Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version Armelle Choplin examines the case of Mauritania to debunk the oft-proffered links between Islamism and terrorism.

In the space of a few weeks, Mauritania suffered a number of terrorist attacks, responsibility for which was claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. Radical Islamism is not new in Mauritania, but terrorism and the sheer scale of violence witnessed in these acts is unprecedented. Although radical trends are on the rise, this should not be confounded with terrorism, which has not taken root in Mauritania. In this case, the threat originates elsewhere.

On the 24th of December 2007, Christmas Eve, four French tourists were brutally killed in Mauritania. It quickly became apparent that this was not an ordinary crime, but rather a terrorist attack. Two days later, three soldiers were killed at the Al Ghallawia military base in Northern Mauritania. The Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), formerly the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) claimed responsibility for the attack.

On the 5th of January 2008, the organizers of the Paris-Dakar rally decided to cancel the race, following advice from the French government that has been on high alert against terrorist threats in Mauritania, where most of the attacks have taken place. On the night of 1st February, 2008, Nouakchott’s biggest night club the “VIP”, and the adjoining Israeli embassy were targeted: six gunmen opened fire, injuring a French woman and two French Mauritanians. Once again Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb claimed responsibility.

Mauritania, previously a little-known country, suddenly hit the headlines. Straddling the Arab and Black world in this Sahara-Sahel “grey area”, Mauritania has come under sharp focus from the West, and particularly the US who suspect a growth in influence of Maghrebin extremists. This is a radical shift from the past when Mauritania professed a tolerant form of Islam that was open and receptive. Recently, the International Crisis Group (ICG) reported that Islamic fundamentalism had only a limited foothold in Mauritania due to a socio-religious system based on ethnicity and under the control of powerful Islamic brotherhoods that curtailed the rise of extremist ideas (ICG, 2005).

In this paper we shall attempt to raise a number of key points that may serve to explain the current sequence of events and debunk the oft –proffered links between Islamism and terrorism. This analysis is by no means exhaustive, given the sheer complexity of the situation in Mauritania.

It is noteworthy that the central government has always had an ambiguous policy towards Islam in general and in particular Islamist movements. This brief exposé will give us a better understanding why these movements are attracting a following, in an environment characterized by despair and growing poverty – ideal conditions for the rise of dissent. We must however emphasize that the Mauritanian Islamism has no directly linked to these acts of terror perpetrated in the name of foreign terror groups such as the AQIM, in this case.

From the Islamic Republic, to the rise of Islamism in Mauritania

The official name “ Islamic Republic of Mauritania” can be misleading, since an Islamic state is nothing more than a Muslim state. However there has been a rapid lexical shift from “Islamic” to “Islamist”, the “Islamic Republic” of Iran under Khomeini as an oft-quoted example. Iran under Khomeini, however, bears little similarity to the “Islamic Republic of Mauritania”, that has always espoused a more “tolerant” brand of Islam.

The appellation was adopted upon attaining independence, and was a response to the political aims of Mauritania’s first president, Mokhtar Ould Daddah, who envisioned the country as a bridge between North Africa and Black Africa. In order to overcome the dual cultural identity and ensure cohesion between the Moors and the “Black Mauritanians” (Halpulaar, Soninke, Wolof), Islam was brought to the fore. This lent legitimacy to the Mauritanian state and brought together a 100% Muslim nation.

Colonel Haidar came to power in 1980 and sought to further entrench Islam and it practice in the country. To this end, Sha’ria law was enacted in 1982. Maouiyya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya took over in 1984 and maintained the trend, instituting restrictions on, among other things, alcohol. Come 1990, Taya was under immense external pressure to “democratize” the country. In this new climate, Islamists were prevented from active involvement in politics: in 1991 Taya further eroded their influence by banning the formation of religion-based political parties.

Between 1994 and 2005, there were numerous arrests, followed by equally frequent pardons. This was part of a government strategy to harass these groups rather than openly fight them. Taya frequently asserted that there was no place for Islamism in Mauritania, since everyone was Muslim. According to the ICG (2005), the Taya regime was in effect using the “Islamic threat” to gain the support of the West and detract from the frequent calls for greater democracy in the country.

Following the coup of 3rd August 2005, there was a radical change of policy towards Islamism. The Military Committee for Justice and Democracy (CMJD) came to power and embarked on democratic renewal. It sought to distance itself from the coercive methods that Taya used in his 20 years of power. The CMJD, led by Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, immediately began consultations with civil society and bringing about democratic reforms. In this climate of change, the Islamists quickly re-emerged. The members of the CMJD committed to exclude themselves from the presidential elections in order to restore civilian rule. The March 2007 presidential elections were the culmination of the democratic transition initiated by the military junta, and Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was democratically elected as Head of State.

The new government was similarly tolerant of Islamism. In June of 2007, several individuals accused of being members of an Islamist organization were acquitted for lack of evidence. As it turns out, among those acquitted was Sidi Ould Sidna one of those accused of murdering four French tourists. This shift in attitude is further evidenced in the registration of Tawassoul (National Congress for Reform and Development), led by Mohamed Jemil Ould Mansour, a moderate Islamist. The party holds a parliamentary seat in the heart of Nouakchott, a clear symbol of its legitimacy.

For some, this new attitude towards Islamism, smacks of connivance. For others, it is reassuring, and symbolizes a “restoration of the Faith”, manifest in the return of the Muslim weekend (Friday and Saturday), the construction of a mosque at the presidential palace, and frequent raids and arrests at bars and restaurants in Nouakchott suspected of selling alcohol..

