Association of Concerned Africa Scholars Review (previously: Bulletin)
ACAS Bulletin 77: North Africa and the Horn in the Vortex of the US War on Terror

How the ‘War on Terror’ Undermined Peace in Northwest Africa: The Western Sahara Conflict After 9/11

August 2007

On a rocky plain in the Saharan desert, just outside of the dusty military town of Tindouf, Algeria, sit four refugee camps first established in 1976. These camps house nearly half the native population of Western Sahara. These Sahrawis, as they like to call themselves, bide their time, waiting — as they always have — for Morocco to leave Western Sahara so that they can go home. Though the fundamental problem remains the same, the conditions that underlie their exile often change. When they arrived over thirty years ago, it was the Cold War that brought them there. Now it is the ‘War on Terror’ that helps keep them there.

Whether we like it or not, the effects of September 11, 2001, can be witnessed in some of the remotest spaces of the Earth. In this essay, I will outline two ways in which post-9/11 U.S. policy has affected the Western Sahara conflict between the occupying power, Morocco, and the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi nationalist independence movement. The most obvious effect of the ‘War on Terror’ is rhetorical; a shift in the way Morocco now characterizes the conflict. Yet this mutation, as I will argue, is mere substitution. Moroccan efforts to securitize the discourse in its favour are an old trick that unfortunately works in Washington. Secondly, I will describe how and why the George W. Bush administration undermined the UN peace process in Western Sahara in the name of the ‘War on Terror’. However, I will start with a brief background of the Western Sahara conflict.

A Western Sahara Primer:

Fourteen days after the International Court of Justice called for a referendum on independence in Western Sahara, the Moroccan military commenced an invasion on October 30, 1975. Though Madrid had administered Western Sahara since 1884, the immediate post-Franco government decided to hastily abandon the Territory to Rabat and Nouakchott, to avoid becoming embroiled in a ‘colonial war’. The Polisario Front independence movement, formed in 1973 to fight Spanish colonialism, was forced into exile along with half of the native population. From its base in Algeria, Polisario waged a fifteen year guerrilla struggle to drive out, first, Mauritania (in 1979) and, secondly, Morocco. Yet with firm aid and support from the United States, France and Saudi Arabia, Morocco was able to keep Polisario’s fighters at bay while slowly gaining control of the territory. By the 1991 UN sponsored cease-fire, Morocco had won control of most of the territory.

The United Nations peace process in Western Sahara began in the mid-1980s when Morocco withdrew from the Organization of African Unity (OAU) over the admission of Polisario’s Saharan Arab Democratic Republic as a full member-state. Until then, the OAU had been at the forefront of the Polisario-Morocco negotiations, and had won a major concession from Morocco: Rabat agreed to participate in a referendum on independence.

In the 1990s, the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) attempted to implement a plan the parties had tentatively accepted in 1988. The goal was to hold a plebiscite allowing the native Western Saharans to choose either full independence or integration with Morocco. Ever constant were disagreements on who should even be allowed to apply to vote and then the process by which ethnic Sahrawis native to Western Sahar0061 could be ‘identified’.

That plan was thrown to the wayside in early 2000, perhaps owing to an East Timor effect in the UN Security Council (i.e., a disinclination towards contentious referenda). Furthermore, King Hassan II of Morocco, who naively thought the referendum’s outcome would favour Morocco, died in mid-1999. His son, Mohammed VI, soon took independence off the table.

Frustrated with the international community’s disregard and their own status as second-class citizen in Morocco, the Sahrawi independence movement has spawned its own ‘Intifadah’ protest movement in the streets of the Moroccan occupied Western Sahara. Though normally non-violent, this summer saw the first Sahrawi attack on Moroccan police with Molotov Cocktails in the major city of al-‘Ayun (Laayoune).

Comfortable with its support from Paris, Washington and Madrid, Morocco has proven more and more intransigent in recent years. Though Morocco describes its recent ‘autonomy’ proposal as a concession to Polisario, Rabat now believes that it can unilaterally impose a solution in Western Sahara and receive the international imprimatur. Morocco’s belief that it can — literally — get away with murder in Western Sahara is an effect of recent U.S. policy

The Moroccan Discourse on Western Sahara after 9/11: Old Wine, New Bottles

When pressing its case for Western Sahara to foreign patrons, Moroccan regime has also attempted to de-legitimize Polisario in various ways. The most common tactic is Rabat’s frequent attempts to highlight Polisario’s links — real, ideological and imaginary — to groups, persons and countries at odds with U.S. foreign policy.

The Moroccan regime has never seen Polisario as a legitimate independence movement. Above all else, Polisario is, for most Moroccans, a creation of the Algerian state, an arm of the Algerian army. This premise, unsupported as it is by the actual history of Western Saharan nationalism, which long pre-dates Algerian support, nonetheless remains a firm cornerstone of the Moroccan nationalist imaginaire.

