The tribulations of the Tuareg

Disenfranchised and impoverished, the Tuareg now stand accused of being allied to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

jeremy keenan feature - tuareg and AQIM
Many media reports are linking the Tuareg tribesman of the Sahara to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [EPA]

Are the Tuareg tribesmen of the Sahara, as many media reports are now intimating, allied to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)?

This question has become especially pertinent since the abduction of seven employees of two French companies from their living quarters in Arlit, northern Niger, in September.

The immediate reports on the hostage taking, for which AQIM has claimed responsibility, said that the kidnappers were heard to speak Arabic and Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg. This information subsequently appeared to be contradicted by a Tuareg guard who, having himself been attacked by the assailants, said that he heard them speaking Arabic and Hausa. He made no mention of Tamashek, but his evidence seems to have been ignored on the presumption that he would be unlikely to incriminate his own people.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of media articles and broadcasts have followed the leads given by the Niger government, Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), the president of Mali, Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, and Brice Hortefeux, the French interior minister, whose statements suggested that AQIM ‘subcontracted’ the abduction to the Tuareg.

Media hot seat

The Tuareg are the indigenous population of much of the Central Sahara and Sahel.

Today, their largest concentrations are in northern Niger and northern Mali where they comprise approximately 10 per cent of the national populations, numbering around 1 million in Niger and perhaps a fraction less in Mali.

Other Tuareg populations are in southern Algeria and south west Libya, where they comprise small minorities of around 50,000 or less in each country, with perhaps 25,000 to 50,000 in Burkina Faso and a small scattering in Mauritania.

It is among these larger communities, notably northern Mali and to a lesser extent Niger, that AQIM has embedded itself.

The following points go some way to answering this question:

 Although AQIM has claimed responsibility for the Arlit abduction, we do not yet know for certain the individuals involved in the raid. Individual Tuareg may or may not have been involved.

 Although the Tuareg ‘communities’ have always denied taking part in such criminal activities, most of their leaders and spokespersons recognise that ‘black sheep’ are to be found among all peoples. Among the Tuareg, especially in Niger and Mali where the recent (2007-2009) Tuareg rebellions have stuttered to unsatisfactory and perhaps only temporary states of ‘peace’, a not inconsiderable number of young ‘ex-rebel’ fighters have turned to banditry and ‘criminality’ as a means of economic survival. Some of this ‘opportunism’ is undoubtedly associated with AQIM’s activities. Indeed, many of the young, former rebels of Niger who have taken to banditry now live in and around Tamanrasset, the capital of Algeria’s extreme south, and might therefore well presume that their banditry in northern Niger is being sanctioned by the Algerian state.

 As Nicolas Roux remarked recently in addressing this subject in People with Voices: “If a French national were involved in a terrorist organisation, no one would declare ‘The French’ to be part of such activities.”

 In a similar vein, Boutali Tchewiren, the president of the Alhak-Nakal (Right to Land) Association and former spokesman of the Niger Tuaregs’ rebel MNJ (Mouvement des Nigériens pour la justice Mouvement), responded immediately to the accusatory comments from Niamey and Paris. “Just because some of the kidnappers spoke Tamashek, the whole Tuareg community should not be accused,” he told AFP. Tchewiren also rebuked Kouchner, who said that: “Those who took these men and women could be Tuaregs working to order. They will sell them to the terrorists, who are not themselves very numerous.” “That,” Tchewiren said, “is a serious accusation. It’s too gross and ridiculous to accuse the Tuareg people in this way. The Tuareg community is not responsible for the actions of a few individuals, even if they’re members of this community.”

 Similar objections came from Mali’s Tuaregs. On September 20, two Mali MPs, Alghabasse Ag Intalla and Bajan Ag Hamatou, who are both representatives of the Tuareg community, sent a strongly written protest to the French ambassador to Mali about the way in which the Tuareg were being stigmatised. They wrote: “You know, Excellency, that there has not been a single day, since a certain time, when ‘The Tuaregs’ have not been put in the hot seat by a press article, radio or other form of communication in regard to their supposed involvement in this or that infamy perpetrated in their region.”

