According to an AFP report, citing an alleged al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) intermediary, the terrorists received assistance from Polisario members to enter the camps, acquire their weapons, find their intended victims, and then flee the camp with their hostages. This operation could only have succeeded with the assistance of local sympathizers among the Polisario in Rabouni, which is one of their headquarters sites, tightly controlled through armed checkpoints manned by military and security services.
This is even more hard evidence that elements of the Polisario are becoming increasingly, and dangerously, affiliated with AQIM’s terrorist and criminal operations in the Sahara/Sahel region of North Africa. It is the growing link between the Polisario and AQIM that is a serious threat to the security of a region already fragile from regimes in transition in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. AQIM and its sympathizers are poised to profit even further from this instability. It is also the continued existence of these refugee camps that makes possible this growing cooperation between al-Qaeda and members of the Polisario.
International refugee advocacy and assistance organizations, such as the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), have warned for years that long-term refugee warehousing in semi-permanent camps is both a serious violation of the refugees’ human rights under international law, and is often a significant threat to the security of those areas where such camps are located.
In an address on November 6th, Moroccan King Mohammed VI remarked on the fate of the refugees, stating that “The success of Morocco’s…approach [to reform] should make it possible for our fellow citizens in the Tindouf camps to enjoy the same opportunities and nurture the same hopes and aspirations as their brothers and sisters in Morocco’s southern provinces in a united, region-based, democratic and development-oriented country that welcomes all its sons.”
He regretted that the refugees “…who live in an isolated, sealed-off area in the Tindouf camps, are still being subjected to the worst forms of deprivation, repression and humiliation, in outright denial of human dignity and their basic, legitimate rights.”
Effective steps must be taken now to allow these refugees to voluntarily exit these camps, whether it be to Morocco or elsewhere, to resolve their current status. At a minimum, it is critical that the Polisario drop their refusal to allow the UN to conduct a census to determine how many people are actually in these camps and who they are.
The kidnappings also points to a larger problem, the need for more cooperation among countries of the region in fighting al-Qaeda and other threats to regional security in the Maghreb and Sahel regions.
Currently, the U.S. deals bilaterally on security and counterterrorism with Algeria and Morocco, the two principal parties with interests in the refugee issue. Morocco has offered a compromise solution, with U.S. and international support, to settle the refugee issue and all other issues between it and the Polisario. Algeria, the Polisario’s main sponsor, is reluctant to participate in the settlement of this dispute. This has led to a lack of cooperation in counter-terrorism, open borders for economic opportunities, and other fields.
The growing instability caused by al-Qaeda and others provides the perfect time for Morocco and Algeria to find common ground together. They are natural allies in the fight against terrorism, as well as being economic, cultural, and political partners. The U.S. should encourage Algeria to join with Morocco to settle these problems and forge a unified regional effort to fight al-Qaeda rather than piecemeal bilateral approaches.
Such actions are both necessary to respect the rights of refugees under international law, and essential for the security and progress of the region. Resolving the status of the refugees and eliminating the camps are significant steps in removing obstacles to greater regional cooperation. This will lead to enhanced regional economic development that provides opportunities for the well-being of the refugees and the peoples of the region, facilitating opportunities for enduring and credible progress in the Maghreb.
The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Edward M. Gabriel, U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Morocco, 1997-2001 and Robert M. Holley, Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy Rabat, 1998-2001, who advise the Kingdom of Morocco.