The Polisario Front: An Organisational Overview


    1.0 Introduction

    The Polisario Front is a politico-military organisation with the intent to cease Moroccan control over Western Sahara and instigate the region’s sovereignty. The Polisario Front was recognised by Libya and Mauritania in 1975 after it received the backing of the Tropas Nómadas (nomadic troops), composed of Sahrawi tribesmen equipped with small arms and weapons.

    2.0 Making the Polisario

    The Polisario Front took shape out of Sahrawi students attending the University of Morocco who forged the Embryonic Movement of the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro. Their goal was to gain independence and resist Spanish rule, but their pursuit was halted when Morocco and Mauritania took over the Spanish Sahara after Spain’s departure in 1975.

    While the insurgents were described early on as Marxists – a narrative often promulgated by Morocco used during the Cold War to gain international support for its claims to Western Sahara – the group aligned itself with Islam under the leadership of Quali Mustapha Siyed [source].

    With Algeria’s support Libyan supplies of Soviet weaponry and positive relations with Cuba, the Polisario Front earned an unfavourable reputation amongst Western nations. Yet, the group did not identify itself as Marxist, instead claiming its ideological focus was the decision of Western Saharans, not a ‘vanguard party’ [source].

    The founders of the Polisario, however, decided to move away from traditional tribal structures and organise the group in a way that seemed more inclusive. Tribalism, they believed, would lead to factionalising and thus could impede unifying the Sahrawi people [source]. 

    2.1 Edge of the Precipice

    In 1965, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution, asking Spain to decolonise the territory. In 1966, UNGA passed a new resolution for a referendum to be held by Spain on the self-determination of the Sahrawi people. This was the first instance that the concept of self-determination was linked to the Sahrawi. The subsequent anti-Spanish agitation in Spanish Sahara, however, had not demanded independence but rather union with Morocco.

    As a result, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1975 issued a non-binding opinion on Western Sahara. This culminated in a UN mission touring the region. It concluded that the Sahrawi people favoured independence from Spain and Morocco. Based on this claim, it was subsequently decided that the territory was not terra nullius.

    The ICJ acknowledged that Western Sahara had historical links with Mauritania and Morocco, but they were not
    adequate to abrogate Western Sahara’s right to self-determination. Rather crucially, this meant that there was insufficient evidence to prove the sovereignty of either state over the territory.

    However, on 14 November 1975, the Madrid Agreement was concluded under which Spain agreed to withdraw from Spanish Sahara to hand the territory over to Morocco and Mauritania, despite the ICJ advisory opinion to the contrary. Accordingly, Morocco and Mauritania partitioned Western Sahara, using the ancient division between Saguia el-Hamra in the north and the Rio de Oro in the south. 

    2.2 The Western Sahara War (1975-91)

    The armed conflict began when Morocco invaded Western Sahara with the Green March. King Hassan II organised a mass demonstration, whereby more than 350,000 Moroccan civilians escorted by 20,000 troops entered Western Sahara to establish a presence in the region. The Polisario Front met this intrusion, but could not contain the influx.

    The guerrilla warfare that followed became known as the Western Sahara War, which lasted for sixteen years. The main objective of the Polisario Front was to establish an independent state for the Sahrawi.

    As a result, an armed Moroccan-Mauritanian invasion forced nearly half of the Sahrawi population in Western Sahara to flee to Tindouf, Algeria. The Polisario Front, backed by Algeria, and the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) formed a government in exile. Initially, Polisario fought both Mauritania and Morocco. However in 1979, Mauritania signed a peace agreement with the Polisario and withdrew from the conflict.

    Throughout the 1980s, the two remaining parties (Morocco and the Polisario Front) waged a low-intensity conflict, even despite Morocco maintaining greater military strength aided by France, Israel, and the US.

    Archival Footage of Captured Polisario Front Weapons

    2.2.1 Mauritania is Out, Morocco is in full force

    Following Mauritania’s withdrawal, Morocco seized the opportunity to take over the southern part of Western Sahara, which it renamed Oued Addahab. To support its position, Morocco commenced the building of a defensive wall to seal off Western Sahara from Mauritania in 1980. In response to Morocco’s military might, Polisario devised a new strategy of building desert sand walls lined with land mines. These were later termed the Moroccan Western Sahara Wall, which stretches approximately 2,700 kilometres.

