The regular spats between Rabat and Algiers on inadequate border security, including ineffective counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics efforts, are again indicating how the two countries’ competition for dominance is obstructing the possibility of regional cooperation. Officially, the bitter feud over sovereignty of the Western Sahara prevents the two countries from agreeing on other regional issues such as border security. Morocco urges Algeria to set aside the dispute in order to work more effectively on other pressing North African concerns, while Algeria has no incentive to decouple border security from a final settlement on the status of Western Sahara so long as it can leverage the former to pressure Morocco on the latter.

Yet Morocco and Algeria, as well as Tunisia, all face the same conundrum at their borders. The increase in cross-border trafficking over the last decade has coincided with a proliferation of new actors who are displacing old smuggling patterns. This presents a challenge to governments and security services alike—to the extent they can actually function in these regions—in a way that has stripped the protection provided by borders and turned them into potential national security threats. The patchy and under-resourced nature of the Maghreb states’ security cooperation, marred by the Morocco–Algeria political rivalry and failed or weak governments in Libya and Tunisia, is particularly evident in the border regions’ glaring vulnerabilities to transnational crime, terrorist networks, and illegal migration.

While the 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) of borders between Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya are clearly demarcated, they serve less to mark the start or end of state sovereignty than as buffer zones, lands in their own right linking geographically connected regions. These borders have little social, economic, or even political significance in and of themselves. Instead, they serve as channels for negotiating transnational identities, building mutual economic reliance—including through migration and smuggling goods—and facilitating the movement of armed groups, which see these border regions as a natural breeding ground for ideological extremism. Unlike in the majority of the African continent, the borders between the Maghreb states’ more heavily populated northern regions are old and well-established: they were not imposed by colonialist Europe, nor do they reflect strong geographical or ethno-cultural divisions. In contrast, the Maghreb’s external borders to the south are largely inherited from the French colonial administration, most notably in Algeria. While Morocco’s border with the Sahara is essentially defined by the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara, Algeria owes its chunk of the Sahara Desert to France’s colonial design and interests in the region. These imposed borders make less sense in many respects, thereby increasing the Maghreb’s security vulnerabilities.

The porous nature of the Maghreb’s external borders and the countries’ historical connection with Saharan and Sahel commercial routes have compounded the security issues along the region’s precarious margins. In Algeria, decades of ineffective border control with Libya and Tunisia (where there have been noticeable operational improvements in recent years) have exacerbated established smuggling networks and led to a flourishing informal economy that helps stabilize these otherwise restless regions. The relative vacuum of authority along the Maghreb’s borders, particularly with Mali and Libya, also saw the emergence of illegal migration and trade in weapons and narcotics, which feeds into terrorist networks—a situation that rapidly deteriorated further following the Tunisian revolution and collapse of the Libyan state in 2011.

And despite Morocco and Algeria each independently improving their capacities for border control and increasing funding for it, the increase in the volume and frequency of smuggling and displacement along the Morocco–Algeria border also increases the risk of transnational terrorism. Algeria’s increased counter-terrorism efforts have kept border infiltration into Morocco to a minimum, and Morocco does face a much larger threat from the return of experienced fighters from Syria and Libya. However, Rabat’s and Algiers’ unwillingness to cooperate on border security is untenable in the long run. At the very least, the low risk that the border presents ensures that the perennial “border issue” will remain a political card that Algeria can freely link to a broader settlement on the status of Western Sahara.

In addition to the lack of coordination to address these transnational threats, the Maghreb countries lack a policy to confront shared issues of impoverished, politically neglected, and easily radicalized communities along their shared border regions—particularly in southeastern Morocco, southeastern Algeria, and western Tunisia. The root causes of these regions’ multifarious grievances would be best addressed by a cross-border and multi-pronged local approach. Border security efforts alone instead exacerbate political unrest, or even increase the appeal of extremist ideologies, because clamping down on smuggling disrupts local livelihood options. For example, the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset—a strategic trade node between Libya, Algeria, Mali, and Niger—tripled in population in the last ten years, largely due to illicit trafficking, which would be hard to replace with equally lucrative legal economic activities. The illicit trade of cheap Algerian gasoline across the Tunisian border can bring one group of smugglers an average profit of $120-160 a day, compared to a profit of $6 to $9 a day for legal Tunisian street vendors.

The emergence of such borderlands economics is a reminder that, unlike in Europe—where centralized states grew to extract riches and power from their peripheries—North Africa’s state building began with the foundation of cities along trans-Saharan trading routes, which local power bases then used as springboards for central dynastic rule. Borders in the Maghreb are thus cohesive economic spaces with shared identities thrust into a perpetually contested environment, rather than unruly and distant margins of national territory. Despite challenges of human development, Algeria’s and Morocco’s southern regions are just as strategic as the “center.” For example, Algeria’s south, which forms 80 percent of the nation’s territory and 9 percent of its population, is home to the most of the country’s lucrative oil and gas industry, which accounts for 35 percent of GDP and about 75 percent of state revenue.

Maintaining the status quo in the Maghreb’s complex borderlands could easily get out of control. However, embedding cross-border security efforts at the regional and local levels with a practical economic development strategy that offers alternative economic resources to smuggling and human trafficking could help stabilize these regions. Provinces along the Moroccan–Algerian or the Algerian–Tunisian frontier, for instance, could implement joint borderlands development and security strategy at the local level. This local-driven model, if quietly supported by central governments, could allow for increased cooperation and security without the states having to change their stances on whether border issues should be linked to political issues such as the status of Western Sahara.

Jacques Roussellier teaches international relations at American Military University and is co-editor of Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalism and Geopolitics (Rowman & Littlefield: New York, 2014).