221. Report Prepared in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research1

No. 897



Over the past two years, the Polisario Front has created from the estimated 30,000 to 80,000 Saharan refugees (not all of whom are of Spanish Saharan origin) the skeleton of a state structure, mobilized and politicized the population to an unexpected degree, conducted an effective international public relations campaign, and—with strong Algerian backing—fought Mauritania and Morocco to a military stalemate. It has, in sum, become a relatively independent political and military force (and in the eyes of much of the world, a “people”) that will have to be reckoned with in any future settlement of the Saharan dispute.

The image of the Polisario which has appeared in the sympathetic Western press—that of a noble band of refugees from the former Spanish Sahara who have taken up arms to struggle for self-determination [Page 536] against the invading forces of an occupying power—is only partly accurate. Knowledge of the Polisario Front’s leadership, composition, ideology, and ultimate objectives is limited, but examination of the available evidence indicates that:

—The number of refugees from the Western Sahara is greatly inflated by the Polisario. A large percentage of those Saharans grouped in camps in Algeria are not from the former Western Sahara.

—The traditionally independent and warlike Reguibat tribe, including many members from Mauritania, Algeria, and Morocco, makes up the backbone of the Polisario leadership and rank and file.

—The type of nationalism which motivates the Saharan population, excluding its leadership, is probably more akin to Reguibat/Saharan yearning for freedom from external domination than to a specific nationalism tied to the artificial boundaries of what was once the Spanish Sahara.

—Polisario leaders, at least some of whom are leftist dissidents from Mauritania and Morocco, are ideological allies of Algeria; their goals probably include the toppling of the Ould Daddah regime in Mauritania.

It is also clear that Algeria has used the Polisario to punish its former ally Mauritania for “betrayal” and to cripple Morocco, its only geopolitical competitor in the region. The extent to which Algeria is involved directly in Polisario military operations is not known, but the evidence suggests that Algerian advisers accompany the Polisario on missions and that many of them actually command various Polisario units. In addition, large numbers of Polisario soldiers appear to have been recruited from Saharans who were not originally from the former Spanish Sahara.

Origins of the Polisario Front

The Polisario Front was created in May 1973 from a melange of obscure Saharan nationalist and tribal groups whose principal goal was the independence of the Spanish Sahara. Its political manifesto announced that the Polisario, the sole representative of the Saharan people:

—had chosen “revolutionary power and military action” as the only means to liberate the Saharan people; and

—was a part of the Arab revolution and considered cooperation with the Algerian revolution essential in the struggle to protect the Third World from aggression.

Little is known about how the Polisario makes decisions, but the ruling structure apparently went through an initial stage of rather broad collegial leadership. The Front’s organizational framework, [Page 537] established at its 1974 Congress, includes a 24-man executive committee, a six-man directorate divided into political and military wings, and a Secretary General. Decisionmaking within the Polisario is probably informal and based on the consensus of a handful of key leaders, among whom the Secretary General, Mohamed Abdelaziz, appears to play a dominant role.

The leadership of the Polisario Front has been composed of relatively young Saharans (not necessarily of Spanish Saharan birth), many of whom—including El Ouali, Polisario founder and leader until his death in June 1976—had been students in Morocco, where their leftist political views and association with Moroccan leftists made them suspect to the authorities. In the absence of long-term support from Morocco, the Polisario leadership turned to Libya and Algeria, both sympathetic to the Polisario ideology. Algeria, increasingly alarmed at Morocco’s irredentist policy toward the Spanish Sahara, quickly assumed a major supporting role for the Polisario.

The Military Campaign

Polisario guerrillas conducted small attacks against isolated Spanish outposts throughout 1974 and 1975. Following the tripartite agreement signed in Madrid in November 1975, in which Spain ceded administrative control to Morocco and Mauritania, Spanish forces gradually withdrew from the Saharan interior. Polisario guerrillas moved into the resulting vacuum with Algerian logistic support and temporarily controlled much of the eastern and southern portions of the former Spanish colony.

As Moroccan and Mauritanian troops advanced into the territory, Polisario guerrillas directed their attacks against these forces, but by early 1976 the guerrillas were forced to abandon virtually all of their fixed strongpoints in the Sahara. The Polisario has continued, however, to wage an effective guerrilla campaign from bases in Algeria. Over the past 18 months it has concentrated its attacks against economic and military targets in Mauritania.

Estimates of guerrilla strength vary from 3,000 to 6,000 combatants. Although the Polisario Front depends mainly on Algeria for arms, training, and supplies, Libya has also been a source of weapons and financial support. Moroccan claims, some of which are based on reports from Polisario defectors, that Cuban advisers are providing training for the guerrillas in Algeria have not been confirmed. Weapons in the Polisario inventory, for the most part of Soviet origin, include small arms, land mines, machine guns, grenade launchers, and shoulder-fired SA–7’s.

