The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) resolved in November to send troops to northern Mali to deal with rebels who seized the north of the country last January from government control. But there is a shocking, sordid back story that most people do not know or have ignored. It involves Washington and the Algerian intelligence service creating a terrorist threat in northern Mali and in the neighbouring Sahel countries to serve their own strategic interests, as Professor Jeremy Keenan reveals.
On 12 October 2012, the UN Security Council voted unanimously in favour of a French-drafted resolution asking Mali’s government to draw up plans for a military mission to re-establish control over the northern part of the country, an area of the Sahara bigger than France. Known as Azawad by local Tuareg people, northern Mali has been under the control of Islamist extremists following a Tuareg rebellion at the beginning of last year.
For several months, the international media have been referring to northern Mali as “Africa’s Afghanistan”, with calls for international military intervention becoming inexorable.
While the media have provided abundant descriptive coverage of the course of events and atrocities committed in Azawad since the outbreak in January 2012 of what was ostensibly just another Tuareg rebellion, some pretty basic questions have not been addressed.
No journalist has asked, or at least answered satisfactorily, how this latest Tuareg rebellion was hijacked, almost as soon as it started, by a few hundred Islamist extremists.
In short, the world’s media have failed to explain the situation in Azawad. That is because the real story of what has been going on there borders on the incredible, taking us deep into the murky reaches of Western intelligence and its hook-up with Algeria’s secret service.
Azawad’s current nightmare is generally explained as the unintended outcome of the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Al Gathafi. That is true in so far as his downfall precipitated the return to the Sahel (Niger and Mali) of thousands of angry, disillusioned and well-armed fighters who had gone to seek their metaphorical fortunes by serving the Gathafi regime.
But this was merely the last straw in a decade of increasing exploitation, repression, and marginalisation that has underpinned an ongoing cycle of Tuareg protest, unrest and rebellion.
In that respect, Libya was the catalyst of the Azawad rebellion, not its underlying cause. Rather, the catastrophe now being played out in Mali is the inevitable outcome of the way in which the ‘Global War On Terror’ has been inserted into the Sahara-Sahel by the US, in concert with Algerian intelligence operatives, since 2002.
Why Algeria and the US needed terrorism
When Abdelaziz Bouteflika took over as Algeria’s president in 1999, the country was faced with two major problems. One was its standing in the world. The role of the army and the DRS (the Algerian intelligence service) in a civil war sparked by the annulment of elections in 1992, which was about to be won by the Front Islamique du Salut [that war came to be known as the “Dirty War”].
The other was that the army, the core institution of the state, was lacking modern high-tech weaponry as a result of arms embargoes.
The solution to both these problems lay in Washington. During the Clinton era, relations between the US and Algeria had fallen to a particularly low level. However, with a Republican victory in the November 2000 election, Algeria’s President Bouteflika, an experienced former foreign minister, quickly made his sentiments known to the new US administration and was invited in July 2001 to a summit meeting in Washington with President George W. Bush.
Bush listened sympathetically to Bouteflika’s account of how his country had dealt with the fight against terrorists and to his request for specific military equipment that would enable his army to maintain peace, security and stability in Algeria.
At that moment, Algeria had a greater need for US support than vice-versa. But that was soon to change. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US precipitated a whole new era in US-Algerian relations.
Over the next four years, Bush and Bouteflika met six more times to develop a largely covert alliance.
My first book on the Global War On Terror in the Sahara, The Dark Sahara (Pluto 2009), described and explained the development of this extraordinary relationship. It revealed why it was that the Bush administration and the regime in Algiers both needed a “little more terrorism” in the region.
The Algerians wanted more terrorism to legitimise their need for more high-tech and up-to-date weaponry. The Bush administration, meanwhile, saw the development of such terrorism as providing the justification for launching a new Saharan front in the Global War On Terror.
Such a “second front” would legitimise America’s increased militarisation of Africa so as better to secure the continent’s natural resources, notably oil. This, in turn, was soon to lead to the creation in 2008 of a new US combat command for Africa – AFRICOM.
