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The Political Significance of the Maghreb

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In Algiers, North African Islamist parties held a meeting on Thursday 21st April with the hope of launching an initiative to revive the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU). Whilst conflicts in Israel, Palestine, Iraq, the Levant and the Gulf are generally regularly reported on, and debated in Western media outlets, the Maghreb region is covered sparingly. Until recently, this was due to the region’s static political climate. The five countries; Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania, hadn’t shown the political will to utilise their collective power and reactivate the AMU, seeking their alliances elsewhere. The union, formed in 1989 and ceasing activity in 1994, was mainly sidelined because of a territorial dispute between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara. This dispute still remains its biggest barrier.

The Arab Spring, in 2011, began in North Africa, thrusting the region and its internal and regional conflicts into the spotlight. The contexts and historical realities of North African states vary. Reforms in Morocco, democratic transition in Tunisia, and civil war in Libya all reflect different government responses. The aftermath has been a proliferation of arms, weak borders and a disenfranchised youth creating a perfect foundation for criminal activity and an array of terrorist cells and militias.

Algeria has made strides to redefine their relationship with the region and take a more active role in negotiations, while still maintaining a close relationship with the U.S. and Europe. This follows a period of chaos caused by weak states and terrorist threats along its land borders both to the east and south. Since Tunisia’s Ben Ali resigned in 2011, Algeria has helped its eastern neighbour fight domestic terrorist groups, particularly in the Châambi Mountains close to their common border. If IS were to gain a stronghold in Tunisia, the struggle would be felt across Algeria and the Mediterranean, potentially affecting all European countries. Many IS militants are already travelling to Libya, Iraq and Syria. The Arab uprisings and crisis in Mali have therefore turned both the Maghreb and Sahel regions into interstate security risks. The jihadi attack by an AQIM affiliated terrorist group on a gas plant in Amenas in southern Algeria clearly showed this. In the much reported attack where 40 foreign workers died, 11 of the 32 person terror group were Tunisian nationals and had been based in Mali.

Thus, far Islamist fighters in the Châambi Mountains have failed to be moved by the combined force of the Tunisian and Algerian armies. They are a sustained network of armed groups and supply weapons, money and other goods, subsequently taking hold across the Sahel region. The October 2011 downfall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi unleashed a flow of heavy and light weaponry reaching northern Mali. During 2014 and 2015, jihadists known to have operated in the Sahel region over the past decade have been reported to operate in Libya. In Libya’s civil conflict, the proliferation of armed groups, and non-existent state institutions – coupled with mass trade of light weapons and porous borders – gave IS significant opportunity to plan and launch operations.

Insecurity in North Africa directly affects developments in Sahel countries where various security agencies have identified key security threats, such as in Niger and Chad. Most of the armed Islamist groups in Mali originate from Maghreb countries, especially ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’. There are also large numbers of young Tunisians and Moroccans fighting with IS and other jihadi militias in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Since the Gaddafi regime was overthrown in August 2011, Libya has served as a training ground and transit point for Tunisians and other North African Jihadists on their way to Syria and Iraq. The Danish Institute for Security Studies predicts that, while Syria remains the main destination for jihadi fighters, in time, Libya could become the primary destination for jihadists from North Africa, Europe, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite engaging in dialogue with other Maghreb countries, Morocco is more interested in maintaining its long standing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Morocco is now participating in the anti-IS coalition in Syria and the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen, with their involvement being condemned by Moroccan and international human rights groups. In return, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman reiterated his support for Morocco on Tuesday. This follows Morocco expelling 83 civilian staffers of the UN’s peacekeeping force in and shutting down a military liaison office after Secretary General Ban Ki-moon used the term “occupation” when referring to the Western Sahara during his visit to Sahraoui refugee camps.

There can be no durable solution to the region’s turbulence without stronger security and economic development across North Africa. While a resuscitation of the AMU still seems far off, increased dialogue between the Maghreb countries is a positive step for addressing the security concerns across both the Maghreb and Sahel regions, with peace in Libya an impossibility until a political solution can be reached.



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