‘Putative terrorists’

The point of what I have to say goes far beyond the mere question of whether some Tuareg may have been implicated in the Arlit heist. It is directed to the overall situation of the Tuareg since 2003, when the Americans launched the new Saharan-Sahelian front in the so-called ‘global war on terror’ (GWOT).

It is often argued that extreme Islamist movements find their support not only among ideologues but also – through their promise of a better ‘social alternative’ – from among the socially deprived, repressed and marginalised. In the Sahara-Sahel, especially since 2003, that has been the Tuareg. Indeed, the impact of the GWOT on the Tuareg peoples has been nothing short of catastrophic.

On the above premise, and when we consider what the Tuareg have endured at the hands of Washington and their own governments during the GWOT, not to mention the exploitation of their lands by foreign mining and oil companies, we might well ask why the Tuareg, instead of condemning AQIM, are not queuing up to join it ranks.

In fact, the reality of the GWOT in the Sahara-Sahel has not been about fighting ‘terrorists’, but about how the local governments, linked into the GWOT through Washington’s Pan Sahel (PSI) and Trans-Sahara Counter-terrorism initiatives of 2004 and 2005 respectively, have been provoking the Tuareg into taking up arms so that they might be categorised as ‘terrorists’ or, as one US state department analyst argued rather quaintly in the context of the assumed link between terrorism and trafficking, ‘putative terrorists’.

What the Tuareg have had to endure in the so-called GWOT is both shocking and shameful. Let me summarise:

The kidnapping of 32 European hostages in the Algerian Sahara in 2003, under the direction of Algeria’s intelligence and security services, the DRS, brought the immediate collapse of one of the main pillars of the Tuareg economy in southern Algeria. The loss of some 10,000 tourists in southern Algeria alone, spending an estimated $750 each, meant an annual loss of approximately $7.5mn, most of which found its way into the local Tuareg community.

Many of these Tuareg, faced with penury, were forced into shadowy and sometimes even ‘criminal’ activities, such as working for the various trans-Saharan trafficking businesses, either as fuel suppliers, drivers or guides.

From 2004 onwards, the governments of Algeria, Niger, Mali and Mauritania all used the pretext of the GWOT to crack down on legitimate opposition, civil society and ‘troublesome’ ethnic minorities such as the Tuareg. Tuareg communities throughout the region were constantly being provoked by their governments into rebellious behaviour, with the purpose of demonstrating to Washington the potential threat of terrorism within the Sahara-Sahel region. The pay-off for local governments was the financial and military largesse that comes with the blessing of Washington.

‘Explosion of anger’

The US-Algerian plan to create ‘false-flag’ terrorism incidents in the Sahara-Sahel was formulated in September 2002, with the first (botched) effort at kidnapping European tourists taking place in October that year. Tuareg in the region were aware of this incident and the following month wrote to the Algerian prime minister accusing the government of ‘sabotage’. The same Tuareg, in the name of the ‘citizens of Tamanrasset’, had already written to Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the Algerian president, warning him that unless the government ceased its harassment of local people “there was likely to be an explosion of local anger, the outcome of which could not be predicted”.

In July 2005, that anger exploded into two days of rioting during which some 40 of Tamanrasset’s commercial and government buildings were set on fire. Some 150 Tuareg youths were detained, with 64 jailed and the remainder fined. When their cases eventually came to court, it was revealed that the riots had been led by the secret police, acting as agents provocateurs. One prominent local citizen expressed the views of many when he said: “Now that they [the Algerian authorities] have the Americans behind them, they have become even bigger bullies.”

In 2004, four weeks after the arrival of US PSI special forces in the Sahel, Niger’s government provoked the Tuareg into taking up arms by imprisoning a leading Tuareg politician on trumped up accusations of murder. He was released after 13 months without any charges brought against him.

