Center for Strategic Communication

by Nathaniel Greenberg

The Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute recently released a report entitled “Terrorism in North Africa and the Sahel in 2012: Global Reach and Implications.” It contains important proposals for addressing some of the humanitarian crises inflicting the region (including in the Western Sahara, which continues to divide our largest allies in the region). But it also recommends moving forward aggressive deregulation and privatization initiatives that could amplify the predominant grievance—and major recruitment tool—of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Specifically the report recommends:

a. Reducing barriers and providing incentives to foreign and domestic private investment.

b. Undertaking structural reforms that promote economic growth, including: an independent judiciary, neutral regulatory regimes, transparency and fairness in the implementation of business regulations, reducing the role of government entities in the private sector, a minimum and equitable social safety net, educational reform linked to market needs, effective integration of women into the workforce, and decreased reliance on foreign assistance as a growth engine.

c. Promoting regional trade and investment by expanding the US-Morocco Free Trade Agreement provisions to broadly include products from North, West, and Central Africa.

d. Streamlining and coordinating foreign assistance programs in the region by better integrating support from donor countries.

e. Supporting the principles of the Deauville Partnership that link economic, social, and political development.

f. Eliminating politically motivated trade barriers and other artificial restrictions on the movement of goods and services among the target countries.

g. Investing in national and regional workforce development programs that balance skills and leadership training objectives to encourage long-term capacity-building in labor markets within and across borders.

h. Expanding US foreign assistance programs through USAID and the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and enabling projects such as Partners for a New Beginning (PNB) and the North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (NAPEO) to build platforms for developing young leaders in the public and private sectors.

While the report makes a variety of recommendations for increasing growth, and security, it is worth noting that part of the rationale for doing so is that “increased regional economic integration… would make it [the Maghreb] an appealing market for Europe and the United States.”

For the past two decades the expansion of neoliberal reform policies in the Maghreb has resuscitated fears that the region is undergoing yet another stage in the long history of colonialism. Filmmakers, artists, and novelists in the Maghreb–like their counterparts in Egypt or the Levant, or even more remotely in Latin America–have depicted the experience of neoliberalism as one of cultural degradation and social exploitation. In the case of the Maghreb, the critique of neoliberalism is often tied to the plight of economic refugees, urban squalor, and sexual exploitation.

Groups like AQIM are battling for an avant-garde position in this ideological war. Like the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas that corresponded with the passage of NAFTA in 1994, AQIM intended its campaign to be populist in nature. It is telling that the last cache of letters written by the group’s Emir Abu Musab Abdel-Wadoud (Abdelmalek Droukdel), and discovered in Timbuktu, expressed anxiety over the zealotry of some factions in exercising a heavy-handed brand of shari‘ah, as he recognized that it would repel followers and precipitate foreign intervention. His fear was accurate, as was his estimate of popular grievances in the region.

In a 2007 communique Droukdel wrote:

Big foreign companies took hold of our resources and our internal wealth, they controlled our domestic markets after they forced us to accept the principle of liberating the exterior commerce, the use of the privatization laws, transferred the ownership of many of our strategic economic companies to foreign countries.

Privatization, in the narrative of AQIM, is closely linked to an even more pervasive ideology that rejects modernization as a form of spiritual decadence. In a recent study of public statements released by the group between 2007-2012, we found that AQIM mobilized their followers along such premises, framing their critique of neoliberalism using the well-worn master narratives of the Crusades and the Pharaoh. Beyond the civil-war in Algeria, which was the original context for the group’s emergence, the perceived nexus of free-trade agreements and the corrupt ruling elite has lent itself directly to the fight against “Crusader” symbols in the entire region. This might include ransacking foreign-owned business, taking hostage French employees of a large multinational, or besieging a privately owned gas complex.

Demonstrators target western businesses in Morocco on 20 February 2011. Photograph by the author.

Demonstrators target western businesses in Morocco on 20 February 2011. Photograph by the author.

Ironically, the West is not the principal actor in the liberalization of the Maghreb. Investment from China and the Gulf far outpaces private U.S. activity. In the last half-decade, from mining to tourism, Gulf countries in particular have invested billions in the region. Looking at 2007, for example, Qatar purchased 80% of Wataniya Telecom Algérie, a “trial run” in the words of Saint Périer and Leïla Slimani. Not long after the Jasmine Revolution, Qatar Telecom purchased some 380 million ED in Tunisian bonds including 75% of Tunisie Télécom. They purchased 15% of the remaining State capital a year later.

Simulation of Ribat al-Bahr.

Simulation of Ribat al-Bahr.

The periphery of Nouakachott, Mauritania.

The periphery of Nouakachott, Mauritania.

More profound developments are planned for Mauritania where the private Mauritanian Investment Group is spearheading an international private investment initiative to create Ribat Al-Bahr, “a state-of-the-art multi-use real estate project,” “covering an area of 675 hectares in the strategic Tafarough Zeina district 7km north of Nouakchott city.” For some, the neatly planned foreign initiative in urban development comes as a relief, as a decade of state-led planning has helped create a small sea of scarcely habitable slums across the desert peripheries of the capital. For others Ribat al-Bahr is yet another example of foreign exploitation, a luxury gateway to the Atlantic with little chance that money generated will stay in the country. Some doubt it will ever see completion, leaving yet another unfinished sprawl of half-built concrete structures like those lining the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

AQIM and other extremist groups in the region tried to claim an indirect victory in the overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia as the end of a Western-backed corporatist regime. Some foreign investment there today, in theory, undermines that narrative. In Tunisia, the possibility exists stronger than ever that small and medium size businesses might benefit from free-trade agreements, that competitive bidding on major projects might be possible, and that education initiatives might benefit a broader spectrum of the population, beyond the narrow conclaves of the ruling elite. Elsewhere in the region, however, it is difficult to see the point of deregulation, or how neoliberal reform packages could do anything other than reinforce the disparities that already exist.

More importantly, in a region inundated by the unchecked flow of money and goods, much of it illicit, the last thing our leaders should be advocating is more deregulation. The further down that road the region travels, the more room there will be for self-organized militias to enforce, and legitimize, their own brand of regulation.  Instead of trying to catch up with eastern enterprises in the rush to privatize the Maghreb and the Sahel, the U.S. should focus on undermining the narrative power of  anti-neoliberalism by reclaiming it for themselves, at least in part. To do so would mean supporting efforts in the region that lead directly to increased  social mobility and access to opportunity, such as education.

The report for the Inter-University Center for Terrorism argues that “[p]erhaps if there had been a greater collective effort to perceive likely targets of jihadist opportunity, then the situation in Mali might have been mitigated early on.” It is a sound point, but ironic considering that the report recommends multiplying those targets. “The nations of the Maghreb,” he adds, “have long been at the crossroads of history and currently hold great potential as a bridge between the Islamic world and the West.” His reason again for such sound objectification? “The region could benefit greatly from increased regional economic integration that would make it an appealing market for Europe and the United States.”

The question should not be how the Maghreb can appeal to Europe and the United States. The question should be how countries of the region might acquire and manage their own bridges, not just serve the interests of those that would walk over them.  And whatever interventions we make, they should not serve to reinforce narratives that extremists are using to influence contested populations there.