Drone attack could be turning point in Morocco’s conflict with Polisario

Moroccan military expert Mohamed Chiker said that the killing of Bendir was a demonstration that Morocco “is in military control of the entire (Western) Sahara and has an arsenal capable of striking” the Polisario anywhere in the territory.

Monday 12/04/2021
Moroccan soldiers during a past edition of the AFRICOM’s annual “African Lion” exercises (FAR-Maroc)
Moroccan soldiers during a past edition of the AFRICOM’s annual “African Lion” exercises (FAR-Maroc)

RABAT - Morocco’s reported use of a drone strike to kill a senior Western Sahara separatist fighter would, if confirmed, would mark a turning point in the decades-long conflict, experts say.

The Polisario Front announced on Wednesday that its police chief Addah al-Bendir had been killed “on the field of honour” in a separatist-controlled part of the disputed desert territory.

A Polisario official later said that Bendir had been killed by a Moroccan drone after taking part in a military operation near a sand barrier separating Moroccan and Polisario-controlled zones.

The location and circumstances of his death are not totally clear and the North African kingdom has not released many details. But Moroccan and Algerian press outlets have carried reports that an armed drone was involved.

Moroccan military expert Abdelhamid Harifi said that “officially, Morocco doesn’t have armed drones — but it has a whole range of state-of-the-art unarmed drones.”

The kingdom has been “a regional pioneer in using drones for intelligence and to identify targets”, he added. “It’s possible that the army used such a drone to pinpoint suspect movement in the buffer zone.”

Bendir’s death comes after decades of simmering tension between Morocco and the Polisario rose sharply in November after Rabat deployed the army to reopen the kingdom’s only highway into West Africa.

The Polisario, which has long demanded a referendum on an “independent state”, had blocked the highway arguing that it was built in violation of a 1991 truce deal.

The Polisario has since claimed daily attacks against Morocco, which controls most of the former Spanish colony and has offered autonomy under its own administration, though claims are difficult to independently verify in the hard-to-access area.

— Lethal strike —

Moroccan military expert Mohamed Chiker said the nature of the operation targeting Bendir, a lethal strike beyond the sand barrier, was unprecedented since a 1991 UN-backed ceasefire.

But he said it was “hard to prove” that an armed drone had been used. Moroccan sources close to the army confirmed the drone strike.

The Polisario said Bendir had fallen in Tifariti, a part of the Western Sahara under Polisario control, after a “military mission.”

That statement, released through official news agency SPS, was later removed without explanation.

Several media outlets said the Polisario had attacked inside Morocco, in the region of Touizgui near the Algerian border.

That would mean that “Algeria is allowing Polisario soldiers to enter Morocco from Algerian territory,” warned the semi-official Moroccan news site Le 360.

Moroccan news site Le Desk reported that Bendir had been killed in a “joint mission by an unarmed Harfang drone” that located the target, allowing a fighter jet to carry out the strike.

The use of a drone would mean that Morocco is starting “targeted strikes” in retaliation for the Polisario’s “attempted incursions”, it said.

— Moroccan military control —

The Moroccan press reported late last year that the kingdom had taken delivery of three Harfang drones, as well as ordering American MQ-9B SkyGuardians — which do not appear to have been delivered yet.

Washington in December recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, at the same time that Rabat resumed ties with Israel.

The kingdom’s growing capabilities had already raised it from 60th to 53rd place on the Global Firepower Index, ranking military strength.

The Polisario, for its part, has “an arsenal that has barely changed since the 1980s, and whose modernisation is totally dependent on its Algerian protector,” Jeune Afrique reported in November.

Chiker said that the killing of Bendir was a demonstration that Morocco “is in military control of the entire (Western) Sahara, and has an arsenal capable of striking” the Polisario anywhere in the territory.