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Mauritania’s President Mohamed Abdel Aziz on Islamists and underdevelopment in the Sahel

Jan 21, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 18 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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The gruesome massacre in late January 2012 of a unit that reportedly had laid down its arms should have alerted the once-popular president, who governed by consensus and accommodation, that he had to shift gears. Instead, ATT tried to appease the rebels, even as it became evident that the national movement, which openly proclaimed its secessionist aim, was being reinforced by AQIM and its affiliates. The northerners benefited from returning mercenaries who had served deposed Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi and who brought with them large surpluses from his upscale arsenal.

They also benefited, Abdel Aziz observes, from years of neglect of the north by the Malian government: “ATT’s problem is that he did nothing to maintain security in the north or to encourage economic and social development. Rather, he had been sharing power with the terrorists all along.”

“Abdel Aziz is too polite to say so,” a Mauritanian journalist told me, “but he means not only that outside Timbuktu and other cities, the Malian government had little or no authority; ATT and his entourage were sharing in the ill-gotten gains of the gangs up there.” Lawless activities included drug smuggling, gunrunning, and the lucrative kidnapping racket that financed the 2012 war, according to observers in Bamako, Mali’s capital. One northern drug kingpin, detained by Malian authorities, was freed even as the fighting raged. 

“We tried to warn him,” Abdel Aziz says quietly. “We knew who the brokers were. We caught some of them.”

“He means,” my journalist source amplified, “there were guys up there—Mauritanians, Malians, Algerians—who set themselves up as go-betweens. ATT knew, and he almost surely profited in everything from the ransoms to the drug money.” This grave charge has not been proven in a court of law. But, according to sources in Mauritanian security, marked currency from Germany’s central bank, used in one of the most notorious ransom payoffs, was later found in Paris. It was being used by ATT’s entourage, including his wife, on a shopping spree. 

By a bitter irony, northern Mali was seized by rebels practically under the noses of a U.S. military training mission that was based in Mopti, one of the Niger River towns near Timbuktu. The mission itself, part of a multi-year program under our Africa Command to train African militaries and improve the security of the sub-Saharan countries, went very well. Unfortunately, ATT was overthrown by angry soldiers less than a month after the Americans went home, causing the United States to suspend all but humanitarian aid. This left the Islamists to spend the next 10 months consolidating their position unimpeded, recruiting and training fighters from the terrorist internationale and equipping them with good weapons.

In Bamako the soldiers soon relinquished formal power to a transitional government, but they remain the rump country’s power brokers. In December they replaced the prime minister without asking anyone’s permission. With no money or Western aid, they could do nothing to reinforce their own defensive positions, a fact painfully demonstrated in the past week.

Abdel Aziz recites the unhappy recent history in a few terse sentences, speaking in a quiet voice that is just this side of impatient. He does not look like a man recovering from a bullet wound in the abdomen. At 56 he has the lean straight build of the professional soldier he was until he resigned his commission as a general officer (his country’s first) in order to run for president in 2009. 

The Mauritanian election that year required political and diplomatic finesse, because it was occasioned by the coup Abdel Aziz and his fellow generals organized against the sitting president in 2008. In support of an African Union rule against coups, the United States (and France, the former colonial power) several years ago adopted legislation that forbids top-level relations with (and most aid to) coup-born regimes. 

The move against President Sidi Ould Cheik Abdalhahi was occasioned by security concerns. It was bloodless, and the ousted head of state eventually entered the transition process. Full diplomatic ties with the United States were restored after the 2009 election.

“So,” I ask the president, “you have constitutional rule, if a little frayed, in both Mauritania, which repulsed AQIM, and Mali, which lost 60 percent of its country to the jihadists. The Security Council gives you a green light. ECOWAS [the West African Union] pledges men, France and the United States pledge equipment and advisers. But you say no?”

“I don’t say no. I say not now.”

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