UK in North Africa: Myths and contradictions

Has British support for the Algerian government helped prop up Muammar Gaddafi in Libya?

Has Britain’s Algeria policy contributed to the increased repression of the Algerian people? [AFP]

The British government was derided over its initial handling of the Libyan crisis: Problems associated with evacuating its nationals, the foreign secretary’s statement that he had good information that Muammar Gaddafi was on his way to Venezuela and the extraordinary SAS shenanigans near Benghazi led to Britain being the butt of ridicule.

If that were just bungling, there would be little more to it – except the jokes. But there is much more to it. Beneath this apparent ineptitude is something more serious, namely Britain’s seemingly contradictory position in North Africa.

While the UK government is vociferous in its calls to rid Libya of Gaddafi, it is also a strong backer of the Algerian regime. The contradiction is that Algeria has been doing its best to prop up Gaddafi.

The question is whether Britain’s Algeria policy has been responsible for the prolongation of the Gaddafi regime and Algeria’s increased repression of its own people. There is also the potentially serious matter of whether the UK’s Algerian policy is a threat to its own future security.

Propping up Gaddafi

Before examining the UK’s position on Algeria, let me clarify the UK-Algeria-Libya linkage. It is that Britain, alongside the US, is a key supporter of the Algerian regime, its Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS) and its counter-terrorism policy.

However, both the US and UK governments know that much of Algeria’s terrorism has been fabricated, while its counter-terrorism policy is directed as much at the creation of disinformation and the repression of its own citizens as at bona fide terrorists.

Algeria’s regime fears, with good reason, that Gaddafi’s fall could precipitate its own overthrow. It has therefore done its best to prop up Gaddafi through a number of covert operations, such as providing pilots for his warplanes and military transport planes to ferry mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa.

Its DRS has enrolled former Tunisian President Ben Ali’s private security forces (snipers etc.) onto its payroll and has sent them to Libya, while its diplomats have worked hard on Gaddafi’s behalf with the EU, NATO, UN and Arab League.

To what extent has this UK support for Algeria’s regime bolstered its confidence in thinking it can get away with supporting Gaddafi in these ways? Also, to what extent is the UK, which is calling for Gaddafi’s departure, aware that Algeria is working with the opposite intent?

I will return to these questions later. Let me first clarify the most serious of these issues, namely the UK’s relationship with Algeria.

Propagating myths

In 2006, the US put out feelers to the British government to see if it would assist in its development-security programme for the Sahel, or what members of the state department described at the time as “clearing up the mess”.

The “mess” they were referring to was the consequences of Washington’s use of fabricated terrorism to launch its Sahara-Sahel front in the global war on terror (GWOT). The key ‘false-flag’ incident was the abduction of 32 Europeans in the Algerian Sahara by ‘El Para’ in 2003.

In 2006, the British foreign and commonwealth office (FCO) was strongly advised against getting involved in Washington’s GWOT in North Africa, and especially in Algeria. The reason given to the FCO was that as the alleged terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel had been fabricated by American and Algerian intelligence services, its involvement could be damaging to its longer term interests in the region. 

The UK’s current involvement in Algeria began in 2006, but for a quite different reason. It saw Russia making big arms sales to Algeria and did not want to forgo such a lucrative market. It therefore lifted its embargo on arms sales to Algeria that had been in place since the mid-1990s.

Soon after, it became known that Algeria was considering the purchase of four new frigates. Media reports assumed that the order would go to France. However, on January 27, 2009, defence blogs in France reported that Gordon Brown, the then British prime minister, had “exchanged several letters” with Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s prime minister, and that BVT Surface Fleet (a joint venture with BAe Systems), supported by the British government, had opened negotiations with Algeria for the contract, reportedly valued at some $7bn. By late May, the UK was reported to have risen from outsider to front-runner.

On January 22, 2009, five days before news of Brown’s letters to Bouteflika, an English tourist, Edwin Dyer, was taken hostage in Mali and ‘passed up’ to Abdelhamid Abou Zaïd, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), formerly the Groupe Salafiste pour le Prédication et le Combat (GSPC).

Shortly after Dyer’s capture, the FCO was again briefed that the GWOT in the Sahara-Sahel was based on disinformation; that El Para’s 2003 operation was orchestrated by the DRS and that both El Para and Abou Zaïd, his second-in-command, were believed to be DRS agents. An FCO official replied, saying: “Our policy is based on a myth. It has been a matter of creating a myth [namely that of El Para] and then keeping it alive.”

