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Review: The Moroccan Perspective on the Western Sahara: Moroccan Flag Officer Shares His View of this Ongoing Conflict
CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN, 6/1/2012

Review of Al-Sahraa’ Al-Gharbiya Al-Maghribiya min Khilaal Al-Tareekh wal Diplomasia Al-Hasniya (The Moroccan Western Sahara from a Historical and Diplomatic Vantage) by Colonel-Major Bouriyala (ret.)


The conflict over Western Sahara is one that involves the disorderly transference of Spanish colonial rule, ideological differences between Algeria and Morocco, the issue of self-determination, as well as the national obsession by all segments of Moroccan society regarding possession of this territory.  It is perhaps the one of the biggest roadblocks hindering the five-nation Arab-Maghreb Union (AMU) from realizing its full potential.  No Moroccan leader can waiver on the issue of the Western Sahara and expect to survive politically.   

Moroccan retired Colonel-Major [1] Bouriyala writes a unique book that looks into the history of the conflict between the Frente Popular de Liberacion de Saguia el-Hamra y Rio de Oro (Polisario), Algeria, Mauritania, and Morocco.  His book is entitled, “Al-Sahraa’ Al-Gharbiya Al-Maghribiya min Khilaal Al-Tareekh wal Diplomasia Al-Hasniya (The Moroccan Western Sahara from a Historical and Diplomatic Vantage),” and is published in Arabic by Al-Talib Publishing in Rabat, Morocco in 2002.  I paid 50 Dirhams, (Approx. $5) for the book while visiting Morocco as part of a U.S. Defense Department Delegation with the late Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Peter W. Rodman.  

Colonel-Major (an equivalent rank is Brigadier General) Bouriyala’s military background includes an education at the Spanish Military Academy and operational experience with French forces in Africa.  He participated in the infamous Green March into the Western Sahara in 1975, and received military command experience during border skirmishes against the Algerian army.  Bouriyala was also wounded in combat during his campaigns in the Western Sahara.  It was during this time that Bouriyala lived among the desert nomads and gained an understanding of their way of life.  Colonel Bouriyala attended the Mohammed I University, where he obtained a graduate degree in law, with a special emphasis on international relations.  The purpose of this essay is to give the reader a perspective of the conflict in the Western Sahara as seen through the eyes of a retired senior Moroccan officer.  The review essay will focus on Bouriyala’s military observations.  My comments on Colonel Bouriyala’s writings are italicized, except for the critical assessment at the end of this review essay.     


The book provides the Moroccan perspective of this ongoing conflict and emphasizes that the Western Sahara and its inhabitants are part and parcel of the Moroccan kingdom.  According to the author, Morocco and the Western Sahara are historically and culturally bound.  Western Sahara is a de-colonization experiment that has gone wrong.  In 1963, it was included by the United Nations (UN) in a list of nations to be de-colonized.  Two years later, the UN General Assembly reaffirmed the inalienable rights of the Sahrawi inhabitants of the territory and compelled Spain to end colonial rule. 

The author argues that the histories of both the Moroccan and “Sahrawi” people are so inter-twined that it is impossible to distinguish between them.  First, Mohammed Sidi Brahim Bassiri, born in southern Morocco, began creating a separatist movement for the independence of the Sahrawi people; initially, this had the support of many Arab nations as a means to end Spanish colonial rule.  From 1968 to 1975, guerilla tactics and attacks on Spanish forces caused them to withdraw from the Western Sahara.  Moroccan and Mauritanian troops mobilized in 1975, with Morocco controlling the northern two-thirds of the Western Sahara and Mauritania controlling the southern third.  During this time, the author points out that Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who trumpeted a wave of Arab nationalism and fomented the idea of ridding the entire Middle East of monarchies, decided to support the Sahrawi Independence Movement that eventually evolved into the Polisario.  The book touches upon this, as well as the influence of Algerian President Houari Boumedienne who, along with Nasser, was drifting into the socialist camp and who supported the Polisario insurgency.  During the cold war, Morocco’s military assistance was primarily supplied by the United States while both Libya and Algeria, arguably Soviet proxies, provided Soviet military hardware to the Sahrawi independence movement. 
Items within the Book of Military Interest

