Western Sahara is the world’s largest non-autonomous zone, an area with no formal national control. While there have been various countries occupying the region throughout history, the land mass has always been a source of conflict. Since Morocco declared sovereignty of Western Sahara, it sparked a dispute between the government and the Polisario, or Polisario Front, a group backed by Algeria.
The Polisario Front is an independent movement that was established to oppose Moroccan rule when Spain decided to surrender its control of Western Sahara in the early 1970s. Today, the Polisario has built ties to Al Qaeda and is suspected to be involved in a variety of heinous crime rings, including narco-terrorism, kidnapping, and hijacking.
This conflict is leaving tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees displaced and without adequate food and water, threatening to backtrack Morocco’s economic plans and initiatives for the region.
For years, Morocco has been introducing initiatives to improve infrastructure and overall life in Western Sahara, but now the Polisario’s actions threaten to completely derail all the good that’s been accomplished already.
Moroccan Initiatives in Western Sahara
Moroccan authorities have long believed that the Western Saharan region has great economic potential. Morocco’s Secretary of State for Foreign Trade , Rokia Derham, stated “This is a very rich region.”
Though extremely arid and unforgiving to agriculture, and posing significant challenges to maintain adequate water supplies, the Moroccan government holds that there remains great potential for foreign investment.
Fishing and agricultural engineering are two of the primary options that are brought up repeatedly, though with technological advancements, this could expand into the future. Morocco aims to drive development and has invested already in creating a stronger infrastructure there.
Recently, the Sahrawi president, Hamdi Ould Errachid, addressed a couple of hundred entrepreneurs at a ceremony highlighting the investment appeal of the region. Other areas that were noted for potential development in Western Sahara included renewable energy, tourism, and construction.
Among the infrastructure that Morocco has been focused on are new roads, industrial parks, and shipping ports. In 2015, Moroccan Enterprises announced a $609 million investment plan for Western Sahara. The country’s initiatives, though, are increasingly under threat as the Polisario continues to wreak havoc across the Western Sahara.
The Polisario’s Destabilizing Actions
Like ISIS and Al Qaeda, the Polisario has resorted to the threat of ‘waking up’ its dormant cells within Moroccan lands to revive its longstanding war with the North African nation. This was its response following a devastating defeat in a passage region close to Moroccan borders.
Last year, the organization showed the world its true colors. Not as a band of independent freedom fighters, but a gang bent on thievery, terrorism, and lawlessness. The group had blocked a major border crossing, Guerguarat, and attacked travelers, highlighting its complete disregard for international law.
In response, Moroccan military forces interceded by reopening the passage to restore peace and protect civilian travelers.
After being driven out, the Polisario took to sending messages to its supporters, similar to other terrorist organizations. They called on their supporters to “blow themselves up amongst the enemy in order to kill” large numbers of victims. The Polisario have also used radicalization strategies to recruit the vulnerable in the Tindouf camp, where many people are held against their will. They prey on the anger and frustration of the youth to find supporters.
The Polisario Front also recently claimed to have killed three Moroccan soldiers, but Moroccan Premier, Saad-Eddine El-Othmani, denies any such losses were endured. Algerian security forces had warned back in 2011 that a growing number the group’s members were building relationships with jihadist terrorist groups. These newest threats and warnings appear to validate those warnings from 10 years ago.
Morocco’s Improvements Under Threat
For the tens of thousands of Sahrawis displaced by this ongoing conflict and the economic potential throughout Western Sahara, there is a lot at stake. To maintain societal improvements, the Polisario Front must be stopped.
Terrorist organizations seek to capitalize on destabilized countries and regions to infiltrate and gain control, and the Polisario is no different. While originally backed by Algeria, its security warnings dating back one decade regarding the group highlight a shift in its focus.
Now, it’s up to Morocco, neighboring countries, and the international community -anyone who has a fiscal interest in the region or who cares about the plight of longsuffering peoples- to step up and aide in the fight against this terrorist organization.
If Moroccan efforts are halted, Western Sahara will likely experience continued uncertainty and could very well succumb to the gang of thieves the Polisario Front has shown itself to be.