Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Philippines and Lebanon aren’t the only fronts in the “global war on terror.” Although it remains largely out of the public eye, the U.S. has also sought to open up a north-African front in its fight against al-Qaeda, with equally unappreciated consequences.
Regional powers have been emboldened to repress both their own peoples and to meddle in weaker neighboring countries. The predatory activities of mining and oil interests have been shielded by the perceived need to pursue international “jihadists” while the labeling of regional groups as “terrorists” has promoted instability.
Although the press has failed to report it, the Bush administration in northwest Africa has stumbled into a hall of mirrors. It has mistaken regional political developments for international terrorism, while it has supported unsavory governments and justified crackdowns on dissent.
Instability and what seems to be incipient rebellion are the fruits of this policy. But what is more, the expansion of the “war on terror” into North Africa has been promoted through a familiar, and also unknown, tissue of lies.
It takes some explaining, but it’s a fascinating and typically shameful entry in the annals of the Bush administration.
Rebels without a cause, yet
On Friday, 22 June, rebels from Niger’s Tuareg ethnic minority stormed a military camp, killing 15 troops and abducting between 40 and 70 others. The attack, which dwarfs any others by Tuareg forces in recent years, came a week after the Niger Movement for Justice (NMJ) claimed credit for another raid, this time on the airport at the town of Agades in Niger’s uranium producing north west region.
Experts are warning that these attacks may signal a resumption of civil war in the North African nation. According to the British academic Jeremy Keenan, who maintains contact with rebel groups, moves against Niger’s military forces are “highly significant,” while they open up the possibility of an all out assault by Nigerien air forces. In the past week, reports have suggested that Nigerien president Mamadou Tandja will seek to deploy 4,000 troops in the region for a “counteroffensive” against the rebels.
The Tuareg have been historically marginalized, ignored by central government and denied a political voice, while the effects of massive uranium mining have diminished their grazing lands. The MNJ, a small rebel grouping which has until now remained of marginal importance, claims that it represents Tuareg grievances.
As Keenan told me, these grievances are genuine, even if the MNJ is not a popular movement. Uranium dust from foreign owned mines, such as that run by the French group Areva, has dispersed across huge areas of Tuareg grazing lands that lie downwind from them. Efforts by local people and NGOs to monitor the environmental and health effects of the mining have been obstructed and prevented by the government in Niamey, which fears the withdrawal of investment in the mines, with the collusion of the French. As a result, local people continue to drink water poisoned by the mines and graze their animals on contaminated lands.
At present, with the uranium sector undergoing an expansion in Niger, Tuareg concerns are rising, feeding anti-government sentiment. 30 new projects are slated for exploration and development, with Chinese, Indian and Canadian firms leading the way. Tuareg know that they will suffer the consequences of these projects and receive few of the benefits.
However, Keenan maintains that “there is certain amount of sympathy for the rebel cause, although the people don’t want a rebellion.” Moreover, some of the leaders of the MNJ, notably Aboubacar Alambo, are known in the region as criminals and, in Keenan’s view, “would have zero credibility of enjoying a following at any political level.”
Children of the Terror Myth
There is, however, a deeper history behind the instability in Niger and it is a theme that stretches across the Sahel region of Africa. Since 2003, the Sahel nations – Niger, Mali, Chad, Mauritania and Algeria – have been absorbed into the global “war on terror” and have all come under the U.S. counter-terrorism military umbrella. Lurid accusations of these nations harboring “al-Qaeda in the Maghreb” or groups allied to Osama Bin Laden have justified the expansion of U.S. military assistance to often brutal regimes, such as that of Niger.
In Mauritania, the resumption of close assistance from the U.S. has coincided with a period of intense political instability. A coup attempt in 2003, which began a period of intense repression, was followed by a successful coup in 2005, which toppled a long-standing military dictatorship. Then, in 2006 another coup failed to reinstate the toppled dictator, and elections this year finally brought a non-military regime to power. This was no thanks to the United States, however, who backed the military dictatorship of Maaouiya Ould Taya, and strongly condemned the military coup in 2005 which removed him.
In Niger, while the government has not repressed its people with the intensity of the Mauritanians, press censorship has been routine. Journalists have endured prison sentences for simply interviewing rebel leaders. The newspaper publisher Mamane Obou, for example, was sentenced to 18 months in jail after publishing an article which alleged that the Nigerien president, Mamadou Tandja, had been seeking to improve relations with Iran.
