A forum devoted to current political, economic trends, and news of the Maghreb region.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Death in the Polisario Front

The death of the Polisario Front leader, Mohamed Abdelaziz, in Algeria last week has brought renewed attention to the conflict of the Western Sahara. While some may hope for some overture in the conflict, his demise will not usher in a grand shift in the Polisario Front’s hardline rejectionist strategy for Sahrawi independence. An uncompromising strategy that is shaped in Algiers rather than in the Polisario Front’s camps in Tindouf, Algeria. The future leadership of the Polisario Front, which will be elected after the perfunctory mourning period, will continue the Front’s military and political reliance on Algeria as an integral party in the stalemated conflict.

Mohamed Abdelaziz, a native of Marrakech, Morocco, had been secretary general of the Polisario Front since 1976, a year after Morocco annexed the contested territory of the Western Sahara from Spanish colonial administration. During Abdelaziz’s leadership, the Polisario Front pursued an obdurate secessionist campaign for independence, fighting a guerilla warfare from 1975 until 1991 when the UN brokered a ceasefire with the aim of establishing a referendum for self-determination. Almost three decades later, no such plebiscite has taken place and the conflict has effectively descended into a regional quagmire. Despite many UN attempts to negotiate a comprehensive settlement to the conflict, all parties continue to advance their own intransigent claims.

With Abdelaziz at the helm of the Polisario Front, the separatist movement’s biggest achievement has undoubtedly been the high profile international attention this little known conflict has continued to garner. Abdelaziz’s public relations approach has framed the conflict in colonial terms, as the Polisario, somewhat successfully cast the Moroccan annexation and subsequent rule over the Western Sahara as a foreign colonial occupation in violation of self-determination principles. In so doing, it managed to deemphasize the historical and cultural roots that link the region to Moroccan territorial claims. The success of this discourse of occupation was recently on display during the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s visit to the Sahrawi camps. As the Secretary General toured the camps, he recklessly and most undiplomatically, called Morocco’s control of the territory “an occupation” much to the furore of Morocco.

The Polisario increasingly capitalized on nongovernmental organizations’ scathing reports of Moroccan human rights violations in the territory to frame the conflict as a struggle against authoritarianism. Abdelaziz even courted the support of celebrities like Spanish actor Javier Bardem, who made a documentary film, “Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony," on the Western Sahara that claims to shed light on the Moroccan control of the territory and abuses of human rights. The documentary, probably wouldn’t have caught anyone’s attention, including a high-level congressional viewing, if it were not the project of the Hollywood A-lister and Oscar-winning actor.

Beyond the use of public relations and the media, Abdelaziz has rejected any proposals calling for anyting short of full independence of the territory, even when Morocco compromised in its position and offered a plan for Sahrawi autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty in 2007. The plan has US, France and Spain's support, but the Polisario and its patron, Algeria, have rejected the plan as a mere Moroccan attempt to legitimize its de facto control of the territory. The talks between the two parties (some say three parties including Algeria) to work on confidence-building measures have led nowhere over the last few years, and change in leadership of the Polisario will likely not result in any breakthrough in the polisario rejectionist position, that primarily centers around the right of the Sahrawis to self-determination. Such principle, while affirmed by international norms, is unlikely to yield any practical comprehensive solution to the conflict.

Modern conception of self-determination could grant people in the Western Sahara a choice for autonomy and sovereignty. However, it does not lay down the parameters of defining such people. A simple theoretical discussion on the evolution of the norm of self-determination leaves us with the contentious question of who is entitled to take part in deciding the future of the Western Sahara through the UN sponsored referendum. To be sure, the dizzying number of UN resolutions, as the Western Sahara conflict shows, fail to demarcate the contours within which an identity exists, while clearly positing the right of self-determination as sine qua non to self-governance. However, such conceptualization of the Western Sahara case also reflects the United Nations’ lack of historical considerations of the territory, which could have enriched its understanding of the complex identity issues that are at stake for all parties involved in the conflict.