Britain reinforced the myth. It explained that it did not negotiate with terrorists; Dyer was accordingly executed by Abou Zaïd on May 31. Dyer’s death confirmed AQIM as a dangerous terrorist organisation and justified the UK’s involvement in north-west African counter-terrorism. But, there are unanswered questions.

The alter of expediency

Did the UK confront Algeria with the information it had regarding Abou Zaïd’s links to the DRS? Was the UK wanting to help Algeria (and the US) establish the credibility of AQIM as a ‘real’ terrorist organisation in the Sahara-Sahel? Why did the FCO refuse to speak to Dyer on the phone when it had the opportunity to do so? It was not, as the FCO said, because it would have made it appear to be negotiating with terrorists as the line, according to Wikileaks, was direct between Dyer and the FCO.

Confronting the Algerians with evidence that AQIM’s leaders in the Sahara were DRS agents would have ended Britain’s hopes of winning the frigate contract (which eventually was not awarded). As for the need to establish the credibility of AQIM, Algeria and the US – and indeed all those Western countries that had bought into the El Para myth – had a serious problem with the war on terror in the Sahara in that there had been no evident act of terror by GSPC/AQIM in the Sahara-Sahel since El Para’s false-flag operation in 2003.

Worse still, in 2006, Algeria’s DRS had paid Malian Tuareg to attack an alleged GSPC trafficker to give the impression that the Tuareg had joined the US in its GWOT. Then, in November 2007, the Algerians reported that Djanet airport had been attacked by AQIM, when in fact the ‘attack’ was a demonstration against the Algerian administration by local youths. When an FCO official was briefed on what actually happened at Djanet, his response was: “Yes, it was reported in the Algerian newspapers as an AQIM attack. Therefore, it is a ‘fact’.”

Dyer’s death set such embarrassing matters aside. But, was he sacrificed on the altar of expediency?

One explanation for Dyer’s execution, attributed to an FCO official, was that Britain had arranged with AQIM for the SAS to undertake a ‘rescue’ at which money would be handed over, but had to cancel the operation at the last minute because of the unavailability of helicopters. Abou Zaïd was apparently so angry that he murdered Dyer. But, does not the SAS have its own helicopters? And would it not have been possible to use Algerian or French helicopters that were already in the region?

Dyer’s abduction justified Britain strengthening its relationship with Algeria and taking a more central counter-terrorism role in the region. Patrick Tobin, the FCO’s regional counter-terrorism security advisor, was sent to Timbuktu at the end of March 2009 and then to Algiers, where he has since worked in close association with the DRS. In the meantime, Britain’s government moved quickly to set up a joint UK-Algeria committee on counter-terrorism. Its first meeting was held in March 2010.

The then ruling Labour Party and the FCO had long ago established their credentials in support of Algeria’s repressive regime. In 1998, three cabinet ministers – Jack Straw, Geoffrey Hoon and the late Robin Cook – signed public interest immunity certificates to prevent documents written by the FCO and Whitehall’s Joint Intelligence Committee from being submitted in court. The documents, stating that British intelligence believed the Algerian government was involved in atrocities [against innocent civilians], contradicted the FCO’s publicly stated view that there was “no credible, substantive evidence to confirm allegations implicating Algerian government forces in atrocities”.

The Conservative-Liberal coalition government that came to power in May 2010 continued its predecessor’s policy towards Algeria and North African counter-terrorism. For instance, Major General Robin Searby, the UK prime minister’s adviser on counter-terrorism for North Africa, met Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Mauritania’s president, in Nouakchott, ostensibly to discuss bilateral cooperation in the fight against terrorism, the day before the disastrous July 22, 2010 Franco-Mauritanian raids on AQIM in Mali.

On November 11, 2010, Alistair Burt, the parliamentary under-secretary of state at the FCO with responsibilities for counter-terrorism, the Middle East and North Africa met with the Algerian government in Algiers. Burt described Algeria as a “key partner” in counter-terrorism and said that “London is ready to provide Algiers with military equipment required in its war on terror”.

