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How terror came to the Sahel

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How terror came to the Sahel

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, US security mandarins made a deal with the Algerian intelligence services, as they pursued Islamists across the region, with an eye cast on Africa’s oil reserves. The scheme went horribly wrong, recounts Jeremy Keenan, and turned the Sahel from a quiet backwater into a hotbed of terror.

Thirteen years ago, the western Sahel, which stretches from the Atlantic shores of Mauritania through Mali and Niger to the Lake Chad region, was one of the safest places on earth. The biggest risks for a foreign tourist, or anyone else for that matter, might have been falling down a well, treading on a scorpion, too much sun, or not carrying enough water.

Today, few places in the world are more dangerous.

Despite the region’s safety, Donald Rumsfeld’s US Defence Department produced a series of maps at that time depicting the region as a major terrorist zone. That was because Rumsfeld probably had a good idea of what was to befall the region.

Today, while the Pentagon’s maps are a stark reminder of what has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, the US authorities’ explanations for the terrorism that came to overwhelm the region contain as much propaganda and disinformation as truth.

I will explain. In the Sahel, terrorism – in the post-9/11 sense of the term – has never been simply a matter of growing Islamist militant extremism as is generally portrayed in Western media. Wahhabi preachers, funded mostly by Saudi Arabia, have had a presence in the region, especially Mali, for decades. But although “fundamentalist”, Wahhabism condones neither violence nor terrorism.

Rather, the “terrorism” that has engulfed the region over the last few years has come from other external sources and forces.

Terrorism in the Sahel since 2003 has gone through several distinct phases or “turns”, notably in 2003, 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2013. The emergence of the Islamic State (IS), or “Daesh”, as it is known, in 2015 might be considered another, although its impact on the Sahel is still secondary to that of Al Qaeda or its local franchise, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).


The roots of terrorism in the region lie in Algeria’s civil war – the “Dirty War” of the 1990s.


Algeria’s military regime, with a “green light” from the West, annulled democratic elections in 1992 and thus prohibited the Islamist Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) from victory. The outcome was a vicious and bloody war between Islamists and the army, leaving some 200,000 dead and Algeria indelibly scarred. The essential strategy of the army, its leadership of eradicateurs, and the secret intelligence service, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), had been to infiltrate the armed Islamic groups (GIA). The result was that by the time the war began to wind down in 1999 and the army decided on Abdelaziz Bouteflika as the country’s next president, it was difficult to know who was killing who. 

The main agency in the emerging counter-terrorism and black-ops that came to characterise the post9/11 Bouteflika era, both in Algeria and most of the surrounding Maghreb and Sahel regions, was the DRS. The DRS became the real power in Algeria, a statewithin-a-state. Under its director General Mohammed “Toufik” Mediène, it wielded power through an elaborate patronage system that coopted the political and business elite, providing the DRS access to both political and business rents.

The essence of the DRS-Western intelligence relationship, which came to define the post-9/11 landscape in Northwest Africa, was that the DRS’s unique experience of both infiltrating and fighting Islamists, provided the West with experience, information and access to terrorist networks. In return, the West outfitted the DRS and the Algerian army with the new, high tech weapon systems that had been denied to them during the 1990s because of sanctions against Algeria’s military regime.

The reason for this covert US-Algerian relationship, at least initially, was to do with the US’s energy crisis. In 1998, US dependency on foreign oil supplies surpassed the psychologically critical 50% level. The Cheney Report (2001) estimated Africa would provide 25% of US oil imports by 2015. That, because of the shale oil revolution, is now part of history.

However, at that time, the US wanted to militarise Africa to secure its oil resources. To do so, it used the pretext of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). The only problem was that Africa did not have much, if any, terrorism at that time. The attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, and a Mombasa hotel in 2002, were in East Africa, far from its major oil resource regions and not enough to justify the launch of a new front in the GWOT.

The US’s need for more terrorism in Africa was provided through Washington’s post-9/11 supposed “counter-terrorism” alliance with Algeria. Instrumental in the development of this alliance was Rumsfeld’s Proactive, Preemptive Operations Group, known as P2OG, which was put into operation in late 2002. Its primary objective was to create false-flag incidents to justify military intervention.

