Mauritania, and its periodic bouts of political instability, has important implications for the trajectory of secret U.S. military operations in Africa, as a recent article by Craig Whitlock in the Washington Post shows. American spy planes have flown out of Mauritania on and off for several years, but politics has sometimes constrained America’s role there. In 2008, for instance, a coup in Mauritania “forced Washington to suspend relations and end the surveillance,” Whitlock writes.
Today, Mauritania’s potential significance to the U.S. military is increasing. In neighboring Mali, torn apart by a civil war since January, the Islamist group Ansar al Din (Arabic for “Defenders of the Faith”) now controls some towns and territory in the country’s north. Al-Qaida affiliates and splinter groups are seeking political benefit amid the ongoing turmoil. As regional actors and Western powers piece together their response, Mauritania has stepped up military activities near the border, and, Whitlock writes, America’s “surveillance flights [into Mali] have taken on added importance.” How will Mauritanian domestic politics affect the Sahelian equation this time?
Mauritania’s 2008 coup, the latest in a string of coups and attempted coups in the country, came at the end of a particularly unstable period. From 2005, when a coup displaced longtime President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, to the 2007 election of civilian President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, to the 2008 coup, Mauritanian politics were in constant flux. During the same period, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its predecessor organization, the Algerian militant outfit the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, perpetrated several major kidnappings and attacks in Mauritania.