Reports of Sahrawis joining Islamist forces in Mali are no help to diplomacy.
Given how both sides like to highlight the other's embarrassments, pro-Moroccan media have been delighted to give prominence to reports that the Mouvement pour l'Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l'Ouest (MUJAO) – a major component in the Islamist alliance that took control of northern Mali in 2012 – has swelled its ranks with some 300 fighters from the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
Any linkage between the Polisario Front and the Islamist group would underline Morocco's claim to have brought stability to the former Spanish colony, which it sees as an integral part of King Mohammed VI's kingdom, and would paint the Sahrawi liberation movement as a destabilising force rather than a legitimate government in waiting.
There have been reports before of young Sahrawis joining militant groups. In October 2011, an Italian and two Spanish aid workers were kidnapped while working in the Polisario camps.
This "seems to confirm the long-held Moroccan belief that the deteriorating social and political conditions in the camps of Tindouf represent a tinderbox waiting to explode," according to US-based scholar Anouar Boukhars.
"Populated by thousands of idle and frustrated fighters and networks of seasoned traffickers, the camps are naturally an appealing target for AQIM's [Al Qaeda in the IslamicMaghreb]militaryandsmugglingwings."
OLD LEADERS, IMPATIENT YOUTH
Faced with a restless and youthful population in the Lahmada camps, an ageing Polisario leadership has allowed redundant fighters to engage in business with partners in Mauritania, Mali and the Canary Islands.
This has led some towards the lucrative trans-Saharan drugs trade and other illegal business, and a few into radical Islamist groups that conduct kidnappings for ransom.
However, the numbers are limited, a Western intelligence official told The Africa Report: "So far we have identified a few dozen Sahrawis in Mali, which is not a dramatic number given the numbers active, for ex- ample coming from Libya."
One line in a report by Tunisian academic Alaya Allani claimed 300 Polisario fighters had joined MUJAO. It was picked up by Moroccan commentator Hassan Alaoui, who concluded: "The rumour is not a rumour! It has become an irrefutable truth, which is hard to deny: Polisario remains an armed terrorist Sahel-Saharan organisation and has a policy of destabilisation in the Maghreb."
The claims point to shifting trends in the Sahara-Sahel region, where social and economic pressures have hurt both Polisario camps and Sahrawi neighbourhoods administered by Morocco, such as the troubled Gdeim Izik camp in El Ayoun.
With United Nations special envoy Christopher Ross struggling to make diplomatic progress, both sides are looking nervously at developments to the east.
For 40 years the North African narrative has been shaped by the struggle between a 1970s liberation movement and the region's last kingdom; it has led to diplomatic impasse over the Sahara's decolonisation and enshrined conflict between Algeria and Morocco●