In February 2003, 32 European tourists were kidnapped in the Algerian Sahara. It was the first act of terrorism in the region post-9/11. Like so many actions during the Dirty War of the 1990s, it was almost certainly a false-flag operation undertaken by the DRS, probably on behalf of the US. The “terrorist” leader, Abderrazak Lamari (“El Para”), was one of many DRS operatives infiltrated into Algeria’s terrorist Groupe Salafiste pour le Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) in the 1990s.

The operation provided the Bush administration with the publicity and propaganda it needed to justify the launch of a “Sahelian” or “second front” in the GWOT. January 2004 saw the deployment of some 1,000 US forces across the Sahelian states of Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad. Bush called it the Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI). Locals called it the “US invasion of Africa”. In 2005 the US expanded the PSI into the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI), involving an additional five countries.

France, the former colonial power in most of this part of Africa – Françafrique – had no option but to take a back-seat as the US military brazened its way into the region. Some commentators even spoke of the US as taking over the remains of the “French empire”. Economically weak, Paris could not provide the region with the security or economic development that it needed. Not until January 2013, as we shall see, was France to regain something of her post-colonial standing in the region.

The second phase of terrorism in the region that began in 2006 was little more than a ramping up of propaganda by the US. Since El Para’s escapade, there had been little further “terrorism”, fabricated or real, in the Sahara-Sahel region. But, with Bush wanting to establish an independent US African Military Command (AFRICOM) before the end of his presidency in 2008, he again colluded with Algeria’s DRS to highlight terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel in order to justify the need for AFRICOM.

The US and the DRS agreed to support a rebellion in northern Mali by a leading Tuareg rebel, Iyad ag Ghali, who had assisted the DRS in earlier operations, in exchange for his arranging a couple of false-flag terrorist incidents north of Timbuktu.

In a highly covert operation, three US transporters flew some 50-100 Special Forces from Stuttgart to Tamanrasset in southern Algeria. They then crossed overland into northern Mali with the DRS to support Iyad’s short-lived rebellion of 23 May 2006. The rebellion lasted all of 12 hours.

Algeria hurriedly arranged the rather dubious Algiers Accord between the rebels and the Malian government, while Iyad, now the region’s leading jihadi terrorist, was paid a substantial sum of money to arrange two highly publicised false-flag terrorist incidents. Soon after, the GSPC conveniently changed its name to AQIM. Together, these incidents provided Bush with the propaganda he needed to counter political opposition in Washington to AFRICOM, which was formally established in 2008.

The third phase of terrorism in the region began in 2008. It was characterised by two important turns, one misunderstood, the other largely unknown. 

The former involved the resumption, for the first time since 2003, of Western hostage-taking. Through 2008-2011, some 40 Westerners were taken hostage in the region, reportedly by AQIM and/or the infamous Mokhtar ben Mokhtar (Belmokhtar), reportedly in exchange for lucrative ransoms.

The first of these incidents, which involved two Austrians being kidnapped in Tunisia and taken to Mali, where they were ultimately released, was undertaken by Abdelhamid abou Zaïd (d. 2013), another DRS operative who had infiltrated the highest levels of AQIM. Their kidnap, as explained in my book, The Dying Sahara, was designed to foil a Swiss legal investigation into “El Para” and the 2003 kidnapping of four Swiss citizens. This was effectively blocked by the DRS, which insisted that no such investigation could proceed while El Para’s release was the subject of the terrorists’ central condition for the Austrians’ release.

All of the hostage-takings in this period, which turned the Sahel into a “no-go” area, were conducted by Abou Zaïd, Belmokhtar or Iyad, all DRS operatives. Having been involved in some of the hostage release negotiations, I should add that the ransoms paid were not generally as high as either the media or so-called “security analysts” have often claimed. Moreover, a large portion of the money ended up in the hands of middlemen negotiators linked to the highest levels of the Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritanian, Algerian and perhaps other governments.