At the same time, 130 U.S. special forces were training Nigerien soldiers to take part in the “Niger Rapid Intervention Company” ostensibly to root out terrorists, and, as IRIN reports “step up the fight against the illicit trafficking of arms, merchandise and illegal migrants.”
Algeria too has enjoyed warm relations with the Bush administration, at least until this year, with both governments discovering a shared interest in the prosecution of a war against “terror.”
However, this war may be based upon a series of myths. Disinformation peddled by the U.S. and Algerian governments has provided justification for the launching of a second front in the “war on terror” and has fed separatist sentiment from Mauritania to Chad. In its effort to secure a strategically important part of the world, and the oil and uranium resources that it holds, the Bush administration has laid it open to conflict and repression.
Bananas in the Desert
U.S. intervention stems from a deception in the desert that was eagerly embraced by the Pentagon as its strategic value became clear. As Keenan has documented in his article “the Banana Theory of Terrorism,” published in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies, terrorism in the Sahel began with a kidnapping staged by the Algerian authorities.
In 2003, 32 German-speaking tourists were abducted in southern Algeria by a group called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The official narrative of what ensued goes as follows:
Through a partnership with the Algerian government, U.S. special forces waged a campaign against the kidnappers, raiding their hideout, pushing them into neighboring Mali (where the hostages were released) and then pursuing them all the way into Chad. U.S. ground forces and aerial reconnaissance planes covered thousands of miles on the trail of “El Para” – dubbed “Bin Laden’s man in the Sahel” before tracking him down and allowing Chadian forces to capture him. El Para did then escape, before being recaptured by Chadian rebels, sent across the border to Libya and then back to Algeria with the assistance of Colonel Qaddafi, where he now languishes in prison.
Yet Keenan argues that this is a fabrication. Tuareg in the region doubt that 5000 Algerian troops with their aerial surveillance capabilities could fail to spot either the kidnappers or their tracks as they escaped from Algeria to Mali. El Para himself was in constant radio contact with outside parties, while U.S. AWACS planes flew overhead and on the numerous occasions that Algerian troops could have captured the kidnappers they failed to do so, allowing them to “escape” from Mali.
That escape too is veiled in mystery. Keenan has found that on occasions when El Para and his band were accused of carrying out hold-ups to support their flight, these crimes were actually carried out by totally separate local bandits. When they did surface in the Air region of Niger (and sought to rob a group of tourists), El Para’s men, asked that photos “be taken of them, their vehicles, arms, and the written contracts, signed by the tourists, agreeing to pay El Para money in Algiers.”
As Keenan notes, this is risky behavior for battle-hardened terrorists. In his view, “This bizarre behavior suggests a bunch of men stumbling around lost in the desert with insufficient supplies of fuel and perhaps other materials and trying, very publicly, to advertise their presence in the area, rather than seasoned Al Qaeda ‘terrorists’.” El Para was constructing a narrative on behalf of superiors within the Algerian state as he wandered across the Sahel, through each of the nations to which the U.S. would soon begin to dole out military aid.
When he arrived in Chad, El Para was supposedly still being tailed by U.S. special forces, although when he fell into the hands of the rebel MJDT movement there, these forces failed to capture him, even though El Para had by then been flagged by the Pentagon as “Osama Bin Laden’s man in the Sahara.” Keenan contends that his immunity derived from his position as an agent of the DRS, the Algerian secret services.
From tranquil to terrifying?
The 2003 kidnapping saga marked the beginning of U.S. intervention in the Sahel, which had previously had very little importance in American eyes. This was mainly due to both its tranquility – there was, and is no Islamist terrorism in the region – and due to its lack of economic importance. The expansion of uranium mining and recent discoveries of oil have been putting the region on the radar.
The Bush administration therefore latched onto the opportunity presented by the Algerian secret services, who seem to have arranged the kidnapping, to launch their “chase” across the desert, thereby incorporating the governments across whose territory the special forces ranged, into the global war on terror.
Right wing commentators began to make a cottage industry from discussing the rise of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. At the same time, legions of military and intelligence personnel within the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), which has had responsibility for African affairs, have been looking for work. Major Gen. Charles Wald, for example, has been the foremost U.S. military voice in hyping the Sahel terrorist threat.
In 2004, for example, he told Congress that “The terrorist activity in this area is not going to go away…This could affect your kids and your grandchildren in a huge way. If we don’t do something about it, we are going to have a real problem on our hands…We have to . …have the ability to get our intelligence into that area and infiltrate there so we can get into their environment. And that is when we will stop it.”