The guerrilla units, rather than attempting to gain control of population centers, have concentrated on quick, sharp attacks on Moroccan [Page 538] and Mauritanian outposts and military columns. Familiar with the terrain and accustomed to the harsh desert climate, they have been able to evade the conventional forces of their opponents. Their use of Land Rovers has enabled them to move long distances over rugged terrain and to range freely throughout the Western Sahara and northern Mauritania. Evidence over the past six months suggests that the units have improved their command and control and their communications capability. This has apparently enabled them to operate more effectively in larger units, as demonstrated in successful attacks against economic targets in northern Mauritania and ambushes of Moroccan military columns.

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The Saharan Republic

On February 27, 1976, the day following Spain’s formal withdrawal from the territory, the Polisario announced the creation of a government-in-exile, the Saharan Democratic Arab Republic (SDAR). The creation of the SDAR was clearly intended to counter the vote of the Moroccan-dominated rump session of the former Saharan territorial assembly, the Jemaa, which on the previous day had endorsed a motion to integrate the Sahara into Morocco and Mauritania. The SDAR has a nine-man cabinet (of little-known figures), a revolutionary council, and a legislative body.

Algerian and Polisario efforts to obtain recognition of the SDAR have been relatively unsuccessful. Thus far, only Algeria, nine African states, and North Korea have extended diplomatic recognition. It is doubtful that many of the governments which recognized the SDAR knew much about it at the time. Most probably they acted out of solidarity with Algeria or because the Polisario’s cause looked more “progressive” than that of Morocco and Mauritania.

Who Are the Saharan People?

The Polisario Front recruits its cadres and soldiers from among the Saharan tribesmen gathered, for the most part, in the Tindouf area of Algeria. The precise numbers and origins of these tribesmen are much disputed.

—A 1974 Spanish census determined that there were only 74,000 indigenous Saharans in all of the Spanish Sahara.

—Algeria and the Polisario publicly claim that there are over 100,000 refugees from the Western Sahara. The steadfast refusal of Algeria to permit an accurate survey of the numbers and origin of the population gathered in the camps around Tindouf makes these claims suspect.

—Morocco, for its part, claims that there are no more than 15,000 “real” former inhabitants of the Western Sahara, most of whom were lured or “escorted” there by Polisario guerrillas, and many of whom are currently being kept there against their will by Polisario guards. Morocco cites the testimony of occasional Saharans who have fled the camps and returned to Moroccan-controlled towns as evidence of its claims.

The nomadic nature of the Saharans, who traditionally have disregarded national boundaries, makes the population in the area fluctuate widely, depending on seasonal and climatic conditions. It is clear, however, that in the past two years Algeria and the Polisario have gathered a body of perhaps 30,000 to 80,000 Saharans capable of demonstrating impressively before foreign observers their desire for freedom and a return to a Saharan “homeland.” This number includes those [Page 540] persons who lived in the former Spanish Sahara and feared, or were made to fear, the Moroccans and Mauritanians as they occupied the territory and who therefore fled to Algeria. The refugee camps there also contain a significant number (conceivably even a majority) of Saharans who arrived from other areas of the desert (Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, and even Morocco), either to escape the Sahel drought or because Algerian and Polisario spokesmen induced them to come.

The Reguibat Tribe: Backbone of the Polisario

At least seven of the known Polisario leaders (including the Secretary General), as well as much of the rank and file, are members of the Reguibat tribe, one of the most powerful of the Saharan peoples. The tribe, which is found in much of the Western Sahara, as well as in parts of Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, and Mali, may number as [Page 541] many as 300,000 members when all of its relations through inter-marriage are counted. The Reguibats are known for their ferocity, pride, ability with firearms, and remarkable desert tracking ability. They apparently are united in opposition to the Sahara’s annexation by Morocco and Mauritania because of:

—their traditional resistance to external domination; and

—the heavy-handed manner in which Morocco moved into the Western Sahara, involving the mistreatment of members of the Reguibat tribe.

The Reguibat from the former Spanish Sahara (perhaps one-third of the territory’s population) and other Saharans recruited from the population of other countries (principally Mauritania) have given the Polisario guerrilla units a source of manpower skilled in the ways of desert warfare.

A large portion of the 2,500 Saharans (mainly Reguibats) who served with Spanish troops in the colony also joined the guerrillas. In addition, the Polisario apparently has had little trouble recruiting and indoctrinating young Saharans who wish to follow the “noble” pursuit of arms. Benefiting from Algerian sanctuary, extensive materiel and logistics support, and advisory assistance (the extent of which is unknown), the Polisario has been able to fight Morocco and Mauritania to a draw and force them on the defensive in much of the Western Sahara and northern Mauritania.

The Politicization of the Refugees

Algeria and the Polisario leadership have undertaken a program of indoctrination of the Saharan refugees in Algeria. The refugees, grouped into 20–30 camps, are undergoing political and military training aimed at preparing them to return to an independent Saharan state. They are also being taught an Islamic-based mixture of Marxism and pan-Arabism.

