A growing number of terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe have a North African connection — yet Washington policymakers continue to pay far less attention to the region than is warranted. ISIS and al-Qaeda, by contrast, regard the area as a primary focus of their strategy. North Africa is becoming a new Afghanistan: in large part, a mosaic of failed and failing states, and fertile territory for radical Islamists to gather recruits, train them, and harden them with continuous combat. Once proficient and confident in the art of war, these terrorists carry out attacks around the world.
Across North Africa, radical groups have pledged allegiance to ISIS or al Qaeda. Libya alone is now home to some 5,000 ISIS-aligned terrorists, now fighting in that nation’s second civil war in five years. ISIS-allied groups claimed credit for two massive attacks in Tunisia in 2015. In Algeria, groups allied with al Qaeda or ISIS have kidnapped European tourists, killed Western gas-plant engineers, and planted countless bombs. And just as in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, American officials are largely disengaged as the threat grows. They defend their inaction in North Africa by pointing to Libya, arguing that NATO’s intervention there failed to produce a stable government while sending waves of refugees into Europe. But a more careful assessment of Libya shows that the ensuing devolution into civil war and chaos was not inevitable: True liberal democrats emerged after the fall of Qadhafi, but they required support from the United States and Europe that never arrived. The answer to the problems North Africa faces is neither military intervention nor American isolationism, but rather support for civil society and human and economic development. It would entail a sustained effort to preempt terrorist recruitment by supporting peaceful transitions and vesting the majority populations in the survival of the state.
In some ways, Morocco’s success at weathering the region’s storms over the past five years illustrates this point. The kingdom faced all of the same challenges of other North African nations— from terrorist attacks to economic headwinds. But it adopted different policies than its neighbors: Unlike other Arab rulers who tried to resist change during the Arab Spring, King Mohammed VI led sweeping constitutional reforms — handing over considerable authority to an elected head of government. The new constitution also safeguarded the legal rights of women and religious minorities, including the country’s Jewish community. Free-market reforms spurred economic growth and foreign investment. Needless regulations were pruned away, and protections for private property strengthened. State ownership continues to shrink as private firms deliver an increasing array of services—from mobile telephony to banking.
The new momentum of growth in Morocco proved a powerful “soft power” weapon against terrorism — including that emanating from an Algeria-based separatist group, the Polisario Front. A relic of Soviet support for African revolutionaries, the Polisario has carried out armed attacks since the 1970s. It seeks to slice off the southern half of Morocco and develop a “Western Saharan” republic on the model of the Algerian military junta. In its Algerian-patrolled enclave, it rules as a one-party dictatorship over a barter economy. It has thousands of armed fighters, but no electric power plant. Poverty drives some Polisario elements to guide terrorists through the Sahara or to sell them arms—benefitting both al Qaeda and ISIS-allied groups. Among the Polisario, many young men seek to join the Islamic militants, while a surprising number of women aim to marry them. In this troubled context, jihadism offers a seemingly compelling answer to privation.
The Moroccan answer to this phenomenon is the rapidly rising standard of living in the very territory that the Polisario claims for itself, southern Morocco. Three decades ago, per-capita income in the south was roughly half that of the north. Today, there is no difference on a per-capita basis. Prosperity in southern Morocco is a credit to the king, Mohammed VI, whose economic and legal reforms have made it possible. As a result, foreign investors and Western firms have built hotels, corporate installations, and port facilities. Meanwhile, the king has pressed the government to finance airports, schools, hospitals, water and power plants—spending $10 billion since 2001. In Laayoune, King Mohammed VI has recently launched further projects, including fertilizer facilities and a new port, all poised to create new jobs. In the southern Moroccan city of Dakhla, a broad, multi-million-dollar socioeconomic development plan has been launched. Constituting a “philosophy, a vision and direction,” according to the king, it aims to modernize the city and create opportunity for the population. As in a similar project launched last year in the regional capital Laayoune, the plan calls for direct investment in industry, services, fisheries, agriculture, and tourism — and the extension and improvement of basic infrastructure.
By extending the port of Dakhla, the project is turning the Moroccan south into a hub of African Atlantic ports, putting the area on the map for as a prominent gateway to the continent. Formidable expertise is being brought to bear in its development — with an eye to connecting the port infrastructure to Europe, particularly via the Canary Islands (Las Palmas), and further West to North America. This new deep water port, requiring an investment of $200 million, will be in close proximity to the region’s developing fisheries and commercial ventures.
These projects stand to change the lives of Morocco’s ethnic Saharan population. Their relatives in the Polisario camps meanwhile yearn for the life offered in Southern Morocco: They want their leaders to reach a peace settlement with the kingdom so that they, too, may enjoy prosperity and freedom. The leadership of the camps have lost their stranglehold on information. Camp dwellers can now see the prosperity across the border in living color on their smart phones: Charging their mobile devices off car batteries, they watch videos sent to them by their southern Moroccan relatives, and see towering apartment buildings, busy highways, 24-hour electricity, and hot and cold running water. These are marvels to the desert dwellers — and draw some 10,000 per year out of the Polisario strongholds to decent lives in Morocco. Just as the antidote to East German communism was West German prosperity, the attraction of Morocco’s vibrant economy is steadily draining fighting-age people out of the desert.
Admittedly, to hold out Morocco as an example for other North African countries is problematic: In enacting constitutional reforms and investing in the Moroccan south, King Mohammed VI has been drawing on a legitimacy born of centuries and a network of strong foreign alliances cultivated over decades. Both the needs and the capacities of other countries in the area are more basic, as well as more dire. Their war-weary leaderships and populations are far from self-reliant, requiring significant assistance in order to establish a semblance of stability. Accordingly, they urgently need the United States to champion their development, the forging of social and political reforms, and the investment necessary for economic growth. Such measures have been effective in Morocco, and can benefit our neighbors. The alternative — inaction — virtually guarantees further waves of refugees into Europe, and further growth for the basis of extremist inculcation and training that threaten the security of civilians throughout the West.