    Backing from Algeria during the 1970s emboldened the Polisario, the group was able to control a substantial amount of Western Sahara. By 1981, Morocco controlled only two enclaves: A triangular-shaped area in the far north-western corner of the territory around the capital al-Ayun, the phosphate mines of Bukra, and the city of Smara. The other area of control encircled the coastal city of Dakhla in the south.

    However, the Polisario Front’s advantage began shifting as Morocco acquired financial assistance from Saudi Arabia and France (under Mitterand) as well as the Reagan administration.

    Morocco expanded its control over Western Sahara by constructing a series of concentric defensive barriers that stretched from the original enclaves. This strategy denied the Polisario access to southern Morocco and limited the group’s ability to continue its hit-and-run raids. Upon completion of these barriers (often referred to as ‘the berm’), the Polisario found it difficult to launch major attacks against Morocco except along the defensive wall itself.

    2.3 Peace with Polisario: Policies or Pretenses?

    In 1991, a ceasefire agreement was reached between the Polisario Front and Morocco. Since then, the nature of the conflict has shifted from military hostilities to civilian resistance. By the end of the armed conflict, Morocco had
    captured over 80 per cent of the total land including the coastline.

    By contrast, the SADR controls the remaining 20 per cent and operates from Tindouf in Algeria where over 125,000 Sahrawi refugees live.

    Since the cessation of war, several attempts have been made to formulate a peace process to resolve the conflict, but no permanent solution has been produced. In 1991, the United Nations Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was deployed to resolve the issues of Western Sahara—the last remaining colony whose status had not
    been legitimised.

    The mission’s main mandate was to constitute an exercise for Sahrawi self-determination but the plan never met its goal, as there was conflict over voter eligibility.

    2.3.1 Houston to Baker: Peace Efforts

    In the interim, there has been several peaces processes:

    The Houston Agreement was implemented to oversee the ceasefire the UN established the MINURSO to prepare for a referendum on self-determination based on the census of 1974 held by Spain. This proposal was rejected by Morocco, which infiltrated Western Sahara with its own citizens and demanded a new census.

    Comparatively, former US Secretary of State James Baker was appointed as the UN Secretary General’s personal envoy to Western Sahara. Baker established new terms for a census based on demographic surveys from both sides. However, the Polisario Front rejected the proposal (Baker Plan I) as it did not guarantee independence as an option. Instead, it offered Western Sahara autonomy within the Kingdom of Morocco. Further, the UN Security Council demanded the plan be redrafted. The original plan was inconsistent with the principles of the MINURSO. Hence, a new plan (Baker Plan II) was presented in 2003. This plan proposed a referendum for integration or continued autonomy or independence after a period of four to five years under Moroccan administration.

    However, none were successful and as of 2019, there were no plans for holding a referendum.


    2.3.2 The Contemporary Moment

    Crucially, in November 2020, the Polisario Front declared an end to the ceasefire with Morocco [source]. Since then, the UN has recorded ‘low-level hostilities’ [source]. Two months later, the Trump Administration recognised Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, and Biden is yet to change this policy [source]. 

    In March 2022, Spain endorsed Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara as the “most serious, realistic and credible” basis for resolution [source]. Later in October 2023, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling on all parties to resume negotiations to achieving a ‘just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution’ which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara [source].

    Other EU members such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden have called for an immediate referendum.

    3.0 Mottos, Symbols, and Patches

    At the bottom of the Sahrawi Coat of Arms [see Fig. 5], written in Arabic, it reads: ‘Liberty, Democracy, Unity’.

    The official Polisario emblem
    Fig.4 Official Polisario Emblem
    The official SADR emblem
    Fig.5 Official Sahrawi Coat of Arms

    The Sahrawi Coat of Arms [see Fig. 5] further depicts two crossed rifles with the SADR flag hanging from either Mauser. Centred above is a red crescent and star, a testament to its Islamic origins encircled by two olive branches.

    Likewise, the official Polisario emblem [see Fig. 4] is a circular medallion which frames the geographical outline of Western Sahara. It is also accompanied by a rifle and an olive branch.

    4.0 Organisation

    At its conception, the model of state governance by the Polisario was an eclectic mix of socialist rhetoric and an emphasis on the region’s Arab character. The Polisario created a narrative surrounding the SADR that portrayed it as an umbrella movement for all Sahrawi people who gathered for the same goal of independence no matter their political persuasions.

    To its supporters, its internal organs touted inclusivity, equality, and respect for family and education. The Polisario proclaimed that Islam was the religion of the state and social justice was its goal. It claimed to support an individual’s right to vote, attend school, and have access to health facilities [source].

