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The Sahara Emirate: Al Qaeda in the West, for the West?


TWO RELATED "TERRORIST" EVENTS OCCURRED IN THE FIRST WEEK OF OCTOBER 2010. One, on October 3, was the U.S. State Department's warning to U.S. citizens about the potential of terrorist attacks in Europe. In an advisory on its website, it added that current information suggested that al Qaeda and affiliated groups were planning attacks (Mohamed and Bohan, 2010). According to media reports, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany were singled out as the most likely targets. The second event appeared to be a response to the alarm raised by the United States. France's National Police chief, Frederic Pechenard, warned that French authorities suspected al Qaeda's North African branch, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), of plotting a bomb attack on a crowded target.

France's alarm predated the U.S. warning by some time. Whereas the U.S. alert alluded to extremists linked to Pakistan, French concerns were specifically directed to AQIM activities. In November 2009 (almost a year earlier), Richard Barrett, a former member of British intelligence and the U.N.'s highest-ranking official responsible for monitoring al Qaeda and the Taliban activities, said that although 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 to the activities of AQIM in the Sahel region of southern Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania) After AQIM claimed on July 24, 2010, to have executed a French hostage, 78-year-old Michel Germaneau, France and Mauritania issued declarations of "war against AQIM" in language reminiscent of George W. Bush's declaration of a "war on terror." Mauritania was a party to the declaration because on July 22 the two countries had launched joint military raids into the Malian Sahara, ostensibly to free Germaneau. The raids were an unmitigated disaster. No trace of Germaneau was found and six or seven members of AQIM were killed. Two days later, AQIM announced that it had executed Germaneau in retribution for the raids and the killing of its members.

France was taking the AQIM threat extremely seriously by the time the United States issued its October warning. French counterintelligence officials had already declared that terrorists tied to AQIM--and not Pakistan--were France's No. 1 security threat and that at least six AQIM-related cells had been dismantled across Europe in recent years. On September 16, four days before five French hostages were abducted in Niger, Bernard Squarcini, head of the Direction centrale du renseignement interieur (DCRI), France's counter-espionage and counterterrorism intelligence agency, warned that "the risk of a terrorist attack on French soil has never been higher."

After Barrett's warnings at the end of 2009, AQIM has been portrayed and has emerged as a serious terrorist threat, both in the lands of the Islamic Maghreb and in Europe. The U.S.-initiated security alert of October 3 highlighted Pakistan, while North Africa was the center of Europe's concerns. A brazen Washington Post headline read, "Al Qaida in North Africa Seen as Key Europe Threat." According to the article, "a potentially greater menace [than Pakistan] lies just across the Mediterranean...[in] the well-organized and financed Islamic terrorists from al Qaida's North African offshoot" (Ouali and Charlton, 2010). In the United States, Rudolph Atallah, former Director of Africa Counterterrorism in the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, and now one of thousands of self-appointed "security analysts," confirmed that "we've known [for years] that AQIM has capabilities to project outwards outside of Africa."

These two related events are particularly serious, not because of the al Qaeda threat, but because both, in slightly different ways, have been fabricated. In the case of the October 3 alert, it took precisely four days for European intelligence officials to denounce publicly the U.S. warning as being politically motivated by the Obama administration to justify its recent escalation of U.S. drone and helicopter attacks inside Pakistan (Tisdall and Norton-Taylor, 2010). Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan's High Commissioner to London, also suggested that the Obama administration was playing politics with the terror threat before November's midterm congressional elections. He claimed that President Obama was reacting to pressure to demonstrate the necessity of his Afghan war strategy and troop surge, which are unpopular with the American public. In dismissing claims of a developed, coordinated plot aimed at Britain, France, and Germany, European intelligence officials pointed the finger at the United States and specifically at the White House. "To stitch together [the terror plot claims] in a seamless narrative is nonsensical," said one well-placed official (Ibid.).

To say that AQIM in North Africa has been fabricated is not to deny the seriousness of the threat AQIM poses today in northwest Africa, and perhaps also to Europe and beyond. As this article explains, the "terrorism" fabricated by the United States in the Sahara-Sahel in 2003 to justify launching a Saharan-Sahelian front in the U.S. global war on terror (GWOT), and the subsequent "creation" in 2006 of AQIM, became, eight years after its conception in the United States in September 2002, the very dangerous Terror Zone or Corridor that the Pentagon superimposed on its maps of Africa in 2003.

The question I address is how the western half of the Sahel, an area of some 1.25 million square miles and stretching from the Chad-Niger border to the Atlantic coast and embracing Niger, Mali, southern Algeria, much of Mauritania and Burkina Faso, Morocco, and Libya, was transformed in under eight years from one of the "safest" parts of Africa into what now appears to be al Qaeda's most dangerous operating zone outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan and Yemen-Somali complexes. In short, what are the origins of AI Qaeda in the Sahel, or the Saharan Emirate, as AQIM in the Sahel is beginning to be called? How is it structured? How has it been "used" by, or perhaps even "created" to serve, Western interests? And how has the Sahel finally been transformed into Washington's self-fulfilling prophecy?

The Pentagon and the African "Zone of Terror"

The creation of AQIM in the Sahel has gone through two distinct phases: the initial implanting of terrorism into the Sahara-Sahel region, and then the creation of AQIM. The first phase began in 2002 and the second in 2006. To understand how and why the "West," or more precisely, the United States, implanted terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel, we must consider why Africa, and the Sahara-Sahel in particular, assumed such importance in U.S. foreign policy in the years immediately following the events of September 11.

The growing interest of the United States in Africa, reflected in the establishment of AFRICOM as a fully unified combat command on October 1,2008, did not occur overnight. It was, as AFRICOM's website revealed at the time, "the culmination of a 10-year thought process within the Department of Defense." (2) That process began in 1997, a landmark year in contemporary U.S. history for two related reasons. First, the neoconservatives founded the "Project for the New American Century" (PNAC, 1997). Second, U.S. dependency on foreign oil reached the psychologically critical level of 50%. The threat posed to national security by the latter development was not lost on the neocons. They made it an election issue in 2000, with George W. Bush pledging to make energy security a top priority.