Two weeks later, the first full-blown operational meeting of the bilateral committee on counter-terrorism was held in London. The UK delegation was headed by Simon Manley, the FCO’s director of defence and strategic threats. British officials heaped praise on Algeria’s record on terrorism. Searby described it as having great experience, being very efficient and a model for the countries of the region.

Britain made it clear that it would not only work increasingly closely with Algeria’s DRS, but that it would be providing it with material, intelligence, training and other such co-operative needs. The fact that other countries in the region have expressed concerns about Algeria’s ‘state terrorism’ and its links with AQIM seems to have escaped British attention.

Better the devil you know

Why has Britain rushed into the arms of a regime which is regarded far more circumspectly by almost all other Western states, especially when its record on ‘terrorism’ is, in fact, highly suspect?

Is it because the UK’s intelligence services are trapped in the ideological cul-de-sac of the GWOT and its Islamist and al-Qaeda ‘bogeymen’? That is why the West – the US, France, UK, Italy and others – was caught so flat-footed by the Arab uprisings.

Or, is it because the UK, like the US, has had to go along with the El Para myth as it can never admit to the truth of what the US and Algeria had done? Or, is it simply because British intelligence officers have been duped?

The answer is that the UK acquiesced to the Algerian regime in its ‘Dirty War’ of the 1990s and is evidently prepared to do so again. This is because the UK, like the US, fears what might come after. In 1992, Algeria’s generals annulled legislative elections which were on the brink of bringing to power the first ever democratically elected Islamist government. The UK still fears an Islamist government taking over in Algiers. It is thus prepared to back the ‘devil it knows’ for fear of something it imagines to be far worse.

It also fears a ‘second Pakistan’. There are some 150,000 Algerians (of all legal categories) in the UK and it would like as many as possible (especially the ‘suspects’) deported. Algeria would also like to have these ‘suspects’, including Rafik Khalifa who has been served with a life sentence in absentia, sent home.

The UK has therefore been only too willing to conclude a DWA (deportation with assurances) programme with Algeria, in spite of countless warnings from international human rights organisations that Algeria has dissembled in its DWA undertakings. The deal was signed in July 2006 when Bouteflika came to London, met the Queen and other dignitaries, and gave Tony Blair’s government “enhanced” assurances, in spite of warnings to the British government from Human Rights Watch, regarding Algeria’s known ill-treatment of detainees and returnees.

Embarrassingly for the UK, Algeria’s minister of the interior, Dahou Ould Kablia, admitted publicly on February 25, that the regime had been using secret prisons, when it had hitherto denied their existence. This admission is proof, as the UK government has been frequently advised, that Algeria had been lying about its imprisonment practices when Bouteflika gave the UK his “enhanced” assurances.

A euphemism for repression

The British government would no doubt argue that getting into bed with such an unwholesome regime is not only part of the real politik of a globalised world in the GWOT era, but an acceptable price to pay for one’s own security.

It is very debatable, however, whether the UK’s policy towards Algeria is in the interests of its own security.

The UK authorities are allowing the DRS a fairly free reign in the UK. DRS harassment of and threats against members of the Algerian community are exacerbating tensions and increasing the possibility of intra-community conflict, which could become a threat to security within the UK.

Moreover, the Algerian opposition is becoming increasingly aware of the UK’s support for the present regime. Should this regime be overthrown, a new government is unlikely to look on the UK favourably.

But there are two much bigger consequences of the UK’s Algeria policy.

First, counter-terrorism in Algeria is a euphemism for repression. The training, equipment, intelligence and whatever else the UK gives the Algerian regime in the name of counter-terrorism is merely strengthening the regime’s repressive apparatus which is used every day against its own people.

Second, such support for the regime gives it the confidence to behave and do things which it might otherwise think twice about. Knowing that it has the support of the US and UK not only gives the regime greater confidence in believing that it can get away with atrocities and repression against its own people, but it has without doubt contributed to the confidence required to give covert support to the Gaddafi regime.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, has made honourable public gestures to the Libyan opposition. However, if Gaddafi does linger on and the blood flows, he would do well to reflect on whether those in the bowels of Whitehall are really promoting policies which are in the best interests of either the UK or the peoples of North Africa. Moreover, William Hague, the British foreign minister, would do well to consider the contradiction between his own rhetoric in support of Arab revolutions and the UK’s actual policies and practices towards those same countries.

Jeremy Keenan is a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 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


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

20 Nov 2010
More from News
Most Read