A state of socio-economic crisis ripe for conflict

The “democratic transition” and the installation of a new elected government gave the population a renewed sense of hope for change. The transition was widely hailed and held up as an example. At the same time, Mauritania joined the elite group of petroleum-exporting countries. The sinking of an offshore well in 2006 brought about economic renewal and raised expectation. However, petroleum production had to be reviewed following technical glitches and the fact that only a small minority was reaping the economic rewards.

Three years after the discovery of oil and the start of the transition, hope and enthusiasm had given way to despair and anxiety. On the one hand, Mauritanians quickly realized that the much-touted “democratic transition” was only relative – it was still the same cabal holding the reins of power. On the other hand, the population noticed a decline in living standards, in contrast to the promised growth fueled by the famous “oil find” and the redistribution of resources following the democratic transition. In the autumn of 2004 the breakout of “bread riots” in several towns following the rise of consumer prices pointed to social breakdown. These social conditions led to a growth of sympathy for extremist views.

These views called for a moral regeneration in government, and resonate with poor citizens who watched Nouakchott’s skyline dotted with an increasing number of palatial residences, each more opulent than the last. Never before had luxury been more conspicuous. People began to question the source of this newfound wealth. Corruption was suspected. Development aid given to a country seen as a good example was regularly misappropriated.

The new government claimed to fight against scourge, with few results. The drug trade was also very lucrative, and the country was now seen as a hub for Mafia networks. There have been a number of arrests in recent months, one involving the son of ex-president Haidallah. There is a widening gap between the public and the urban elite with its questionable western values.

The radicalization of the discourse and growing unrest are most visible in the urban milieu, which is rich in debate and vociferous expression, and highly politicized. There have been massive waves of rural-urban migration in the last thirty years, following long periods of drought. The capital Nouakchott was built from scratch in 1957, and, with its 1 million inhabitants, provides the clearest example of this spectacular urban grown (Choplin, 2006). The Neo-urbanites are connected to various information networks: the Arabic language channels, notably Al-Jazeera, and the Internet. In fact, it is in these urban areas that citizens gain a sense of their marginalization and seek to have their voices heard (Choplin, Ciavolella, 2008).

In the face of rising poverty levels, some have turned to highly critical political movements. Wahhabi Islamic readings, spread through Saudi influence and Islamist NGOs, began to appear in the poorer parts of town. Sociologist and expert in Mauritanian Islam, Yahya Ould El Bara (2003) showed the rise in the number of mosques in the last few years: between 1967 and 2003 the number rose from 17 to 617. Of these, 322 were run by benefactors from the Persian Gulf, a further 17 of which were distinctly fundamentalist in character.

The most notable of these fundamentalist mosques is in an impoverished part of the city. A large number of the faithful at this mosque are young 'haratin' (descendants of former slaves) who are particularly drawn to the egalitarian discourse of so-called pure Islam (ICG, 2005). The haratin eschew the Mauritanian form of Islam that has never questioned the oppressive traditional social hierarchies. In fact, fundamentalism provides a means to challenge the hegemony of the Marabout tribal chiefs who see themselves as the custodians of the religion.

Mauritanian Islamism versus foreign terrorism

This growth of the fundamentalist discourse does not mean that all Mauritanians are followers of Bin Laden, ready to perpetrate acts of terror. Rather, the Mauritanian public has been quick to denounce these acts, whose motives it does not share. The murder of four French citizens drew a lot of popular indignation and reproach. Even though the VIP club was not viewed in a popular light, and was seen as a venue frequented by foreigners, and where alcohol, prostitution and drugs were common currency, the attack was roundly condemned.

Those who attacked the Israeli embassy clearly sought to condemn the Mauritanian government’s decision to bow to US pressure and establish diplomatic ties in 2000. Even though many Mauritanians, particularly the moors, who hold a great affinity to the Arab world, have always been strongly opposed to these political ties, there was no support for this attack. Likewise, many Mauritanians reacted with disappointment to the cancellation of the Paris-Dakar Rally, puzzled at how their country had overnight transformed from a “peaceful country” into “a dangerous enemy of the West”.

It must be noted that however radical Mauritanian Islam might be, it has never condoned acts of terror, as the case may have been elsewhere (Kepel, 2000; Roy, 2002; Gomez-Perez, 2005). Islamist parties clearly proclaim that they have never called on their followers to use violence, and have no links whatsoever to Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. In a recent interview with RFI, Jemil Ould Mansour, a moderate Islamist leader, roundly condemned the acts of terror, attributing them to isolated groupings. The terrorist threat is thus seen to originate outside the country, and have no ties to local groups. Another telling fact is that after the murder of the French citizens, the attackers fled to neighboring countries, indicating the absence of a Mauritanian rearguard to protect them.

Therefore the supposed links between Islamism and Islamist terrorism do not hold water in the case of Mauritania. Today, ordinary citizens are alarmed by the authorities’ apparent inability to control the situation. They continue to distance themselves from terrorism through public demonstrations and numerous articles in discussion forums. It still begs the question, however, whether the growing disaffected radical groups may consider acts of terror in the future. The line between the two realities holds for the moment, but could easily become porous, if the number of locals leaving to join foreign “Jihadist” groups is anything to go by.

* Armelle Choplin ([email protected]) lectures in geography at l’Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée. She is also an Associate researcher at UMR PRODIG, where she completed her studies, and currently conducts research on Urbanization in Mauritania and Sudan.

The original article in French can be found at

The article also appeared in the French language edition of Pambazuka News: [email protected] or comment online at