In a West African region known for the proliferation of violent extremist organizations, Mauritania stands out for its lack of terror attacks in recent years.
Experts and observers say much can be learned from the approach that Mauritanian authorities take with radical Islamist leaders: They include them in an ongoing dialogue.
“The Islamic Republic of Mauritania adopted an integrated and comprehensive approach to deal with it [terrorism], which was not limited to military and development dimensions but also encompassed the ideological dimension at the center of the general structure of this phenomenon,” President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani said in a speech to open the Second African Conference for Promoting Peace, hosted by Mauritania in February 2022.
“The extremism of ideas is in most cases at the root of extremism and violence in the acts.”
Hundreds of political and religious leaders from 40 African countries gathered in the capital, Nouakchott, for the three-day conference with a primary goal of taking responsibility for preventing extremism and terrorism.
In recent years, Mauritania has succeeded with a multidimensional approach that involves traditional and religious leaders tackling radicalization, violent extremism and the reintegration of militants into society.
For a country that faced a wave of attacks from 2005 to 2011 and no major terror attacks since, Mauritania’s success could serve as a model for other African nations grappling with terror groups.
In 2010, Mauritania established a commission to create a counterterrorism strategy. Its leaders decided to address the root causes of religious radicalization by starting an ideological dialogue with 70 extremist detainees.
The objectives were to understand their reasons for joining extremist groups, to rehabilitate and reintegrate them, and to learn how to discourage others.
As a result of these discussions, 47 detainees pledged to disarm and renounce extremism. They received pardons or reduced sentences, vocational training, and access to grants to help them reintegrate economically and socially.
Research by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) found that religious beliefs are not the sole reason civilians join Sahelian terror groups.
ISS senior researcher Hassane Koné and Ornella Moderan, head of its Sahel Program, said many factors breed extremism in Mauritania: rising poverty, deep social divides, corruption, authoritarianism, and terror group bases and battlefields in neighboring Mali.
“Many join to protect themselves, their families or their livelihoods or to retaliate against abuses by the national armed forces,” they wrote in an April 2022 article on the ISS website.
“These motives often reflect frustrations about social injustice, a lack of opportunities and poor access to basic services such as water, education and health. They are compounded by serious deficits in government security services and justice systems.”
Mauritanian authorities have conducted awareness campaigns and sent scholars and imams into prisons to speak with detained fighters, persuading many to renounce violence.
The state also has recruited hundreds of students from Quranic schools into the public sector to prevent their exposure to extremist propaganda. The government created several small new towns with roads, utility services, schools and health centers in remote areas that previously were occupied by terrorists.
“The point is to occupy the ground, to say to the nomadic populations which did not feel they had a place in the state: ‘Your country takes care of you, protects you, cares for you, educates your children,’” Mauritanian journalist Isselmou Ould Salihi told Agence France-Presse.
There still is much work to do, but Mauritania remains committed to engaging with citizens and militants. Its long stretch of relative peace could inspire other West African nations to adopt similar programs.
Former colonial power France was opposed to dialogue with leaders of extremist militant groups, but its forces are withdrawing from Mali and shifting their presence south.
Dialogue with some of the many Islamist factions has helped lead to local cease-fires in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.
Koné and Moderan recommend an organized regional collaboration.
“While dialogue with detainees quelled Mauritania’s emerging crisis, it may not be enough in central Sahel, which is home to several groups and has much higher levels of violence,” they wrote. “For it to work there, dialogue will need to extend to leaders, active fighters and individuals associated with violent extremist groups — both men and women.”