Crackdown on Islamists in Mauritania

Thirty-seven Islamists have been charged in Mauritania with belonging to an illegal group after being arrested last month on suspicion of links to a organization tied to al-Qaeda. Another 14 were released May 27, and some accused the authorities of torture during their detention. “I was arrested and freed without knowing why,” lawyer Mohamed Haj Ould Sidi told a news conference. “Those detained near me were regularly tortured and I had a lot of trouble sleeping because of their screams.” Imam Ahmed Jiddou Ould Abdallahi, who was also detained, told reporters he had been tortured.

The 37, including Muslim spiritual leader Cheikh Mohamed El Hacen Ould Deddew and former diplomat Moctar Ould Mohamed Moussa, were officially charged on the 27th of membership in the Algeria-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).

Earlier this month, authorities searched mosques, seized Koranic texts and arrested mosque officials in a crackdown which came after the government announced al-Qaeda was recruiting and training Mauritanians to fight alongside insurgents in Iraq.

Critics say President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya is taking advantage of the US-led War on Terrorism to justify a clampdown on opponents and to try to ingratiate his regime with Western powers.

Mauritania is an impoverished former French colony where power has not changed hands through the ballot box since independence in 1960. The country hopes to get rich from offshore oil which it is due to start pumping this year.

Taya, who seized power in a 1984 coup, angered many in Mauritania when he shifted support from former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein towards Israel and the United States. Mauritania became the third Arab League state to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1999 (after Egypt and Jordan). (Reuters, May 28)

The charges follow a wave of arrests across the country, in which at least 60, including ten imams, were detained in May. Sheikh Mohamed Al-Amin Ould Al-Hasan, one of the leading Islamic figures in the West African country, was among those arrested. Several Muslim women activists were also detained by security forces across the country. “There are at least 10 mosques which have been searched by the police. They took copies of the Koran,” said one opposition source, declining to be named.

The government also enacted a new law banning lectures and sermons in the country’s mosques except during the Friday khutba, or sermon accompanying noon prayers. The legislation also bans the sale and circulation of tapes featuring sermons or lectures.

The moves have prompted protest both at home and abroad. Former president Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla has warned that the government’s campaign on Islamists and mosques would aggravate the situation in the country. The International Crisis Group warned that the Mauritanian authorities are playing a dangerous game to stifle Islamist opponents by denouncing them as “terrorists.”

“The government is now in danger of creating the very phenomenon it is warning of by tarring the whole wider Islamic revival in the country with the ‘terrorist’ tag,” the Brussels-based think-tank said in a report on May 12. (Islam Online, May 17; Al-Jazeera, May 16)

Among those detained in the recent sweeps was newspaper editor Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Ebilmaali, of the independent daily Akhbar Nouakchott. He was among those released, but another journalist, Mohamed Ould Abderrahmane, has been in custody since April 25, on suspicion of running an activist Web site.

President Taya, who came to power in a coup in 1984, has previously carried out waves of arrests of followers of Islamic groups after accusing them of plotting his overthrow. The US government is now providing anti-terrorism training to Mauritania’s army, saying vast areas of the Sahel could become a staging ground for terrorist groups. (VOA, May 23)

Authorities in Mauritania claim al-Qaeda has been pouring vast sums into mosques and Islamic schools in the country, hoping to recruit insurgents and send them to the front lines of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Police spokesman Yahsdhou Ould Amar said in a statement that al-Qaeda has established “powerful networks” in Mauritania, and seeks to “dragoon the women in our country, to pressure them into being veiled at all times in public.” (The practice of wearing the veil is apparently growing in Mauritania.) Amar’s statement, released over the official news service, referred to al-Qaeda as a “criminal organization which has sacrificed [Mauritanians] on the front lines of other wars, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Police say that two recent crimes – a raid on a police station in the southeastern town of Aioun that netted five weapons and the theft of a vehicle belonging to the Christian charity WorldVision – were committed by the terror network and are a taste of future operations planned for Mauritania. The government claims “terrorist acts” are planned, but has refused to provide details.

Mauritania’s Islamist movement insists that it is strictly non-violent. Critics contend that Taya’s government is overstating the threat of fundamentalism to win US military and economic aid. (AFP, May 11)

On May 3, police in the capital Nouakchott police battled university students in the latest in a series of protest against an imminent visit by Israel’s foreign minister Silvan Shalom. For the second day in a row, university students vented their anger in front of the capital’s university. Streets leading to the university campus were sealed off as some 200 anti-riot police launched tear-gas canisters to disperse the demonstrators. (Reuters, May 3)

Mauritania’s government is also strengthening ties with other US allies in the region. At a recent summit in Sanaa, Taya and Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh pledged anti-terrorist cooperation and underlined the importance of the private sector in setting up an economic partnership between the two countries. (Yemen Observer, May 29)

Taya’s regime has suffered three coup attempts in less than two years. The two self-confessed ringleaders of the 2003 coup attempt–former army Major Saleh Ould Hanenna and former Captain Abderahmane Ould Mini–have been serving life sentences. However, the “Knights of Change” rebel movement that was behind the coup attempt remains a potent force.

There is also resentment against perceived corruption, tribalism and discrimination against the country’s black population, as business opportunities are limited to a small circle close to the Arabic-speaking governing elite. Slavery and indenture continue to exist even, though laws abolishing the practice were first passed over 20 years ago.

Newly discovered oil reserves are set to have a significant impact on the national economy, but the Oxford Analytica think-tank says “there is little optimism that benefits will be evenly distributed.” Ecological impacts have taken a harsh toll on small farmers. Mauritania has been one of the countries most affected by the locust plagues in North and West Africa last year. Up to half the country’s cereal production may have been lost, and grazing has also been negatively affected. A drought recurring since 2001 has further reduced agricultural performance and food security. The crisis has resulted in a rise in food prices, which in turn has pushed up inflation.

Oxford Analytica concludes: “There is little or no evidence that the Islamist movement in Mauritania is implicated in terrorism or related to al-Qaeda. Moreover, the government’s heavy-handed approach to dismantling the opposition is likely to strengthen the Islamist groups it is seeking to destroy. Furthermore, the expected oil boom will, if anything, heighten disparities between disaffected youth and the governing elite, which the Islamist opposition could exploit.” (Forbes, May 31)

See our reports on the unrest in Mauritania, the Pentagon’s new presence in the country, possible Mauritanian jihadis fighting abroad, and the crackdown on Mauritanian immigrants in the US. See also our special report on the militarization of the Sahel. For more on the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, see our last post on Algeria.