Violent extremism continues to be one of the most significant challenges to peace and security in the Sahel. Militant Islamist groups have shown remarkable staying power despite their military rout in northern Mali in 2013 following the deployment of French-led Operation Serval (now Operation Barkhane). Indeed, violent extremist groups in the Sahel have grown in number, size, and lethality—now concentrated in central Mali, northeastern Burkina Faso, and western Niger.
Largely absent from this narrative is Mauritania. The story of Mauritania’s transformation from the weakest link in this crisis-ridden neighborhood to one of its most resilient is instructive. The country was the first in the Sahel to be hit by terrorist attacks in 2005. However, since 2011 it has avoided the expanding and diversifying threat from militant Islamist groups. That security threats in the Sahel are characterized by layers of intertwined and crosscutting interests at the local, national, and regional levels makes Mauritania’s example all the more informative. Importantly, the government has managed to restore its authority and control over border regions, which militant Islamist groups in the Sahel have often exploited to their advantage.
In the Crosshairs of Terrorism
Under increasing pressure from the Algerian security apparatus, Algerian extremists sought refuge in the sparsely populated regions of the Sahel to Algeria’s south in the 2000s. Seeking to establish their presence through continued armed struggle, the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) attacked an army barracks in Lemgheity, Mauritania, near the border with Mali and Algeria, on June 4, 2005, killing 15 Mauritanian soldiers. For the rest of the decade, Mauritania faced increased acts of terrorism, becoming a hotspot for the abduction of Western citizens in the Sahel. Mauritania appeared to be an easy target for the GSPC to penetrate, recruit from, and operate within its large swaths of under-governed territory. It had all the ingredients: an impoverished country bedeviled by fragile politics, military factionalism, ethno-racial tensions, mounting economic insecurity, and high levels of unemployment.
Mauritanians also represented a disproportionate number of violent extremist ideologues and high-ranking terrorist operatives. Mauritanians were influential and over-represented in the Saharan branch of the GSPC, which was rebranded as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007. Indeed, Mauritanians comprised the second largest source of fighters and ideologues for AQIM after Algerians. The 2008 attack at Tourine in Mauritania’s remote desert north where 12 soldiers were abducted and then beheaded, chillingly underscored the terrorist threat that AQIM posed to the country.
This massacre of soldiers revived bitter memories of the Western Saharan War (1975–1978) when Algerian-backed Polisario guerrillas humiliated a weak and poorly equipped Mauritanian army, nearly placing Mauritania’s sovereignty in jeopardy. Three decades later, AQIM’s superior mobility exposed the persistent fragility of Mauritania’s armed forces. Unlike the first existential struggle that ended once Mauritania cut its losses and withdrew from the southern half of Western Sahara, however, the arrival of militant Islamist groups in the 2000s presented a new set of circumstances. While opportunities for dialogue would not be ignored if they presented themselves, such moments were unlikely to occur given Mauritania’s weak bargaining power. The odds of gaining the upper hand on the battlefield or in a settlement were nonexistent if the government could not reverse the insurgent tide.
“What the Mauritanian military needed most were structural reforms and a modernization program.”
Overmatching the insurgents, however, required significant investments in upgrading the military. Mauritania could not aspire to match the size and advanced military arsenal of its powerful neighbors, Algeria and Morocco. Nor did it have to. The asymmetric warfare requirements in the desert did not require the acquisition of sophisticated weaponry that would have been prohibitively expensive to buy and maintain. What the Mauritanian military needed most were structural reforms and a modernization program that was adapted to the new realities of unconventional warfare.
Overhauling the Military
The massacre of Tourine sent alarm bells ringing among the upper echelons of the military. The attack had revealed an army that was poorly paid, inadequately armed, and suffering from low morale. It is in this turbulent context that General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz seized power in a 2008 military coup. Taking advantage of a favorable economic environment marked by a mining boom, Abdel Aziz (president from 2009 to 2019) and his defense minister and current president, General Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, launched the most significant military reforms in Mauritanian history.
The military overhaul began with symbolic and substantive actions to boost its warfighting infrastructure and soldiers’ quality of life. The first symbolic responses addressed hollow facilities and low morale through the restoration of soldiers’ barracks, provision of new uniforms, and across-the-board pay and compensation raises for all military personnel. Substantively, the process of military modernization began to materialize with substantial increases to the military budget, which allowed for the acceleration in military training, the procurement of new armaments and materiel, and the creation of Special Forces capabilities. Besides the enhanced military budget, which quadrupled from 2008 to 2018 (to $160 million), strategic choices regarding priorities in military acquisition and procurement activities proved to be indispensable.