The second and largely unknown “turn” in this third phase of Sahelian terrorism was the closure, around 2008-2009, of AQIM’s terrorist training camp at Tamouret (I am using a pseudonym) in southern Algeria and the move of its major operatives, such as Abou Zaïd, Abdullah al-Furathi and Belmokhtar, to the Tigharghar Mountains in northern Mali. This shifted terrorism’s centre of gravity from Algeria to the Sahel. What is not so well known is that Tamouret was not an Al Qaeda operation, but run by the DRS with the complicity of Western intelligence services, thus providing the West with the identities of possibly several thousand terrorists across Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

To understand the nature of terrorism in this region, it is crucial to appreciate the DRS’s successful infiltration of the leadership of terrorist groups. This, as Wikileaks’ publication of Hilary Clinton’s “private” emails has confirmed, is a strategy wellknown to Western intelligence agencies.

Almost all leaders of AQIM groups, at least up until the demise of the DRS after 2013, were DRS agents or operatives. These included Abou Zaïd, Belmokhtar, Yahia Djouadi (aka Djamel Okacha, Yahia Abou al Hamam), Al Furathi, Sultan ould Badi, a leader of the MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) created in 2012, and Iyad ag Ghali, the leader of Ansar al-Dine, also created in 2012.

This third phase, which began around 2008-2009 and saw the shift of terrorism’s regional centre of gravity from Algeria to the Sahel, raises the question of what happened to the Islamist militants of the 1990s. Up to 20,000 were “disappeared” by the regime or are still languishing in prisons. In the early years of the Bouteflika era, several thousands availed themselves of Bouteflika’s amnesty. By around 2008, the number of Islamist militants still active in northern Algeria was probably no more than a thousand. AQIM members in the Sahara were in the low hundreds. With the closure of Tamouret around 2008-9, most of these estimated “few hundreds” relocated to northern Mali, with a few in Mauritania. Algeria’s DRS also likely encouraged many of those who had turned themselves in – the “repentis” (repented) – to move south and join their former brethren in the Sahel.

The fourth major turn occurred in 2011. It stemmed from the West’s overthrow of the Gathafi regime in Libya. This had two major impacts. The first and most significant was that it led to the destabilisation of much of the Sahel, especially Mali, through the return of several thousand Tuareg who had gone to Libya to find employment, many in Gathafi’s security forces. Many of them worked as Gathafi’s mercenaries during the Libyan rebellion. Their return to Mali was accompanied by a considerable inflow into the Sahel of weaponry looted from Gathafi’s armouries.

Algeria, the US and other Western governments have tended to exaggerate the flow of weaponry from Libya to terrorist groups in the Sahel. While it was substantial, we now know that much of the weaponry used by terrorist groups in the Sahel since 2012 was provided by Algeria’s DRS. The General in charge of this operation was Abdelkader Aït Ouarabi, a.k.a. “General Hassan”. Hassan, who was imprisoned in late 2015, reported directly to the powerful and enigmatic DRS chief, General Mohammed “Toufik” Mediène, who was himself dismissed in late 2015.

Relations between the West and the DRS cooled considerably because of Algeria’s support for the Gathafi regime. But Algeria’s support for the 2012 Islamist insurgency in Mali was the last straw.

The Islamist insurgency that took over northern Mali in 2012 was not all that it seemed. Many of the armed Tuareg who returned from Libya in 2011 joined former Tuareg rebel elements in northern Mali and created the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), a rebel secessionist force bent on creating the state of Azawad in northern Mali.

Algeria realised that the MNLA would easily defeat Mali’s ill-led and ill-equipped military, potentially igniting simmering Tuareg unrest in southern Algeria. The DRS strategy was therefore to mobilise AQIM and create two further offshoot, Islamist jihadist groups: MUJAO and Ansar al Dine. The DRS, through General Hassan, provided them with fuel, arms and other supplies. By May 2012, this Islamist insurgency, led by Iyad ag Ghali, Abou Zaïd and Belmokhtar, had effectively sidelined the MNLA politically and militarily and taken over northern Mali for themselves.