The extent to which the Polisario leadership has been able to create a sense of genuine national identity among a nomadic people who have roamed freely for many centuries is not known. The type of nationalism which motivates the Polisario rank and file is probably more akin to the Reguibat/Saharan yearning for freedom than to a specific nationalism tied to the artificial boundaries of what was once the Spanish Sahara. Nevertheless, the Saharans have become, in the eyes of much of the world, a “people” whose rights as a group must be taken into consideration in any settlement of the Saharan issue.

Political Strengths of the Polisario

Public Relations. Despite the relatively poor diplomatic showing of the SDAR thus far, the Polisario Front has learned to manipulate the [Page 542] international press. Numerous journalists in search of a good story have been given carefully structured tours of Polisario refugee camps. These tours have emphasized the abject living conditions of the refugees, but they have also highlighted the refugees’ high morale (generally manifested by orchestrated popular demonstrations) and their determination to continue the struggle for independence. Many correspondents have also been taken along on guerrilla raids deep into Moroccan or Mauritanian zones, where they have witnessed Polisario attacks on the outposts of the “invaders.”

Most journalists have commented favorably on the valor, determination, and martial skills of the guerrillas. The press reports thus have kept the Polisario in the news despite the fact that most governments have ignored the plight of the refugees and their claim to an independent Saharan state.

Recent Diplomatic Successes. Although Algeria and the Polisario have not scored any particularly dramatic diplomatic victories over the past year, they have, according to the US Mission to the UN, made some progress in advancing their cause during the recent debates in the UN General Assembly, particularly with respect to the African delegations. The Arab states, on the other hand, remain diplomatically committed to Morocco, with only Libya, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, and, to a lesser extent, Iraq supporting the Algerian/SDAR cause. The Polisario has also gained considerable sympathy within the Spanish Cortes and in general appears to be making its case more effectively around the world. Several factors appear to have contributed to these Polisario successes:

—persistent efforts of Polisario diplomats backed by the full weight of Algerian diplomacy;

—the strong legal case of the Polisario for its stated goal of self-determination;

—success of the public relations campaign, noted above; and

—the Polisario’s growing military capabilities, which, with strong Algerian support, have demonstrated to the world that the Saharan guerrillas cannot be defeated easily and will not wither away as a source of tension and potential conflict in northwest Africa.

Who Controls the Polisario?

The Moroccans and the Mauritanians maintain that the Polisario, led primarily by renegade Moroccan and Mauritanian leftists, is a tool of Algeria and would have no life of its own if Algerian support were to be withdrawn. The Algerians, of course, claim the opposite: they say they are supplying equipment and sanctuary for the Polisario out of respect for the “sacred cause” of self-determination which is being fought by an independent group of Saharan patriots over whom they exercise no control.

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Analysis of the available evidence points to the following conclusions:

—Algeria is using the Polisario guerrillas to weaken Morocco, its only competitor in the region, and to punish Mauritania, which prior to the Sahara dispute had been a close ally of Algeria, for its “betrayal.”

—Without Algerian sanctuary and materiel support, Polisario military operations against Morocco and Mauritania would subside to “manageable” levels within a few months. However, the guerrillas could probably continue their harassing raids in the interior of the territory for several years, especially if alternative sources of weapons (Libya, for example) were found.

—The Polisario leadership, with a strong following within the Saharan refugee population, has formed an independent entity with its own interests and objectives.

The actual political leadership of the Polisario Front is probably a relatively small number of Saharan militants, ideologically sympathetic to Algeria, whose aspirations for, and commitment to, an independent Saharan state are genuine. There is mounting evidence, however, that this leadership has wider territorial and ideological aspirations. As early as 1975, Polisario leaders sought the creation of an extensive Saharan state centered on Mauritania. This aspiration probably reflects the strong influence of exiled Mauritanians within the movement and the growing numbers of Mauritanian Saharans in the refugee camps. A major objective of the June 1976 assault on the Mauritanian capital and the subsequent efforts to cripple the Mauritanian economy was apparently not only to force Mauritania out of the war but also to try to topple the Ould Daddah regime and to replace it with an Islamic socialist republic ideologically aligned with Algeria.

The extent to which Algeria has participated in the formulation of the Polisario’s goals and strategy is unknown. It is apparent, however, that Algeria’s motives go beyond a concern for the rights of the Saharans to self-determination. In many respects, the objectives of the Polisario are consistent with apparent Algerian regional goals. At a minimum, it is fair to assume that the Polisario’s repeated efforts to disrupt the Mauritanian economy would not take place without Algerian acquiescence, if not encouragement. The French have cited circumstantial evidence pointing to a major Algerian role in the formulation of the overall Polisario military strategy, and there are indications that Algerian military advisers are playing an important role in guerrilla military operations and may even be commanding units participating in guerrilla operations within the Sahara and Mauritania.

Algeria is using a powerful group of Saharan nationalists for its own national purposes. Their common objectives, however, should not obscure the existence of the Polisario leadership’s separate interests.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East, Subject File, Box 1, Algeria: 2–12/77. Secret; Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals. Prepared by Flora; approved by Stoddard.