With the unforgiving sun beating down on creaking donkey carts in bone-dry heat, it is evident to first-time visitors that Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, is one of the poorest places on earth.
It’s also one of the four countries in North and West Africa, along with Libya, Niger and Mali, where the Pentagon is pumping millions into to build elite counter-terrorism units. About $29 million has been set aside for logistics and surveillance equipment for Mauritania. Secretary Kerry called the air capacity and counter-terrorism training given to the Mauritanian armed forces “a regional solution to a regional problem.” It recalls his 2004 campaign quip about the Bush administration’s outsourcing of finding bin Laden to the Pashtuns, only this time we are outsourcing the fight to African armies barely capable of countering Islamic terrorism.
Nor can a strong case be made this is the best use of such funds. The greatest threat facing this sprawling Muslim country of four million people is underdevelopment, not terrorism. President Obama’s request for $5 billion for counter-terrorism partnerships across the continent would be better spent to strengthen poor institutions, improve education and bolster public health – a need brought into sharp relief by the recent Ebola outbreak, which has already killed 1,500 people.
Washington sees North and West Africa as the new hotbed of Islamist radicalism. So it gives arms and cash to authoritarian regimes that have embraced the war against terror to gain a seat on the international stage and get invited to the White House. These regimes are not renown for their commitment to civil or political rights.
More importantly, by labeling conflicts like the recent war in Mali as pure terrorism, the U.S. risks simplifying a complex, historical problem and thereby not reversing the trends that helped the rise of extremism in the first place: entrenched poverty and corruption, ethnic marginalization, social inequality and lack of opportunities and hope for the future.
A number of studies have confirmed the link between these grievances and conflict, not least by Oxford’s Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, who made the association a decade ago. A study in the Journal of Peace and Research in 2011 found that countries with minority group economic discrimination were significantly more likely to experience domestic terrorist attacks. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has said that black Africans were ripe for recruitment because of poor economic and social conditions.
In Mauritania, Arabs, known as white Moors, rule as the power class. A quarter of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. Half of the population is illiterate. There is no public transportation. For medical care, the rich fly out to Senegal, Morocco or France, while the poor hope for the best in hospitals infested with flies and mosquitoes. It ranks at 161 out of 187 countries in the UN’s human development index.
Just a few minutes’ drive eastward from the capital brings a rapid change of scenery. The sight of flat, concrete buildings and disabled men, women and children begging for money gives way to that of slaughtered goats, dangling near tents. Camels wander across sand dunes. In villages, Haratins, or black Moors, who are born into slavery, herd their masters’ cattle. Many remain as slaves because from childhood, they are unschooled and lack resources to fend for themselves as free men. Black Africans, another disenfranchised class, refuse to be assimilated into the Moors’ Arab culture and speak only in French or their dialects.
Since becoming independent from France in 1960, Mauritania has seen 11 military coups, or attempted coups. Upon taking charge in 2008, President Abdel Aziz swiftly made drinking and clubbing illegal, effectively shutting down tourism.
Ask any locals, and they’ll tell you that anti-terror is America’s war, not theirs. If a Mauritanian man joins AQIM, ideology has nothing to do with it – he just wants a job.
Unlike other Maghreb countries such as Algeria or Tunisia, whose nationals are known to have participated in international terrorism, the number of Mauritanian youths recruited into Al-Qaeda remains small. Those who have been arrested for terrorism acts are young, poor and uneducated.
The lack of access to education is an urgent problem no one is paying attention to. Qualified teachers are like water in this parched country. Most Mauritanians do not attend school for more than four years.
“For young people,” says Abdelvetah Ould Mohamed, chief editor of Biladi Journal, “joining Al-Qaeda is the same thing as getting on shitty boats to get to the Italian shore or kidnapping foreigners for ransom. They are trying to get food and some money.”
In neighboring Mali, the government’s discrimination against Tuaregs, a nomadic Berber people, has led to many past rebellions. AQIM swiftly hijacked and repackaged this people’s sense of marginalization and opposition as Islamist extremism. Their entry point: doling out food and money to desperate communities.
Last year, when Ould Mohamed worked with a Malian film crew out of Oualata, a small town in southeast Mauritania and a World Heritage Site, 80 percent of the people who came to audition were Tuareg youths. They were from Azawad, the Tuareg’s proposed homeland in northern Mali. Many of them confessed to joining AQIM because it paid.
“So one day they were with AQIM, and the next day they weren’t,” Ould Mohamed told me.
For the U.S. to join the French to train and equip the Malian armed forces, with its record of cracking down on marginalized communities, would only fuel anti-Americanism.
This is not to suggest that only poor and uneducated people are vulnerable to radicalism. Plenty of terrorists boast middle-class upbringing and college diplomas. Yet, with drugs and arms trafficking in close proximity, terrorism is just one more threat on the list for the region.
Swarming this impoverished corner of Africa with counter-terrorism assistance is not a solution to the region’s security threats. A sustained attack on poor governance and economic and social challenges is the key. Development assistance cannot be a footnote in a security enhancement proposal; it must be the other way around, especially in Mauritania.
This article first appeared in Cicero Magazine, September 16, 2014.