Upon taking office, one of the new president's first executive decisions was to establish a National Energy Policy Development (NEPD) Group under the chairmanship of Vice President Dick Cheney. The "Cheney Report" was published in May 2001 (National Energy Policy Group, 2001). Its findings were stark: between 1991 and 2000, Americans had used 17% more energy than in the previous decade, while domestic energy production had risen by only 2.3%. It projected that U.S. energy consumption by 2020 would increase by about 32%, with oil's share remaining at around 40%, more than a quarter of the world's total consumption (Keenan, 2009a: 116-131). With Saudi Arabian oil output appearing to have reached a plateau and possibly even begun to decline, along with the security risk posed by dependency on oil from the Gulf region, the Cheney Report singled out sub-Saharan Africa as the key source of future U.S. oil supplies. It forecast that by 2015, 25% of U.S. imported oil would come from the Gulf of Guinea. Subsequent forecasts put this figure at 35%. (3)

Though the crisis engendered by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States may have diverted public concern and attention away from the Cheney Report, neither Congress nor the Pentagon, which was now effectively driving U.S. foreign policy, had relegated it to the archives. In January 2002, Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives' Africa subcommittee, called for African oil to "be treated as a priority for U.S. national security post 9/11" (Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, 2002). In April, Michael Westphal (2002), the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, stressed that "Africa matters to the United States," pointing out that it was already supplying 14% of U.S. oil imports and had the potential to increase that amount substantially over the next decade. In June, Walter Kansteiner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, told a Nigerian audience that "African oil is of strategic national interest to us" and that "it will increase and become very important as we go forward" (Akosah-Sarpong, 2002: 10). (4) At a Washington conference on U.S. National Security Interests in April 2004, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Charles Snyder commented: "It used to be a kind of cruel joke twenty years ago when some of us tried to pretend Africa might rise to the level of a strategic interest, but thanks to the oil deposits we're finding every day in and near Africa, 1 can say with a straight face 30 per cent of our oil will come from there, and I promise you it is a strategic interest" (Snyder, 2004).

September 11 was the PNAC's "second Pearl Harbor." It presented the neocons, who now effectively controlled the Pentagon under the hierarchy of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith, and many of the other high reaches of the Bush administration, with the opportunity they sought. Launching a global war on terror provided the ideological means to militarize regions such as Africa in pursuit of U.S. imperial interests. Indeed, the Bush administration had already defined African oil as a "strategic national interest" and thus a resource that the United States might choose to control through military force (Volman, 2003). Thus, rather than acknowledge that U.S. military intervention in Africa was about controlling resources, the Bush administration used the GWOT to justify its militarization of Africa and secure access to, and control over, its oil. (5) However, launching that war in Africa was tricky, since most of the continent, especially sub-Saharan Africa, had hitherto scarcely suffered the atrocities of terrorism. The main terrorist incidents had been concentrated in Somalia, East Africa, and the Maghreb, far from the oil-rich West African countries surrounding the Gulf of Guinea. (6)

As detailed extensively elsewhere (Keenan, 2009a, 2011), the U.S. administration and its key ally, Algeria, overcame that problem by fabricating a terrorist threat. The U.S. colluded with Algeria's secret military service, the Departement du renseignement et de la securite(DRS), in the abduction of 32 European tourists in the Algerian Sahara in February and March 2003. The "official" story is that the tourists were captured and held hostage by Islamic extremists belonging to the Groupe salafiste pour le predication et le combat (GSPC). The truth is that the leader of the "terrorists," whose nom de guerre was El Para, (7) was a DRS agent. Through this and subsequent fabricated incidents in the northern Sahel regions of Mall, Niger, and Chad during 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration justified launching a Sahara-Sahelian front, or "second front," in the GWOT in Africa. (8)

The idea of creating false flag incidents to justify military intervention is not new in U.S. history. In 1962, for example, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up and approved plans, codenamed Operation Northwoods, that called for CIA and other operatives to commit terrorist acts against innocent civilians in U.S. cities and elsewhere. The aim was to create the appearance of a Communist Cuban terror campaign in Miami, other Florida cities, and even in Washington, D.C., to create public support for a war against Fidel Castro's Cuba (Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1962). (9) President Kennedy ultimately rejected the plan. Forty years later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld received a similar plan from his Defense Science Board (DSB, see Isenberg, 2002). Excerpts of the DSB's "Summer Study on Special Operations and Joint Forces in Support of Countering Terrorism" were published on August 16, 2002, with Pamela Hess (2002), William Arkin (2002), and David Isenberg (2002) (among others) publishing further details and analysis of the plan. The DSB recommended the creation of a "Proactive, Preemptive Operations Group (P2OG)," a covert organization that would carry out secret missions to "stimulate reactions" from terrorist groups by provoking them into undertaking violent acts that would expose them to "counterattack" by U.S. forces. Its other operations included U.S. military penetration of terrorist groups and the recruitment of local peoples, who were duped into conducting "combat operations, or even terrorist activities" (Floyd, 2002; Ahmed, 2009).

The P2OG Program raises huge questions about all terrorist actions since 2002, such as the Madrid and London bombings in March 2004 and July 2005, respectively, as well as the GWOT's Sahara-Sahel front. (10) In his investigation of such operations, Nafeez Ahmed (2009) cites U.S. investigative journalist Seymour Hersh (2005), who was told by a Pentagon advisor that the Algerian [El Para] operation was a pilot for the new Pentagon covert P2OG program. The timing of the developments between Washington and the Algerian Sahara is significant. The P2OG program "leak" came two weeks after Marion E. (Spike) Bowman (2002), Deputy General Counsel for the FBI, presented crucial evidence to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence regarding proposed amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Until Bowman's evidence, the American intelligence community had concerns about working too closely with their Algerian counterparts for fear that they would pass sensitive information to Palestinian organizations. However, Bowman's presentation on the background and nature of what the FBI called the "International Jihad Movement" dispelled many anxieties about collaborating with the Algerians by showing how close Algeria was to the United States in its fight against al Qaeda and terrorism.

