Here is a sneak peak to my work with writer David Conrad on our project in Algeria.
Spanning two time zones and more than a thousand miles, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s army (SADR) controls some of the most deserted and dangerous sands in the world.
Every morning, fighters from the 10,000-strong rebel force strap Soviet-manufactured guns to their shoulders and speed through seemingly endless desert terrain at 90mph. In rusted Toyota land cruisers, they move over towering sand dunes and between policed checkpoints made visible only to them.
Because their sovereignty is not recognized by the United States, the territory they patrol – which spans parts of the Western Sahara, Algeria, and Mauritania – doesn’t exist on most American maps. Yet, with six military outposts scattered across 700 miles, they undoubtedly control the land. And U.S. indiscretion is an essential ally to their operations, an investigation by the Washington Post has found.
Given the recent retreat of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) from Northern Mali, along with the movement of AQIM splinter groups in southern Algeria, Libya, Niger, and Nigeria, the SADR military bases and desert expertise have become increasingly valuable assets in the region.
The SADR rebels are operating in one of the most dangerous axes in the world, says Omar Bashir Manis, head of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara’s liason office in Tindouf. “The insecurity in this region is real and whether they will become partners for governments interested in counterterrorism operations or extremist networks looking for recruits is still a big question.”
Some of the army’s younger members have likely already defected to join terrorist and militia groups in Mali and Libya, according to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. During the height of violence in Northern Mali, SADR youth were offered $200 a month to join AQIM, an appealing proposition considering teachers, if they are paid, receive only $40.
The army formerly enjoyed financial support from Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan regime, but it is unclear to regional experts how the government has been able to fund itself, and feed an army of thousands in the resource-scarce desert, since Gaddafi’s fall from power.
Morocco annexed the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975, a move not recognized by the international community and rejected by the Polisario Front – a liberation movement and umbrella body representing the SADR’s army, political arm, and refugee population. As a result, the Polisario created the SADR government in 1976 and retaliated in a guerrilla war against Morocco that lasted until a U.N.-negotiated ceasefire in 1991.
In six Polisario-controlled camps, which spread across 100 miles of harsh terrain and are visited frequently by fatal sandstorms and 120 degree temperatures, Mahyub and a reported 155,000 Sahrawis have resided since 1975. The entrenched community of refugees is the UNHCRs second oldest caseload. – Words by David Conrad