The ensuing crisis, which threatened Mali’s integrity as a state, led to France’s military intervention in Mali in January 2013 and the beginning of the fifth and current phase of “terrorism” in the Sahel.

France’s military intervention, first through Operation Serval and then, 18 months later, through the much-enlarged force of Operation Barkhane, was to drive the Islamists out of Mali and then out of the Sahel. Serval did not destroy the Islamists: it merely scattered them to other parts of the Sahara-Sahel, notably Tunisia and Libya. Many remained entrenched in Mali from where they expanded their reach into other parts of West Africa – Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire readily come to mind.

The same is true of Operation Barkhane, whose deployment of 3,500 French troops across Niger and Chad in 2014 has coincided with the growing incursion of Boko Haram into both Niger and Chad. A note of interest about Boko Haram is that its founder, Mohamed Yusuf, was trained at Tamouret, thus raising questions about possible Western involvement in the movement’s early days and Yusuf ’s death while in police custody.

A little-known aspect of France’s intervention is that its use of military surveillance drones has forced the big trans-Saharan cocaine traffickers to adapt to the drone threat by using hundreds of smaller “mule” traffickers, carrying a few kilos at a time. Previously the traffickers shifted their cargo in large, heavily armed but highly visible convoys. This more fragmented business is now increasingly in the hands of the local jihadist groups, providing them with a new and major source of finance.

Moreover, France’s military presence is not only being seen increasingly as “neo-colonialist”, but is providing local jihadists – the fast re-orientating fighters of AQIM, Ansar al Dine, Belmokhtar’s Al-Murabitoune and their new offshoots, such as Mali’s Peul-based Macina Liberation Front (LMF) with a major ideological boost. France, with its government allies in the region, is seen as the “infidel”. Hence the recent attacks on “Western” hotels in Bamako and Ouagadougou and the Grand Bassam resort in Côte d’Ivoire.

A major question of this post-2013 phase of SahelWest African terrorism is whether Algeria’s DRS is playing a part in it, in the same way that it did up until 2013.

This is unlikely. In January 2013, “terrorists”, allegedly organised by Belmokhtar, attacked Algeria’s In Amenas gas facility. Forty foreign oil-workers were killed. Evidence suggests that the attack was a false-flag operation involving rogue elements in the DRS that went disastrously wrong. Not only was General Hassan charged with supplying the “terrorists” with arms and subsequently imprisoned, but Hilary Clinton’s emails confirm secret agreements between Belmokhtar and the Algerian government. It is also known that the leader of the attack, Mohamed Lamine Bouchneb, was a longstanding DRS operative. This has led, since mid-2013, to the dissolution of the DRS.

It is therefore unlikely that the remnants of the DRS have managed to retain much control over the terrorist groups now operating in the Sahel regions, or anywhere else for that matter. Rather, the groups now having such an impact in the region, although claiming to be members of AQIM or Murabitoune, appear, in fact, to 

So far, there is little indication that these Sahelian jihadist groups, in spite of Western propaganda, are linked operationally to Boko Haram or Somalia’s alShabaab, or even Daesh. But that could change very quickly and possibly quite soon.

Indeed, the changes since 2013, notably the dismantling of Algeria’s DRS, the French military intervention and current presence across the Sahel, almost as a replacement for the US military, which has down-shifted its presence and activity in the region, have created new social and political forces and opportunities, especially for such criminal activities as drugs, arms and people trafficking. Add to this almost incomprehensible cocktail the decline or even termination of influence or “control” of the DRS over these groups, the emergence of local warlords, based largely on criminal activities, local historical-tribalpolitical power bases and new and often disparate ideologies stemming from far-off and largely unknown and little understood poles such as Daesh, Al Qaeda, Syria, Libya and the Gulf, along with the talk of caliphates (the Saharan!?) and infidels (such as France), and it is no wonder that the region now faces a potential Frankenstein scenario.

As to what can be done to arrest this situation, the first step is to understand how the region came to be in this situation. And that, with all the ideological propaganda, black-ops and disinformation of almost 15 years of the GWOT, is not at all easy. 

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