The first attempt to fabricate terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel region was not El Para's 2003 operation, but an attempt by alleged Islamists to hijack and abduct four Swiss tourists on October 18, 2002, near Arak in southern Algeria. The operation was botched and the tourists escaped (Keenan, 2009a: 172-174). In the light of the very close "post-Bowman" relationship between U.S. and Algerian intelligence services, it is inconceivable that the United States was unaware of the Arak operation. Indeed, two officials from the State Department's Counterterrorism Office, (11) AF DAS Robert Perry and S/CT Deputy Coordinator Stephanie Kinney, were simultaneously briefing the governments of Mall, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania on the Bush administration's planned counterterrorist Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI). (12)

Before the early 2003 abduction of tourists, there had been no terrorism in the conventional meaning of the term (13) anywhere in this part of the Sahara-Sahel region. However, by May, with the 32 European hostages making global news headlines, EUCOM's commander, General James (Jim) Jones (14) was speaking of "large ungoverned areas across Africa that are clearly the new routes of narcotrafticking, terrorist training and hotbeds of instability." (15) Even before the hostages had been released, the Bush administration, in line with General Jones' remarks, 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 EUCOM's deputy commander, General Wald, described the Sahara as a "Swamp of Terror," a "terrorist infestation," that "we need to drain" (Powell, 2004). More than anything else, these abductions-effectively an act of state terrorism--enabled the Americans to launch this new, fabricated Saharan-Sahelian front in the GWOT. This created and underpinned the ideological conditions for Washington's militarization of major parts of Africa that were of strategic importance to it. (16)

President Bush's PSI rolled into action on January 10, 2004, when a U.S. "anti-terror team" of 500 U.S. troops disembarked in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of State Pamela Bridgewater, in Nouakchott to oversee what locals called the "American invasion," confirmed that these troops would work in Mauritania and Mali, while 400 U.S. Rangers would be deployed into the Chad-Niger border regions the following week, along with employees of Los Angeles-based Pacific Architects and Engineers, a private military firm.

The United States portrayed Africa's new terrorist threat as having spread across the wastelands of the Sahel, from Mauritania in the west, through the little known desert lands of Mali, Niger, and southern Algeria, to the Tibesti Mountains of Chad, and beyond them the Sudan, Somalia, and even to the "Talibanized" lands of distant Afghanistan. Shortly after El Para's alleged escapades across the Sahel, Western intelligence and diplomatic sources claimed to be finding the fingerprints of this newly fabricated terrorist threat everywhere. Only a few days after the Madrid train bombings (March 11,2004), Western intelligence-security services falsely linked that atrocity to al Qaeda groups lurking deep in the Sahara and issued warnings that al Qaeda bases hidden in the world's largest desert might launch terrorist attacks on Europe (Colonel Victor Nelson,cited by Fisher-Thompson, 2004; General Charles Wald,cited by Miles, 2004). In 2005, the United States expanded the PSI into the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI), raising the number of countries involved from four (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad) to nine with the inclusion of Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. This enabled Washington to link two of Africa's main oil- and gas-producing countries, Algeria and Nigeria, along with seven neighboring Saharan-Sahelian states, into a military-security arrangement whose architecture was American.

Phase 2: Fabricating "Terrorism" to the Creation of AQIM

The opening of a "Sahara-Sahelian" front in the GWOT played a key role in enabling the United States to justify and legitimize its growing presence in Africa, especially in the establishment of AFRICOM in 2008. But by 2006, the United States and its allies, notably Algeria, began to face a problem. In spite of the interminable barrage of propaganda and disinformation about "terrorism" in the Sahara-Sahel issuing from U.S.-Algerian sources, the notion of a global war on terror had not gained much traction within the Sahara-Sahel region. This was primarily because the local populations, mostly Tuareg, knew that there was no "real" terrorism in the area and had always suspected their governments, especially Algeria, of being involved in the El Para "affair." Second, every government in the region, without exception, had used anti-terror justifications to crack down on all forms of legitimate political opposition, civil society organizations, ethnic minorities, etc. Most of the region's population understood this strategy and rarely fell for the bait. (17)

In early 2006 in Mali, an opportunity arose that allowed the United States and Algeria to revamp the GWOT in the Sahara-Sahel, leading to the rebranding of the GSPC as AQIM (Keenan, 2011). Libya's Moammar Khadafy viewed renewed discontent amongst Mali's Tuareg in early 2006 as an opportunity to expand Libyan influence into that country. He opened a consulate in Kidal, the administrative center of Mali's northern Tuareg region, with the promise of massive financial aid. This was anathema to Algeria, which considered Kidal to be within its sphere of influence. Fully apprised of this situation, the Algerians and Americans believed a Tuareg "rebellion" could achieve their respective goals. Blaming it on Libya would discredit that country and drive it from the area, and Washington could use a rebellion to revamp its war on terror in the region.

Anticipating this opportunity, on February 15 and 16 three U.S. transporters airlifted some 100 U.S. Special Forces, their dogs, and communications equipment from what is now AFRICOM's headquarters at Stuttgart to the new, Halliburtonbuilt base at Tamanrasset in southern Algeria. Both the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Ambassador to Algeria are adamant that the Pentagon did not inform them about this covert operation (Keenan, 2011).

The trigger for their incursion into Mali came on April 10. The occasion was Khadafy's address to the mawlid ceremony (18) in Timbuktu, in which he launched his idea for a "Greater Saharan" state. He envisaged a day when the Tuareg of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and Algeria would form a federation with Libya as its base.

Taken to its logical conclusion, such a "state" would necessitate the breakaway of much of northern Mall and northern Niger, part of Mauritania, and a large piece of southern Algeria. For Algeria, Khadafy's provocative speech was a red rag to a bull.

