Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

The Phantom Menace: Fear, Rumours and the Elusive Presence of AQIM in South-Eastern Mauritania

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

The Phantom Menace: Fear, Rumours and the Elusive Presence of AQIM in South-Eastern Mauritania

Article excerpt

1. Dark territory: The fabrication of fear on the fringe

I was standing with Sidi, (2) the local commander of the small garrison in the remote outpost Oualata, well beyond the fringe of the Sahara desert, literally gazing into the unknown. The oppressive heat and the whirling dust gave the light a soft character, which enveloped the monotonous landscape on this particular day in early February 2012 in the south-eastern frontier lands of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.

   This is dark territory [territoire sombre]. We cannot see what is
   out there ... We know something will happen, and we know it will
   happen soon ... They are already among us. Waiting to strike.

Sidi's coarse voice pierced the ominous silence as he pointed towards the invisible horizon. Here, at the margins of the Mauritanian national territory, a state of 'endemic paralysis' was becoming apparent, as the fear of nebulous assemblages such as the AQIM (Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) proliferated. A severe drought affecting the entire Sahelian region was in motion and armed conflict had erupted only weeks earlier in nearby Northern Mali, as Tuaregs previously loyal to the recently assassinated Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had orchestrated a series of coordinated attacks on strategic cities and towns. The dormant conflict between rebel Tuareg and the central government in Bamako had been reinvigorated, and destitute Malian refugees were crossing the border into Mauritania in the thousands as the conflict escalated. The low-intensity conflict lingering on the margins was intensifying (cf Goita 2011: 1) into what appeared to be the culmination of a decade of mounting fear and insecurity in south-eastern Mauritania. The air was thick with rumours and anxiety and I too was beginning to sense the presence of the 'phantom menace', which seemed to permeate the frontier despite its elusiveness.

Through the course of 10 years of intermittent fieldwork in the south-eastern frontier provinces of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, I have had first-hand experience of a growing concern over the phantom-like presence of AQIM and other illegible assemblages which, rumour has it, were operating more actively in the vast and isolated desert zones (Vium, forthcoming). Despite the relative infrequency of actual attacks, compared to the neighbouring country of Algeria, and more recently also in Mali, the nomadic pastoralists with whom I primarily work have gradually internalised a protracted sense of fear of the latent danger of the phantom menace AQIM. This ontological uncertainty affects their room for manoeuvring as the mobility so central to the pastoral economy becomes increasingly constrained. The incessant circulation of rumours--insubstantial accounts of 'unidentified vehicles', relentless mentioning of the threat of the AQIM on the radio and, of course, the occasional kidnappings and direct attacks on military personnel and representatives of the government disturbed people. Until now, concrete instances have been rare, but nevertheless very effective in engendering anxiety, as the words of Sidi illustrate.

Following the so-called Arab Spring in North Africa in 2011, and in particular the demise and death of the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, a long-term ally of Mauritania, President Hassan Ould Abdel Aziz sought to strengthen his withering autocratic grip on power, cracking down on public demonstrations and 'cleaning up' within the military ranks. His proclaimed war against terror--among the primary legitimisations of his seizure of power in a coup d'etat in August 2008--was proving complicated, as insurgent groups such as the AQIM were relatively successful in stirring up turbulence and fear across the national territory, in spite of the limited operations and attacks they actually carried out. (3) Faced with rapidly escalating food prices (Bauer and Ndiaye 2012; Gamli and Ainina 2012), a severe nation-wide drought (Gamli and Ainina 2012; IRIN 2011), and mounting political opposition (Jourde 2011: 5-6), the despot seemed desperate to contain the situation in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential elections. …

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