Morocco and the Great Sahara: the Almoravid heritage and modern geo-strategy

Western Sahara

Those who interpret the geo-strategic objectives set by the Moroccan state as a mask concealing a hidden intention to reconstruct the Great Maghreb of medieval times, which knew its heyday and its most resplendent times at the time of the Almoravids, are only judging intentions. This judgement serves an immediate political purpose, which is to dissuade Morocco from recovering the Sahara, Ceuta, Melilla, and to restrict it in terms of the demarcation of its maritime borders. Using history to judge contemporary legitimate political objectives involved in the movement for liberation from colonialism implies a desperate attempt to reverse the roles so that those demanding liberation become those with hidden colonial intentions.

However, "every cloud has a silver lining", and those who accuse Morocco of expansionist intentions assert the legitimacy of Morocco's claim to the Sahara since it has been part of the country since the 5th century of the hegira (11th century AD), that is, some ten centuries ago. Does this mean that Morocco has the right to claim Mauritania, Algeria and Al-Andalus? This proposition is not correct since these countries are independent, sovereign and internationally recognised. Mauritania since the 1960s, Algeria since 1962 and Al-Andalus since the fall of Granada in 1492. As for Western Sahara, which became Moroccan after 1975, it has been on the decolonisation list since 1964. The International Court of Justice declared that it was not a desert land, as Franco claimed, and that ties of loyalty existed between the inhabitants of this area and the kings of Morocco over the centuries.

Therefore, let us look at the history of the Almoravid state to see how the events of 1040-1147 AD confirm the legitimacy and legality of the Moroccan presence in the Moroccan Sahara. 

The Almoravid state began as a reformist defence movement based first on the union of the Berber tribes of Sanhaya, whose territories stretched from the Senegal River towards the south as well as the regions of Messila, Tri and Mellah in Algeria, the Atlas and the Rif in Morocco. The movement then took control of trade routes, strengthened its military power and became an Islamic state that included what is now Mauritania, western Algeria, Morocco with its desert and Al-Andalus up to the borders of Castile and Navarre.

In the thirties of the 11th century, Yahya ibn Ibrahim, leader of the Berber tribes of Sanhaya, which included the tribes of Lamtuna (ancestors of the present inhabitants of the Sahara), Jadala, Gzoula, Masmouda and other tribes, requested Abdullah Ben Yasin, one of the students of Wajjaj ibn Zalwí al-Lamtí, who was based in the coastal village of Aglou west of Tiznit, to accompany him to the Sahara and the western parts of Sudan (what it now Sakia El Hamra, Wadi al-Dhahab, now Mauritania, Mali and southern Algeria) in order to teach the inhabitants of these areas the Islamic religion.

After some initial failures, Abdullah Ben Yasin was able to build a suitable link on the Senegal River and implemented the Sharia, established borders, severely punished those he considered disrespectful of the religion and united the tribes of Lamtuna, Kadala, Massufa and others (Cadi Ayyad, "Maghrebi literature in the Almoravid era) with a solid organisation based on the creed and the preaching of Allah's message.

The jihad that Ibn Yassin began led him first to the Kingdom of Ghana to recapture Audagost, east of what is now Mauritania and parts of the Niger Valley. Despite the death of Yahya Ibn Ibrahim and Yahya Ibn Omar later, the famed Almoravids annexed, under Ibn Yassin's religious and military leadership, many parts of western Sudan, from south of the Nun River, through what is now Sakiat al-Hamra and Wadi Ad-Dahab, Tiris Zemmour, Adrar and others, to the Senegal River in the south and the Niger River in the east.

Perhaps the event that established Almoravid control over Al-Maghreb Al-Aqsa was the conquest of Sus in 445 of the hegira (AD 1054) when Ibn Zulu Al-Latti asked Ibn Yassin to help the people of the region to end the control of the Maghrawi Zenati, a battle that ended with the fall of Sikhilmasa to the Almoravids by "purifying" it from the manifestations of "Al-Munkar (the unlawful acts considered reprehensible)" (according to Ibn Yassin's fundamentalist interpretation of religion) (Al-Bakri, "Al-Masalik").

After controlling the Sijilmasa uprising against Almoravid religious extremism, as well as the Jadala tribe's rebellion against Lamtuna domination and sensitive government positions, the military commander Abu Bakr bin Omar (successor of his brother Yahya) went to Sus, in 448. of the hegira (AD 1056), here the military commander Yusuf ibn Tašufin, who was appointed by Abdullah bin Yassin as governor of Sijilmasa, controlled from there Taroudant, Massa and Jazoula (Al-Sallabi, "The Jurisprudence of Empowerment in the Almoravid State").

After Sus, the Almoravids went to Agmat, killed its emir Laqūt El Maghrawi, expanded it and made it their military base. They then went to fight the Barghawata near Rabat. These battles claimed the life of Abdullah bin Yassin in 1059 (Al-Abadi, "History of Morocco and Al-Andalus" and Jamal Bami "Abdullah bin Yassin").

After presenting the loyalty oath to Abdullah Ben Yassin's successor, Abu Bakr as religious and military leader, the latter took control of Zenata, Meknesah and Louata, and returned to Agmat. Overpopulation of this city led to plans to build a new city called Marrakech, near the tribe of origin, Lamtuna, the ancestors of the Erguibat and Tekna (extending south from the Nun River to present-day Cape Bojador), and the strongholds of Magrawa, Barghawata and the newly controlled Amara. 

After disagreements arose between Lamtuna and Jadalah, Abu Bakr took half of his army to make peace between the two Saharawi tribes, leaving the other half led by Yusef, his cousin, to quell the revolts of the rebellious tribes in Zenata and Maghara to the north, later controlling the north and east of al-Maghreb al-Aqṣa, as well as the Central Maghreb (what is now Algeria) before extending his control over al-Andalus.

The Saharawi depth of the Moroccan state remained relatively strong during the reign of the Almohads (1121-1269) but reached its peak under the Saadids (1510-1659), who controlled the strip between Tuat and Taghaza as far as Timbuktu, Gao and Tjini. In addition, the Alawis (from 1666) penetrated the south through Chingueti, beyond the Senegal River. However, the borders stretching from the Nun River to Cap Boujdour remained fixed and unchanged under the rule of all successive states, including the Merinids and Wattasids.

Throughout history, the Moroccan Makhzen has never had a settlement without the strip extending south to Cape Boujdour and east beyond Tindouf and Tuat, as was the case with Tremecén and Oran to the north. This depth is the basis of Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara, which is a historical, political, cultural, geographical and geostrategic depth. The link between Morocco and its African depth from the time of the Almoravids until the entry of Spanish colonisation in the eighties of the 19th century is what is now called the Moroccan Sahara. This is the essence and legitimacy of the Moroccan presence in the Sahara.