Together with its U.S. ally, Algerian military intelligence (the DRS) brokered a deal with the local Tuareg political leader, Iyad ag Aghaly, to support a Tuareg rebellion. In exchange, the Tuareg would help in the GWOT. The precise words of the deal were: "We [Algeria] are ready to help you achieve what you want, but on the condition that you help us fight the GSPC in the Tuareg Malian Sahara" (Keenan, 2011).

The U.S. Special Forces from Tamanrasset, along with their Algerian allies, crossed into Mali to back the Tuareg rebels, who, at dawn on May 23, raced into Kidal and Menaka in four-wheel drives and trucks mounted with machine guns. After looting the armories, killing two soldiers, and taking 20 hostages, the rebels withdrew to their bases in the Tigharghar Mountains between Kidal and the Algerian border. Algeria took responsibility for quartering the rebels in Tigharghar and managing on their behalf the long drawn-out peace talks. A number of U.S. Special Forces remained in the area.

Algeria achieved its immediate objective of discrediting and ousting Khadafy from the region. Once the dust had settled, it was payback time. In September, the Algerians, working in concert with the Americans, called in their favor. Algeria instructed and paid Iyad ag Aghaly a considerable sum of money to organize an attack on an alleged GSPC "terrorist" in northern Mali.

There were two engagements. In September, having been given coordinates by the Algerians, the Tuareg attacked an alleged band of GSPC (19) near the Mali-Algerian border, with an inconclusive outcome. One month later, a "reprisal" attack against Tuareg at Araouane, near Timbuktu, resulted in five Tuareg being killed, two wounded, and two taken hostage. The international media, prompted and facilitated by the Americans, gave the two incidents huge coverage, with the Americans saying that Iyad ag Aghaly's "Democratic Alliance for Change," as the May 23 rebel movement called itself, had actively thrown itself into the GWOT. The Alliance spokesman told Reuters that "Our Democratic Alliance handles security in the region and we chase out those who are not from there, that's the position we've taken to control the zone." This was the language Washington wanted to hear: its global war on terror was now firmly embedded in the Sahara with the Tuareg tribes, as the Americans called them, on the right side.

The two skirmishes laid the basis for much of the U.S.-Algerian propaganda that has surrounded the post-2006 establishment of AQIM in the Sahel. At the time of these incidents, many Tuareg who were unaware of the deal between the DRS and Iyad ag Aghaly told me that the Araouane attack had been undertaken by GSPC repentis (repentants). These were GSPC "terrorists" who had accepted the Algerian government's amnesty. In early 2006, Tuareg in southern Algeria came across several (20) such repentis in the Mali and Niger border regions and believed they had been sent into Algeria's extreme south by the DRS to "cause trouble." With repentis in place and the deal between Mall's Tuareg and the DRS accomplished, the remaining step was to rebrand the hitherto insignificant GSPC as part of the al Qaeda franchise.

The Structure and Organization of AQIM in the Sahara-Sahel

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is, in effect, the Algerian GSPC under a new name. The name change was planned during 2006, probably in conjunction with the contrived "Tuareg-GSPC" clashes. It was formally announced in January 2007, with fanfare in the U.S., Algerian, and other Western media. Three "components" characterize AQIM's structure: the "real" AQIM, AQIM katibat (brigades) created by the DRS, and AQIM katibat infiltrated by the DRS. The "real" AQIM, which is active around Algiers, its immediate hinterland, and the Kabylie region to the east of the capital, is frequently quoted by the Algerian security forces as numbering around 600. It is generally believed that the DRS has infiltrated most of the katibat to some degree.

AQIM in the Sahara-Sahel differs greatly from that in the north, being a hybrid of katibat that the DRS created and infiltrated. AQIM's two main emirs in the Sahel are Abdelhamid abou Zaid and Yahia Djouadi. Both have several aliases and are associated with the DRS, making them effectively "DRS agents." Abdelhamid, for example, was El Para's main "lieutenant" in the fabricated 2003 operation. He also managed the entire Malian end of that operation because of his greater familiarity with the Sahel regions. Yahia Djouadi is also believed to have been involved in the 2003 operation, although his alias at the time is uncertain. Core members of Abdelhamid's katibat appear to be "regrouped" repentis, joined by a loose collection of "Islamists" drawn mostly from Mauritania and Mall. They have attracted a few local bandits and criminals. Yahia Djouadi's group may also contain some Algerian salafistes in its core, but has probably recruited more young lslamists from within Mauritania. (21)

AQIM's strength in the Sahel is not known. Between its creation in 2006/2007 and 2008/2009, most estimates put the figure at around 200. Since then, estimates have risen to around 400, although local recruitment has almost certainly increased since the disastrous Franco-Mauritanian military raids into Mali on July 22, 2010 (Keenan, 2011).

The "Al Qaeda" Attack on Djanet Airport

After its "creation," AQIM was a "phantom," though it remained the subject of extensive U.S. and Algerian disinformation and propaganda. A reason for its inactivity in the Sahel was that from early 2007 onward, the northern parts of Niger and Mall witnessed new Tuareg rebellions that had nothing to do with Algeria's GSPC/AQIM. Lacking "real" acts of terrorism, governments in the region--all beneficiaries of Washington's Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative--referred to the Tuareg rebels as "terrorists" and "drugs traffickers," or, in the case of at least one Washington analyst, "putative terrorists" (Ibid.). Although the real strength of AQIM in the Sahara-Sahel during these years is not known, with the resumption of Western hostage-taking in 2008 estimates of AQIM's numbers doubled to nearly 400. Despite these low numbers and the nonexistence of terrorist activity during the two years following the AQIM branding, Algeria and the United States conveyed the impression to the world that this new branch of al Qaeda posed a threat to the Sahel, northwest Africa, and even Europe.

