Mauritania, the westernmost corner of the Arab world, rarely appears in the news. When the country does garner headlines, they often focus on slavery, a practice that Mauritanian officials in 1981 even as they struggle to enforce the ban today.
Nonetheless, research suggests that Mauritania, which has so far avoided the worst of the political violence affecting neighboring countries, may warrant more positive attention. According to a pair of experts on international security, Mauritania can become a role model for a region wrestling with violent extremism.
“Mauritania’s strategy of preventing radicalisation drastically reduced youth recruitment by terrorists and helped prevent attacks since 2011.”
The Institute for Security Studies (ISS), a think tank with offices throughout Africa, published a report by Hassane Koné and Ornella Moderan in early April: “.” Koné, a senior researcher at ISS, and Moderan, the head of ISS’s “Sahel program,” argued that “Mauritania’s strategy of preventing radicalisation drastically reduced youth recruitment by terrorists and helped prevent attacks since 2011.”
The two researchers used their report to explain how Mauritania tackled a wave of religious violence that struck the country in the late 2000s “after several years of deadly terrorist attacks and limited results from military responses.”
Between 2009 and 2010, Mauritanian officials launched a national discussion on Islam that included programs to redefine “jihad” as a nonviolent endeavor, deradicalize detained militants, and find work for graduates of religious schools. The latter step slowed the spread of youth unemployment that often feeds spikes in political violence.
The ISS report highlights examples of Mauritania’s success, such as the decision by two thirds of the detainees whom Mauritanian officials engaged in dialogue to abandon violent extremism. By Koné and Moderan’s count, only three of the 47 militants who supported “laying down their arms and renouncing extremist ideas” later opted to “take up arms again.” This achievement represents just one layer of Mauritania’s “multidimensional approach that has prevented attacks since 2011.”
Mauritania’s apparent ideological victory over violent extremism could have major implications for the Sahel, the semiarid region dividing North Africa from the rest of the continent. Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria have in recent years battled insurgencies by militants advocating religious fanaticism, many of them tied to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. These conflicts have, in turn, contributed to other forms of political violence, such as coups d’état in Mali last year and Burkina Faso this year. Mauritania, though no stranger to coups, last suffered one in 2008.
Many of Koné and Moderan’s conclusions echo assessments put forward in by Anouar Boukhars, a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Mauritania is a rare bright spot amid regional tumult.”
“Mauritania is a rare bright spot amid regional tumult,” Boukhars wrote of what he called “Mauritania’s precarious stability.” “Tucked between Arab North Africa and black West Africa, the state has weathered the storms of revolt and militancy gathering around it.”
Despite praising Mauritania’s success as “no small feat for an impoverished country bedeviled by fragile politics, military factionalism, ethno-racial tensions, and budding militancy,” Boukhars’ paper emphasized that the country faces serious obstacles: “Mauritania’s success, however, does not mean it is out of the woods yet.”
Boukhars described Mauritania as a fountainhead of “many jihadist ideologues and high-ranking terrorist operatives” that remains “vulnerable to terrorist destabilization, with the potential return of combatants representing a serious threat.”
World powers never changed their view of Mauritania as a potential hotbed of violent extremism. The U.S. Department of State’s website visitors to “reconsider travel to Mauritania due to crime and terrorism.”
“The U.S. government assesses that a credible terrorist threat against foreigners remains in Mauritania,” the website warns, adding, “Travel in Mauritania is discouraged, particularly in the easternmost region, due to activities by terrorist groups including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.”
In part, the looming threat of political violence in Mauritania stems from the social issues that the country has failed to resolve and that can exacerbate militancy: Mauritania treated the symptoms of violent extremism but has yet to cure the disease.
Boukhars’ report for the Carnegie Endowment observed that Mauritania continues to struggle with “an unequal distribution of wealth, political opportunities, and public resources among racial and ethnic groups.” The illegal perpetuation of the slave trade has further undermined social cohesion.
The illegal perpetuation of the slave trade has further undermined social cohesion.
Koné and Moderan, the authors of the ISS report, admitted Mauritania’s limitations as a role model for the Sahel.
“Ideological debate can be useful,” they wrote of the Mauritanian attempt at deradicalization, “but it must be part of a broader dialogue strategy that addresses other reasons for joining jihadist groups — including social, security, economic and political factors.”
The researchers also noted that many Mauritanian militants just relocated to other countries, curbing violent extremism in Mauritania but at the expense of the region’s security.
Even if Mauritania’s bid at counterterrorism remains a work in progress, the country’s success with deradicalization can inform other countries’ efforts. These lessons will prove most relevant to Mauritania’s neighbors, such as Algeria and Mali, but regional and world powers may also benefit from the Mauritanian experience curbing violent extremism. Saudi Arabia oversees its own program for deradicalization, which has yielded , and France, Mauritania’s former colonial power, has similar initiatives.
European countries are already taking notice. A note at the end of Koné and Moderan’s report explains, “This article is published with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.” ISS has also received backing from Denmark, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and the European Union. The EU’s interest in particular suggests that a swath of the Western world is looking to Mauritania as an example of how best to tackle violent extremism.
Mauritania has distinguished itself as a rare success story.
Whatever comes next for Mauritania, analysts from across Africa, Europe, and North America will be watching. For now, though, the country has distinguished itself as a rare success story as its neighbors fall prey to democratic backsliding and religious violence. Mauritania, then, can become a role model not only for the Sahel but also for the West and the Middle East.
“At a time when the possibility of dialogue is being revived in the Sahel,” argued the ISS report, “Mauritania’s experience offers important lessons on the options available and their implications.”