During the Cold War, when the armed conflict in Western Sahara was at its peak, Morocco often attempted to portray the conflict as a proxy war between East and West. Whether calling attention to Polisario’s Libyan-supplied Soviet arms or its good relations with Cuba, Rabat spared no argument to win backing from the United States. Under the Reagan administration, Morocco was able to regain the ninety percent of the territory, which it had lost during the first four years of the war (1975-1980), thanks in large part to the generous arms it received in the 1980s from the United States.

Having long ago figured out how to push the United States’ security buttons, the Moroccan regime wasted little time attempting to deploy post-9/11 rhetoric to maintain and increase U.S. support. Instead of maligning Polisario as radical left, the Moroccan government now portrays Polisario as susceptible to ‘Jihadism’. And once it became clear that U.S. was actively and directly involved in the security affairs of central Saharan and Sahelian nations (i.e., the Pan-Sahel Initiative and the $500 million Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative), it was only a matter of time before the Moroccan regime started using guilt by geographical association to tie Polisario to armed Islamic groups allegedly active in the region (e.g., GSPC, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, now al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghrib).

Likewise, the governments of Niger and Mali are attempting to brand former Tuareg rebels as al-Qaida lackeys; nor has the Mauritanian government missed an opportunity to manufacture some post-9/11 sympathy and aid from the United States by playing up its Islamic dissidents as GSPC ‘terrorists’.

What is even more incredulous about Morocco’s recent approach is that Rabat has continued to use Polisario’s good relations with Cuba to gain backing from Cuban exile groups and anti-Castro members of congress. One might wonder if any other organization besides Polisario has been accused of having ties to both Fidel Castro and Osama Bin Laden. (One might also wonder if Washington, D.C., is the only place in the world where such a claim could be believed.) The Moroccan government has also used its half-dozen hired U.S. lobbying firms to build-up support from pro-Israel members of congress by stressing Morocco’s long-standing good relations with Israel. The argument is quite simple: What is bad for an ally of Israel is bad for Israel, and so supporters of Israel should support Morocco in Western Sahara.

There is, however, an aspect to Moroccan rhetoric that Western powers are starting to take seriously. On the one hand, most policy-makers who have some experience with the Western Sahara conflict know full well that Polisario is not in bed with al-Qaida. Yet the post-9/11 Moroccan discourse has made use of the ‘failed state’ anxiety so many Western capitals harbour towards Africa. Rabat’s efforts seem to have paid off. In the context of Western Sahara, there is an emerging consensus that a new weak Saharan state might become a safe haven for terrorism. As no one is quite sure how an independent Western Sahara will fair (politically and economically), no Western power now wants to take the risk. In the 1970s, it is rumoured that Henry Kissinger articulated his support for a Moroccan take-over of Western Sahara by saying that it was not in the U.S. interest to have an Angola on its Eastern flank. Today one could plausibly imagine someone saying that it is not in the national interest to have an Afghanistan on the U.S. eastern flank.

The Peace Process in the Shadow of 9/11

From 1997 to 2004, the Western Sahara peace process was under the direction of former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker. He originally accepted the assignment as a favour to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In mid-1997, he got Morocco and Polisario to sign a series of agreements that would guarantee the implementation of the 1991 UN Settlement Plan. The Houston Accords, as they were called, guided the peace process until the Security Council threw them away in 2000. Baker then embarked on a series of mostly indirect negotiations on a non-zero-sum solution — an alternative to a referendum on either independence or integration. The idea of autonomy for Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty surfaced as the ideal, middle-of-the-road solution. Yet the major stumbling block remained: the right to self-determination, including the option of independence.

Baker submitted his first alternative proposal in 2001, which offered Western Sahara five years of significant autonomy. At the end of the five-year period the population would participate in an undefined ‘final status’ vote (i.e., without the explicit choice of independence), polling both native Western Saharans and Moroccan settlers. Though Morocco embraced the proposal, Polisario vehemently denounced it. Instead of endorsing Baker’s proposal, the Security Council, in early 2002, would only state that it supported any proposal that provided for self-determination (i.e., a referendum including independence).

Baker’s second alternative proposal was given to the parties in early 2003. This time, Baker sweetened the deal for Polisario by broadening the autonomy and explicitly calling for independence as one of three options on the final status referendum, along with integration and continued autonomy. For Morocco’s benefit, Baker allowed the majority Moroccan settler population to participate in the vote, thus giving Rabat the demographic edge in the referendum. Though Polisario was still uncomfortable with the idea of living under Moroccan sovereignty for five years, the liberation movement stunned most observers and accepted the proposal. Upset that Baker had put independence back on the table, King Mohammed VI protested to Presidents Chirac and Bush directly, including a reportedly tense sideline meeting with the latter in the General Assembly. Yet Morocco’s stiff rejection of a proposal that seemed like a clear give-away to Rabat led most observers to conclude that Morocco is not even sure how its own settler population would vote in an independence referendum in Western Sahara.

With Polisario on board, Baker wanted the Security Council to strongly endorse his plan, so as to signal to Morocco that there was only one way forward. Since 2002, Baker had concluded that sooner or later the Security Council would have to ask either Polisario or Morocco — or both — to do something that neither wanted. For Baker, the Security Council’s calls for a mutually agreeable solution were a pipe dream. Sooner or later, Baker would need to twist some arms, and he would need the Security Council’s support and blessing to make his threats real. Undercutting Baker, the Secretary-General’s own Personal Envoy to Western Sahara, the Security Council would not endorse the proposal.

