Algeria has blamed Morocco for a Nov. 1 bombing that killed three Algerian truckers in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, adding a new layer of uncertainty to ongoing tensions between the two hostile neighbors. While the details remain unclear in part due to Rabat’s complete silence about the incident, the attack marks a potentially dangerous turn of events that raises the likelihood of a broader conflagration between Morocco and Algeria. Rabat has already been engaged in low-level clashes for nearly a year with the pro-independence Polisario Front, which receives support from Algeria. Any further escalation would increase the risk of instability across North Africa.
Since news of the incident broke on Nov. 3, Algeria has accused Morocco of targeting the trucks using “sophisticated weaponry,” which is likely a reference to Morocco’s recent reported acquisition of Turkish and Israeli drones. Following initial confusion about the exact location of the incident, the United Nations peacekeeping mission that is monitoring a 1991 cease-fire in the territory, MINURSO, confirmed on Nov. 4 that the bombing took place east of the sand berm that runs along a U.N.-controlled buffer zone, in the area of the Western Sahara under Polisario control. While widely assumed to have been carried out by Morocco, there has been no confirmation of responsibility from Rabat or any other independent source.
Several key pieces of information about the incident are still missing, including why the trucks chose to travel through what is known to be a conflict zone. Some initial reports indicated the trucks—which were evidently traveling between Nouakchott, Mauritania, and the Algerian town of Ouargla—wanted to take a shortcut off the main road that connects Algerian and Mauritanian territory.
Another key piece of information that remains unknown is what the trucks were transporting. The Algerian government has asserted that they were engaged in private commerce, and some Algerian news sources have said the trucks were carrying cement, but MINURSO has not commented on the matter. It is possible that Morocco may have feared the trucks were carrying arms for the Polisario, which could provide greater justification for the strike. However, at this point Rabat has not publicly suggested it believes the trucks were carrying any military supplies.
If confirmed to have been a Moroccan military strike, the incident would suggest that Rabat’s ongoing assertions to the U.N. that it has respected the 1991 cease-fire have not been in good faith. It would also come on top of Morocco’s military presence in the buffer zone and its newly asserted control over the Guerguerat crossing with Mauritania. This would not be the first sophisticated Moroccan strike in Western Sahara, either, as there were reports that it attacked a Polisario convoy in April with an armed drone, killing one of the group’s leaders. MINURSO could not confirm who attacked that convoy, but as with the recent truck attack, Morocco is the main suspect. As of now, there is no indication that the Polisario Front has access to sophisticated armed drones.
The Western Sahara issue, particularly the growing geostrategic and military imbalance between Morocco and the Polisario Front, is a major contributor to the rising tensions between Rabat and Algiers. The Trump administration’s late-2020 decision to recognize Morocco’s claim over the contested territory—in exchange for Rabat normalizing ties with Israel—tipped the diplomatic scales heavily in Morocco’s favor, even if it did not resolve the conflict. The Biden administration initially announced its intention to review the policy change, but has not since shown any indication of reversing it.
Morocco’s diplomatic upper hand was also reflected in the latest U.N. Security Council resolution, which extended MINURSO’s mandate by another year and voiced support for the U.N.’s new special envoy, Staffan de Mistura. From Algeria’s perspective, the resolution was unsatisfying, as it suggested the international community continues to favor Morocco in the dispute and failed to address the reality of renewed active conflict. Additionally, Morocco’s growing ties with Israel have been troubling to Algeria, which maintains its support for the Palestinian cause and is opposed to any Israeli influence in the Maghreb.
Distrust of Morocco is widespread among senior Algerian officials. The military chief of staff, Said Chengriha, was once held as a prisoner of war in Morocco after the first battle of Amgala in 1976, in which Moroccan and Algerian forces fought to determine control of key areas and transit corridors following Spain’s withdrawal from what was previously one of its colonies. In September, Chengriha released a blistering condemnation of Morocco, accusing it of being an “expansionist regime” that has “gone too far in its conspiracies and subversive propaganda campaigns.” That statement came on the heels of allegations that Morocco had targeted Algerian officials using Israeli-made Pegasus spyware, which was part of the slew of grievances that prompted Algiers to break off diplomatic ties with Rabat.
The Nov. 1 bombing marks a potentially dangerous turn of events that raises the likelihood of a broader conflagration between Morocco and Algeria.
Morocco has remained silent on the allegations that it was responsible for the Nov. 1 incident. This is in line with its approach since the active conflict with the Polisario Front resumed a year ago, when the 1991 cease-fire broke down. Officially, the Moroccan government does not confirm or deny strikes or casualties, but it is widely known that Moroccan forces have been responding to and initiating attacks against pro-independence fighters along the sand berm and into Polisario-controlled territory. If Morocco had been more forthcoming about the extent of its actions over the past year, this strike might have been more straightforward to explain—especially if it resulted from a case of mistaken identity.
As tensions with Algeria have increased in recent months, Rabat has repeatedly said it does not want escalation. Yet its official silence in recent weeks suggests there has been very little effort to reduce the temperature—at least publicly. On Nov. 4, King Mohamed VI delivered a speech commemorating the Green March, the 1975 action in which Morocco took control of most of Western Sahara, but he did not mention the growing tensions with Algeria or the recent killing of the Algerian truckers.
Meanwhile, Algiers seems to be laying the rhetorical groundwork for retaliation. A statement from the Algerian presidency, carried by state media, promised that the three truckers’ “murder will not go unpunished.”
In remaining silent about the attack, Morocco risks ceding ground to Algeria to frame the narrative. This is unusual for Rabat, which normally works proactively to protect its international reputation. Particularly regarding Western Sahara, Morocco has tended to favor an aggressive diplomatic response to any accusations from Algeria, the Polisario Front or any other country, even as it seeks to avoid provoking a military conflict with its wealthier and well-armed neighbor. This makes its ongoing silence all the more conspicuous.
The Nov. 1 incident could have important implications amid the heightened tensions between Morocco and Algeria. It is still possible to deescalate, particularly if Morocco issues an explanation for the strike and its inadvertent targeting of civilians. This would also require cooperation from Algeria, as well as a greater effort from the U.N. to bring all sides to the table to resume negotiations.
Absent such a climbdown, there is substantial risk of further military escalation, which could result from a retaliatory strike by Algeria or a border skirmish with Moroccan forces. This scenario, though shy of a full-blown military conflict, would still disrupt regional stability. It would be an unpredictable slippery slope that could result in domestic instability for both countries, as it would derail their ongoing attempts to recover from the economic damage of the pandemic.
Another possible avenue for escalation is if Algeria decides to increase its support for the Polisario, which has so far been mainly diplomatic. The Polisario mostly relies on weaponry it received from Libya and other early supporters during the 1980s and early 1990s, but if Algeria steps up its support and provides the group with access to more sophisticated weaponry, it could inflict serious pain on Morocco in the contested area and beyond, making governing the Western Sahara region more difficult. But such a shift in support—even if done covertly—could involve arms transfers, which, if proven, would be diplomatically damaging to Algeria and could tip the diplomatic scales even more in Morocco’s favor, potentially jeopardizing the Polisario’s cause at the U.N.
More broadly, the Nov. 1 incident and the context of tensions within which it took place highlight the fragility of relations between the Maghreb’s two most stable countries. If Morocco and Algeria allow themselves to go down the path of further military escalation, it will harm their economies and constrain their ability to pursue their respective interests in the region. It is also a reminder of the impact that the lack of a resolution to the Western Sahara issue has on regional security, underscoring the imperative of diplomatic talks to address the issue.
Follow her on Twitter at @IntissarFakir.