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Al-Qaeda in the Sahel
Jeremy Keenan explains how a Saharan front in the 'global war on terror' was fabricated.
Last Modified: 29 Aug 2010 15:30 GMT
A Saharan front in the 'global war on terror' was planned between the US and the Algerian government in 2002 and launched in 2003 [GALLO/GETTY]

In November 2009, Richard Barrett of the UN's al-Qaeda-Taliban monitoring team said that while attacks by al-Qaeda and its operatives were decreasing in many parts of the world, the situation was worsening in North Africa. He was referring specifically to the Sahel region of southern Algeria, Niger, Mali and Mauritania.

While the UN statement fits the catastrophic image being portrayed of the Sahara-Sahel region by the US, European and other Western interests, the truth is not only very different, but even more serious in that both the launch of the Saharan-Sahelian front in the 'global war on terror' (GWOT) and the subsequent establishment of al-Qaeda in the region have been fabricated.

These two deceptions have one key feature in common, namely that they were both implemented by Algeria's secret military intelligence service, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), with the knowledge and complicity of the US.

I will explain each in turn.

Militarising Africa

A Saharan front in the GWOT was planned by the US and Algeria in 2002 and launched in early 2003.

The pivotal incident that justified the launch of the new front was the abduction in February-March 2003 of 32 tourists in the Algerian Sahara, ostensibly by Islamic extremists of Algeria's Groupe Salafiste pour le Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) under the leadership of Amari Saifi (aka El Para). However, it transpired that El Para was an agent of Algeria's DRS and his false flag operation had been undertaken with the complicity of the US department of defence.

The idea of creating false flag incidents to justify military intervention is not new in US history. In 1962, for example, the US joint chiefs of staff drew up and approved plans, codenamed Operation Northwoods, that called for CIA and other operatives to commit acts of terrorism on innocent civilians in US cities and elsewhere, thus giving the appearance of a Communist Cuban terror campaign in Miami, other Florida cities and even Washington that would create public support for a war against Fidel Castro's Cuba. The plan was ultimately rejected by President Kennedy.

Forty years later, in the summer of 2002, a very similar plan was presented to Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, by his Defence Science Board (DSB). The Defence Science Board recommended the creation of a 'Proactive, Preemptive Operations Group (P2OG)', a covert organisation that would carry out secret missions to "stimulate reactions" among terrorist groups by provoking them into undertaking violent acts that would expose them to "counterattack" by US forces, along with other operations which, through the US military penetration of terrorist groups and the recruitment of local peoples, would dupe them into conducting "combat operations, or even terrorist activities". The first 'pilot' test of the P2OG was El Para's operation in Algeria.

I explained how and why this complex relationship between the US and Algerian security services developed in my book, The Dark Sahara. But to explain it in a nutshell: for the US, the presence of terrorism, fabricated or real, in the Sahara-Sahel region would legitimise the launch of a new front in the GWOT in Africa. This, in turn, and as explained subsequently by numerous US government officials, would justify the 'militarisation' of Africa (seen in the authorisation of AFRICOM in 2006 and its establishment in 2008) and the securement for the US of African oil resources.

For Algeria, its new relationship with the US would hopefully enable the procurement of modern high-tech military equipment for Algeria's run-down military and a return from pariah status (after its Dirty War of the 1990s) to international acceptability as Washington's key ally in the GWOT.

The Saharan front

Within two months of El Para's hostage-takings, the US' top military commander in Europe (with responsibility for Africa), General James Jones spoke of "large ungoverned areas across Africa that are clearly the new routes of narco trafficking, terrorist training and hotbeds of instability".

Even before the hostages had been released, the administration of George Bush had designated the Sahara as a new front in the GWOT. Bush referred to El Para as 'bin Laden's man in the Sahel', while Jones' deputy commander described the Sahara as a "swamp of terror", a "terrorist infestation", which "we need to drain". The US military even produced a series of maps designating the Sahara-Sahel as a 'Terror Zone'.

In January 2004, Bush's Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI) saw US troops, special forces and 'contractors' being deployed into Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad. In 2005, the PSI was expanded through the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) to include Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, thus linking two of Africa's main oil and gas-producing regions, Algeria and Nigeria, into a military security arrangement whose architecture was American.

With no 'real' terrorism in the region, the US, through the region's repressive regimes, sought to provoke what it called 'putative terrorists'. Algerian police, acting as agents provocateurs, provoked riots in the city of Tamanrasset; in Niger, a trumped up murder charge against a Tuareg minister was designed to trigger a Tuareg rebellion, while in May 2006, the DRS, accompanied by some 100 US special forces, flown covertly from Stuttgart to Tamanrasset, crossed into northern Mali to support a short-lived Tuareg rebellion.

Increasing political instability and insecurity, generated primarily by this fabricated front in the GWOT, the increasing repression of US-backed regimes and the associated damage to local economies and livelihoods, led to the outbreak of Tuareg rebellions in Niger in February 2007 and in Mali a few months later.