Instead of expensive military hardware that it could hardly afford, Mauritania favored structural reforms and the acquisition of equipment appropriate to their needs. To boost its air power capabilities, officials selected Brazilian EMB-314 Super Tucano light military planes, designed to fly in high temperature and humidity conditions and rugged terrain, such as the Mauritanian desert. Meanwhile, to curtail drug and cigarette trafficking, the navy procured new and refurbished vessels from Spain, China, and the EU to patrol its 754 kilometers of coastline. As for Mauritanian land forces, they were outfitted with modern pickup trucks and global-positioning equipment.
The government also invested in professional military education, which had long been stagnant. The country’s defense educational institutions needed to adapt to produce officers and commanders capable of countering asymmetric threats. In this regard, Mauritania struck several bilateral and multilateral partnerships to reinforce military learning across operations and academics. Specifically, France provided support in operational decision methods and commando techniques, and Mauritania received critical U.S. security assistance as a member of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. In 2012, Mauritania also solicited participation in NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme (DEEP) to support the transformation of its professional military education. In 2018, partly in recognition of Mauritania’s notable improvements to its military education, weapons, and readiness, regional partners selected Nouakchott as the site of the G5 Sahel Collège de Défense.
Adapting to the Battlefield
Mauritania also required a drastic rethinking of doctrines and operations. Success in counterterrorism required the transformation of a Mauritanian military force structure that was too slow, unwieldy, and wedded to outmoded tactics. The classic organization of the units were ill-suited to tackle the smaller and more nimble militant Islamist groups and organized criminals roaming the desert.
The task of developing a successful counterterrorism strategy fell to Ghazouani, who in 2009 took over the leadership of the National Defense High Council. First, Mauritania embarked on the creation of eight Special Intervention Groups (GSI)—small-unit teams that were designed to be versatile in both thinking and execution. To strengthen group cohesion and motivation, each unit of commandos is comprised of about 200 men who have served together for several years. Importantly, these combat teams have been well-equipped with vehicles and supplies, especially fuel, water, and ammunition, for sustained independent counterterrorism operations lasting several days in the remote desert. Since 2015, the newly built base of Lemreya has served as the headquarters and operations center for the GSI. Lemreya’s strategic location in a triangle straddling Mauritania, Mali, and Algeria has transformed this desert area that once served as a rear base for militant Islamist groups and traffickers. In 2008, much of this sparsely populated border region was declared a military zone where any individual caught circulating was systematically apprehended by the GSI.
Enhanced air support has been essential to these ground operations, even if coordination was rudimentary. Mauritanian airmen do not have the advanced capacities of their Algerian or Moroccan neighbors to be able to provide close air support, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Nonetheless, since 2011, the Mauritanian Air Force—powered by U.S.-donated Cessna surveillance planes and armed with the Brazilian Super Tucanos and a few Chinese assault helicopters—has had sufficient capacity to detect suspicious vehicles and guide the GSI on the ground. Indeed, in 2011, Mauritanian aircraft demonstrated the capability to strike suspected AQIM positions in the Wagadou Forest across the border in Mali.
“[The Nomad Group] provides two benefits by fusing intelligence gathering activities with infrastructure development.”
Intelligence has also played a critical role in counterterrorism operations. Under the administration of Adel Aziz, the intelligence services saw their budgets increase and their capabilities expand. For many years, the intelligence services were inadequately trained and ill-equipped, and many of their assignments focused on targeting political opponents and rivals. The need to revamp Mauritania’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance had become clear following successive failures to detect and prevent terrorist attacks. Consequently, efforts were directed toward developing both field-level human intelligence networks and technical capabilities. These ranged from the effective revitalization of the most basic existing capabilities and assets such as the Mauritanian military’s Nomad Group (GN)—camel-back units, tailored to operate in the remote areas of the desert—to the acquisition of modern surveillance radars.
For Mauritanian officials, the GN provides two benefits by fusing intelligence gathering activities with infrastructure development. “Where the state doesn’t have any infrastructure in remote and isolated areas, we’re coming to help in terms of sanitation and education,” said GN commander Colonel Abderrahamane El Khalil. In other words, the GN is improving the living conditions of populations to build loyalty to the government, which in turn pays dividends in terms of intelligence collection regarding any suspicious movements of trafficking and armed groups.
