Security in the Sahara & Sahel: The Growing Threat Posed by Polisario-run Camps near Tindouf

Report in a series on:

The Truth About the Polisario    

Moroccan American Center for Policy
October 2013


Evidence has become overwhelming that members from the Polisario-run camps near Tindouf, Algeria fought alongside al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for United and Jihad (MUJAO) in northern Mali, and continue to engage in drug and arms smuggling in the Sahara/Sahel. Recent reports confirm that  the Polisario-run camps near Tindouf have become not only a recruiting ground for terrorists and traffickers operating in the region, but also a potential place of refuge for jihadists forced out of northern Mali by the actions of French and African forces.

Indeed, on May 22, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a new book, “Perilous Desert: Insecurity in the Sahara,” which reported that AQIM “has found an attractive base of supporters and recruits” in the Sahara/Sahel region. It cited increasing inroads by the group in Libya, Mali, Mauritania, and the Polisario-run refugee camps near Tindouf, which the book said represent “a tinderbox waiting to explode.”[1]

A week earlier, the UN Security Council warned that an “Arc of Instability” was stretching across the region, which, if left unchecked, “could transform the continent into a breeding ground for extremists and a launch pad for larger-scale terrorist attacks around the world.”[2]

These warnings followed earlier reports about the extent of Polisario-member involvement in terrorism and trafficking in the region. On April 16, Agence France Press cited reports from an African soldier that jihadists in northern Mali were attempting to reorganize in neighboring countries, including in the Algerian camps of the Polisario Front.[3] According to the soldier quoted by AFP, members of MUJAO had fled to the Algerian camps of the Polisario Front.

On March 15, the Foreign Minister of Mali, Tieman Coulibaly, confirmed that, “Polisario elements from the Tindouf camps have been identified with MUJAO fighters operating in northern Mali,” adding that Polisario militia members were recruited and paid monthly “salaries ranging from 200 to 600 Euros” to fight for the AQIM-linked MUJAO. A member of the Polisario Front was likewise among seven militants taken prisoner in the battle that killed AQIM leader Abou Zeid on March 1.[4]

These developments and the region’s descent into instability and terrorist violence have only increased the urgency to negotiate a solution to resolve the dispute over the Western Sahara – a long-standing conflict that has significantly inhibited regional cooperation to fight terrorism.

This urgency has recently been acknowledged by UN leader Ban-Ki Moon, who on April 9 called for urgent international efforts to end the Western Sahara conflict because of fears the Mali war will spill over into the territory. In a report to the 15-member Security Council, Ban argued, “The rise of instability and insecurity in and around the Sahel requires an urgent settlement of this long-standing dispute.”[5]

The UN report added, “All governments consulted raised serious concerns over the risk that the fighting in Mali could spill over into neighboring countries and contribute to radicalizing the Western Saharan refugee camps,” which one government leader in the region called “a ticking time bomb.”

A review of documented incidents and expert reports confirms that the Polisario-run camps are becoming a recruiting ground for AQIM, a hub for opportunistic Polisario members trafficking arms across the Sahel and drugs into Europe, and a threat to the security of the region and reforms of the Arab Spring. The most significant of these recent developments includes:

  • Members of the Polisario fought alongside AQIM and MUJAO in northern Mali and are engaged in terrorist incidents throughout the region — On February 4, 2013, Malian foreign minister Tiéman Coulibaly confirmed the presence of Polisario fighters among terrorist groups in Mali. He noted that Polisario militia members had been recruited to fight as mercenaries for MUJAO. His statement reaffirmed previous reports that as many as 300 members of the Polisario were fighting in northern Mali.[6]
  • Members of the Polisario have developed high-level links with al-Qaeda leaders operating in Mali — On March 1, 2013, Le Figaro and France 24 reported that a fighter from the Polisario Front was among seven militants take prisoner after the battle which killed key al-Qaeda leaders Abou Zeid.[7]
  • The Polisario-run camps near Tindouf, Algeria have become a recruiting ground for traffickers and terrorists — In December 2012, CNA Strategic Studies warned “there is evidence that AQIM has infiltrated the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, as well as indications that Sahrawi from these camps have jointed terrorist groups based in Mali.”[8] The CNA study cited the threat as posing “immediate concerns for the security of Western Sahara, Mauritania, Morocco, and Algeria,” not to mention US interests in the region.According to the May 2013 book, “Perilous Desert,” from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, growing numbers of disenchanted Polisario youth and fighters are being recruited by AQIM and a vast network of regional drug traffickers, adding that “there is growing evidence to suggest dangerous connections between criminal organizations, AQIM, and the Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf.”[9]
  • Polisario-linked drug and arms smuggling rings are operating in the Sahel — In the last two years, Algeria, Mauritania, and Mali have arrested dozens of Polisario members caught leading or operating major drug and arms trafficking rings in the region. These rings have been linked to AQIM and South American cartels engaged in trans-Atlantic drugs-for-arms trade with end markets in Europe and the Americas. Recent estimates of the value of this trafficking amount to nearly $1 billion US dollars annually.[10]In September 2012, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report detailed the extent of Polisario involvement, implicating Sahrawi networks with close ties to the Polisario in the drug and aid trafficking that accounts for much of the organized crime in the region. The report notes, “In the triangle between Mauritania, Mali, and Algeria, Sahrawi networks—often with the direct involvement of officials in the Polisario movement, which seeks independence for Western Sahara—trade subsidized Algerian goods and humanitarian aid southward and cigarettes northward to Algeria and Morocco.”[11]Further, a February 2013 study by the IUCTS cites intelligence reports that confirm al-Qaeda “has established links with Latin cartels for ‘drugs-for-arms’ smuggling through terrorist-trafficking networks that include members of the Polisario Front” in Algeria.[12]
  • Polisario recruits have carried out and assisted in AQIM kidnappings — On October 23, 2011, Polisario insiders reportedly helped an offshoot of AQIM kidnap three Western aid workers from the Polisario-run refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria.[13] The Spanish aid workers were held for 9 months and released for an alleged ransom of $18.4 million. As a result of the insecurity in the camps, in July 2012 Spain evacuated all of its aid workers, citing “well-founded evidence of a serious increase in insecurity in the region” and “the serious risk of new kidnappings.”[14]