The first US-Algerian “false flag” terrorist operation in the Sahara-Sahel was undertaken in 2003 when a group led by an “infiltrated” DRS agent, Amari Saifi (aka Abderrazak Lamari and “El Para’), took 32 European tourists hostage in the Algerian Sahara. The Bush administration immediately branded El Para as “Osama bin Laden’s man in the Sahara”.
The US government has a long history of using false flag incidents to justify military intervention. The thinking behind the El Para operation in 2003 can actually be traced directly to a similar plan conceived by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff 40 years earlier.
In the wake of the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster – when a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles, supported by US armed forces, attempted unsuccessfully to invade Cuba and overthrow the government of Fidel Castro – the US Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up plans, codenamed ‘Operation Northwoods’, to justify a US military invasion of Cuba. The plan was presented to President John F. Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara, on 13 March 1962. Entitled “Justification for US Military Intervention in Cuba” (Top Secret), Operation Northwoods proposed launching a secret and bloody war of terrorism against the US in order to trick the American public into supporting an ill-conceived war that the Joint Chiefs of Staff intended to launch against Cuba.
It called on the CIA and other operatives to undertake a range of atrocities. As US investigative journalist, James Bamford, described it: “Innocent civilians were to be shot on American streets; boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba were to be sunk on the high seas; a wave of violent terrorism was to be launched in Washington DC, Miami and elsewhere.
“People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on Castro, thus giving Lemnitzer [chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff] and his cabal the excuse, as well as the public and international backing, they needed to launch their war against Fidel Castro’s Cuba.”
The plan was ultimately rejected by President Kennedy. Operation Northwoods remained “classified” and unknown to the American public until declassified by the National Security Archive, and revealed by Bamford in April 2001.
In 2002, a not dissimilar plan was presented to the US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld by his Defense Science Board. Excerpts from its Summer Study on Special Operations and Joint Forces in Support of Countering Terrorism were revealed on 16 August 2002, with Pamela Hess, William Arkin, and David Isenberg, amongst others, publishing further details and analysis of the plan. The plan recommended the creation of a “Proactive, Preemptive Operations Group (P2OG as it became known), a covert organisation that would carry out secret missions to ‘stimulate reactions’ among terrorist groups by provoking them into undertaking violent acts that would expose them to counter-attack” by US forces.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
My new book on the Global War On Terror in the Sahara, The Dying Sahara (Pluto 2013), will present strong evidence that the El Para operation was the first “test run” of Rumsfeld’s decision, made in 2002, to operationalise the P2OG plan.
In his recent investigation of false flag operations, Nafeez Ahmed states that the US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh was told by a Pentagon advisor that the Algerian [El Para] operation was a pilot for the new Pentagon covert P2OG programme.
The Sahara-Sahel front is not the only case of such fabricated incidents in the Global War On Terror. In May 2008, President George W. Bush requested some $400m in covert funding for terrorist groups across much of the Middle East-Afghanistan region in a covert offensive directed ultimately against the Iranian government. An initial outlay of $300m was approved by Congress.
Since the El Para operation, Algeria’s DRS, with the complicity of the US and the knowledge of other Western intelligence agencies, has used Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, though the almost complete infiltration of its leadership, to create a terrorist scenario. Much of the terrorist landscape that Algeria and its Western allies have painted in the Sahara-Sahel region is false.
The Dying Sahara analyses every supposed “terrorism” incident in the region over this last, terrible decade. It shows that a few are genuine, but that the vast majority were orchestrated by the DRS.
Some incidents, such as the widely reported Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb attack on Algeria’s Djanet airport in 2007, simply didn’t happen. What actually transpired was that a demonstration against the Algerian administration over unemployment by local Tuareg youths ended with the youths firing shots at the airport. It was nothing to do with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
In order to justify or increase what I have called their “terrorism rents” from Washington, the governments of Mali, Niger and Algeria have been responsible on at least five occasions since 2004 for provoking the Tuareg into taking up arms, as in 2004 (Niger), 2005 (Tamanrasset, Algeria), 2006 (Mali) and 2007-09 (Niger and Mali).
