Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 04/2012

Simmering Discontent in the Western Sahara

Anouar Boukhars

March 2012

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


The Western Sahara, a former Spanish territory annexed by Morocco despite Algerian objections, is a critical region that could quickly become part of the criminal and terrorist networks threatening North Africa and the Sahel. The undergoverned areas abutting the territory are becoming major hubs for drug trafficking, contraband smuggling, and weapons circulation. And Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is extending its reach in the region. The potential for destabilization is real. AQIM and its offshoots in the Sahel are already working to expand their partnership with smugglers from massive refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, and to enlist recruits among the disenchanted youth there. If AQIM strengthened its alliance of convenience with the Polisario, the movement that has long fought for Western Sahara’s independence, a formidable terrorist organization could emerge. Nearby Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara is plagued by widespread socioeconomic protests and ethnic strife. A deep enmity has developed between various groups in the territory, some of which have ethnic and cultural ties to inhabitants of the Tindouf camps. A growing number of Western Saharans find themselves increasingly isolated and frustrated—a precarious development. Just over a year ago, Laayoune, Western Sahara’s biggest city, was the site of violent rioting. Ethnic cleavages and cultural animosity have become dangerously pronounced, threatening to further fuel radicalism, violence, and confrontations. Meanwhile, the parties to the conflict are not getting any closer to reaching a mutually satisfactory settlement. Morocco maintains its sovereignty over the territory. The Polisario continues to fight for independence, and its staunch supporter, Algeria, is quite satisfied with the status quo. Both Morocco and Algeria could help the region avert a slide into chaos—if only they could see past the hostility and distrust that have long separated them. Morocco’s proposal for autonomy for the Western Sahara and the country’s July 2011 constitution are the first steps toward a solution. Rabat’s friends in the West, especially the United States and France, must pressure Morocco to expedite a significant devolution of power to the Western Sahara to limit the threat of instability.