After excluding the Tuareg rebellions, the only AQIM incident in the Algeria-Niger-Mall nexus during the two years after AQIM's creation was the attack on Djanet airport on November 8, 2007. The "incident" occurred at four a.m., when, according to Algerian security sources, about 10 terrorists in three off-road vehicles fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at Djanet airport. Algerian media reports, all sourced to the security services, offered contradictory accounts of what had happened. Some said that the attackers damaged an Air Algerie plane; others stated that two helicopters and a military aircraft had been hit. In wildly conflicting accounts, the attackers were said to have escaped across the border into Niger, or had all been caught and killed in an army helicopter-based operation. A statement issued by the security forces claimed that the "terrorists" had been identified as coming from AQIM-affiliated training camps in northern Mall. Moreover, the attackers had targeted oil facilities in the region, a fact known because their training camps had been infiltrated.

These reports, issued by Algeria's security forces and widely published through U.S. and international media, were based on lies. There are no oil facilities in the Djanet region and the attackers were not "terrorists." They were Tuareg youth (mostly teenagers) from D janet. Of the myriad "security analysts" who cover the North African security situation, only my article accurately reported what happened: "that there was no terrorist attack on Djanet airport...and that Algeria had once again fabricated a terrorist incident" (Sahara Focus, 2007: 4; 2008: 1). I explained that the youths' amateurish attack was meant as a demonstration of sympathy for the Tuareg rebels in Niger and a protest against the Algerian authorities in Djanet. Of course, Western "security services," especially American, ignored the report, preferring to give maximum media coverage to how the Djanet attack showed the increased threat in the Sahara-Sahel posed by AQIM and how the organization's

rebranding as an al Qaeda franchise reflected its increasing "internationalization" and "reach." (22)

The Djanet "incident" unequivocally demonstrates how Algeria and its Western allies continued to use "fabricated," or in this case "fictitious," terrorism to advance their respective agendas. For the United States, Djanet highlighted the expansion of al Qaeda across the Sahara-Sahel, thus further justifying the need for AFRICOM. For Algeria, Djanet diverted international attention from the escalating internal unrest against Algeria's thoroughly corrupt and repressive regime, and further justified its repressive "security" policies and militarization of the extreme south.

The Resumption of Hostage Taking

Despite being completely unrelated to AQIM, the Djanet incident proved to be extremely convenient for Algeria and the West. Three months later, the local and Western media announced that AQIM had resumed taking Westerners hostage. (23) Four were taken hostage in 2008: two Austrian tourists were abducted in Tunisia in February and two Canadian U.N. diplomats were seized in Niger in December. Although attributed to AQIM, both abductions were almost certainly acts of "state terrorism."

Abdelhamid abou Zaid abducted the two Austrians, almost certainly at the behest of the DRS, whose intent was to save Algeria from potential embarrassment. Switzerland had demanded that Algeria produce El Para and allow Swiss investigators to interview him regarding the four Swiss taken hostage in 2003 (Keenan, 2009b). The investigating magistrate was suspicious of El Para and was not prepared to sign off on the case until he had questioned him. With a five-year statute of limitations, Algeria only had to keep El Para out of the way for a few more weeks. The plan was that the hostage-takers would demand El Para's release from an Algerian prison. This effectively put El Para off limits and gave Algeria a justifiable reason to defer the Swiss demand until after the imminent expiry of the statute of limitations. In the meantime, Abou Zaid took the two Austrians to Mali, a journey that, as Algerian security officials confided to me, would have been extremely difficult without DRS "protection." (24)

The two U.N. diplomats had arrived in Niger on December 11, 2008, as the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Envoy (and assistant). Their task was to assess the possibilities for a peaceful outcome to the Tuareg rebellion. Niger's president and minister of interior, both now deposed in a coup, were desperate to stop the envoy from visiting the Tuareg regions, where the government was committing acts of genocide. Evidence indicates that thugs associated with the Interior Ministry seized the diplomats and passed them to AQIM. In the case of these four hostages, and that of a Frenchman kidnapped a few months later, communications were sent to General Mohamed Mediene, head of the DRS, explaining--or perhaps warning--that, in the event of their death, detailed information on the relationship of DRS to AQIM would be released to the international media. (25)

During 2009, another 10 Westerners (26) were taken hostage, leading Richard Barrett to make his pronouncement on the increasing importance of AQIM. Barrett's statement was extraordinary in that all major Western intelligence organizations--most notably the American, British, and Canadian services, and probably the French--had received information that every hostage had finished up in the hands of emirs who were all known associates of the DRS, or were strongly suspected of such ties.

As early as the summer of 2008, indications existed that AQIM/DRS would eventually execute a hostage or undertake a major strike against "Western interests" in the region to prove that it was a "real" terrorist organization (Keenan, 2011). Such an action would allay suspicions within Western intelligence services over reports in largely academic publications that AQIM was a creation of the DRS. (27) Those within the U.S. and U.K. intelligence services who knew these reports were true were irritated, but not unduly concerned by them. In fact, the U.K.'s counterterrorism services went to extraordinary lengths to discredit them. The British hostage eventually selected for execution, Edwin Dyer, was killed by Abdelhamid abou Zaid on May 31, 2009.

From the perspective of AQIM/DRS, a British citizen was the least problematic. The U.K., in line with the United States, was supporting the Algerian regime and was therefore unwilling to confront it over its relationship with AQIM and the role that AQIM was playing in the regional context. Moreover, at the time of Dyer's capture, the U.K. was seeking arms (and other) deals with Algeria and was in the process of negotiating a $5 billion deal for four frigates (which it failed to consummate after believing it was the frontrunner).

Shortly after Dyer's murder, I wrote:

Edwin Dyer's barbaric execution is likely to achieve what the U.S. GWOT failed to achieve: the justification for securing and militarizing one of Africa's most resource-rich regions. Dyer's murder also raises uncomfortable questions about the nature of the relationship between the U.S., French, British, and Algerian intelligence and security services and whether he was sacrificed to avoid jeopardizing a lucrative arms contract and as part of a sinister and cynical manipulation of the al Qaeda franchise by wider geopolitical strategic interests (Keenan, 2009b).