In July 2005, for example, Tuareg youths rioted in the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset, setting ablaze some 40 government and commercial buildings. It was finally proven in court that the riots and arson attacks had been led by Algerian agents provocateurs. The matter was hushed up and some 80 youths freed and compensated.
But the object of the exercise had been achieved: the DRS’s allies in Washington were able to talk of “putative terrorism” among the Tuareg of Tamanrasset, thus lending more justification to George Bush’s Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative and the Pentagon’s almost concurrent “Operation Flintlock” military exercise across the Sahara. Around the time of the El Para operation, the Pentagon produced a series of maps of Africa, depicting most of the Sahara-Sahel region as a “Terror Zone” or “Terror Corridor”. That has now become a self-fulfilled prophecy.
In addition, the region has also become one of the world’s main drug conduits. In the last few years, cocaine trafficking from South America through Azawad to Europe has burgeoned.
The UN Office of Drugs Control recently estimated that 60% of Europe’s cocaine passed through the region. It put its value, at Paris street prices, at some $11bn, with an estimated $2bn remaining in the region.
The impact of terrorism on the peoples of the Sahara-Sahel has been devastating, not least for the regional economy. More than 60 kidnappings of Westerners have led to the collapse of the tourism industry through which Tuareg communities in Mali, Niger and Algeria previously acquired much of their cash income.
For example, the killing of four French tourists in Mauritania, in addition to subsequent kidnappings, resulted in only 173 tourists visiting Mauritania in 2011, compared with 72,500 in 2007.
The loss of tourism has deprived the region of tens of millions of dollars and forced more and more Tuareg (and others), especially young men, into the “criminality” of banditry and drug trafficking.
Mali’s current mess
While it will be clear from all this that Mali’s latest Tuareg rebellion had a complex background, the rebellion that began in January 2012 was different from all previous Tuareg rebellions in that there was a very real likelihood that it would succeed, at least in taking control of the whole of northern Mali.
The creation of the rebel Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) in October 2011 appears to have taken the Algerian government by surprise. Algeria has always been a little fearful of the Tuareg, both domestically and in the neighbouring Sahel countries. The distinct possibility of a militarily successful Tuareg nationalist movement in northern Mali, which Algeria has always regarded as its own backyard, could not be countenanced.
The Algerian intelligence agency’s strategy to remove this threat was to weaken and then destroy the credibility and political effectiveness of the MNLA. This is precisely what we have seen happening in northern Mali over the last nine months.
The leaders of these two groups – Ansar al-Din’s Iyad ag Ghaly and MUJAO’s Sultan Ould Badi – are both closely associated with the Algerian intelligence agency, the DRS.
Although Ansar al-Din and MUJAO both started out as few in number, they were immediately supported with person power in the form of seasoned, well-trained killers from the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb brigades. This explains why the Islamists were able to expand so quickly and dominate the MNLA both politically and militarily.
A foreign military intervention now looks increasingly likely. The UN Security Council’s 12 October Resolution effectively gave Algeria a last window of opportunity to “rein in its dogs” and engineer a peaceful political solution. But, as anger against the Islamists mounts and the desire for revenge from Mali’s civil society grows ever stronger, a peaceful solution is looking increasingly difficult.
I have warned on numerous occasions in the past decade that the way in which terrorism was being fabricated and orchestrated in the Sahara-Sahel by the Algerian DRS, with the knowledge of the US and other Western powers, would inevitably result in a catastrophic outcome, quite possibly in the form of a conflagration.
Unless something fairly miraculous can be achieved by around the turn of the year, northern Mali looks like becoming the site for the start of a region-wide conflagration.
But whatever dire scenario develops in Mali, when you hear the news stories related to it, do not by any means think: “Oh, just another war in Africa”. Remember this murky, squalid background and how Washington’s Global War On Terror has come home to roost for the peoples of the Sahara.
(Reprinted by kind permission of The New Internationalist. Prof Jeremy Keenan is a professorial research associate in the Department of Social Anthropology and Sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. Copyright New Internationalist.)