Over the last two decades, the Middle East has proven to be a focal point of Western foreign policy and political intrigue. From the optimism that marked the USA’s forays into the region’s complex dramas in the early 1990’s to the ongoing War on Terror, the Middle East has certainly shaped today’s political climate. But while great focus has been given to countries such as Iraq or Syria, another serious emerging threat is a nation historically seen as marginally important by the US: Mauritania.
Mauritania, located between Senegal and Morocco, is a large but sparsely populated country. A former French colony, Mauritania has been touted as an ally in the fight against terrorism in West Africa. While up until recently, Mauritania had little to no interaction with the United States, existing more in European spheres of interest, reports of Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and ISIS fighters being trained in the West African country put it on Washington’s radar.
An influx of militants, weaponry and toxic ideology has been steadily spilling in from post-Gaddafi Libya and northern Mali. The country doubled down on its efforts after a string of attacks targeting Western nationals and buildings, leading to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to declare a jihad against the country. The current situation in Mauritania has been compared to pre-9/11 Afghanistan, an unjust comparison seeing the overall stability of the country. Nevertheless, some analysts see Mauritania as a potential source of the next significant terrorist attack on the West, which is why the country has embarked on an ambitious war on terror.
Under president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, a former army general who ousted his pro-Islamic predecessor in a 2008 coup, Mauritania became one of the West’s most important West African allies. In 2014 the US Africa Command gifted Mauritania with a $21 million pair of military aircraft, equipped with advanced surveillance capabilities, for the purposes of counter-terrorism. France and the United States have also aided in the training of soldiers to form an elite anti-terror brigade. At the same time, the country sought to stem the influx of terrorists by starting a de-radicalization campaign by reaching out to the nonviolent Islamist opposition, previously repressed.
So far, the campaign has been successful, with the US State Department lauding Mauritania for disrupting al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) at Ouagadou Forest and Bessiknou, while also foiling several bomb plots directed at its capital. A new counterterrorism law passed in July 2010 was also noted for its ambitions to prosecute suspects of terrorism and continue the training of security forces.
While the country has long battled with accusations of human rights abuses and slavery – the latter having deep roots in Mauritanian society as result of a caste system implemented by an Arab invasion dating back to the 11th century – the strong campaign against terror implemented in recent years served as an impetus to take progressive steps forward. Abdel Aziz signed and implemented international laws against torture and enforced disappearance and made great strides towards clamping down on slavery. An August law, doubling the maximum prison sentences for slavery crimes, was welcomed by the UN Special Rapporteur Urmila Bhoola.
Abdel Aziz has been a friend to the West and a stalwart ally in his attempts to battle terrorism in West Africa. However the support Aziz receives in the international community has not necessarily carried over into his homeland, where he has faced a great deal of opposition. The most notable source of this opposition is Mohamed Ould Bouamatou, a Mauritanian millionaire and former ally to President Abdel Aziz.
Bouamatou, who is not widely reported on outside of French-speaking media, began his career as the head of a bread factory. From there he was able to found a candy company Cogitrem, and become the first Mauritanian partner to the well-known brands such as Gallina Blanca, Phillip Morris and Nissan. Rumors of bribery surrounded many of these deals. These suspicions, however, did little to prevent Bouamatou from declaring himself a banker and establishing his own bank, (and the first private bank in the county’s history) the Générale de Banque de Mauritanie (GBM). Bouamatou soon created his own insurance company (Assurances Générales de Mauritanie), telecommunications company (Mattel) and airline (Mauritania Airways), further extending his wealth and influence.
By the end of 2012 Bouamatou had long been one of the power players in Mauritania, bankrolling politicians and deflecting accusations of nepotism. But by the end of 2012, three of Bouamatou’s companies had come under investigation for unpaid back-taxes amounting to roughly 10.3 million euros. Bouamatou fled to Morocco but has still managed to keep a hand in Mauritanian affairs. In May of 2015 a reporter named Nicolas Beau was accused of being paid by Bouamatou to write articles smearing and heavily criticizing President Abdel Aziz. And in August of 2015, Bouamatou unveiled his “Foundation for Equal Opportunity in Africa,” a campaign centered around fighting poverty and developing democracy in the African continent. However the foundation was not met with acclaim, especially not in Mauritania where many claimed Bouamatou’s intentions were more political than philanthropic.
With elections coming up in Mauritania in 2019 it seems that Bouamatou is taking out all the stops to put himself in a positive position vis-a-vis the Mauritanian electorate. And with a greater number of terrorist groups seeking to get a foothold in the country, it is imperative that a trustworthy leader be in power. Not only for the security of Mauritania, but the security of the international community as well.