NOUAKCHOTT - Cheick Boya doesn’t think much of al-Qaeda. Of course he’s heard that the self-proclaimed holy warriors are recruiting in Nouakchott, and promising good money. The recruiters are mainly from Mali, the country that borders the Islamic Republic of Mauritania to the east.

"But I wouldn’t do it, not if they offered me a million dollars," says the 24-year-old in an orange T-shirt and white rubber boots. Then again Boya has something that makes him less susceptible to radical Islamists – a job. He is standing on a dune that protects the coastal Mauritanian capital, located partially below sea level, and its estimated million inhabitants, from the Atlantic.

The temperature is 34° Celsius and there is a strong wind. Generations have carried sand away from here to use for building, and now Boya and his colleagues are putting in thick branches to hold the sand in check so the dune can rise again.

Boya is a day laborer, but he’s been doing this for a while now – every day, they give the job to him, he says confidently. His employer is the German government. The German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), pays Boya 2000 ouguiyas ($6.43) a day – about 30% more than a local employer.

"It’s very tough, there are hardly any jobs, companies are letting people go," he says. Boya attended school for six years and did a two-year apprenticeship as an electrician, but he was always without work for two or three months at a time when he would "watch TV, hang with the guys, drink tea, and look for work."

He doesn’t have the kind of contacts you need to get a good job, much less become a government worker, he says. He got his current work by asking around.

The former French colony of Mauritania is considered, along with Niger and its rich uranium deposits, a next goal for al-Qaeda strategists albeit a thankless one from the standpoint of radical Islamists – while the country is 100% Muslim, it is traditionally moderate. If sharia law is in effect all over the country, its more extreme application – for instance, chopping off hands – hasn’t been seen since the 1980s.

Women wear a floor-length garment called malhafa that also cover their heads, but their faces are not veiled. They can go to college, they drive with the windows lowered and loud music on, are present in both parliament and the cabinet. The Foreign Minister is a woman.

Street scene in Nouakchott - Photo: Geraint Rowland

Poverty and resources

What makes the desert state interesting for regional terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) is the huge number of youths – 60% of the country’s 3.5 million inhabitants are under 25, and most of them are unemployed. Over 40% of Mauritanians live in cities – a number that is rising – and many live below the poverty line. Last week, al-Qaeda called for all “sons of Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Mauritania” to join the jihad.

Mauritania is also attractive because of its abundance of resources: fish, iron ore, gold and oil. It also has a very strategic location: Morocco to the north, Senegal to the south. Both of these are considered moderate Islamic countries.

Net fishing, Nouakchot beach - Photo: Ji-Elle

And finally, after the loss of northern Mali, Mauritania could serve the terrorists as a new base from where to finance themselves with organized crime – arms, drugs, cigarettes and human trafficking.

President Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz, who headed a coup in 2008 when he was an army general but was elected to the presidency a year later, has been known in recent years for his hard line against terrorists.

But Mauritanians are poor, and many feel neglected by the government. In the capital, the roads are in bad shape, many are just sandy pathways, and stores look like big garages some with piles of bricks and bags of cement out front, others selling flat screen TVs, computers and mobile phones.

The small group of day laborers standing by the roadside offering their services as house painters and masons can’t afford any of those things.

There are no signs of prosperity and happiness to be seen in Nouakchott’s Socogim PS neighborhood. The area is repeatedly flooded; the water seeps through the clay floors in the houses and rises to levels of over a meter.

Right now, the houses are not full of water although the neighborhood’s sandy pathways are partially flooded. Whether it is the water that stinks, or the garbage lying all over the place, is hard to say.

Goats and cows search through the garbage hoping to find something to eat – one goat is chewing on a filthy rag. Most of the residents here have left, and the school is empty. The crescent moon on the minaret of an abandoned mosque has been broken off.

Abandoned by the government

Mariam is one of the few people still living here. "The situation is bad and we are afraid," says the 44-year-old, who works as a secretary at the Institute for Islamic Studies. She wears a lilac and orange malhafa, and the eyes peering out from behind her glasses are full of skepticism. She is divorced and her three young children live with her in a house she inherited from her father. Inside the heavy red metal door is a squat toilet to the left, and a small spartan kitchen that does however have a large brown refrigerator.