    4.1 Polisario’s Place Within Broader Government

    • In 1976, the SADR declared itself a government-in-exile in Tindouf and established a governing body consisting of judicial, legislative, and executive branches
    • The SADR’s constitution, which has seen several iterations over the years, upholds the separation of powers between the branches of government. . 
    • The highest office in the SADR is the president, who appoints the prime minister of the republic and leads a cabinet called the Council of Ministers. 
    • The president appoints members of the judiciary. 
    • The legislative body is the Sahrawi National Council (SNC). 
    • The constitution also dictates that an independent Western Sahara will operate as a multiparty democracy. However until then, the Polisario is the only party and remains entangled in the republic’s structure.

    4.1.1 Structure of the SADR

    • Polisario leadership are elected in a secret ballot at a National Convention (also called a Congress) that is usually held every three years. The Convention is the highest authority of the Polisario and defines the coming year’s diplomatic and military policies.
    • The SNC possesses several checks on the power of the executive. Its fifty-one members are elected by the voting public with universal suffrage for everyone older than eighteen.
    • There are twenty-two ministries within the SADR government, as well as several individual ministers.
    • The heads of these ministries do not sit for a fixed period. Instead, they are subject to periodic parliamentary assessment. 
    • Parliament has the power to censure individual ministers or the government with a vote of no confidence, thus certifying accountability. 
    • Throughout its history as a state, the SADR has had two presidents. Mohamed Abdelaziz served as president from 1976 until his death in 2016. Following a mourning period, 2,000 delegates representing Sahrawi civil society and the Popular Congresses of individual camps, elected Brahim Ghali, a founding member of the Polisario and the ex-Minister of Defence.


    4.2 Funding of the Polisario

    4.2.1 Financial Capital

    Working alongside UN humanitarian agencies, Algeria is the principal financial backer of Polisario. This often comes in the form of development of road infrastructure, the provision of electrical power, health and education facilities, and bilateral assistance to refugee authorities [source].

    It is also worth mentioning that de-classified CIA reports identify Libya as financial backer and source of military armaments [source], [source]. In the same vein, Iranian-backed proxies (Hezbollah and the IRGC) purportedly provide military collaboration, training, and funding to Polisario networks. Of equal note, Spain provides large amounts of aid to the Sahrawi camps. According to a recent report, working through the World Food Programme (WFP), Spain gave Sahrawi refugees nearly ten million euros in 2014 and 2015 [source].

    Additionally, the Polisario Front raises a small portion of economic capital on its own through fundraising efforts [see below].

    4.2.2 Social Capital

    The Polisario Front also accumulates social capital by channeling its message through popular culture. For example, well-known actors and directors routinely take part in the annual Sahara International Film Festival (FiSahara) held in the Sahrawi camps [source]. To illustrate, in 2011, Javier Bardem spoke on behalf of the Sahrawi at the United Nations [source].

    In addition, the SADR’s Secretary of State for Sport hosts an annual marathon with an international audience [source]. The race itself is a week-long event with the following itinerary:

    • A tour around the Sahrawi camps
    • Runners visit a school, dispensary, and the Sahrawi History Museum
    • Attendance to a celebration of the anniversary of the Sahrawi Republic


    Further, the Polisario also accumulates capital through social media platforms. An excess of ten official Facebook pages are dedicated to the Sahrawi, their culture, or their cause. Some include:

    • Sahrawi Spirit
    • Free Western Sahara
    • Friends of Western Sahara
    • Sahrawi Civil Society Project

    There are also at least seven official Twitter accounts that address the Sahrawi issue, including:

    • @Saharawi, an account started by the founder and president of the Saharawi Women’s Association in Europe
    • @Novaws2016, an account dedicated to non-violent action in Western Sahara

    The significance of Polisario’s social capital lies in their ability to capitalise on popular culture. Their ability to host events with a wide international remit to raise awareness for their cause bears testament to a shrewdly directed campaign with which to garner support of those who would not otherwise know of the Sahrawi.

    4.3 Recruitment

    In 2000, a Polisario representative reported that the movement does not actively seek recruitment of Young Sahraouis. Rather, young Sahraouis usually seek the Polisario and join of their own free will [source].

    However, several international observers have criticised the Polisario Front for its recruitment of child soldiers [source]. Morocco similarly reported to the Committee on the Rights of the Child that over 1,000 children were sent for military training to Cuba or recruited in the Polisario camps [source].