In the following months, Baker worked with Morocco to develop a counter proposal. The first Moroccan ‘non-paper’ came in late 2003, yet offered very little autonomy and no referendum of self-determination. Baker pressed Morocco to enhance the autonomy and clearly spell out what kind of referendum it could tolerate. The second Moroccan counter-proposal, according to reports, did not even attempt to meet Baker halfway on autonomy, and even less so regarding self-determination. Frustrated with Morocco’s intransigence and the Security Council’s unwillingness to push Morocco (even under Chapter VI), Baker resigned in June 2004. Since then the peace process has further deteriorated.

There were two main sources of Morocco’s growing intransigence during the final years of the Baker-administered peace process in Western Sahara. One — a factor that has always been present since 1975 — is the almost unconditional support Morocco receives from France. Yet under the final years of the Chirac presidency, this support seemed limitless. Indeed, it was clear that Chirac saw himself as Mohammed VI’s godfather. It might also have had something to do with Chirac’s relationship with a certain female member of the Moroccan royal family.

The second factor behind Morocco’s intransigence in Western Sahara is the United State’s post-9/11 policies towards Northwest Africa in the ‘War on Terror’. Morocco, always a pivotal ally of the United States, has become an indispensable to the Bush administrations regional designs. Playing to the neo-conservatives (i.e., Eliot Abrams, head of Middle East in the National Security Council), Morocco portrays itself as a liberalizing and democratizing country yet offers its security services in the fight against armed trans-national Islamic networks. Not only is it clear that Morocco is one of the major routes the CIA has used in its extraordinary rendition programme, there is growing evidence that prisoners of the U.S. have been sent to Morocco for information extraction. An EU official once summarized the U.S. attitude towards Morocco in Western Sahara by asking, ‘You don’t criticize the country that tortures for you, do you?’

Not only is Morocco an ally in the ‘War on Terror,’ it is a major site and exporter of it. The coordinated suicide bombings of 2003 and the botched ones of 2007, along with the number of Moroccan ‘jihadists’ participating in the Iraqi and Algerian insurgencies, not to mention the 2004 Madrid bombings and other European al-Qaida cells, suggest that something ominous is lurking behind Morocco’s peaceful façade. For these reasons, the Bush administration feels all the more compelled to support Morocco in Western Sahara.

The clearest sign that the United State’s ‘War on Terror’ had undermined the Western Sahara peace process actually came in June 2004, the same month Baker resigned. Coincidentally, the U.S. awarded Morocco a bilateral free trade agreement and major non-NATO ally status, making Morocco a top security priority like Japan and Israel. Even though Morocco’s foreign minister bragged that Baker’s resignation was due to his country’s tenacious foreign policy, the Bush administration still thought fit to shower Morocco with gifts. Rather than support the work of Baker, the man who helped ‘W’ win Florida, the second Bush administration opted to bolster a stumbling ally in the ‘War on Terror’. The White House’s blatant disregarded of the recommendations of 2006 Iraq Study Group was not the first time the Bush administration dismissed Baker.

Final Thoughts

Thanks to the myopic policies of the second Bush administration, the prospects for a resolution to the Western Sahara dispute in the near future are grim, to say the least. The worst-case scenario — a return to armed conflict between Morocco and Polisario — seems more probable now than at any other time since the 1991 cease-fire. Given that conflict management resources are stretched so thin, the international community will apparently have to learn to stomach a high level of instability and violence, especially in Africa. Just as the effects of 9/11 can be seen almost everywhere, the damage caused by the ‘War on Terror’ is equally pervasive.

About the Author

Jacob Mundy is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (UK). He is co-author of the forthcoming Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press) with Stephen Zunes.


Hodges, T. 1983. Western Sahara: Roots of a Desert War (Westport: Lawrence Hill).

Keenan, J. 2004. ‘Terror in the Sahara: the Implications of US Imperialism for North and West Africa’, Review of African Political Economy 101 (September), 475-496.

Mundy, J. 2006. ‘Neutrality or Complicity? The United States and the Moroccan Takeover of the Spanish Sahara’, Journal of North African Studies 11,3 (September), 275-306.

Ruiz-Miguel, C. 2007. ‘The 2007 Moroccan Autonomy Plan for Western Sahara: Too many Black Holes’, Groupo de Estudios Estratégicos (June 29, 2007), 214/

San Martin, P. 2007. ‘Nationalism, Identity and Citizenship in the Western Sahara’, in J. Keenan, ed., The Sahara. Past, Present and Future (Routledge: London & New York), 304-331.

Shelley, T. 2004. Endgame in Western Sahara: What future for Africa’s last colony? (London: Zed).

Zoubir, Y. 2006. ‘American Policy in the Maghreb: The Conquest of a New Region?’ Real Instituto Elcano (July 24, 2006).

Zunes, S. 2007. ‘The Future of Western Sahara’, Foreign Policy in Focus (June 20, 2007),

Add Comment