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Since the Christmas Day plot in Detroit, there has been a strong focus on Al Qaeda activities in Yemen. Reports of safe havens and training camps have led many to believe that Al Qaeda members, hounded out of Afghanistan and much of Pakistan, have sought refuge in an ungoverned area of the Middle Eastern nation, using the name Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Essential though this focus may be, the global nature of the fight means that concentrating efforts in one place means neglecting enemy forces gathered in another. This is exactly the case with another branch of Al Qaeda in North Africa – one which has gone largely unnoticed and whose increased capacity to attack presents a real threat to security in Europe and the U.S.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emerged in the early nineties, and was originally called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The group was formed as an angry response to the Algerian government’s cancellation of the 1992 elections that would have handed victory to a coalition of Islamic moderates and militants. GSPC operated in a largely ungoverned area of the Sahara desert, along Algeria’s southern and Mali’s northern border, and launched attacks on Algerian government employees and institutions. The group then began to receive funding and training from Al Qaeda towards the end of the decade, and the alliance was made official in 2006 when Al Qaeda’s no. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, announced the “blessed union” in a video published on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Since then, the group has been known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and has claimed responsibility for its actions under its new name.

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Two years ago, our nation boiled in rage when Congress attempted to revise immigration policy that had long been in shambles. I was working as an intern then at Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak’s office, taking phone calls from crotchety, disaffected senior citizens about their political concerns and entering their opinions in a crammed database.

When bipartisan legislation was introduced in the Senate that would, among other things, give citizenship status to 12 million illegal immigrants, phone calls at the office ran off the hook. Complaints ranged in tone from articulate, quiet concern to vitriolic, racist diatribes. I was struck by the utter lack of sympathy displayed by callers who claimed the United States should close its doors to immigrants forever.

Fast forward to 2009.  Revising immigration laws doesn’t seem to be a top priority for the incoming Obama adminstration. In fact, during the election, the topic of immigration mysteriously disappeared from local town hall meetings and presidential debates. Curiously enough, Public Radio International’s Lisa Mullens reported that the financial crisis has prompted a mass exodus of immigrants from the United States. Sparse jobs and waning incomes have taken a toll on remittances crucial to the Mexican and other Latin American economies.

But the flow of migrants from Africa doesn’t appear to have ebbed since the global credit meltdown.

Each year thousands of sub-Saharan Africans cross the treacherous Sahara in hopes of self-sustenance and prosperity in Europe–things they can’t count on in their countries of origin. Along the way, many are attacked by robbers and smugglers. Others die of dehydration, ensnared by desert heat without enough water. Still others fall prey to disease or murder.

Migrants from countries like Niger, Mali, and Chad who manage to safely traverse the Sahara face even more obstacles in North Africa. Against seemingly insurmountable odds, why do African migrants risk their lives each year?

The BBC’s Jenny Cuffe asked Innocent Acabo from Niger why he is saving to embark on a dangerous trip to Spain:

“This country we are not doing anything there is no work…There is no work…There is nothing here. So many people like that we get to Libya see if we get a job…Spain..I don’t know much about Spain..but it’s far better than my own country in terms of working. In my country, we work and work and work and you don’t get what you’re working for. In Spain, but I believe when you get there, you work, you struggle, something will change.”

But the citizens of recipient countries aren’t always so sympathetic. Under pressure from citizens rankled by the influx of undocumented immigrants, many European countries are cracking down on migrants, forcing sub-Saharan and North Africans like Innocent back to their respective homelands. Still worse, many migrants are captured by authorities at North Africa’s borders, and are often sent to languish in putrid detention camps. Those who make it through Africa travel across the Mediterranean in flimsy vessels, often meeting their deaths in stormy seas.

European lawmakers talk of managed migration, whereby African migrants will be permitted to enter Europe to fill in labor gaps. However, African policy-makers worry that such a measure may further stunt the economic growth of the continent.

In 2006, European and African countries gathered in Morocco for the Rabat Conference to discuss solutions to unrelenting migration. Attending the meeting is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who claims that problems of migration are firmly rooted in the conundrum of African under-development.

“I hope that this conference will enable the states of Africa and Europe to formulate cooperative approaches to the challenge of development – approaches which can help us to create the conditions that enable people to migrate out of choice, rather than necessity.”

Two years later, scant progress has been made as rates of migration continue to increase and the developed world persists in ignoring the connection to poverty and global inequality.