"At the heart of AQIM is the DRS"

The clearest evidence of the DRS's orchestration of AQIM at the time of Dyer's death came from Lieutenant Colonel Lemana Ould Cheikh, a senior officer in Mall's state security service. He had been playing the dangerous game of double agent between Mali's State Security and AQIM. In an interview with the local media in Timbuktu after Dyer's death and just before his own assassination, he was reported as saying: "At the heart of AQIM is the DRS" (Keenan, 2011 ). Thus, when the Mall security forces detained three members of AQIM in the weeks following Dyer's death, AQIM realized it had been double-crossed. Lemana Ould Cheikh, the obvious suspect, was assassinated almost immediately in his home in Timbuktu. His death was reported as another AQIM act of terrorism.

Unanswered questions remain. Was Barrett's statement based simply on media reports that were (and still are) mostly sourced to the security services and therefore unwittingly reproduced disinformation, such as that of the Djanet incident? Was he, as the U.N.'s officer responsible for monitoring al Qaeda, fed disinformation by the intelligence services? Or, was he aware of, and thus complicit in, the fabrication and exaggeration of terrorism in the region?

Strategic Interests and the Threat of Western Intervention

By 2010, AQIM was being portrayed as an increasingly serious terrorist threat to the region and to Europe. This assessment was based on the increase in hostage takings through 2009, Dyer's murder, Barrett's considered statement and, in November, the "discovery" that the region was a focal point in the transshipment of South American cocaine being trafficked to Europe. A Boeing 727 transporting up to 10 tons of cocaine into northern Mali had failed to take off from a makeshift landing strip and had been incinerated. The drug-trafficking business, like AQIM, had linkages to the highest levels of the regional security institutions (Keenan, 2011).

By the beginning of 2010, it was evident that AQIM had established itself as a significant organization in the Sahel, especially northern Mali where it was effectively "protected" by elements within the Algerian and Malian security institutions. AQIM was clearly taking on a life of its own. It was an economic attraction for local communities impoverished by the collapse of the tourism industry and almost three years of rebellion. It recruited young Islamists from within the region, mostly from Mauritania, whose regimes had been using the GWOT as a pretext to crack down on Islamism.

Despite its growing regional activity and the security threat it posed, AQIM was still under the effective control of Algeria's DRS, Washington's proxy in the region. Even if that were untrue--as Algeria would no doubt argue--Algeria's powerful military forces could have easily wiped out AQIM with one cross-border intervention. Mali had given permission, but the measure has not been attempted despite AQIM's modest numbers. The CIA and other such sources estimate its membership at around 300 to 400, and it is predominantly located in northern Mali close to the Algerian border. What prevented the organization from being smashed between late 2009 and July 22, 2010, when it was receiving such wide publicity? What strategic interest does the existence of AQIM fulfill for Western powers, notably the United States, or for Algeria, the regional military power singularly capable of eradicating it in the Sahel?

The U.S. strategy is twofold. At one level, it gives its blessing to Algeria, its key ally in the global war on terror and its proxy power in the region. Washington knows that the Algerian regime, well proven as "eradicators" in Algeria's "Dirty War" of the 1990s, will fight Islamism and that it has the resolve and military wherewithal to do so. In exchange, and also for its own regional security interests, the United States is discretely endorsing Algeria's hegemonic designs over the western half of the Sahel, one of the world's richest mineral resource zones. Due to this U.S. support, the Moroccan media has vociferously accused the United States of appeasing Algeria (Masiky, 2010). At a second, related level, the United States seeks a modicum of "terror" in the region, particularly actions that pose a minimal threat to U.S. interests. Ideally directed at Europe, such actions provide "proof' of the "terrorist" threat to Africa, which the Pentagon and other institutions of U.S. imperial power have been articulating in grossly exaggerated form since the P2OG strategy of 2002 as the justification for Washington's militaristic policy toward the continent and the role of AFRICOM.

Algeria's strategic interests in the Sahel are threefold. The first goal is to "export" its own terrorism from northern Algeria to the Sahel. Second, since 2002 it has supported Washington's GWOT interests in the region (i.e., fabricating terrorism and promoting instability). Third, it seeks to further its own hegemonic designs over the region. Pivotal to all three have been the creation and subsequent actions of AQIM in the Sahel, which enabled Algeria to establish itself in April 2010 as the de facto head of a regional joint military command headquartered at Tamanrasset and a number of other security and intelligence institutions. The essence of these new security institutions, aside from their ineffectiveness, is that they have been established with only four members: Algeria and the three Sahel countries of Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. They are thus designed quite deliberately by Algeria to exclude its two main regional rivals, Morocco and Libya, while enabling Algeria to give the impression to the outside world that the region is capable of managing its own security problem without external intervention, especially from France.

The driving force behind Algeria's orchestration of AQIM in the Sahel has been the effort to maintain a level of terrorism sufficient for creating the insecurity and instability needed for it to fulfill its designs without precipitating external intervention. Increasingly, however, the West, notably the United States and France, has been discussing the need to intervene to rid the region of AQIM and "re-secure" the region's potentially huge mineral wealth, notably but not exclusively uranium. Further direct U.S. intervention in the region is now deemed highly unlikely for several reasons. However, due to its dependence on Niger for uranium energy resources, France could easily be tempted.

A fundamental problem for Algeria's hegemonic designs in the Sahel is the presence, albeit limited, and influence of France, the former colonial power. Weakening the influence of France, and perhaps even engineering her withdrawal, is a prerequisite for Algeria's own expansion in the region. Such an outcome is not antithetical to U.S. policy, which would welcome a diminution of French influence in the region.

