Al Qaeda is not standing by idly for the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terror force US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld initiated during his mid-February whirlwind tour of northern Africa to take shape.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 242 of Feb. 17, 2006)
American, French, Moroccan and Algerian intelligence have received disturbing information of a move to establish a central hub of operations in Zouerate, a remote iron mining town in northern Mauritania, western Africa.
This is reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s exclusive counter-terror sources.
From that vantage point, al Qaeda proposes to build an expanded terrorist network on similar lines to the structure Abu Musab al Zarqawi established in Syria and Iraq in mid-2003 and early 2004.
After the fashion of Ramadi in Iraq, the town of Zouerate would be the first permanent home base for Zone 9, which is largely made up of mobile al Qaeda units and offshoots, scattered among local tribes in the Sahara desert and the Sahel belt, which spans the African continent.
Tiny Zouerate has an indigenous population of 38,000, boosted by a large increment of foreign workers from across Africa employed in the mines.
Its reserves are estimated at 200 million tons of hematite quartz. That quantity is doubled by the mines outside the town. This dot on the map boasts a single hotel and restaurant run by Minerfa, the mining company. Living conditions are primitive and the climate burning hot by day and freezing cold at night.
The mining town is 900 kilometers north of the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott on the Atlantic coast. The two towns are connected only by the Route de Mauritania and a twice-weekly plane. There is a short cut of 300 kilometers from Zouerate to the Atlantic coast. It runs due west across Western Sahara to the port of Dakhla.
Last December, the first al Qaeda operatives are reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources to have arrived in Zouerate among an imported African labor force. They differed starkly from their poor co-workers; in their pockets they carried what in those parts is a small fortune, $1,000-$2,000. They quickly snapped up houses in the tiny town, mainly in the center around the government, police and the mining offices.
Al Qaeda moves troops into mining town of Zouerate
Most of the population is too poor to buy their own homes. They rent them for $15-25 a month. Purchase prices range from $100 to $250.
In January, 2006, a second group of around 300-400 men arrived in Zouerate and moved straight into the houses purchased for them. Their guides to the Mauritanian mining town were gangs of smugglers who traffic in people, money, arms and drugs between the vast arid reaches of Mauritania and Western Sahara and the lands to the south and north.
The advent of the foreign home-buyers foreigners brought in by smugglers was strange enough to be the talk of the backwoods town. Word soon reached the ears of American and French intelligence agents in the region. They decided that a dreaded development was finally afoot: al Qaeda had begun its invasion of Western and Northern Africa.
Then, in the first week of February, came another foreign influx. This one came from the north, from the southeastern Algerian town of Tindouf, 1,000 kilometers away.
Like the first contingent, they were loaded with cash and used it to buy more houses.
Western agents, who by now had their ears to the ground, identified the new arrivals as members of the Polisario, the guerrilla arm of the independence movement established in February 27, 1976, the day after Spain formally ceded the colony of Western Sahara.
The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic set up a government in exile. This month, SADR, never having achieved independence, celebrated its 30th anniversary as Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute and the bone of contention between Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania.
Al Qaeda’s main instruments of operation in Zone 9 are the Algerian Salafist Group of Preaching and Combat – the GSPC and the North African Jam’a in Morocco. Now, to the west, the jihadist organization has bought another tool for terror.
SADR and its guerrilla arm, the Polisario, are based in the Sahara refugee camps south of Tindouf. They established a temporary capital in the village of Bir Lehlou in northeastern Western Sahara.
As first, the last arrivals in Zouerate was thought to be West Saharan refugees, tens of thousands of whom are in dire distress from the torrential rains that drenched their Tindouf camps for several weeks in February. But when the interlopers began flashing money, the suspicion arose that they were connected to the first newcomers.
Since the Polisario are even poorer than the inhabitants of Zouerate, some outside element was obviously paying these travelers to take to the road from Tindouf, Algeria, to Zouerate, Mauritania.
American, French and Algerian security officers in the Tindouf region have now established that al Qaeda is organizing and bankrolling the desert caravans running to Zouarete. The foreigner increment is settling into the mining town and converting it into the core of al Qaeda’s regional network.
Al Qaeda recruits Polisario, gives them houses in Zouerate
In the last week of February and first week of March, the stream of Polisario fighters heading south swelled to several dozen a day. It is still on the move.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that some 1,600 Polisario activists have so far gathered in the Mauritanian mining town. If the present tempo is sustained, there should be more than 2,500 there by the end of the March.
Our North African sources view the hook-up between al Qaeda and Polisario as a development as troubling as Osama bin Laden’s alliance in the 1990s with the Taliban regime of Afghanistan.
In some ways it is even more dangerous.
The Polisario are competent, seasoned guerrilla fighters accustomed to fighting with meager equipment in harsh desert conditions. Even so, they have trounced national armies like those of Spain, Algeria and Morocco in more than one battle.
To Polisario, the offer of al Qaeda sponsorship was irresistible.
For 30 years they have been fighting for a hopeless cause without help from any quarter. Conditions in their refugee camps around Tindouf have gone from bad to wretched. The people and their fighting elements have lost faith in the SADR leader Mohamed Abdelaziz, who is seen as the center of a corrupt clique that promises the movement nothing better than another 30 fruitless years.
In the early days of 2006, Al Qaeda came along with an offer of backing for West Saharan independence, as well as funds, arms and profitable connections with the smuggling gangs of Sahara. They were also offered a haven in Zouerate, far from the long arms of the Algerian and Moroccan armies.
Unable to believe their good fortune, Polisario leaders were more than ready to join the Iraqi-style campaign al Qaeda is preparing to seize positions in North Africa and capture the north-western Atlantic seaboard of the Dark Continent.
Up against Zarqawi’s depredations in Iraq, the United States stands before a similar challenge still in its early stages in northwest Africa. Here, America’s ally is France. Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have been persuaded to join the special inter-African response force for counter-terror operations in Zone 9.