This strategy of community engagement in remote areas of the desert has been a critical component of the counterterrorism approach adopted by the Mauritanian government. To improve security and public service delivery, the government established small new cities in remote rural areas vulnerable to the infiltration of extremist groups to concentrate sparse and dispersed rural populations into larger settlements. Cities such as N’Bekeit Lahwach in eastern Mauritania have led to the regrouping of families depending on their social and economic needs. The intent is not to abolish nomadism—men continue to live in semi-nomadic surroundings around their herd while their families are settled in one place, benefiting from education services and other basic amenities—but to create focal sites and defensible positions in the immediate vicinity of the Malian border. In vulnerable areas where settlements of people already exist, the policy has been to improve the security and living conditions of the population to keep them there.
Dialoguing with Extremists
In parallel to these efforts at reinforcing the state’s coercive capacity and development strategy, a policy of engagement with extremist actors was pursued. Today, the idea of dialoguing with violent extremist groups is gaining credence in some Sahelian countries. In Mauritania, the regime has pursued a dual strategy of bolstering its deterrence and defense posture, while remaining open to dialogue with extremists. The second part of this strategy has fueled suspicions that the regime has concluded a mutual nonaggression pact with violent extremist groups, the same accusation that was once leveled at the former Malian president, Amadou Toumani Touré, who was ousted in a military coup in March 2012.
“The fact that Mauritania has been unscathed by terrorism since 2011 … fuels speculation that a nonaggression pact may be in place.”
Proponents of this thesis point to the 2011 documents that were confiscated at the time of Osama bin Laden’s death and that made reference to attempts at rapprochement between the Mauritanian government and al Qaeda in 2010. They also highlight as evidence both Mauritania’s 2015 release of Sanda Ould Bouamama, a former spokesman of al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine who had been detained under an international arrest warrant, as well as the curious 2015 decision of Islamic State (IS) to not include Mauritania in its West Africa wilayat (province). The fact that Mauritania has been unscathed by terrorism since 2011 and its military has largely avoided attacking violent extremist groups further fuels speculation that a nonaggression pact may be in place.
Mauritanians justify their posture as defensive and necessary. After all, Algeria, which has the largest and best equipped army in the region, has pursued a similar strategy of refraining from militarily engaging armed actors outside its territory, while giving amnesty to and dialoguing with violent extremists. Some observers assert that one of the ingredients to Mauritania’s security successes could be open channels of communication and contact with armed groups and traffickers. Others argue that this is shortsighted and undermines regional efforts to tackle transnational violent extremist groups. As a member the G5 Sahel alliance, the country’s pledges of good will are sometimes questioned by its partners, which fault Nouakchott for not fulfilling its commitment to provide a battalion to the Joint Force.
Continuing the Battle
The turnaround in the security situation in Mauritania reveals that fragile states can be resilient and adaptive when facing violent extremist groups. For much of the 2000s, a beleaguered Mauritania faltered in the face of political and economic challenges. Since 2011, thanks to structural reform, strategic procurement, training and military education, a population-centric approach, and prioritizing the military’s mobility and special forces capabilities, Mauritania’s military has moved from being on the cusp of being overwhelmed by violent extremist groups to throwing off their grip.
The Mauritanian government made strategic investments to improve borderland infrastructure, and prioritized the government’s ability to secure a presence in areas long considered remote and inaccessible. Additional reforms to the Mauritanian security services effectively reorganized the armed forces providing modernized equipment, strategic training, and better pay and living conditions for Mauritanian soldiers.
“While Mauritania remains ruled by a military strongman, the reforms it undertook were not a function of its closed political system.”
While Mauritania remains ruled by a military strongman, the reforms it undertook were not a function of its closed political system. Rather, these changes provide relevant lessons for other governments in the Sahel facing extremist groups. The notable gains made in Mauritania are acknowledged even by the government’s many domestic critics.
Mauritania’s overall success, however, does not mean it is out of the woods yet. Security gains are fragile and reversible. To sustain them requires improving political, economic, and security governance, as well as upgrading regional cooperation. Continued efforts under the current administration to improve military cohesion, security governance, and the management of the military’s human and financial resources will remain crucial to Mauritania’s continued success against terrorist threats.
- Pauline Le Roux, “Responding to the Rise in Violent Extremism in the Sahel,” Africa Security Brief, No. 36, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 2019.
- Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “The Complex and Growing Threat of Militant Islamist Groups in the Sahel,” Infographic, February 15, 2019.
- Anouar Boukhars, “Mauritania’s Precarious Stability and Islamist Undercurrent,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 11, 2016.
- Nicole Ball, “Lessons from Burundi’s Security Sector Reform Process,” Africa Security Brief, No. 29, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 2014.
- Cédric Jourde, “Shifting Through the Layers of Insecurity in the Sahel: The Case of Mauritania,” Africa Security Brief, No. 15, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 2011.