With these strategic objectives in mind, the events of 2010, notably the kidnapping of two Frenchmen, Pierre Camatte and Michel Germaneau, and the French military intervention of July 22, cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of this aspect of Franco-Algerian relations. It leads, in particular, to two as yet incompletely answered questions. Did the DRS plan the abductions of Camatte and Germaneau, and was France's disastrous July 22 operation the outcome of an Algerian trap intended to entice France into the Sahel, so that it could be embarrassed, humiliated, weakened, and perhaps excluded?

The "official" account is that AQIM kidnapped both Camatte and Germaneau. According to local sources, however, before being passed up to AQIM both men were abducted by kinsmen of a former regional warlord now living in Tamanrasset (Algeria). Corrupt elements within Algeria's military and DRS facilitated this warlord's arms and other trafficking businesses in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (28) Since the abductions appear to have been managed by members of the former warlord's family, the question arises as to whether they were perpetuating the family's long association with the DRS.

France remains unwilling to admit to the truth of the July 22 events. It claims to have joined Mauritania in a raid into northwest Mali (northwest of Timbuktu) to destroy an AQIM group suspected of threatening Mauritania and to free Germaneau, who was thought to be there. The raid killed six or seven members of the group, later thought to be "traffickers." There was no trace of Germaneau. However, the action was a decoy for a second, main raid into the Tigharghar Mountains next to Tessalit in northwest Mali. Abdelhamid abou Zaid was based there and it was the probable location of Germaneau if he was alive. This raid, denied by France, but witnessed by local informants, was a disaster. There was no sign of Germaneau or Abou Zaid's men. Two days later, AQIM announced the execution of Germaneau in retaliation for the death of its members. There is still no trace of Germaneau. Evidence suggests that Algeria's DRS lured France into this disastrous and humiliating intervention. It may have provided false information on Germaneau's location and existence. Although France claims to have telephonic intercepts confirming Germaneau's execution, local sources and DRS agents in Algiers state that Germaneau died of heart failure at the beginning of July (Keenan, 2011).

Conclusion: Creating a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

After AQIM announced Germaneau's "execution," France and its proxy, Mauritania, declared "war on AQIM" using language strangely reminiscent of President George W. Bush. The "infidel's" raid into the Sahel, followed by its declaration of war against AQIM, handed AQIM its biggest recruitment boost to date and placed France on a state of more or less permanent high security.

On September 16, 2010, France's predicament deteriorated further when AQIM kidnapped seven employees (five French, one Malagasy, and one Togolese) of Areva, the French nuclear company, and its subcontractor Vinci, from the uranium mining complex at Arlit in northern Niger. Taken into Mali, AQIM held the hostages captive as of this writing (September 2010). On the same day, and seemingly by coincidence, Mauritania launched another attack against AQIM positions in Mall. However, the Malian military were led into an ambush at Ras el Ma (west of Timbuktu) and suffered comparatively heavy Josses. Both instances further boosted AQIM recruitment efforts. This surge in recruitment will almost certainly lead to changes in AQIM's internal organization. The more Islamist and jihadist elements, as distinct from the DRS, may now exercise more influence and control over its general strategy and operational activities. Bin Laden's "blessing" of AQIM via an audiotape broadcast by Al Jazeera on October 27 will surely accelerate this process of transformation.

Because of these events, France now faces a crisis that offers no immediate or obvious solutions. Military intervention, at least for the moment, is out of the question. Six weeks on, AQIM had still not stated its demands. France may therefore have to settle for a long, humiliating process of negotiation with no certain outcome. As for the Sahel, after eight years of largely fabricated and fictitious "terrorism," it has finally become Washington's self-fulfilled prophecy. The "Terror Zone" that the U.S. military marked across the Sahel region on its maps of Africa in 2003 is now a reality. By doing so, it has dramatically altered, if not ruined, the lives of most of the region's inhabitants. The only certainty is that some form of Western invention is now imminent. At its meeting in Luxembourg on October 25, 2010, the European Union's Foreign Affairs Council placed the Sahel at the top of its agenda and instructed the Commission to draw up a strategy on the region for the beginning of next year.


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(1.) Before its name change at the beginning of 2007, AQIM was the Algerian Groupe salafiste pour le predication et le combat (GSPC).

(2.) See Since then, Africa's strategic importance to the United States has undergone several reappraisals due to the United States' increased awareness of its energy crisis, the post-September 11 global war on terror, and China's rapidly growing economic investments in Africa.

(3.) In 2002, sub-Saharan Africa was already supplying 14% of U.S. oil imports; by 2006, the United States imported 22% of its oil from Africa and by 2007, the country was importing more crude oil from Africa than from the Persian Gulf (U.S. Department of Energy, 2007).

(4.) Five years later, following the announcement of A FRICOM, EUCOM commander General Bantz Craddock told journalists in Washington that when "you look at West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea, it becomes more focused because of the energy situation." Protecting energy assets "obviously [sic] is out in front" (National Intelligence Council, "External Relations and Africa," discussion paper, March 16, 2004, at, May 10, 2007). Ryan Henry, the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told journalists at a Foreign Press Center briefing in Washington on June 2007 that the new U.S. African Command "is about resources, specifically oil, specifically the oil in the Gulf of Guinea and that's what this command is about."

(5.) The main reason for Africa's strategic importance to the United Slates is oil, yet U.S. policy toward Africa cannot be reduced to, or explained solely by, America's increasingly serious energy crisis. Africa offers the United Slates much besides oil, given its dependence on Africa for raw materials such as manganese (for steel production), cobalt and chrome, both of which are vital for alloys especially in aeronautics, vanadium, metals in the platinum group, antimony, gold, fluorspar, germanium, industrial diamonds, and many other lesser-known materials, such as columbite-tantalite (coltan for short), a key component in everything from mobile phones and computer chips to stereos and VCRs (Keenan, 2009a: 127-129). Other reasons for Bush's policy toward Africa, notably the role of the "religious right" and military and intelligence "turf wars," are discussed in Keenan (2009a).

