No man's land

Africa | A 30-year split over Western Sahara has divided Europe, Africa, and now Congress and U.S. Christians. Who cares who controls the desert? Al-Qaeda, for one. How should Christians, and the United States, respond to movements that claim popular support but provide havens for killers?

Issue: "Unto the breach," July 22, 2006

DAKHLA, Western Sahara- Nomads die hard. Atop the new houses of Dakhla, where some in these parts might save the flat roof for a meal outdoors and a satellite dish, the nomads reserve rooftops as urban pasture for sheep and goats. "You can find people in Dakhla who can't spend one week in town. They always go for a few days with cattle to the desert. It's a habit," said Mohamed Salah Tamek, Morocco's governor of the province.

In sandy tracts within view of the ocean, the Moroccan government is building hundreds of houses for refugees returning from a conflict that began 30 years ago and hasn't ended. Those who take up residence in the city yearn to roam the desert on occasion to find food and water for their cattle, to sleep on a dark expanse under the stars, and to eat meat with onions under a tent.

Preserving old lifestyles in a land riddled with contemporary conflict is at least part pipe dream. Western Sahara is the largest "non-self-governing territory" in the world, according to the UN, largely because UN intervention since a 1991 ceasefire has failed to resolve the battle for control between Morocco and an Algerian-linked independence movement.

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Both are seriously Islamic based, yet each side recently has looked to U.S. Christians for support-both as a conduit to the Bush administration and in recognition of the tenacity of U.S. evangelicals when it comes to confronting the problems of Sudan, Nigeria, poverty, or AIDS in Africa. In the end, growing U.S. interest in resolving an intractable, Israel/Palestinian-type conflict is more likely to arrive because the global war on terrorism is knocking at Western Sahara's door.

At the Saharan doorstep the desert climbs from the Atlantic in jagged cliffs of sand and doesn't stop until it reaches the Red Sea 3,000 miles away. Cool winds prevail, surprisingly. On Dakhla's coast the temperature never rises above 80 degrees and never drops below freezing. The political temperature, on the other hand, holds steady and searing.

Even now up to 90,000 Sahwaris, as the Saharan residents are known, linger in refugee camps in southern Algeria. The number represents perhaps one-third of Western Sahara's population-all displaced, captured, or born in the camps following intermittent battles since 1975 that involve Algeria, Morocco, and other neighbors. All sides committed atrocities during the war, but Morocco has more quickly accounted for the missing and dead, releasing POWs within the first years of ceasefire. The Polisario Front, a remnant Marxist revolutionary group claiming to represent independence for the Sahwaris, only last year released the final 408 Moroccan POWs. It continues to block UN monitors and aid workers from Algerian desert camps where thousands of Sahwaris reportedly languish.

Decades of fighting over Western Sahara have ripped apart family life and community. The nomads may be wanderers, but their tribes traditionally are close knit. Nearly everyone on the street knows someone in the camps. Tamek has a nephew and two cousins he barely remembers currently living there.

Meanwhile, unwelcome visitors are showing up in this far reach of the Sahara. Seven months ago security forces arrested Mohamad Said Adjhiri south of Dakhla at Guerguerat on a recruiting mission for al-Qaeda in Iraq.

He now sits in a jail outside Rabat, but no one believes that's the end of the terrorism problem. Two months ago military forces in Tamek's province arrested about two dozen Pakistanis and Indians traveling overland. "It's not just the illegal immigration," Tamek told WORLD, "but, my God, what can be behind it? How can poor people come from India and Pakistan, take the desert and land in Sahara?"

Evidenced by Mumbai's July 11 train bombings, al-Qaeda shows growing talent for cross-border, remote-control attacks. Stable and moderately Islamic countries like Morocco, particularly when bordered by chaos, know they are on its radar.

Counterterrorism units, jujutsu-like, now spend more time and money than ever tracking al-Qaeda infiltration in the Pan-Sahel region, which includes northwest and central Africa. Forbidding topography, porous borders, and rank revolutionaries like the Polisario who specialize in arms trading and smuggling make a potent breeding ground for the new al-Qaeda: "leaderless terrorists" like Assem Hammoud, the 31-year-old Lebanese arrested this month in a plot to blow up Manhattan's Holland Tunnel, a plot that spanned six countries on three continents. So the Pentagon doubled counterterrorism programs in the Sahel: from $16 million last year to $31 million this year. Expect it to reach $100 million by 2008.

U.S. special forces and other small, expeditionary units are engaged even at this moment in joint exercises and training across north Africa and the Sahara because Algeria's extreme militant Salafists represent "the modern experience with Al-Qaeda," according to U.S. European Command's Rear Admiral Hamlin Tallent,-"a mobile, self-sustaining and worldwide but loosely connected group of wily, desert-hardened militants."


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