The problem for the US was that the Tuareg rebellions were proof that political unrest in the Sahel, contrary to Washington's disinformation, had nothing to do with Islamic extremism, but was the outcome of the US' own duplicitous policy in the region - what Americans call 'blow-back'.

All in a name

Hostage-taking has been used to justify launching the Saharan front [AFP/SITE]

However, US embarrassment at the Tuareg rebellions was spared by the concurrent re-emergence in the region of the name 'al-Qaeda'. In January 2007, two weeks before the start of the Niger rebellion in Niger, the GSPC, which had been insignificant in the region since El Para's operation, changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

AQIM is structured into three 'components': the 'real' AQIM, AQIM cells that have been created by the DRS and AQIM cells that have been infiltrated by the DRS.

In the case of AQIM in the Sahara-Sahel, now known as al-Qaeda in the Sahel (AQIS) or the 'Sahara Emirate' ('Imarat Essahra'), it is difficult to distinguish between the latter two. Of the AQIS's alleged leaders, Abdelhamid abou Zaïd, Yahia Djouadi (and their many aliases) and Mokhtar ben Mokhtar (MBM) all have linkages to the DRS. Abdelhamid abou Zaïd is closely associated with the DRS, being El Para's 'number two' in the 2003 operation; Djouadi was also a member of El Para's team, while MBM has a more 'freelance' relationship with the DRS.

In short, the AQIS is the latest manifestation of the DRS' successful creation and infiltration of Islamic 'terrorist' groups, in much the same way that the GIA leadership was infiltrated by DRS agents Djamel Zitouni and Antar Zouabri in the 1990s. In the case of the GIA's successor, the GSPC founder Hassan Hattab now lives under the protection of the DRS.

Since 2008, 15 westerners have been taken hostage either directly by the AQIS or by local criminals, and then handed over to the AQIS. Most have finished up in the hands of Abdelhamid abou Zaïd. One of these, a Briton, was killed; three are still in captivity, while the remainder have been released, allegedly for ransom payments.

Much publicity has recently been given by Western intelligence services and the media to the assumed link between trans-Saharan trafficking of cocaine, flown into Sahel states, especially Mali, from South America, and AQIS. While a complex network does exist between the drugs traffickers and AQIS, Western intelligence services have failed to point out in their briefings, reports and 'leaks' to the media that the leaders of both AQIS and the drug trafficking operations are either agents of or closely linked to the highest levels of state security in the countries concerned, namely Algeria's DRS and Mali's state security.

American, British and other Western intelligence services are all aware of the way in which the DRS has effectively constructed the AQIM/AQIS in the Sahara-Sahel, but have failed to take action against it. This is because AQIS, far from being a threat to the West, is more of an adjunct to the West's overall strategies in the region. It provides the US with further justification for AFRICOM while providing European powers, notably France whose nuclear industry is powered by the Sahel's uranium, with the justification to intervene militarily in the resource-rich corridor of the Sahel. And, of course, the 'threat' of al-Qaeda so close to Europe, provides European countries, such as the UK, Spain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, with justification for their immigration, security and 'counter-terrorism' policies.

Self-fulfilling prophecy?

The key player, however, in this duplicitous strategy is probably no longer the US, but the Algerian DRS. Since 2006, the DRS has been operating increasingly independently of its US and European counterparts. It is also dangerously riven by internal divisions, as reflected in Algeria's current political crisis.

The key focus of any further analysis should therefore be directed primarily at Algeria. Through its DRS, Algeria is now operating increasingly autonomously in presenting itself to the US and Europe as the indispensable ally of the West. This is, however, a very dangerous game.

On the one hand, the DRS, through its infiltration and control of AQIS, is maintaining a sufficient threat in the region to justify its military expansion - on behalf of both the West and its own hegemonic designs in the region. On the other hand, some elements within the Algerian regime are opposed to such a strategy and the possibility of Western intervention in the region.

At the same time, the DRS' control of the 'Sahara Emirate' is by no means absolute. As an increasing number of young Muslims in Mauritania, Mali and elsewhere look to the 'Emirate' to provide a solution to their own repressed lives, a purposeful ideology and even adventure, there is a very real threat that it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy and take on a life of its own.

While this is unlikely, the West would be better advised to question why Algeria is making so much publicity about raising troop levels in the region to the absurd figure of 75,000 by 2012. Who is the enemy they will fight? The DRS currently puts the number of named suspected terrorists (including its own agents) in the Sahel at only 108, while the less well informed CIA estimates 300 to 400.

The answer is not in the threat posed by al-Qaeda, but in the far more dangerous political crisis emerging within Algeria itself.

Jeremy Keenan is a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, and author of The Dark Sahara: America's War on Terror in Africa.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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