Geopolitics

The Next Target In Al Qaeda's African Recruitment Campaign

Across the border from Mali, the former French colony of Mauritania is prime territory for Islamist leaders, as poverty and radical preachers lay the groundwork for Jihad.

Camel market in Mauritania's capital Nouakchott
Camel market in Mauritania's capital Nouakchott
Jens Wiegmann

NOUAKCHOTT - Cheick Boya doesn’t think much of al-Qaeda. Of course he’s heard that the self-proclaimed holy warriors are recruiting in Nouakchott, and promising good money. The recruiters are mainly from Mali, the country that borders the Islamic Republic of Mauritania to the east.

"But I wouldn’t do it, not if they offered me a million dollars," says the 24-year-old in an orange T-shirt and white rubber boots. Then again Boya has something that makes him less susceptible to radical Islamists – a job. He is standing on a dune that protects the coastal Mauritanian capital, located partially below sea level, and its estimated million inhabitants, from the Atlantic.

The temperature is 34° Celsius and there is a strong wind. Generations have carried sand away from here to use for building, and now Boya and his colleagues are putting in thick branches to hold the sand in check so the dune can rise again.

Boya is a day laborer, but he’s been doing this for a while now – every day, they give the job to him, he says confidently. His employer is the German government. The German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), pays Boya 2000 ouguiyas ($6.43) a day – about 30% more than a local employer.

"It’s very tough, there are hardly any jobs, companies are letting people go," he says. Boya attended school for six years and did a two-year apprenticeship as an electrician, but he was always without work for two or three months at a time when he would "watch TV, hang with the guys, drink tea, and look for work."

He doesn’t have the kind of contacts you need to get a good job, much less become a government worker, he says. He got his current work by asking around.

The former French colony of Mauritania is considered, along with Niger and its rich uranium deposits, a next goal for al-Qaeda strategists albeit a thankless one from the standpoint of radical Islamists – while the country is 100% Muslim, it is traditionally moderate. If sharia law is in effect all over the country, its more extreme application – for instance, chopping off hands – hasn’t been seen since the 1980s.

Women wear a floor-length garment called malhafa that also cover their heads, but their faces are not veiled. They can go to college, they drive with the windows lowered and loud music on, are present in both parliament and the cabinet. The Foreign Minister is a woman.

Street scene in Nouakchott - Photo: Geraint Rowland

Poverty and resources

What makes the desert state interesting for regional terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) is the huge number of youths – 60% of the country’s 3.5 million inhabitants are under 25, and most of them are unemployed. Over 40% of Mauritanians live in cities – a number that is rising – and many live below the poverty line. Last week, al-Qaeda called for all “sons of Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Mauritania” to join the jihad.

Mauritania is also attractive because of its abundance of resources: fish, iron ore, gold and oil. It also has a very strategic location: Morocco to the north, Senegal to the south. Both of these are considered moderate Islamic countries.

Net fishing, Nouakchot beach - Photo: Ji-Elle

And finally, after the loss of northern Mali, Mauritania could serve the terrorists as a new base from where to finance themselves with organized crime – arms, drugs, cigarettes and human trafficking.

President Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz, who headed a coup in 2008 when he was an army general but was elected to the presidency a year later, has been known in recent years for his hard line against terrorists.

But Mauritanians are poor, and many feel neglected by the government. In the capital, the roads are in bad shape, many are just sandy pathways, and stores look like big garages some with piles of bricks and bags of cement out front, others selling flat screen TVs, computers and mobile phones.

The small group of day laborers standing by the roadside offering their services as house painters and masons can’t afford any of those things.

There are no signs of prosperity and happiness to be seen in Nouakchott’s Socogim PS neighborhood. The area is repeatedly flooded; the water seeps through the clay floors in the houses and rises to levels of over a meter.

Right now, the houses are not full of water although the neighborhood’s sandy pathways are partially flooded. Whether it is the water that stinks, or the garbage lying all over the place, is hard to say.

Goats and cows search through the garbage hoping to find something to eat – one goat is chewing on a filthy rag. Most of the residents here have left, and the school is empty. The crescent moon on the minaret of an abandoned mosque has been broken off.

