return are insufficient. As UN high commissioner of refugees, António Guterres said on a September visit to the Western Sahara, “humanitarian aid can have only a palliative effect, while a political solution is once and for all”.


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