    Algeria and the Polisario leadership have previously undertaken a programme of indoctrination of the Saharan refugees in Algeria. Refugees underwent political and military training aimed at preparing them to return to an independent Saharan state. They also teach an Islamic-based mixture of Marxism and pan-Arabism [source], [source].

    4.4 Equipment

    Polisario Front soldiers have used a variety of weapons over the past decades. Polisario equipment shifted from simple rifles to capable air defence systems. Initially, Polisario’s military armaments were drawn from captured Moroccan weapons. Eventually, Algeria and Libya supplied a variety of Soviet-era weaponry.

    4.4.1 Weapons

    Weapons in the Polisario inventory, for the most part of Soviet origin, include:

    • Small arms
    •  Land mines
    •  Grenade launchers
    •  Portable surface-to-air missiles.

    Towed artillery

    • 122mm (D-30) howitzer A18 

    Multiple rocket launchers

    • 107mm Type-63  
    • 122mm 9P132 Grad-P 
    • 122mm BM-21 Grad 
    • 122mm BM-11
    • 122mm RM-70 


    • 120mm M-43 
    • 160mm M-160 

    Anti-tank guided missiles

    • 9M14 Malyutka 
    • 9M111 Fagot

    Man-Portable Air Defence systems

    • 9K32 Strela-2 ”SA-7” 

    (Self-propelled) anti-aircraft guns

    • 14.5mm ZPU-2 
    • 14.5mm ZPU-4 
    • 23mm ZU-23 
    • 23mm ZSU-23-4 ‘Shilka’ 

    Surface-to-air missile systems

    • 9K31 Strela-1 ”SA-9” 
    • 9K33 Osa ”SA-8” 
    • 2K12 Kub ”SA-6” 


    • 1S91 SURN (for 2K12 Kub) 
    • P-12 ”Spoon Rest C” 
    • PRV-16 “Thin Skin B”

    4.4.2 Vehicles


    •  T-55A
    •  T-62 Obr. 1972

    Armoured fighting vehicles

    • EE-9
    • BRDM-2

    Infantry fighting vehicles

    • BMP-1

    Armoured personnel carriers

    • BTR-60PB

    [Source], [source]. 

    5.0 Tactical-Operational Information

    5.1 Polisario’s Core Purpose

    The ICJ’s decision reinforcing the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination is the well-spring from which the Polisario Front gets most of its internationally sourced symbolic capital. Their core purpose thus seek to instate Western Sahara’s sovereignty.

    The existence of SADR is equally a testament to Polisario’s desire for political mobilisation and shrewdly directed campaign – the intent of which is to garner international support for a legitimate cause.

    5.2 Tactics

    The Polisario’s strategy is to carry out a war of attrition, in which they will slowly exhaust Morocco’s resources:

    • Hit-and-run raids by small, motorised units
    • Since gaining the initiative in most of Western Sahara outside of the Moroccan defensive barrier, the Polisario has used heavier weapons deployed to fixed camps.
    • Use of child soldiers, unlawful detention of Moroccan prisoners of war, and the administration of camps.

    5.3 Personnel Size

    Estimates of Polisario combatants and support personnel average anywhere between 8,000-10,000 combatants and support personnel. The group has grown over time. For instance, a CIA report in 1979 estimated that Polisario forces numbered between 3,000-5,000 [source].

    6.0 The Future of Polisario

    Ever since the ceasefire in 1991, reprieve is yet to be found. Morocco’s stance is clear: it will only accept clear autonomy under the auspices of Moroccan sovereignty. As one might anticipate, functional autonomy is a prospect that the Polisario will refuse to entertain.

    In the continuation of the Israel-Hamas conflict, we anticipate that Polisario operations will increase with Iranian-backed proxies at the helm. Despite Iran’s plausible deniability, we expect that a tangible relationship between Polisario militants and Iranian proxies will gradually materialise.

    7.0 Conclusion: An Endless Battle for Polisario?

    The Polisario Front has fought for nearly half a century but has refused to surrender. By contrast, Morocco’s violations of international law and failure to recognise Sahrawi’s rights to self-determination have only prolonged the conflict. Viewed thus, Western Sahara will likely remain a flash-point but, like so many areas of geopolitical concern in Africa, one that is likely to excite little more than local interest.

    Alex Purcell
    Alex Purcell
    Alex is a Junior Intelligence Analyst, specialising in West Africa and the Sahel. She holds a BA in International Politics with French from the University of London Institute in Paris. She is currently pursuing an MA in International Affairs, specialising in Espionage and Surveillance at King's College London. Her research interests include African security affairs, the Middle East, and (military) defence intelligence.

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