The White House is facing questions after a photograph surfaced of President Barack Obama smiling next to the leader of an authoritarian separatist group known for its past terrorism and what experts dubbed egregious human rights violations.
The controversial photo in question appears to capture a smiling President Obama standing next to Mohamed Abdelaziz, the leader of the Polisario Front, a Moroccan separatist group in Algeria that commits massive human rights infractions and has been cited as a "prime recruiting grounds for al Qaeda."
The picture was supposedly snapped at last week’s Nelson Mandela memorial ceremony in Johannesburg and then featured on an Arab language news website, which dubbed the encounter as "the first official meeting between the Polisario and the U.S. president."
Former U.S. officials and other foreign policy insiders expressed outrage over the photo, saying that it is embarrassing for the U.S. president to be seen smiling next to the longtime leader of a violent Marxist movement known for torturing innocents, snatching children, and working with one of the deadliest terror groups on the planet.
"I don’t blame the president; lots of people want their pictures taken with him. But where’s the quality control? What were his aides thinking?" asked Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon analyst and terrorism expert.
"The whole reason Obama travels with hundreds of people is to prevent this sort of screw up," said Rubin, who first flagged the photo in a column for Commentary magazine. "This is the African equivalent of accidentally shaking hands with the head of Hamas, Hezbollah, or any of the throwback Palestinian Marxist groups."
The Polisario Front is so controversial that lawmakers in Congress reportedly refused to meet with Abdelaziz in late June when he was in Washington, D.C.
The Polisario Front, which is outlawed in certain parts of Morocco, first emerged in the early 1970s as a rebel movement fighting for independence in the Western Sahara.
It launched terror attacks against the Moroccan government in a bid to gain independence for Sahrawi minorities, which are majority Sunni Muslim.
Considered a "terrorist organization" by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Polisario Front is most known for holding some 400 Moroccan soldiers hostage for more than 20 years and subjecting them to torture and other forms of abuse.
Polisario is also responsible for the deaths of five Americans and numerous others who were killed when it launched a successful 1988 terror attack that brought down a Western aircraft.
Polisario additionally operates multiple refugee camps, where the Sahrawi minorities that the front claims to protect are often subjected to human rights abuses.
The group, for instance, has used "slave labor, forced labor, bloodletting, just astonishing crimes of war," said Jordan Paul, executive director of the Moroccan American Center for Policy, a lobbying group that received Moroccan government funding.
"The imprisonment of people and the torture of people is beyond imagination, and the fact that they walk around and laud themselves as democratic is the height of hypocrisy," Paul said.
The Polisario Front’s crimes have been tracked and criticized by human rights groups such as Amnesty International, as well as by U.S. lawmakers and the State Department.
Abdelaziz, who has helmed the organization since 1976, has come under fire for stymying political reform within the movement and for ruling with an authoritarian hand.
Under Abdelaziz’s rule, the Polisario Front has forged a relationship with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
"If AQIM strengthened it alliance of convenience with the Polisario … a formidable terrorist organization could emerge," Middle East expert Anouar Boukhars said in a 2012 report for the Carnegie Endowment.
Recent reports further indicate that AQIM has had great success plucking new recruits from Polisario-run refugee camps along the border of Mali and Algeria.
Former U.S. officials such as Rubin said that it is surprising President Obama’s handlers allowed Abdelaziz to get so close to the president.
"No one bothered to ask who this guy sitting with foreign dignitaries was? And why a so-called dignitary would act like a campaign rally groupie?" Rubin asked. "Unfortunately, this is probably exhibit 203 in how Obama has debased his office and embarrassed the United States on the diplomatic stage."
The White House and State Department independently did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Washington Free Beacon.
A contact listed on the Polisario Front's office at the United Nations also did not respond to a request for comment about the supposed meeting.
President Obama also came under fire at the Mandela memorial for taking a "selfie" photograph with the Danish and British prime ministers.