Although the Mauritanian Salafist detainees in the Nouakchott civil prison have denied any relationship with the group that call themselves “Ansar al-Sharia in the Chinguiti Country” and say they stand firmly apart from it, the Mauritanian authorities are leaving nothing to chance. They have decided to take precautions against any risk and danger Mauritania may face.
The decision-makers in the land of Almoravid have added joint military exercises to their program enhancing their security strategy. The negative effects of the crisis in Mali have been a driving force of this approach, which also plans to strengthen security by opening new command centers for the national gendarmerie in critical regions of the country.
By improving the army's performance, the Mauritanian authorities vow to strengthen their national security strategy on a large scale, while preparing for any eventuality.
The latest trend to emerge in Mauritania is jihad designed to rally militant votes in favor of establishing an entirely Islamic state. The name Ansar al-Sharia (Islamic law advocates) reflects the common denominator between several groups operating across the Arab world. The Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and Mauritania converge on their goal of introducing Sharia as a system of governance. The use of force isn't excluded from Salafist rhetoric, according to which anyone who reserves the right to stand apart from their ideology is an apostate.
The months that followed the fall of Arab dignitaries — such as Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen — have seen the emergence of Islamist factions that share the same name and ideology. The missing element is a unified command structure — a vacuum that various spiritual leaders have tried to fill by emphasizing the obligation to obey and be loyal to an elected official in accordance with the founding principles of the Shura (consultation). If a central command emerges, the Salafist pole of Ansar al-Sharia would become hazardous for the Arab world in general and Mauritania in particular.
Although Ansar al-Sharia in the Chinguiti Country fight differently, using methods that differ from those used by Ansar al-Sharia groups in other Arab countries, the Mauritanian government has tried to strengthen its military presence in inland areas, which have been severely affected by serious terrorist attacks targeting Mauritanian security officers and Westerners. In recent years, these areas have caught the interest of different armed groups, which were looking for ways to restructure themselves and join the front line at the opportune moment. This approach, which is adopted by Mauritanian Islamists, works well in a political situation marked by instability within the ruling circles and security failures that have led to the growth of terrorist threats.
The regional situation — including the war in Mali and proliferation of extremist movements — has weighed on the decisions of this Maghreb government, which has recognized that it needs to strengthen its security presence in remote provinces that different groups have set their sights on. The situation in northern Mali, especially in Gao and Adrar des Ifoghas — the hub for Islamist armed groups — is explosive. The escalation of air strikes by the French Air Force, and the ensuing fighting, make one fear worst for neighboring countries, especially Mauritania.
Islamist jihadists affiliated with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) see Mauritania as a place of refuge, thanks to the local populations’ religious confession. Moreover, the border between the neighboring countries is porous, and Mauritania faces a security vacuum. This is a gap that the country's leaders intend to close by strengthening the army’s human and material resources, but it will be a challenge.
Kaci Racelma is an Algerian journalist with Inter Press Service news agency and Afrik.com, an online magazine. He is based in Algiers and covers the North African region.