* For the full report, including a detailed Chronology of documented incidents and reports linking members from the Polisario-run camps with AQIM, trafficking, and other illicit activities in the region, go to:



[1] Wehrey, Frederic and Anouar Boukhars, eds. Perilous Desert: Insecurity in the Sahara (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013).

[2] “‘Arc of Instability’ across Africa, If Left Unchecked, Could Turn Continent into Launch Pad for Larger-Scale Terrorist Attacks, Security Council Told.” UN News Centre, May 13, 2013,  <http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2013/sc11004.doc.htm>.

[3] Daniel, Serge. “Defeated in Mali, Islamists begin to reorganize.” Agence France Presse, April 16, 2013, < http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130416/defeated-mali-islamists-begin-reorganise.>

[4] “Ministre malien : Le Polisario livre des mercenaires au MUJAO contre des mensualités de 600 euros.” LeMag, March 16, 2013, <http://www.lemag.ma/Ministre-malien-Le-Polisario-livre-des-mercenaires-au-MUJAO-contre-des-mensualites-de-600-euros_a68461.html>.

“Le ministre malien des Affaires étrangères: ‘Le soutien et l’aide du Maroc au Mali sont déterminants pour nous’.” AtlasInfo, February 4, 2013, <http://www.atlasinfo.fr/Le-ministre-malien-des-Affaires-etrangeres-Le-soutien-et-l-aide-du-Maroc-au-Mali-sont-determinants-pour-nous_a38888.html>.

“Mali : combattant d’Aqmi, il rapporte la mort d’Abou Zeid.” Le Figaro, March 1, 2013, <http://www.lefigaro.fr/international/2013/03/01/01003-20130301ARTFIG00354-mali-combattant-d-aqmi-il-rapporte-la-mort-d-abou-zeid.php>

[5] Witcher, Tim. “Ban says W. Sahara risks being drawn into Mali war.” Agence France Presse, April 9, 2013, <http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5iOnupKvBuc8I_WTR3J5BnNCFnmEw?docId=CNG.566cbe22180951c72bc8d9c6ad6fd9d1.d1>.

[6] “Le ministre malien des Affaires étrangères: ‘Le soutien et l’aide du Maroc au Mali sont déterminants pour nous’.” AtlasInfo, February 4, 2013, <http://www.atlasinfo.fr/Le-ministre-malien-des-Affaires-etrangeres-Le-soutien-et-l-aide-du-Maroc-au-Mali-sont-determinants-pour-nous_a38888.html>.

[7] “Mali : combattant d’Aqmi, il rapporte la mort d’Abou Zeid.” Le Figaro, March 1, 2013, <http://www.lefigaro.fr/international/2013/03/01/01003-20130301ARTFIG00354-mali-combattant-d-aqmi-il-rapporte-la-mort-d-abou-zeid.php>.

[8] Volger, Sarah. “Security Challenges in Libya and the Sahel.” CNA Strategic Studies, December 2012, <http://www.cna.org/sites/default/files/research/Libya_Sahel_Security_Workshop.pdf>.

[9] Wehrey, Frederic and Anouar Boukhars, eds. Perilous Desert: Insecurity in the Sahara (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013). April 2013. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

[10] “Ban calls for boost in efforts to fight organized crime in West Africa and Sahel.” UN Press Centre, February 21, 2012, <http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=41314&Cr=organized+crime&Cr1=>.

[11] Lacher, Wolfram. “Organized Crime in the Sahel-Sahara Region.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 2012, <http://carnegieendowment.org/files/sahel_sahara.pdf>.

[12] Alexander,  Yonah. “Terrorism in North Africa and the Sahel in 2012: Global Reach and Implications.” Potomac Institute for Policy Studies/International Law Institute, February 2013, <http://www.terrorismelectronicjournal.org/knowledge-base/selected-special-reports/>.

[13] “Three Qaeda hostages seized last week alive: mediator.” Agence France Presse, October 30, 2011, <http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gfsKPTIgBS_lQzBQK_R-Fdj_-z0A?docId=CNG.fb5674e8c48dbb7ef3f59c256d4c3f07.531>.

[14] “Spain evacuates aid workers.” BBC, July 28, 2012, < http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-19034164>.

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