In May 2006, Algeria’s DRS, accompanied by some 100 US special forces, supported and orchestrated a Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali. Four months later, the DRS, with the complicity of the US, paid the same Tuareg substantial sums of money to attack the renowned Algerian ‘outlaw’ Mokhtar ben Mokhtar in northern Mali in order to give the impression to the outside world that there really was ‘terrorism’ in the Sahara. At least five Tuareg were killed.

In early 2007, a major Tuareg uprising, again provoked by the Niger government, but with Algeria’s DRS believed to have been involved, broke out in northern Niger and lasted for almost three years. As in Mali, where an equally protracted rebellion began a few months later, a conclusive peace agreement is still awaited.


The main cause of the Niger rebellion was the Tuaregs’ demand for a share in the benefits of the exploitation and development of their region’s natural resources, notably the massive uranium mining operations being undertaken by international companies.

In Mali, the underlying cause of the rebellion was the perceived disenfranchisement and marginalisation of the Tuareg and the failure of the government to fulfill the commitments of a peace agreement ensuing from an earlier rebellion during the 1990s.

In both countries, fighting became gruesome, especially in Niger where the regime of the now deposed President Mamadou Tandja adopted the genocidal strategy of attacking and killing Tuareg civilians, especially old men, women and children. The UN failed to acknowledge written notification of Niger’s genocide, let alone act on it, while the UN secretary general’s special envoy subsequently failed abjectly to even make meaningful contact with the rebels before himself being taken hostage by AQIM. 

In February 2008, Malian forces swept through Mali’s north east region, ransacking and looting the border garrison town of Tin Zaouatene and driving the entire civilian population into the desert. Although no one was reported killed, the action provoked revenge attacks against the Malian army by Tuareg rebels and an escalation of the overall conflict.

The number of Tuareg killed in these and related incidents is not known precisely, but can be estimated at around 500.

As for their economy and livelihoods, tourism, reduced to near zero in southern Algeria after the 2003 hostage-takings, has gone the same way, but in bigger numbers, in Niger and Mali. Recently, Point Afrique, the main charter flight operator into the region, curtailed flights to Tamanrasset, Djanet and Timimoun in southern Algeria; Agades in Niger; Atar in Mauritania and Gao in Mali. Estimated tourist numbers across the region have fallen from close to 100,000 a year to almost zero, an estimated loss of perhaps $50mn to $75mn.

With the Niger army killing Tuareg livestock and AQIM’s circumscription of nomadic movement in Mali, pastoralism, along with most other commercial activities (other than banditry and drug trafficking), has also been decimated. Not surprisingly, most NGOs have also left the region.

‘Terror zone’

Two new sets of maps of the Sahara-Sahel epitomise the anger of the Tuareg towards their own governments, Washington and foreign mining and oil companies.

One, produced by the Pentagon in 2003, just after it fabricated its new Sahara-Sahelian front in the GWOT, portrays the Tuareg domain as a ‘Terror Zone’.

The second, produced by the regions’ governments, shows the same Tuareg domain as a chequer-board of mining and oil prospecting concessions licensed to hundreds of foreign oil and mining companies.

The first map reflects Washington’s self-fulfilling prophecy. The US’ original act of ‘state terrorism’ in the Sahara-Sahel, implemented by Algeria’s DRS, is finally taking on a life and momentum of its own and threatening to change the face of north west Africa for good.

The second reflects how the Tuareg are being dispossessed of their lands without a word of consultation and in contravention of a raft of international conventions and protocols relating to the rights of indigenous peoples.

Marginalised by their governments; ignored by the international community and deprived by the GWOT of their livelihoods, but still skilled fighters, the question now being asked is whether the Tuareg, especially in Mali, where the AQIM presence is greatest, will attempt to take matters into their own hands.

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.

Source: Al Jazeera