Morocco Knows How to Win in Sahara

When hardcore Islamists linked to al Qaeda recently took over a region of the Sahara desert in northern Mali the size of France, I knew how they could be quickly defeated.

Thirty years ago I rode across the Western Sahara with Polisario guerrillas who are very much like the rebels and Islamists in Mali -- basically people who tell everyone else what to do and think and who drive around in land rovers heavily armed to enforce their will.

But the Polisario are leftists who pushed nomads and camel herders into refugee camps in Algeria and launched a military effort to seize the Western Sahara which is the size of Colorado. Spain abandoned it in 1976 and Morocco swiftly annexed it.

But when I rode with the Polisario we were sitting ducks, forever in fear of the F-5 jets Morocco purchased from the United States. I guess that's why they call it "air power."

We had to hide under scrub trees, drive our Land Rovers over stony ground to leave no tracks and, when crossing sandy areas, erase our tracks with blankets before we rested to eat or sleep.

The Moroccans won their battle against the Polisario -- a battle very much like the one about to begin in northern Mali -- with air power.

Air power will box in the rebels, isolate them from the cities and remaining population and possibly drive them completely into the wilderness.

The Moroccans also had a large and effective army, which Mali does not.

And Morocco used an innovative technique to counter what military experts call "asymmetric" warfare in which mobile un-uniformed rebels play hit-and-run against standing armies. Sound like Afghanistan?
Morocco used bulldozers to build a berm of sand some 15 to 30 feet high and more than 1,250 miles long, blocking off the guerrillas from the inhabited coastal region of the Western Sahara.

Then they placed electronic motion sensors built by Westinghouse along the crest of the berm. As soon as Polisario forces tried to cross the berm, Morocco sent the supersonic jets screaming out across the barren desert which offered no place for the Polisario to hide.

Soon the Polisario controlled only a narrow strip of useless desert and 75,000 Sahrawi nomads, trapped for 30 years in refugee tents outside the Algerian town of Tindouf.

Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups are like wolves -- they circulate on the fringes of civilization, picking off the weak and helpless. When government and security is weak, they take root setting up their own courts and sharia practices. They stone adulterers, block girls from school, keep women inside the home and ban TV and music.

The Islamists took power in Afghanistan after civil war destroyed organized government. And in ungoverned portions of Pakistan, Yemen, Philippines and other countries they also have carved out their Sharia Islamist enclaves.

And they have done it again in the Sahara of northern Mali, which has become a magnet for Algerian Islamist killers who left 200,000 dead in the 1990s; and Nigeria's new killers the Boko Haram who bomb churches to kill Christians.

Diplomats in West Africa say they have 3,000 troops ready to oust the few hundred Islamists in Mali.

But action has been delayed. Diplomats bicker over the "modalities" of the intervention. And there is no competent government in Mali since the military coup in April.

So the Ansar Dine Islamist fighters continue to impose Taliban-style Islamic law and to destroy ancient tombs in Timbuktu holy to Mali's Sufi Muslims. The Wahabbi Islamists of al Qaeda and Ansar Dine see Sufis as idolaters for venerating the tombs of saints.

Some 200,000 people have fled the region to forlorn refugee camps in dirt-poor Niger and other neighboring countries where drought and hunger are spreading.

These refugees tell reporters they cannot endure their harsh religious dictatorship: beating women for going to the market, forcing men to grow beads and forbidding people to watch television.

The Islamists swarmed into this remote region from desert encampments, bolstered by Tuareg tribal nomads who had been fighting in Libya for Gaddafi and then returned home with their weapons.

The weak Mali army was unequal to the task of beating off the Tuaregs and Islamists who shot their way into northern cities. The humiliated army then turned its guns on the civilian government in the capital Bamako, in a military coup.

This left a vacuum in Mali which the Tuaregs and Islamists quickly exploited, seizing all of the North. Then the Islamist wolves turned on the secular Tuaregs and seized total control.

Whatever is behind the Islamist revival sweeping much of the world -- economics, search for dignity, genuine religious vision -- it seeks no less than to impose its will on people it conquers, regardless of their views. This is against some of the most basic tenants of Islam which preaches that unless people convert and accept Islamic law willingly, they must not be forced.

Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice says "The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose."

Now there are thousands of these devils killing innocent people from the Sahara to Yemen to Indonesia to Afghanistan. It is up to the rest of the world to take notice and help those who cannot help themselves.

Ben Barber invites readers to learn more about publication of his photojournalism book GROUNDTRUTH, At Work, Play and War in the Third World, by clicking here or visiting