The application of self-determination also discounts historical relationships of allegiance that existed between Moroccan sultans and leading Sahrawi tribes. These allegiance rapports were recognized in the International Court of Justice’s famous advisory opinion in 1975. Boundaries of the territory itself are colonial creations and were drawn with no respect for existing nomadic tribes that roamed the whole Saharan and Sahel regions. Self-determination of peoples, in the Western Sahara (as demarcated now), legitimizes colonial structures that were imposed in the first place. In other words, the United Nations’ attempt to implement the referendum for self-determination in the Western Sahara is based on colonial imposed demarcations of the region, and as such, it cannot result in an adequate resolution to the conflict.

In addition to identity and historical factors, the fight over the Western Sahara is mostly beset by regional and international factors. Past non-interventionist strategies followed by major international powers and lack of international urgency of the issue contributed to prolonging the conflict. Only targeted pressure and active diplomatic engagement from the United States, France or the European community as a block can provide a window of hope in the resolution of the dispute, and a much needed relief to the plight of the thousands of Sahrawis in the camps of Tindouf.

Most importantly, the nature of inter-Maghrebi politics, especially, the rivalry between Morocco and Algeria has fueled the conflict and has exacerbated the situation in the territory. Domestic issues have further fomented this rivalry namely the role of the military in Algeria, and its hard line strategy vis-à-vis the conflict in the Western Sahara. While Morocco has offered a slight compromise with the autonomy plan, there is still mass domestic support for the “Moroccanity” of the Western Sahara and the territorial integrity of Morocco.


The passing of the long time leader of the Polisario Front, Mohamed Abdelaziz, won’t do much to alter this complex web of realities. The next leader of the Polisario will still take major cues from “Le Pouvoir” up in Algiers, while any prospects of regional integration and cooperation necessary to face the security challenges in north Africa and the Sahel region will continue to stall.

In Defense of the Rif and the Pitfalls of Parachute Journalism

One of the problem with modern day journalism is the tendency to sensationalize stories, and the use of catchy dramatic titles, often with little analytical nuance and value. Leela Jacinto’s piece in Foreign Policy this week subscribes to this unfortunate trend of parachute journalism that labors to grasp at straws of relevance, but sadly fails to deliver. The article is misleading both in its title and content. The author makes a number of questionable blanket statements in its attempt to establish a tenuous link between the recent wave of terrorism in France and Belgium, and the northern mountainous region of Rif in Morocco, where some of the terrorists claim ancestral homeland. Jacinto goes even farther than this, making the unsubstantiated assertion that the Rif region is the “heartland of global terrorism” – not Molenbeek, Raqqa, or Waziristan. She writes:

At the heart of terrorist strikes across the world over the past 15 years lies the Rif. A mountainous region in northern Morocco, stretching from the teeming cities of Tangier and Tetouan in the west to the Algerian border in the east, the Rif is an impoverished area rich in marijuana plants, hashish peddlers, smugglers, touts, and resistance heroes that has rebelled against colonial administrators, postcolonial kings, and any authority imposed from above. For the children of the Rif who have been transplanted to Europe, this background can combine with marginalization, access to criminal networks, and radicalization to make the vulnerable ones uniquely drawn to acts of terrorism.”


What evidence does Jacinto present to substantiate these claims? Notorious terrorists such as Najim Laachouri and the parents of Salah Abdeslam were born in Morocco in the Rif. That evidence seems thin. She does offer the slight disclaimer at the end of paragraph that the ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdlehamid Abaaoud, didn’t come from the Rif, which should provide an early debunking lacunae of the entire premise of the article:

Laachraoui was Riffian: a Belgian national predominantly raised in the Schaerbeek neighborhood of Brussels but born in Ajdir, a small Moroccan town with a proud Rif history. Paris attack suspect Salah Abdeslam and his brother Brahim, who was one of the Paris attackers who targeted bars and restaurants in the 10th and 11th arrondissements before blowing himself up at a popular Paris eatery on Nov. 13, 2015, were also both Riffian by parentage. (Ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud was not of Riffian origin, for what it’s worth — his family came from southern Morocco.)

