By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 12/03/07):
Playing on European and US fears of expanding terrorist networks in North Africa, Morocco is seeking international backing for a new peace plan for the Western Sahara. But ownership of the vast mineral-rich territory bordering the Atlantic, controlled in theory by Rabat since the 1970s, is disputed by Algerian-backed Polisario Front separatists. They want full-blown independence, not limited autonomy.
Senior Moroccan officials have visited Washington and other western capitals in recent weeks to promote the plan, to be presented to the UN next month. In return for creating a Western Sahara regional government and parliament, Moroccan sovereignty and control of security, borders and finances would be formally acknowledged.
“We are extremely concerned about increased terrorist operations in the Sahel region,” said interior minister Chakib Benmoussa after meeting the British home secretary, John Reid, and the foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, in London last month. “It’s an enormous area, scarcely populated, with a low level of controls. A whole range of illicit operations – drug trafficking, human trafficking, terrorist groups – is taking place there.” Morocco was a “rampart” defending Europe, he said.
Taib Fassi-Fihri, minister-delegate for foreign affairs, said British officials and other European governments were becoming “more sensitive” to the link between the Western Sahara and terrorist and other security threats emanating from the Maghreb. “Given the challenges of radicalisation and al-Qaida that we all face, it would be extremely useful for everybody to have this problem resolved,” he said.
Mr Fassi-Fihri said the plan, if accepted, could lead to normalised relations with Algeria, whose border with Morocco has been closed since 1995. It would also encourage cooperation between Maghreb states and west African countries where much Europe-bound illegal migration originates.
Polisario’s Algiers-based government-in-exile is unimpressed. “The occupier’s plan is null and void. It’s stillborn,” spokesman Muhammad Salem Ould Salek said last month. Polisario wants an independence referendum for Saharawis plus settlers of Moroccan origin. Rabat says that is impractical.
The UN favours self-determination but no progress has been made since a ceasefire in 1991. The security council has demanded action before April 30, when the mandate for the UN’s Western Sahara mission expires. Meanwhile, refugees remain in camps on the Algerian side of the border more than 30 years after fighting began.
Morocco’s move comes as the Maghreb faces increased scrutiny in Europe, particularly in Spain, France and Italy, which feel vulnerable to terrorist infiltration from the south. Spain’s prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, visited Rabat last week to discuss security, illegal immigration via the Western Sahara and Canary Islands, and economic cooperation
Western intelligence services believe Algeria is the focal point of the regional terrorist threat, said Patrick Cronin of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “There’s concern about links leading from Iraq and Afghanistan to Somalia and low-level but rising activity in the Maghreb,” he said.
The biggest menace is the renamed, Algerian-based, al-Qaida Organisation for the Islamic Maghreb, which claimed responsibility for two more fatal attacks last week in Tizi Ouzou, east of Algiers. But its reach is growing.
Moroccan investigators say almost two dozen young Moroccans travelled to Iraq and volunteered as suicide bombers or jihadis in the past 18 months. Several more have been charged in connection with the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Despite concern from human rights activists, there have been over 50 terror-related arrests since November. Last week a Moroccan court jailed eight al-Qaida-linked terrorists for plotting attacks in France, Italy and Morocco; and an explosion in an internet cafe in Rabat on Sunday has been linked to possible al-Qaida activity.
Regional experts say that if the Western Sahara issue remains unresolved while western arm-twisting over security intensifies, Morocco’s traditionally “moderate”, pro-western, outlook could be undermined.
Elections due in September are expected to bring gains for the Islamist opposition, the Justice and Development party. High levels of unemployment and poverty are feeding radicalisation and alienation. Human rights abuses including torture persist, according to the US state department. And a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment thinktank says “significant improvements in free speech, women’s rights and economic reform” have not overcome a democratic deficit caused by the still extensive powers wielded by King Muhammad VI.
But for things to improve, say Moroccan officials, less criticism and more cooperation on key issues such as the Western Sahara is necessary.