Colonel Bouriyala’s book contains aspects of the military campaigns Morocco has undergone in the Western Sahara.  Reading his account, one gets a sense of the great distances needed to be covered before engaging forces; he talks in hundreds of kilometers.  The other key feature of the conflict is the utter dependence on trucks and jeeps to move men, material, and equipment to and from forward battle areas.  The author opens the description of military intervention by Algerian Special Forces in 1979 by highlighting the 380 kilometers need to traverse the distance from Tindouf, an Algerian town bordering the Western Sahara which was used as a staging area for military operations.  The Colonel is very short on tactics here and simply states that this engagement resulted in 100 Algerian casualties.  It is of note that, since the 1991 cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario, no significant hostile action between Algerian and Moroccan forces in the Western Sahara has occurred. 

Algerian Military Assessment: 

Colonel Bouriyala provides an overview and order of battle for the current belligerents, assessing Morocco’s main adversaries in the conflict.  He begins by describing the Algerian army, the second largest in the Maghreb after Libya.  It possesses 170,000 men and over 200,000 reserves, not to mention the young Algerians given para-military training who are part of the national compulsory service in Algeria’s security forces.  Despite these large numbers, he judges that Algeria is currently occupied with keeping internal order, given the threats from Islamic militant groups in the country, most notably, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).  The GSPC, has since splintered, with the more radical elements forming al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  The book also explains that, while the Algerian military has Defense Minister, technically the President is the Commander-in-Chief; however, the President cannot make any military decision without the consent of a military troika that has imposed its will on the country.  In that regard, the Army Chief of Staff is the real power in the country. 

The Algerian military is divided into six geographic departments, and the author points out that this is similar to how the Polisario is organized.  Each of these sectors is commanded by a General Officer and is composed of the second and third sectors, which are responsible for the Moroccan-Algerian border.  It is a rapid mechanized infantry force, designed to respond quickly to reinforce Polisario insurgents engaged in battle with Moroccan infantry forces.  Colonel Bouriyala continues his chapter on the Algerian military, describing its Air Force and Navy.  He writes that the Algerian Air Force is equipped with MIG fighters and considers its two Soviet-vintage submarines as aged.  What concerns the author is Algerian acquisition of European and American equipment and its participation in NATO exercises.  He considers Algeria to be strategically shifting its defense policies and becoming a competitor of Morocco in its relations with Washington.  The discussion turns to Algeria’s provision of military training camps for Sahrawi separatists and the Polisario along its border with the Western Sahara, specifically activities centered on the city of Tindouf in Southwestern Algeria.

Personal Assessment:  This section of the book illustrates the threat perception Morocco holds toward Algeria not only in the Western Sahara dispute, but also in the wider context of competing for modernization of its military through cooperation with the United States.  There is also a gradual shift in thinking from creating large standing conventional armies toward mobile counter-terrorist and rapid response units between the two countries, with an emphasis on ground and air mobility.  Finally, the book highlights a strategic shift between the Maghreb countries (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) in taking a gradual role in NATO, defending the Mediterranean approaches from terrorism and illicit trafficking on the high seas, and seeing itself as contributing to the war on terrorism.  

Although the book does not contain a disposition of forces, it is important to note that an estimated that 100,000 Moroccan troops man the defensive barrier along the edge of the Western Sahara and these forces face a Polisario force of 5,000.  Although it mentions the defensive barrier known as “The Berm”, Colonel Bouriyala does not adequately describe it.  The Berm is the Northern African version of the Israeli Bar-Lev Line, a massive sand barrier reinforced with land mines, barbed-wire, and guard towers.  

Polisario Military Organization:    
Created in 1973, the Polisario government is composed of a President, ministers, national assembly, and several committees.  It proclaimed itself to be a separate government, the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic (SDAR), in February 1976.  The Polisario committee of particular military interest, the Security and Defense Committee, is made up of the President, Minister of Defense, and the heads of different military districts (designated by specialty and/or geography).  As for the commanders of the different sectors and their respective areas of responsibility, Bouriyala provides a biography of a few top commanders of the time of the writing, such as:

