|French hostage Michel Germaneau was seized in northern Niger in April [AFP]
France's raid into Mali on Thursday, July 22, in an attempt to liberate a French hostage who had been seized in northern Niger in April and held hostage by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir Abdelhamid abou Zaïd in the Tigharghar mountains of north-east Mali, close to the village of Tessalit and less than 200kms south of the Algeria border, was an unmitigated disaster.
Not only did it fail to find Michel Germaneau, but AQIM leader, Musab Abdul Wadoud (Abdul Malek Droukdel) announced two days later that Germaneau had been executed in retaliation for the six AQIM members killed in the raid.
Since receiving the first reports of the raid on July 22, it is abundantly clear that France, Mauritania and Algeria, have gone to extreme lengths to cover up what actually happened.
After France's initial silence, a series of increasingly misleading statements and media reports have given very deceptive accounts of what really happened. The 'official', sanitised or 'mauritanianised' account of the raid, as published in various news media, reads like a work of fiction.
It claims that Mauritania received notice from Western intelligence sources at the beginning of July that AQIM was planning to attack Mauritania on July 28. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Mauritania's president, consequently warned Paris that he was preparing a large 'cross-border' strike against AQIM and reportedly visited the Elysée on July 13 - the day after France received notice from AQIM that Germaneau would be executed on July 26 if its demands (which were never clearly specified) were not met.
The Mauritanians, helped by the French, claim to have discovered a hitherto unknown camp belonging to an AQIM cell in the Malian desert, 150kms from the Mauritanian border. Franco-Mauritanian sources claim that photographs indicated that Germaneau was possibly being held there. France therefore decided that some 20 to 30 of its special forces (Commandement des Opérations Spéciales - COS), including intelligence specialists, would accompany Mauritania's GSI (Groupes spéciaux d¹intervention) in an assault on the base.
The Franco-Mauritanian force allegedly departed from a base near the Mauritanian-Malian frontier and traveled by night in all-terrain vehicles to a point 10kms short of the base, from where they proceeded on foot.
The attack took place at dawn. Fighting was brief and no trace of Germaneau was found. Six AQIM 'terrorists' were killed, four took flight and some military equipment was captured. Mistaken over the hostage, the French returned to Mauritania and wrapped up the operation. The Mauritanians claim to have continued tracking AQIM until Saturday.
This 'official' account emphasises that there were no aerial operations, that Tessalit was not involved and that no intelligence assistance was provided by the Americans, as stated in other reports.
A reliable Mauritanian source subsequently informed me that the camp attacked was not an AQIM one, but only a traffickers' "bivouac" or encampment.
So, what really happened?
It is becoming increasingly evident that whatever happened has not only been embellished but served as a decoy for a far more serious and politically sensitive operation near Tessalit.
Indeed, shortly after the July 22 raid, the AFP news agency cited a "foreign military source" in Bamako as saying that the raid on a suspected al-Qaeda base (in north-west Mali) was just "a smoke screen .... Somewhere else in the vast desert, another [operation] is underway," adding that forces from other countries in the region were also taking part.
The first reports of the assault that I received were from well-placed regional sources shortly after midday on July 22. I was told there had been intense air traffic around Tessalit during the night and early morning and that Algerians, supported by French COS, had led an assault into the adjoining Tigharghar Mountains in an attempt to rescue Germaneau.
Tessalit was a small, French colonial military base. Its airport is still operational with a tarmac runway suitable for large aircraft. It has recently been used by US special forces and occasional military and private flights. I was told that gunfire was heard; that six 'terrorists' had been killed; four put to flight or wounded (one subsequently died), and that Germaneau may have been executed by his captors as the assault began.
Shortly after the assault, Spain's El Pais newspaper quoted diplomatic sources as saying that the French COS had found no sign of the hostage or of the base where he was believed to be held, which they had located with US help. A concurrent report from the Reuters news agency gave a similar account.
Subsequent information, given to me by trusted and reliable sources in Tessalit, confirmed, in complete contradistinction to the Franco-Mauritanian reports, that planes and helicopters had been active at Tessalit's airport, and that there had been no sign of any Mauritanians.
|There is reason to believe Germaneau may not have been executed as claimed by AQIM [AFP]
This information could possibly be qualified on two counts. Firstly, the statement that 'Algerians led the assault' could have meant that Algeria had provided the assault helicopters, their crews and other logistical support and not necessarily ground troops.
The first media reports in Algeria indicated that Algeria had not only provided logistical support in the form of helicopters and the facilities of the military joint command headquarters at Tamanrasset, but that Algerian helicopters and military units were in the operational area.
The Algerian daily Echorouk stated that the six 'terrorists' had been killed by aircraft (helicopter) fire. It also reported that French Radio (RFI) had confirmed that "the Algerian government participated in the military operation". In Nouakchott, security sources told the Chinese news agency Xinhua that the operation "was launched in coordination with the Tamanrasset (Algeria) anti-terrorism unit where the Mauritanian, Malian and Algeria armies are represented".
These first reports were redacted within a matter of hours, with an Algerian security source stating that "Algeria has not and will not fight terrorism outside its territory. This is a golden principle and we stick to it". It also claimed that Algeria (like Mali) was only given two days notice of the attack.
The first statement is, in fact, false (in the light of Algerian military activity in Somalia, Niger and Mali), while the second is inconceivable: France would not conduct such a politically high profile and high risk military operation within a stone's throw of Algeria's border without seeking a 'green light' from Algeria.