(6.) In 1993, 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in Mogadishu in an incident that some "terrorism analysts" now attribute to "Islamic terrorists." In 1998, some 200 people were killed when U.S. embassies were bombed in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. In 2002, al Qaeda "terrorists" allegedly bombed a hotel in Mombasa, and two surface-to-air missiles were fired at an Israel-bound airliner. Since the early 1990s, northern Algeria has experienced both Islamist and state terrorism and there have been incidents in Morocco (bombings in Casablanca on May 16, 2003) and Tunisia (El Ghriba synagogue, April 2002).

(7.) "El Para" refers to his time in the elite parachutist regiment. His proper name is allegedly Saifi Am[m]ari. His many aliases include El (Al) Para (Bara), Abderezak, Abou (Abu) Haidara, Ammane Abu Haidra, Abderezak Zaimeche, Abdul Razzaq, Abdul Rasak, Abdalrazak, al Ammari Al Arussi, El Ourassi, and further combinations and alternatives. He may have trained at Fort Bragg as an elite Green Beret, from 1994 to 1996.

(8.) In his State of the Union address of January 29, 2002, President Bush spoke of the expansion of the war on terror to new fronts. Since then, the terms "front" and, especially, "second front" have become almost synonymous with the attempt to globalize the war on terror. Afghanistan is usually understood to be the first front. The term "second front" has been applied at various times to most parts of the world, including Southeast Asia, Iraq, Latin America--with the election of left-wing presidents in Brazil and Ecuador and the FARC campaign in Colombia--and, after 2003, the Sahara. In the latter case, the "first" front is sometimes understood to be the Horn of Africa and East Africa. See, for example, Pyne (2002); Clays (2003).

(9.) The National Security Archive published the Northwoods document online in a more complete form on April 30, 2001: "Pentagon Proposed Pretexts for Cuba Invasion in 1962."

(10.) For example, in May 2008, George Bush was reported to have signed a secret finding that authorized and requested some $400 million in funding for terrorist groups across much of the Middle East--Afghanistan region in a covert offensive directed ultimately against the Iranian regime. Congress approved an initial outlay of 300 million [pounds sterling] with bipartisan support (Ahmed, 2009).

(11.) The Office of Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C., publicly confirmed details of Perry and Kinney's mission on November 7, 2002.

(12.) Even though the PSI forces were not officially brought into the region until January 2004, U.S. Special Forces, believed to be attached to the P2OG program, were operating covertly in the region as early as November 2002. The Slate Department explained the PSI as "a program designed to protect borders, track movement of people, combat terrorism, and enhance regional cooperation and stability. It is a slate-led effort to assist Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania in detecting and responding to suspicious movement of people and goods across and within their borders through training, equipment, and cooperation. Its goals support two U.S. national security interests in Africa: waging the war on terrorism and enhancing regional peace and security."

(13.) By "conventional," I mean that terrorism is the threatened or employed use of violence against civilian targets for political objectives.

(14.) He later became President Obama's National Security Advisor, before stepping down in October 2010.

(15.) World Tribune (May 6, 2003); New York Times (July 4, 2003). EUCOM's second-in-command, Air Force General Charles Wald, described these groups as "similar to al-Qaeda, but not as sophisticated or with the same reach, but the same objectives. They're bad people, and we need to keep an eye on that" (Ibid.).

(16.) General Jones reconceptualized U.S. military basing in Africa. Cold War-style bases containing large numbers of U.S. forces were neither militarily appropriate nor politically feasible. Jones planned a far more flexible facilitative arrangement that would enable the U.S. military to deploy quickly, as and when required, through what he called a "family of bases." These would include "forward-operating bases" (or lily pads), perhaps with an airfield nearby, that could house 3,000 to 5,000 troops, and lightly equipped "forward-operating locations," where Special Forces, Marines, or possibly an infantry rifle platoon or company could land and build up as the mission required (Schmitt, 2003).

(17.) For details of this strategy, see Keenan (2011). The main incidents in this strategy include the Niger government's attempts in 2004 to provoke the Tuareg to take up arms, the alleged "terrorist" attack on the Lemgheity garrison in northern Mauritania in 2005, and the Tamanrasset riots of 2005.

(18.) The Prophet's birthday.

(19.) The target was allegedly Mokhtar ben Mokhtar, an Algerian "smuggler" with questionable links to the GSPC/AQIM.

(20.) The precise number is not known. Tuareg described finding a few groups numbering about "two or three." The total probably does not exceed a few dozen.

(21.) A third katibat is believed to center around Mokhtar ben Mokhtar (MBM), an independent "businessman," who has waged his own war against Algeria since the late 1990s. See Keenan (2009a, 2011 ) for details of MBM and his activities. His relationship to GSPC/AQIM and the DRS can be best described as "freelance."

(22.) Responding to the Menas report, an official at the British FCO stated: "The Algerians reported that there was a terrorist attack on Djanet airport. Therefore it is a fact" (Keenan, 2011). Three years later, a DRS "journalist," Salima Tlemcani (2010), inadvertently revealed the truth and accuracy of the Menas account of events by reporting that the head of the regional government and the Tuareg supreme chief had confirmed it.

(23.) No Westerners had been taken hostage since El Para's operation in 2003.

(24.) The author was involved in negotiating their release nearly eight months later.

(25.) Details of these communications are published in Keenan (2011 ).

(26.) The nationalities were two Swiss, one German, one British, three Spanish, one French, and two Italians. In 2010, six more French, one Malagasy, and one Togolese were abducted.

(27.) Most of these reports were published by Keenan in Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) between 2003 and 2008, followed by Keenan (2009a).

(28.) President Boudiaf, chairman of the Haut Conseil d'Etat, referred to this corruption in 1992, three weeks before his assassination.

Jeremy H. Keenan *

* JEREMY H. KEENAN (e-mail: is professorial research associate in the Department of Social Anthropology and Sociology, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and author of The Dark Sahara: America's War on Terror in Africa (2009).
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Author:Keenan, Jeremy H.
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Date:Jun 22, 2010
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