WESTERN SAHARA: WHERE THE CASTRO REGIME MEETS AL-QAEDA?
As the U.S. military offensive in Iraq intensifies, al-Qaeda affiliates are reportedly moving westward across North Africa. With the bulk of American combat forces locked down in Iraq for the foreseeable future, the desolate sands of the Sahara offer an environment from which terrorist cells could conceivably coordinate an offensive against U.S. interests and allied governments in the region. Like Taliban controlled Afghanistan, the disputed desert territory of Western Sahara may be emerging as a new haven for al-Qaeda and its proxies. Cuban influence in there has been strong for decades.
The POLISARIO Front
Better known by its Spanish-language acronym, the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguma el-Hamra and Rmo de Oro (POLISARIO) was founded in 1973 as a national liberation movement opposed to Spanish colonial rule in North Africa. In 1975, Moroccan King Hassan II led the peaceful "Green March" that reclaimed the territory that had historically been part of Morocco. The POLISARIO Front in turn proclaimed its independence from both Spain and Morocco, established a de facto Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, and initiated a guerrilla war to oust Moroccan troops. By the time the war came to an end in a 1991 cease fire, the POLISARIO had been confined to the far eastern fringe of Western Sahara. (1)
Cuba and the POLISARIO Front
Since the 1970s, the Castro regime has been a fervent ally and backer of the POLISARIO Front. Cuba has supplied weapons and munitions and has trained children conscripts (who are forcibly taken from their families in the impoverished refugee camps inside POLISARIO-controlled territory and then sent off to be educated and indoctrinated in Cuba) in guerrilla warfare tactics. Havana's support has helped the POLISARIO to survive and operate in the desert. (2)
In fact, upwards of 2,000 Sahrawis (the indigenous inhabitants of the Western Sahara region) have been trained in Cuban institutions and today occupy important political, social, administrative and professional positions in the POLISARIO political and military structure. By the Cuban government s own account, there are currently 800 Sahrawi at state-run boarding schools on the Isle of Youth, in southern Cuba alone. (3)
And according to independent sources, as many as 5,000 Sahrawi minors are currently being educated in Cuba. (4)
The Cuban government maintains a brigade of physicians, advisors, and intelligence operatives within the POLISARIO zone. (5)
Given Fidel Castro's historic ties to Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Cuban personnel likely enjoy secure access to the area via the Algerian border with Western Sahara.
Cuba and al-Qaeda?
In a March 2006 statement to the Cuban state-run press, POLISARIO s ambassador in Havana warned that if the invader [Morocco] continues with its obstacles [to an independent Western Sahara state], we have the right and the will to defend ourselves at any price. (6)
Two developments in recent months suggest that the POLISARIO Front may now be resorting to alliances with terrorists, or undergoing a further radicalization itself, to accomplish its aims.
First, al-Qaeda has surfaced in the Sahara region. An organization formerly known as the Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), and now calling itself al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, has taken credit for a series of deadly terrorist attacks in Algeria since December 2006. Other plots have been foiled in Tunisia, where the group targeted embassies of U.S. allies. Nevertheless, the al-Qaeda affiliate earned the praise of Osama bin Laden s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has called for new fronts in North Africa to crush the pillars of the Crusader alliance. Moreover, according to information obtained from an al-Qaeda recruiter arrested in Spain in February, mobile camps have been established in the Sahara hinterland for the training of new fighters. (7)
Second, in March the Moroccan government accused the POLISARIO Front of coordination and cooperation with al-Qaeda, notably the GSPC [al-Qaeda in the Maghreb]. Moroccan Justice Minister Mohamed Bouzoubaa interpreted POLISARIO s rationale for an alliance with al-Qaeda at all levels as a case of cultivating an enemy of an enemy as a friend. (8)
If al-Qaeda and POLISARIO are indeed collaborating against Morocco and other moderate Arab states in North Africa, it is highly unlikely that the POLISARIO leadership would be doing so without the knowledge and acquiescence of Havana. Moreover, the Cuban brigade of advisors and intelligence operatives stationed within the POLISARIO zone may be directly or indirectly (via Cuban-trained Sahrawi) supporting al-Qaeda operations and training camps. At the very least, it would be unwise to assume that Cuba s sophisticated intelligence apparatus is not providing valuable information and guidance to POLISARIO with a tacit consent to pass it on to an enemy (al-Qaeda) of a mutual enemy (the U.S.).
1. Cf. "Deadlock in the desert," The Economist, March 8, 2007; R. Usher, "A Nation Lost in the Desert," Time, February 1, 1999.
2. See R. M. Holley, "Cuba and the Polisario Front." Washington, DC: Moroccan American Center for Policy, 2005. On children's experiences, see "Aid Child POWs," The Washington Times, September 25, 2005.
3. Prensa Latina, "Saharawi Parliamentary Leader Visits Cuba," Havana, 12 March 2007; D. Rodriguez Molina, "Mas de 2000 saharauies graduados en Cuba en solo tres decadas," Granma, 20 February 2006.
4. R. M. Holley, "Cuba and the Polisario Front," pp., 5, 9.
5. Ibid., p. 6.
6. See interview with Amb. Mohamed Mustafa Tleimidi, "Realidad irreversible," Granma, 22 March 2006.
7. Simon Tisdall, "Al-Qaeda's new front in Africa," Mail & Guardian, 19 February 2007.
8. AFP, "Al-Qaoda et le Polisario coordonnent leurs activitis dans le Sahel (ministre marocain)," Le Monde, 10 March 2007.
Collaboration: Cuba Transition Project [ [email protected] ]