Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 04/2012

Mauritania's Islamists

Alex Thurston

March 2012

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Islamists have become an important political force in Mauritania since formal Islamist associations first emerged in the 1970s. Islamist activism has contributed to the ongoing Islamization of Mauritanian society, as is evident from the proliferation of mosques and Islamic associations in the capital, Nouakchott, and elsewhere. In the 1990s, political liberalization allowed Islamists to participate in elections as independents, and since its legalization in 2007, Tewassoul, the strongest Islamist party in Mauritania today, has become a significant minority voice in the country’s politics and has built ties with Islamists elsewhere in the Arab world. These moderate Islamists who participate in elections hold different beliefs and goals from Mauritania’s jihadist fringe. Overall, Mauritanian Islamism does not currently pose a threat to the United States. The mainstream of the movement appears committed to democracy and, even so, is unlikely to take power. Islamist parties like Tewassoul have never captured a large share of the vote in elections, and moderate Islamist leaders have explicitly rejected using violence to take over the state. Indeed, the United States may even find an upside to the Islamists’ rise: Mainstream Islamist leaders publicly condemn the Muslim terrorist group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which the Mauritanian government has been combating since 2005.