The first day of the Rabat, Morocco, conference has just come to a close! We’re all exhausted, but very pleased with the way it turned out! Al Jazeera (Qatar-based pan-Arab TV station) was there broadcasting introductions and two of the three panels all day, which adds a bit of excitement to the mix. In the US, Al Jazeera is perceived as quite negative, portraying a skewed image of the US to the world, but for all of the Middle East, it’s THE moderate news source. But I’ll return to press coverage later…

I kicked off the conference to a room of 80+ with a welcome and introductions including a picture of the rather dismal world opinion of the US. I detailed the purpose of the two-day conference, to increase cross-cultural understanding, to give young people a voice because they so often fall on deaf ears, and to create a space for Americans and Moroccans to discuss their countries’ policies in a neutral forum. Conference partners James Liddell of the Project on Middle East Democracy (Georgetown-based student group) and the President of the Moroccan Center for Strategic Studies spoke about the importance of such a dialogue at this very critical time in history.

Introductions were followed with some very knowledgeable and renowned scholars, activists, and politicians. The first day had three panels entitled:

1) “Talking About Democracy”

2) “US Democracy Promotion Projects in Morocco”

3) “Security in the context of US-Morocco Relations”

All of the panels were fascinating, but perhaps the most fun to watch due to the tension among the panels (and the one that received the most bizarre and misinformed press coverage) was the third panel.

The third panel included the President of the research center partner organization, a Moroccan from a local NGO currently staging a boycott against the American Embassy, and an American Government representative. Awkward? Younes Foudil of the Moroccan NGO participating in the boycott went head-to-head with Craig Karp, the seasoned diplomat from the American Embassy in Rabat (in a very civilized and respectful way, as professionals do, of course. Sorry kids, little to no Jerry Springer action).

Karp, of the Embassy, generously told Foudil that he was encouraged by the development of Moroccan civil society and its realization that boycotting and striking are powerful tools to social change (even boycotting his work….quite generous). Despite the impressiveness of all three panelists, the audience directed a barrage of questions solely at Karp—questions ranging from—more or less—“how do you sleep at night” to more nuanced, less personally offensive questions about official policy towards the contested southern region of Morocco (or region south of Morocco, depending on who you talk to). The first day ended on a high note with applause and positive energy that participants will take to tomorrow’s day of dialogue.

And now for some comic relief: As we all filed outside to the pool terrace of the hotel for Moroccan mint tea and cookies in our business suits, we came across a rather curious sight. Right in the middle of our tea break space was a European couple lounging by the pool facedown, in bikini and speedo, I had to chuckle to myself as Al Jazeera started setting up its cameras to interview us and had to move to avoid this h’shuma (shameful according to Islam) sight.

Laurel Rapp

Rabat, Morocco

Written on May 25, 2007

Only a few days away from the third and final conference in the “Bringing the World Home Series,” and we’re still trying to manage several (ok, one) diplomatic crises.  This conference series, sponsored by AID and POMED (the Project on Middle East Democracy) very successful opened in Amman, Jordan, in mid-April.  Prince Hassan of Jordan and Boutros-Boutros Ghali were honored guests and speakers, participants engaged in productive, exciting dialogue, and the event got excellent pres (which is always nice!).  We then moved to Cairo in early May, where we welcomed Americans and Egyptians from around the world (as far as New Zealand, Bosnia, and Washington DC) as we hotly debated American foreign policy in the region, listened to experts, and ultimately enjoyed a dinner cruise on the Nile.

And then it was back across North Africa to Rabat, Morocco, (where I currently live) to finish up the preparations for the Rabat conference that is to take place May 25-26.  We have a great selection of panelists and qualified youth participants who represent a variety of viewpoints—always makes for interesting dialogue to say the least.  Our three panels are currently on “Talking about Democracy,” “US Democracy Promotion Projects in Morocco,” and “Conflict and Security.”  Recent developments at the US Embassy and Consulate in Morocco, however, may have doomed the appearance of the US Embassy representative scheduled for the third panel—whose presence is currently hanging by a thread—while my co-chair and I sit at the edge of our seats, biting our nails.  Without going into painful and obscure detail, the US Embassy is currently under much scrutiny after a political gaffe (did he misspeak? Or does he truly not recognize Moroccan claims to the Western Sahara) on the part of the American Ambassador in reference to contested territory in southern Morocco (which is a generally obscure conflict for all of the world with the exception of Morocco, Algeria, and the UN).  This coupled with the closing of the US Consulate in Casablanca following a suicide bombing last month, American Government officials in Rabat aren’t Morocco’s favorite people right now; American Government officials claim that the Consulate has yet to open due to security concerns, while many Moroccans have interpreted it as a symbolic statement against the Moroccan population.

In any event, what this means for us is that the Embassy has become very sensitive to media, and after hearing that Al Jazeera wanted to film portions of the conference, they’ve suddenly gotten cold feet.  Understandably.  Yet, we think it’s very important for both a Moroccan and an American Government official to be present to explain official policy.  So, the jury’s still out in regards to the appearance of our US Government official.  I’ll keep you posted.

Laurel Rapp
Rabat, Morocco
Written on May 22

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