MAURITANIA doesn’t often make the news. It’s mostly desert and sparsely populated – just 3.5 million people for a land area larger than Egypt or Nigeria.
But Mauritania is of strategic importance in the “war on terror” in Africa, on account of its “ungoverned” spaces – as US securocrats see places like the vast Sahara desert – which run the risk of being used as a safe haven or rear base for terror groups.
Last year, the US Africa Command gave Mauritania a $21m pair of military aircraft outfitted with advanced surveillance equipment; cooperation between the two countries has deepened in recent years amid growing threat from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The country is also hosting French troops as part of the regional counter-terrorism Operation Barkhane, launched in July 2014.
Mauritania borders Mali to the east and south; last week, an Al-Qaeda-allied group, Al-Mourabitoun, claimed responsibility for the attack on Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali’s capital, in which 21 people were killed.
Mali has been embroiled in political militancy in the north of the country, particularly in the past three years, with both separatist and jihadist groups pursuing their causes through violence.
It makes Mauritania’s stability of particular importance to countries like the US and France. Mauritania’s president Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz came to power in a coup in 2008, and his authority rests heavily on his ability to control the political elite, military and civil service through patronage.
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