In the main room, there are white streaks on the walls from flooding. The only decorations, aside from a thin red and black carpet are the wooden boards with chapters of the Koran that the children use to learn the holy book. For four years, the water has been coming in ever higher, says Mariam.

There are hardly any neighbors still around, garbage everywhere, and it’s no longer possible to drive the car up to the house. The desolate neighborhood attracts a lot of break-ins and pillaging. "But we can’t leave, I put everything I have into this house, I don’t have anything else," she says. President Aziz visited the area last year and promised improvements, "but nothing has happened yet."

Islamists of all stripes benefit from this discontent. The largest groups among them are moderates or apparent moderates like the Tawasul Party that maintains links with the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups abroad like the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia – and Hamas. The party is present on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and its top members regularly appear on Al-Jazeera.

President Aziz has apparently learned that radicals are not slowed down but rather benefit from a hard political and security service line against them, so now his policy is one of inclusion. Experts agree that he has had some success in keeping radicalism at bay, but many Mauritanians are skeptical – particularly women.

Fatimetou Mint Abdel Malick was Nouakchott’s first female district mayor in 2001; there are now four women district mayors. "All towns should be led by women," she says. She wears a blue and pink malhafa, and is seated in a leather chair at the head of a conference table in the district town hall, flanked by a half-dozen women on her team. A young man serves the traditional bittersweet tea.

Nouakchott - Photo: William Darcy Hall

Besides mobilizing women, she has accomplished a lot in her district, from garbage collection and tree planting to the development of solar energy. She and other women in a national women’s organization even managed seven years ago to get a law passed that says that 20% of candidates on electoral lists must be women.

Malick is very concerned about the rising role of Salafists in Mauritania: "An Islam that binds our hands frightens us," she says.

Fighting against slavery

Human rights activist and lawyer Aminetou Mint Moctar has devoted herself to what is still a very sensitive issue in Mauritania – slavery. It was outlawed in 2007, but still exists. For centuries, white “Moors” (Arabs) known as bidhan have enslaved black “Moors” (Africans) or haratin. Moctar had to leave the word “slavery” out of the name of the NGO she founded in 1999 – Association des Femmes Chefs de Famille (Association of Female Heads Of Family) – or she wouldn’t have gotten authorization for the association.

Moctar and nearly 11,000 members across the country fight slavery, racism, corruption and violence against women. She speaks slowly and softly as she explains that while the government claims slavery per se no longer exists – just its consequences – "when people have no belongings or adequate housing, can make no decisions on their own, when women are sexually abused and their children are enslaved and receive no education – that’s slavery."

Legislation is important, as is raised awareness, but "the slaves themselves have to want to change the situation" – which can be difficult since those concerned lack education and don’t have any economic alternatives. "Even if a slave could take a completely free decision – where would they go?"

But years of campaigning by her NGO and other organizations are slowly yielding results. Slave owners have to be more cautious and since the government has declared a war on slavery the police are forced to act.

Moctar, who is known internationally after being honored for her work by the U.S. State Department, says her renown also has its downsides – in Mauritania, she has become a target for fundamentalist Islamists.

"On television, they called me an atheist and an agent of Israel and France, and threatened to kill me." What scares her more than the threat, she says, is the fact that it was broadcast on television.

President Aziz would appear to have recognized the crux of the issue – since 2012 Mauritania is described as a "multi-ethnic country" in its Constitution. He has also officially recognized the suffering of former slaves, probably because he is trying to prevent the radicalization of the haratin that al-Qaeda is trying to recruit.

Back on the dune near the capital, Boya talks about his dream of becoming an electrician. He would even go to Europe if he got a good job, although he and his fiancé have just had a marriage contract drawn up – "but it’s not signed yet," he says grinning. He’s already made his view of al-Qaeda clear, but wouldn’t attending one of the Koranic schools, often financed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, be an alternative? After all, tuition, room and board are free. Boya shakes his head: "They’re too far away. And I heard they don’t even let you drink tea."