  • Al-Neeh Walad Ali Al-Bilal of the Ruqaybat Tribe is in charge of the first military sector concentrated along the Mauritanian-Algerian border.  This section has the most combat experienced of the Polisario forces and is specifically adept at guerilla warfare and light infantry desert attacks. 
  • Ibrahim Ghali, also from the Ruqaybat Tribe, serves as Commander of the Second District in addition to being the Defense Minister.  This is also a battle-hardened military force that specializes in operating heavy armored equipment, including Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) and light tanks.  The author expresses respect for the military skills of both of these Polisario military contingents. 
  • Ayoub Lahbeeb is Commander of the Third District and Walad Lakeek is Commander of the Fourth Military District; both are from the Ruqaybat Tribe. 
  • Walad Al-Sabaa of the Ayaat Tribe commands the Fifth District.
  • Binaa Walad Baha of the Ruqaybat Tribe commands the Sixth District, which is located in the Western Tindouf region of Algeria. 
  • Alayat Mohammad Walad commands the Seventh Military District.  This section is completely responsible for augmenting units with artillery, anti-air guns, and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). 
  • Ibrahim Walad Al-Layli is in charge of internal security within the Polisario government. 

These commanders along with the Defense Minister and President constitute the upper echelon of the Committee for Defense and Security.  The main functions of this committee, as explained by Bouriyala, are to conduct civilian reconnaissance before conducting military operations, plan military campaigns and unconventional strikes, appoint military commanders for specific missions and/or units, and prepare military studies and compile lessons learned from a strategic, operational, and tactical level.

Personal Assessment: The author intentionally mentions the tribal affiliations of the commanders to demonstrate Moroccan perception that the Ruqaybat Tribe dominates the Polisario.   Morocco fears that an independent Polisario government in the Western Sahara would not maintain equality between the tribes and give primacy to the Ruqaybat Tribe.  It is unknown as to why Bouriyala is inconsistent in describing the geographical, military specialty, or tribal affiliations/constitutions of the Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Military Districts, nor is their information on troop numbers. 

Another aspect of an independent Western Sahara not discussed in the book is economic viability.  Can the region sustain itself and a population of 300,000 on phosphates, fishing, and iron ore?  Would a hypothetical independent Western Sahara require perpetual outside aid? Currently, Morocco has invested heavily in the infrastructure of the Western Sahara and is the region’s only source of food imports.  It is important to note that the Western Sahara has no arable land and is thoroughly dependent on those imports.  The 150,000 Polisario currently encamped in and around Tindouf, Algeria and outside the berm erected by the Moroccans are totally dependent on Algiers for food, water, and fuel.  

Composition of the Army of Sahrawi Liberation (SLA):

The Polisario separatist army, known as the SLA, is composed entirely from the Ruqaybat Tribe, which is known for its warrior proficiency among the Sahrawi tribes.  The Ruqaybat were also selected by the Spanish as colonial agents in their attempt to govern the Western Sahara.  Colonel Bouriyala names Ibrahim Ghazali, the Defense Minister, as being one such collaborator for Spanish security forces in the Western Sahara. 
The military wing of the Polisario is organized at the battalion level (Soviet-style).  Each battalion consists of irregular mechanized infantry, is task-organized for the mission, and includes an artillery and logistical arm.  After 1979, when Mauritania gave up its claims to the Western Sahara, more Polisario brigades have been available to engage in combating Moroccan forces.  Polisario forces have shown grit and determination to their cause in the past, traveling hundreds of miles with artillery across barren landscapes to shell the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott.

The author describes each Polisario battalion as being composed of three rifle companies.  Each irregular company is composed of 350 fighters and has an artillery support unit that is equipped with regular artillery, anti-air guns, surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles.

Colonel Bouriyala credits Moroccan tactics of digging defensive trenches and anti-armor traps with hampering the Polisario’s ability to conduct conventional operations and forcing them to adopt suicide/guerrilla tactics, as the trenches severely limited Sahrawi Liberation Army’s mobility.  Polisario suicide missions seemed directed at rear echelon and logistical units of the Moroccan army. 

The book then describes some of the types of weapons the SLA have in their inventory:

  • 50 T-55 tanks;
  • 100 BMP and BRDM APCs of Soviet origin, as well as French AMLs;
  • SLA Anti-Air arsenal includes SA-6, SA-7, and SA-9 variants and some later generation SAM-3s; (Bouriyala identifies the anti-air tactics used by the Polisario as originating from Vietnamese, Cuban, Libyan and Algerian advisors that have been stationed in Tindouf, Southwestern Algeria.  All of these nations, the author writes, also hosted Sahrawi separatists, providing military training and expertise in an attempt to undermine Moroccan-U.S. relations during the cold war.) 