Abandoned by the government

Mariam is one of the few people still living here. "The situation is bad and we are afraid," says the 44-year-old, who works as a secretary at the Institute for Islamic Studies. She wears a lilac and orange malhafa, and the eyes peering out from behind her glasses are full of skepticism. She is divorced and her three young children live with her in a house she inherited from her father. Inside the heavy red metal door is a squat toilet to the left, and a small spartan kitchen that does however have a large brown refrigerator.

In the main room, there are white streaks on the walls from flooding. The only decorations, aside from a thin red and black carpet are the wooden boards with chapters of the Koran that the children use to learn the holy book. For four years, the water has been coming in ever higher, says Mariam.

There are hardly any neighbors still around, garbage everywhere, and it’s no longer possible to drive the car up to the house. The desolate neighborhood attracts a lot of break-ins and pillaging. "But we can’t leave, I put everything I have into this house, I don’t have anything else," she says. President Aziz visited the area last year and promised improvements, "but nothing has happened yet."

Islamists of all stripes benefit from this discontent. The largest groups among them are moderates or apparent moderates like the Tawasul Party that maintains links with the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups abroad like the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia – and Hamas. The party is present on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and its top members regularly appear on Al-Jazeera.

President Aziz has apparently learned that radicals are not slowed down but rather benefit from a hard political and security service line against them, so now his policy is one of inclusion. Experts agree that he has had some success in keeping radicalism at bay, but many Mauritanians are skeptical – particularly women.

Fatimetou Mint Abdel Malick was Nouakchott’s first female district mayor in 2001; there are now four women district mayors. "All towns should be led by women," she says. She wears a blue and pink malhafa, and is seated in a leather chair at the head of a conference table in the district town hall, flanked by a half-dozen women on her team. A young man serves the traditional bittersweet tea.

Nouakchott - Photo: William Darcy Hall

Besides mobilizing women, she has accomplished a lot in her district, from garbage collection and tree planting to the development of solar energy. She and other women in a national women’s organization even managed seven years ago to get a law passed that says that 20% of candidates on electoral lists must be women.

Malick is very concerned about the rising role of Salafists in Mauritania: "An Islam that binds our hands frightens us," she says.

Fighting against slavery

Human rights activist and lawyer Aminetou Mint Moctar has devoted herself to what is still a very sensitive issue in Mauritania – slavery. It was outlawed in 2007, but still exists. For centuries, white “Moors” (Arabs) known as bidhan have enslaved black “Moors” (Africans) or haratin. Moctar had to leave the word “slavery” out of the name of the NGO she founded in 1999 – Association des Femmes Chefs de Famille (Association of Female Heads Of Family) – or she wouldn’t have gotten authorization for the association.

Moctar and nearly 11,000 members across the country fight slavery, racism, corruption and violence against women. She speaks slowly and softly as she explains that while the government claims slavery per se no longer exists – just its consequences – "when people have no belongings or adequate housing, can make no decisions on their own, when women are sexually abused and their children are enslaved and receive no education – that’s slavery."

Legislation is important, as is raised awareness, but "the slaves themselves have to want to change the situation" – which can be difficult since those concerned lack education and don’t have any economic alternatives. "Even if a slave could take a completely free decision – where would they go?"

But years of campaigning by her NGO and other organizations are slowly yielding results. Slave owners have to be more cautious and since the government has declared a war on slavery the police are forced to act.

Moctar, who is known internationally after being honored for her work by the U.S. State Department, says her renown also has its downsides – in Mauritania, she has become a target for fundamentalist Islamists.

"On television, they called me an atheist and an agent of Israel and France, and threatened to kill me." What scares her more than the threat, she says, is the fact that it was broadcast on television.

President Aziz would appear to have recognized the crux of the issue – since 2012 Mauritania is described as a "multi-ethnic country" in its Constitution. He has also officially recognized the suffering of former slaves, probably because he is trying to prevent the radicalization of the haratin that al-Qaeda is trying to recruit.

Back on the dune near the capital, Boya talks about his dream of becoming an electrician. He would even go to Europe if he got a good job, although he and his fiancé have just had a marriage contract drawn up – "but it’s not signed yet," he says grinning. He’s already made his view of al-Qaeda clear, but wouldn’t attending one of the Koranic schools, often financed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, be an alternative? After all, tuition, room and board are free. Boya shakes his head: "They’re too far away. And I heard they don’t even let you drink tea."

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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