Jacinto’s article does not offer any analysis of the complex radicalization and indoctrination of these primarily European citizens. Not a single one of these terrorists was radicalized, indoctrinated, or trained in the Rif Mountains. None of them lived, if at all, in the Rif for any extensive period of time. The fact that they or their parents were born in one of the most marginalized, poorest regions in Morocco, home to cannabis, contraband smuggling, and violent history with colonialism and the autocratic Makhzen state are indicators that the essence of radical religious terrorism that is gripping Europe and the world today lies in the Rif Mountains.

The Riffian identity and culture, and the “baggage of neglect”, as the article contends without any shred of evidence sociological or otherwise, is radicalizing. Placed in a comparative perspective, Jacinto claims that Turkish Belgians are not as militant as Moroccan Belgians, simply because they are not exposed to Arabic Wahhabi literature. Either Jacinto does not know, or prefers to ignore the fact that the Wahhabi ideology has been long translated to many world languages, including Turkish.  Moreover, we know that several of these European Muslim terrorists do not speak Arabic and rely on translated videos and literature of radical Islamism. ISIS has also been more successful in recruiting homegrown European terrorists in their own language. But more devastating to the article is the lack of basic facts about the Rif. Riffians are predominantly Amazigh, who are ethnically and linguistically not Arab, and do not speak Arabic. According to Jacinto’s argument, they are as foreign to Wahhabi ideology disseminated in the Arabic language as the Turks are.

The author also makes the feeble argument that the secular cultural history of modern Turkey explains the lack of Turkish terrorists in Europe. No evidence is provided of this – only the conjecture of one of the sources in her article. However, we know that there are a number of Turkish terrorists fighting for ISIS. According to the Soufan group, there are 2,100 Turkish fighters with ISIS, the fourth largest contingency of radical Islamists after Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Russia (not an Arab-speaking country).

The general premise is that these Riffians or their parents brought a sort of baggage of marginalization with them to Europe, which facilitated their radicalization, regardless of their early criminal background or individual alienation in a society that seeks to radically assimilate them as European citizens only.
                                                  
Jacinto seems to think that all she needs to do is point out that some of the recent terrorists in Europe are from Moroccan-Riffian descent in order to offer conclusive proof of a Moroccan-Riffian radical gene. That is a dangerously false assertion on a number of levels. First of all, these terrorists are more Belgian or French than Moroccan. Some don't even speak the Amazigh dialects or associate culturally or cognitively with their land of origin. Their radicalization happened in Europe and their malaise is a European one of integration and assimilation, legitimized by reference to a violent religious eschatology. The problem is located more in European societies where the radicalized Moroccan transplants are liminal individuals with a dangerous sense of identity crisis.

One of the major characteristics of religious terrorism is that sense of alienation in one’s society as evidenced by generations of religious extremists from the Christian identity movement at the heart of the Oklahoma City bombing, to the Jewish zealotry of Baruch Goldstein, and the apocalyptic world view of Aum Shinrikyo’s perverted Buddhism in Japan. The sense of marginalization of a great number of Muslims feel at home, be it in the Muslim majority states under the yoke of authoritarian rule, or in European countries facing a divisive dangerous identity crisis. These radical outsiders view themselves at the fringe of their socio-political system, where violence becomes a sacramental act justified by ossified religious principles, and legitimized through a reference to a transcendent violent passage to the afterlife.

The article commits the sin of collectivization and cast the whole Rif region in disrepute. Rif is among one of the most disadvantaged regions in Morocco, with a particularly bloody history of state violence. But several regions in Morocco feature the same menu of socio-economic ostracism and pathologies, with little or similar recourse to violence.


The fact that there are, indeed, violent terrorists who are born and radicalized in Morocco is irrefutable. After all, there are more than 1200 Moroccans fighting for ISIS according to the Soufan group. But the facile assumptions underpinning this article by an “award-winning international news reporter,” and the sensationalized claim that the Rif is the hotbed of global terrorism today are egregious and devoid of any analytical or empirical value. Radical Islamism is not an ethnic issue, it is a complex set of religious, socio-economic, and identity-based problems. ISIS has reprehensibly demonstrated that violent Islamist extremism knows no national, ethnic, racial or social boundaries. Its sources or hotbeds are only a reality in the mind of frivolous journalists looking for sensationalized headlines.