Wald and neocons within the Pentagon hierarchy also offered up what Keenan has called the “banana theory of terrorism” to justify opening a North African front. In this view, terrorists uprooted from comfortable hideouts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have spread out across the “failed” states of Africa in a banana shaped route.
But there has been no attack against terrorism, as there has been no terrorism to attack. There has however been a bungling attempt to arm local regimes against the “terrorist threat.” This has led to conditions of acute instability, as shown by the case of the Nigerien Tuareg, who may find their grievances against environmental depredation and political marginalization being overtaken again by military rebellion and government repression. As Keenan puts it in his article:
What we are now witnessing, is the transformation of much of the Sahel into a state of extreme political instability and insecurity and what some Tuareg leaders describe as “being close to an incipient state of near-permanent rebellion”. These same leaders believe that this is a state of affairs which the U.S. and Algeria, for their own respective imperialist and sub-imperialist designs, would like to maintain. It certainly provides a good underpinning for the U.S. Secretary of Defense’s next step in militarizing the continent through the creation of a single, unified US African Command.
Moreover, the U.S. has shown itself incapable of dealing with real instability, even as it has skillfully created fake terror to extend its influence in North Africa. Keenan told me that “when you get a rebellion that is actually real, lo and behold, special forces suddenly aren’t there…the first time there is a genuine issue, the Americans have become silent.”
In his view, after years of spinning tales about terrorism and running special forces in the region, the U.S. is over-exposed and lacking credibility. Algeria, a faction of whose secret services Keenan suspects may be behind the MNJ, can take on the role of sub-imperial power with impunity.
The Halliburton factor
American interests in the Sahel region and North Africa in general do not wholly stem from terrorism related concerns. Portions of the American business community have had long standing links with the Algerian government, both through oil production and defense services. Halliburton, for example, provides basing services for the Algerian army, including at the southern base of Tamanrasset, within Tuareg territory.
The relationship actually goes back as far as 1994, when Algeria threatened to default on its national debt. Debts run up during the 1980s and failed structural adjustment policies mandated by the IMF led to unsupportable burdens, leading to a bail out by international finance. $10 billion per year flowed into Algerian coffers at a time when the country was racked by civil war as the military regime confronted internal Islamist opposition.
Halliburton was on board from the start, on the side of the government, using the personal connections of Dick Cheney with the regime, connections which have continued into the Bush administration. Before 9-11, Algerian president Bouteflika was a welcome visitor to Washington in the early months of the Bush administration. Unlike under President Clinton, who had publicly shunned Algeria for its human rights abuses, Bush had no qualms about dealing with the oil rich nation. Even then, Bouteflika stressed that “We have also dealt with the fight against terrorists,” as al-Ahram reported in July 2001.
Thomas Gorguissian, writing for the Egyptian paper, also commented that “Observers believe that the strong involvement of US Vice-President Dick Cheney shaped the administration’s Algeria initiative” while “Cheney has for many years sought to build closer ties with Algeria, seeing it as the passageway to increased U.S. influence in the region long known for its strong links with former colonizers in France.”
Before 9/11 the vehicle for Cheney’s ambition was the Halliburton subsidiary Brown Root Condor (BRC), in which the Algerian government owns a 51 percent stake. Creaming off profits from Algerian government contracts, BRC made millions from its alliance with the military government, with few or no contracts being subject to public tender (as stipulated in Algerian law).
Observers have suggested that in the past two years, however, U.S.-Algerian relations have soured. The counter-terrorism partnership still stands, says Keenan, but divisions are appearing within the Algerian elite. One cause of the rift has been U.S. duplicity over Israel. According to Keenan – who revealed Halliburton’s activities in Algeria in a series of articles in the Review of African Political Economy in the summer of 2006, Russian military intelligence discovered and revealed to the Algerians that the sophisticated communications system purchased from the U.S. by BRC on behalf of Algeria’s military command was linked to both the American and Israeli electronic intelligence systems. This so enraged the Algerians that President Bouteflika launched an investigation into BRC’s contracts and operations in Algeria – an experience which is causing immense embarrassment to both the U.S. administration and Dick Cheney.
With that, northern Africa may yet see the distancing of the Pentagon from its affairs. African leaders are beginning to resist the expansion of U.S. military power, giving roving envoy Ryan Henry the cold shoulder on his recent trip across the continent.
For the peoples of the region, a little bit of distance could be long overdue.