Fighting the Growth of Terrorist Networks in the Maghreb: Turning Threats into Opportunities

Anouar Boukhars
Anouar Boukhars
Anouar Boukhars Former Brookings Expert

December 18, 2009

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.


The security order in the Maghreb region of North Africa is under stress due to a number of challenges. Foremost among them are terrorist attacks that have diversified in regional reach and dramatically increased in number by more than 400 percent since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The Maghreb is also afflicted by an escalating arms race and rising political tensions between Algeria and Morocco over grievances crystallized around the three-decades-long conflict over Western Sahara. The hostility and distrust between these two power houses, which together account for over two-thirds of the region’s GDP and three-quarters of its population, has been so destructive that it has dragged the whole region into a vicious circle of collective suspicion, counterproductive rivalries, and self-defeating policies. As a consequence, all Maghrebi countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, and Libya) find themselves ill-prepared at this critical juncture to confront the manifold and complex challenges that have made the region, in the words of United Nations Counter-Terrorism Chief Mike Smith, “the world’s most worrying security hotspot.”

Fears of the transformation of a violent Algerian insurgent group into a powerful and coordinated regional organization—with the ability to strike at the heart of Europe—have rattled both local and Western governments. The threat to the United States and Europe is real, considering the fact that most of those apprehended for terrorist offenses in Europe have come from local Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian communities whose members can travel visa free throughout Europe and to the United States.

The recent string of killings, kidnappings, and bombings directed at both Westerners and North African security services underscores al Qaeda’s destructive reach, as well as its desire to tap into the huge reservoir of resentment that marginalized Maghrebi and Muslim populations in Europe feel toward their governments over Western policies in the Muslim world. Potentially more dangerous for the whole region and the United States is that the misgoverned and contested areas of southwestern Algeria, the Western Sahara, and northern Mauritania have formed a zone of smuggling networks for humans, goods, and drugs. While the nature of this trafficking does not pose an immediate security threat, it is possible and indeed likely that groups resentful of state control might use their contacts and knowledge of this porous terrain to destabilize the Maghrebi region, which suffers from a lack of security cooperation. Such a development should be a great cause of concern for the United States, as the last thing that the Obama administration needs in the Muslim world right now is the outbreak of another major crisis or the emergence of safe havens for violent extremists in strategically important regions, such as the Maghreb. Given the potential severity of this situation, many prominent American politicians and foreign policy experts including General Wesley Clark, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat recently authored a special report that was presented to the Obama administration, urging it to “look around the corner” and reset its North Africa policy before a crisis emerges.

For a long time, the Maghreb has been pushed to the back burner of American strategic priorities in the Middle East. The United States has dealt with problems on an ad hoc basis, but has never sought to develop a strategic vision to engage the region more effectively, in a way that both promotes the United States’ geopolitical, economic, and security interests while enhancing the region’s stability and prosperity. Even after 9/11 and the subsequent terrorist attacks in Spain, in which many Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians were involved, Washington has failed to broadly address the threat posed by violent extremism. The Bush administration failed to move beyond the militarization of foreign policy and recognize that, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, recently stated, “armed forces may not always be the best choice to take the lead.”

This is indeed the time for the United States to devise, in coordination with its European allies, a comprehensive strategy that addresses the complicating factors hampering the advancement of peace, economic integration, and policy cooperation in the Maghreb. Despite its economic potential, the region has not lived up to its promise. Intraregional trade is dismally low, economic growth is weak, unemployment is high, poverty is widespread, socio-economic inequalities are severe, and youth radicalization is growing. In the Polisario-run camps in Tindouf in southwest Algeria, youth malaise, generational tensions, and radical nationalism are on the rise. The Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara has also seen its own share of local discontent stemming not only from economic insecurity, but also from social insecurity, as manifested in the multiple riots that rocked the area.

With EU assistance, the United States can help confront the core conflicts that have divided the region and left it vulnerable to destabilization. Helping to resolve the Western Sahara dispute and the outstanding border issues between Morocco and Algeria would untangle the main existing deadlocks: impediments towards regional reconciliation, interregional economic integration, drug trafficking, smuggling, and coordination in the fight against violent extremism. To remedy this situation, the Obama administration should strongly consider a compromise-based political solution that is currently on the table and supported by Morocco.

The United States should also reinvigorate the U.S.-North Africa economic initiative that was launched in 1999 and later subsumed under the Middle East Partnership Initiative. By building on their own bilateral investment treaties and trade agreements with Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and other existing association agreements between the EU and the region, the United States and Europe are well-positioned to help all of the Maghreb countries develop closer economic ties with the broader international economy, by helping them improve their business climate and accelerating reforms to their regulatory regimes and business procedures. The United States should also increase its funding for reforms in politics, education, and women’s empowerment. Without these last three elements, economic reforms will not succeed in lifting the region form the throes of massive unemployment and increasing despair.