The second qualification concerns the time and circumstances of Germaneau's death. There is reason to believe that Germaneau may not have been executed, as claimed by AQIM, but may have died several weeks earlier. He was aged 78, frail and dependent on medicinal drugs, which had not been supplied to him, for heart illness. The last evidence that he was alive was received by the French authorities on May 14. Sources in the region believe that he may have died shortly after that time.
The only testimony of his execution has come from a local Kidal dignitary, who has been involved in previous hostage negotiations and is a thoroughly discredited source. Moreover, the very vague nature of the demands that accompanied the threat to execute Germaneau on July 26, combined with the fact that no negotiators appear to have been mobilised within Mali, as has been the pattern with previous hostage cases, must also have alerted the French authorities to question whether Germaneau was still alive.
This brings me back to the question of how France got its intelligence so disastrously wrong. It is inconceivable that France's intelligence services had not been in consultation with Algeria's secret military intelligence service, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) about the proposed raid. After all, the two services have had very close relations and we know that President Sarkozy's chief of staff, Claude Guéant, had met with General Mohamed (Toufik) Mediène, the DRS head, in Algiers on June 20.
US satellite information would have helped locate AQIM bases in Tigharghar. But information on their precise location, surrounding approaches, manning levels and the location and condition of Germaneau could only have come from the DRS.
The border area just to the north of Tigharghar is overflown daily by Algerian army helicopters, while at least two Algerian Beechcraft 1900s, equipped with surveillance and communications equipment, overfly the region on a regular basis. Moreover, there is close contact between Abdelhamid abou Zaïd's cell and the DRS, with Zaïd himself believed to be closely associated, as an agent, with the DRS.
Indeed, it is for this reason that local people, who are becoming increasingly angry at so-called al-Qaeda activity in their region, are referring increasingly to AQIM as AQIM/DRS. Indeed, the last reported words of Colonel Lamana Ould Bou of Mali's state security service, who was responsible for intelligence in northern Mali, before he was assassinated in Timbuktu on June 10, 2009 were: "At the heart of AQIM is the DRS."
Sarkozy was advised by his 'defence council' on the morning of Monday, July 19. According to my sources, the meeting was likely to have been attended by the prime minister, the ministers of the interior and foreign affairs (defence minister Hervé Morin was in Vietnam); the chief of staff and heads of the armed services; the heads or representatives of the external, interior and military intelligence services and Claude Guéant. In other words, the decision to intervene in the Sahel was not taken lightly and would certainly have involved an appreciation of the views of Algeria's DRS.
If Germaneau was already dead, as has been suggested, the DRS would certainly have known. If he was alive and being held elsewhere, they would also certainly have known. If he was alive and being held in the Tigharghar, then we have to ask who warned Zaïd of the imminent military assault, so that he and Germaneau were nowhere to be found?
What are the implications of all this? The signs are that Algeria's DRS has led Sarkozy and France into a disaster. The operation was not merely a military failure in that it failed to find, let alone free, Germaneau, but it will have massive and long-term implications for France, Algeria and the Sahel.
The initial silence and subsequent cover-up from France has therefore not been surprising. France's intelligence services are undoubtedly in a state of shock as to how they could they have miscalculated so badly, and in their own proverbial 'back-yard'.
What is even more galling for France is that its unique relationship with Algeria and the current low-level of Franco-Algerian relations are such that it is hardly in a position to remonstrate. Indeed, if it ever becomes public knowledge, especially in Algeria, that the French and Algerian militaries were cooperating in the killing of Muslims, and in a foreign country, the political consequences could be devastating. For the moment, at least, Algeria and its DRS have France over a barrel.
France's perceived behaviour as a neo-colonial 'cowboy' will severely damage its standing in the region. For Sarkozy, whose decision to opt for such a high risk strategy was clearly designed to counter the damage being done to his political standing by the Bettencourt-Woerth affair and other political indiscretions and misjudgments, there is now the danger of the operation being compared with former US president Jimmy Carter's ill-fated Iranian hostage-rescue mission of 1980, or, heaven forbid, France's hair-brained bombing and sinking of Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior in 1985.
As for the countries of the region, the incident has confirmed the inability of the Sahelian countries to destroy al-Qaeda and ensure their own security, while demonstrating that the only regional power capable of taking on that role is Algeria. Persuading the West, and more pertinently the US, that Algeria is its indispensable ally, its regional gendarme, in the 'war on terror', has been the DRS' fundamental strategy since it established AQIM in the Sahara-Sahel region in 2006.
Besides the DRS, the other victor is, of course, its partner-in-crime, AQIM. The episode has given it an immense propaganda victory that will enhance its hitherto limited appeal in the region and inject a new impetus to both its as yet low-level jihadist intentions and its ability to recruit from a suddenly expanded spectrum of angered Muslims and 'Islamists'.
Security throughout the region will undoubtedly worsen. Several of AQIM's leaders have threatened retaliation while the US state department has warned that: "As a result of perceived Western involvement in the raid, it is possible that AQIM will attempt additional retaliatory attacks against Western targets of opportunity."
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.
Jeremy Keenan's next feature will explain why French hostage Pierre Camatte was released from AQIM captivity in February; why France chose Mauritania in preference to Mali and Niger as its 'decoy partner'; and how the identities of the 'terrorists' killed in the July 22 raid may have been falsified.