Is Mauritania Really a New ISIS Front?

A member of Mauritania's National Guard on patrol in 2012, following the growth of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in nearby northern Mali. Bassikounou, Mauritania, May 22, 2012. (Joe Penney/Reuters/Corbis)

On June 16, a Mauritanian court sentenced three men to prison terms for allegedly having ties to the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). The men were accused of “belonging to an organization established with the goal of committing terrorist crimes, instigating religious violence, using symbols relating to a terrorist organization for the sake of glorifying it, and providing a meeting place for persons with a relationship to a terrorist organization.”

The accused denied the charges, but the prosecution played a film that reportedly showed the men pledging allegiance to ISIS. The men were part of a cell arrested by authorities in Zouerate, northern Mauritania in October 2014. They will each serve between five and 10 years in prison.

Is ISIS a serious threat to Mauritania? Yes, but only to an extent. Authorities in the West African nation have two reasons to be concerned. The first is the presence of ISIS elsewhere in the region. It has an affiliate in Libya, whose fortunes have been mixed. It has also claimed responsibility for major terrorist attacks in Tunisia recently, including the fatal shooting of 39 tourists at a beach on June 26, and the March 18 raid on the Bardo Museum in Tunis. ISIS has also attracted the allegiance of Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect, proclaiming an “Islamic State of West Africa.” This regional presence could attract Mauritanians to either fight elsewhere—and return home later to cause problems—or attempt to build their own affiliate within Mauritania. An unknown, likely small, number of Mauritanians have already joined ISIS.

The second reason for concern is the minor but recurring presence of al-Qaeda affiliates in Mauritania in recent years. Al-Qaeda’s northwest African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has staged attacks in Mauritania since 2005. AQIM’s assaults include incidents like the February 2008 shooting at the Israeli embassy and the August 2009 bombing outside the French embassy. Mauritania has not suffered territorial losses to AQIM, as its neighbor Mali did in 2012-2013, but uprooting the small jihadi presence in the country has been a priority for Mauritanian heads of state—both for genuine reasons of security and because they want to reap the benefits of being seen by the international community as a bulwark against terrorism. Now that ISIS sometimes overshadows al-Qaeda in the perceptions of both governments and aspiring jihadis, Mauritania authorities may be worried that would-be Mauritanian jihadis, and even AQIM itself, could lean toward embracing ISIS.

Indeed, there have been some ambiguous signals that offshoots of AQIM now have divided loyalties. In May, Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi, claiming to speak in the name of al-Murabitun, an offshoot of AQIM, pledged allegiance to ISIS. Al-Sahrawi, however, did not represent everyone within the organization: al-Murabitun’s other, better-known leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar soon came out denying the pledge and reaffirming his allegiance to al-Qaeda central’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Belmokhtar’s stance shows that al-Qaeda retains key allies in the Sahara, but al-Sahrawi’s pledge shows that ISIS continues to make inroads among jihadis in the region. In short, there are reasons for Mauritania’s authorities to be vigilant.

At the same time, hysteria about Mauritania is unwarranted. In March of this year, headlines screamed “Terror Triumvirate: ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram Training Together in Mauritania.” This analysis reached dubious conclusions, starting with the idea that ISIS and al-Qaeda—enemies of each other—would train together. As with much “security analysis,” it relied on hyperbole and over-interpretation of evidence to reach alarmist conclusions. Based on a few videos of alleged terrorist training camps, one interviewee called Mauritania “a powder keg.”

Mauritania is not a powder keg. Mauritania is a poor country with major internal divisions over race, and the country saw some protests during the Arab Spring, but overall the ruling elite has a firm grip on power. President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, who took power in a 2008 military coup and won re-election in 2009 and 2014, has dealt aggressively with jihadis and would-be jihadis. This trend includes not just local jihadis, but also Mauritanians who belong to al-Qaeda central—if caught, they face long-term imprisonment or rendition to the United States.

Where affiliates of al-Qaeda and ISIS have seized substantial territory in recent years, it has been in countries with severe and pre-existing governance challenges. Libya fell apart during, and especially after, its 2011 civil war. Mali has experienced recurring rebellions led by the Tuareg ethnic group, and al-Qaeda’s allies were able to set down roots in northern Mali partly because they cultivated Tuareg friends. Nigerian authorities badly mishandled the Boko Haram crisis over a period of years before the sect bid for territorial control. Mauritania has problems, but none that mirror the severe instability that plagues these other northwest African states.

Hysteria over the possible spread of ISIS may distract attention from other important questions. At what price has Mauritania’s seeming stability been purchased? What kind of measures are in place to ensure that suspected jihadis are receiving fair treatment under the law? The trial of the alleged ISIS members was reportedly concluded in just one day. Ultimately, the concern may not be that Mauritania will explode in a paroxysm of jihadi activity, but rather that authorities there will trample on civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.