Colonel Bouriyala also names the military training camps located in and around Tindouf that belong to the Polisario, including the Twelfth of October School, the Ninth of June School, and the Al-Shaheed Al-Wali School.  The military headquarters for the Polisario at Tindouf is called Al-Shaheed Hadad camp, which contains logistical, engineering, and medical services.  The author describes Tindouf as also having a prisoner camp for POWs and civilians kidnapped by the separatists.   

Note:  The author’s description of the Moroccan armed forces in this book is a historical look into its competence in World War II fighting the Axis, its role in the Gulf War, and peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, Africa, and Bosnia.  It does not contain a description of organization and weaponry like the Algerian and Polisario forces, likely for security reasons.

Personal Assessment:  Most of the military equipment described in Bouriyala’s book is antiquated.  It would be of interest to study if the Polisario has received more modern equipment, particularly as the fall of the Soviet Union and Algerian internal strife could impact Polisario acquisition ability with respect to military hardware.  

Critical Assessment of Bouriyala’s Book

Colonel Bouriyala limits his bibliography to French, Arabic, and Spanish sources.  Books on this conflict are few, but one of the leading American experts is Dr. John Damis, whose book, Conflict in the Western Sahara: the Western Sahara Dispute (Hoover Press, 1983) is the definitive and most objective English work to date.  Another book Bouriyala neglected to use in his work is Tony Hodges’ Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War (Lawrence Hill and Company, 1983).  The Damis book contains many military and tactical techniques used by all the combatants, including the effective Polisario strike teams made up of four Range Rovers to their employment of 5,000-man formations in multi-pronged attacks against Moroccan and Mauritanian forces.  It also highlights the effectiveness of airpower, from the use of French fighter-bombers to strike the Polisario for holding French citizens hostage, to the employment of Moroccan F-1 Mirage fighters on Polisario formations [2].  It is interesting that these battles that occurred from 1976 to 1991 are completely absent in Bouriyala’s book, which may be a result of linguistic handicap on the part of the book’s author.  

Colonel Bouriyala’s book could have included more detail, specifically had he delved more into Moroccan military tactics.  The book also lacks maps.  His book ends with recommendations to solve the Western Sahara crisis.  However, Bouriyala cites the issues complicating matters include accountability of POWs and those kidnapped by the Polisario/SLA and the division of natural resources such as phosphates and iron ore (Western Sahara is the sixth largest source of phosphates in the world).  Presently, major support has dried up for the Polisario, their aspirations for an independent Western Sahara seem to have been put on hold, and they have been relegated to running the Algerian town of Tindouf like a mini-state. 

The book does theorize about the future.  Given that irregular Polisario forces have become obsolete and can no longer wage conventional campaigns, there may be an increase in desperate Polisario terrorist activities within Morocco in the future if some sort of settlement is not reached between the parties.  This complicates Morocco’s efforts at countering Al-Qaeda operatives within the country, who have attempted to terrorize international merchant shipping along the narrow Strait of Gibraltar.  From a strategic perspective, the Polisario issue matters because it hinders the ability of Morocco, Algeria and its neighbors to focus their efforts on fighting violent militant Islamist groups like al-Qaida in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb.  The Western Sahara dispute also has a destabilizing effect on Morocco and Algeria, two nations that should be cooperating more to combat terrorism and other bilateral issues.  Bouriyala’s work is the latest Arabic work on the Western Sahara, and it also available in French. 


1.  Colonel-Major is equivalent to a Brigadier General, hereafter referred to as Colonel.

2.  Damis, John.  Conflict in Northwest Africa (Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, California, 1983).   

CDR Aboul-Enein is author of “Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat,” (Naval Institute Press, 2010).  He found this book while in the Moroccan capital Rabat in 2003 for the annual bilateral defense talks with the Government of Morocco.  Aboul-Enein has already published a translation of the memoirs of five Egyptian Generals who planned the 1973 War and the memoirs of former Algerian Defense Minister General Khalid Nezzar in U.S. Army publications. He wishes to thank Mr. Greg Archetto, who serves in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs for his edits, discussion, and comments that enhanced this essay. 


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