Is Algeria Orchestrating the Terrorist Threat in Mali ?
by Gordon Campbell
For tyrants, if terrorism didn’t exist, it would have to be invented – if only to justify the apparatus of repression. This could explain a lot about the current insurgency in Mali. Over the course of the past nine months, Tuareg fighters freshly armed and trained from their forced service in the Libyan Army of the late, unlamented Muammar Ghaddafi have returned home and joined forces with a motley group of Islamic fundamentalists and al Qaeda wannabes, and declared the northern region of the country – which is a territory the size of France – to be the independent state of Azawad.
Professing shock and alarm, neighbouring states are pressuring France to sponsor a full scale UN military intervention in order to crush the rebellion, and the Western media have dutifully described northern Mali as “the Afghanistan of North Africa.” Virtually overnight, northern Mali has allegedly become something of a failed state, and a potential hotbed of regional and global terrorism.
This is overkill. No doubt, Mali is in a mess right now, not that it ever has been anyone’s ideal of a model democracy. Since the 7th century, the more nomadic peoples of the north have been engaged in disputes over trade routes and autonomy with the cattle herders and sedentary farmers of the south, though matters have recently taken a turn for the worse, After a military coup on March 20, there is barely the semblance of a functioning government currently in the capital, Bamako, hundreds of kilometres to the southwest.
More to the point…the alleged threat in the north posed by the Tuareg insurgency and its small crew of jihadist allies looks suspiciously like a fabrication of the Algerian security services. In that respect, the shock and alarm among the dismal array of despots in neighbouring Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania etc could well be motivated more by their concern about potential disruption to the smuggling routes for the estimated $10 billion annual cocaine trade that passes through this part of the world, en route from South America to markets in Europe. Which means that the proposed UN military intervention in northern Mali could be more about ensuring continuity in the drug trade, than in quashing any significant threat from the Mali-based minions of al Qaeda.
Is Algeria really orchestrating the course of events in Mali? It wouldn’t be much of a historical stretch for that to be the case. After all, during the bloody Algerian civil war in the mid 1990s, there is evidence that the Algerian security service [the DRS] not only infiltrated the main Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group – the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA – but turned it into a tool of the very regime that it was supposedly fighting. Here is how the North African specialists at Algeria Watch described the process, whereby the Algerian regime recruited the GIA to carry out terrorist attacks that killed hundreds of foreigners, journalists, clergy, women and children, including in attacks on French soil, and within the Paris Metro.
[With] the rise to power of Djamel Zitouni [pictured left] within the GIA (September 1994 – July 1996), they [the GIA) changed their practices and intensified their attacks on the civilian population and their threats to France. The big military offensive against the Islamists began in the summer of 1994 and at the same time, a terrorist machine was set into motion whose violent means appeared to serve the goals of those in power, particularly since many officers of the FIS (the more moderate Islamic Front for Salvation) condemned the terror. In many cases, observers questioned whether these groups were manipulated or controlled by the Algerian secret service.
Why would Algeria feel the need to do so? At the time, Algeria Watch continues, the Algerian regime’s harsh methods of operation were not enjoying unanimous or uncritical support in the West. The generals in Algiers had swept aside the 1991 election results and played an active role in the imprisonment, torture and murder of thousands of FIS cadres and activists who had actually won the election. By 1994, leading voices within the Clinton administration were favouring the policies of dialogue and inclusion being promoted by moderate elements in the FIS – a faction whose leadership, at the time, included the Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui.
To torpedo the path of moderation, the Algerian regime unleashed its agents and exported terrorism to France – first with an airplane hijacking on Christmas Day 1994, and then with attacks in Paris that began in July 1995. Algeria Watch, again :
These attacks definitively shifted the mindset in France and Europe: the European politicians and the public came together and unquestioningly spread the official Algerian version of a war of the “Crazy Gods” against democracy and freedom. The Algerian regime was victorious. Not only terrorism was exported from Algeria to France, but also the methods for combating terrorism: the men who participated in the attacks [in the Metro] were arrested and convicted, despite a lack of evidence, as the sole attackers….
Shortly after the end of the trial, the French television station Canal+ aired a program by Romain Icart and Jean-Baptiste Rivoire on the background to the attacks. In “Attentats de Paris: on pouvait les empêcher” (Attacks in Paris: They Could Have Been Prevented), the two journalists suggested that Djamel Zitouni had been recruited by the Algerian secret service (DRS) as an informant. As he subsequently rose to the head of the GIA in Algeria, the DRS used him to carry out the executions of Islamists who had joined the GIA and to spread terror through the civilian population. Surrounded by DRS agents, Zitouni and his GIA served the regime goal of securing French support through terrorist attacks.
Well into the 2000s, the Algerian government used the same tactics to infiltrate the GIA’s successor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or GSPC – this time, post 9/11, in order to attract support from US President George W. Bush and to secure arms shipments from the Americans.
Now, within Mali in 2012, history could well be repeating itself. Is Algeria bankrolling and amplifying an alleged terrorist threat inside Mali in order to promote a UN intervention – and thereby justify its own repressive security apparatus at home and extend its influence abroad, both regionally and in Washington? Well, if one looks inside Mali, at the forces alleged to be representing al Qaeda, who are they? For one thing, they are only a few hundred fighters, at most. They could readily be tracked and eliminated, if the will to do so existed. For another, these groups call themselves al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In their previous incarnation, they called themselves the GSPC – which began in 1998 as an offshoot of the GIA, the regime’s old and unruly protégés.
Same region, same players – and quite conceivably, the same tactics of amplifying a terrorist threat for strategic gain. In the events in Mali, as North African expert Jeremy Keenan [pictured left] of the School of African and Oriental Studies at the University of London told me on the phone from London, there are “two massive elephants in the room” when it comes to understanding current events in Mali. One is the drug trade. “The other is Algeria.” Keenan is not a person prone to conspiracy theories. The author of the definitive 2009 work The Dark Sahara on the Tuareg (and their fate during the war on terrorism) Keenan has just signing off (on June 14, the same day I spoke to him ) his final draft of a sequel called The Dying Sahara, due in December.
As yet, Azawad has not been recognised as a legitimate state by anyone. It primarily consists of the regions of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao which when added together, account for about 60 percent of Mali’s total land area. As for its borders…the disputed territory faces Burkina Faso to the south, Algeria to the north/north east, Mauritania to the west/northwest, Niger to the east/southeast, while the rest of Mali sits on its southwest flank. The cities of Gao and Timbuktu are Azawad’s two largest urban centres.
Currently, something of a stalemate exists. Blaisé Campaore, the dictator of Burkina Faso is attempting to mediate a resolution in Mali on behalf of the region’s fellow autocrats. In recent weeks, the Tuareg leaders of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (or MNLA) have met with other representatives of the Economic Community of West African States. Meanwhile, the leader of Niger, Mahamadou Issafou, has been leading the charge for a UN intervention, and is calling for France to champion this proposal within the Security Council. African Union chief Thomas Boni Yayi has also called for the creation of a UN-backed military force to intervene in Mali.
If this arc of diplomatic encirclement wasn’t bad enough for the Tuaregs in Mali, there have also been reports of internal dissent. Small scale fighting has broken out between MNLA troops and the forces of Ansar Dine – a fundamentalist Islamic group that had negotiated an alliance in late May with the MNLA. Since then, Ansar Dine has been trying to impose a strict version of sharia law in the north and in mid June, it announced that its goal is not independence for the north – which is the goal being pursued by the MNLA – but the imposition of sharia law throughout the whole of Mali.
Already, Ansar Dine has launched efforts in the north to destroy the symbols of modernity and/or the icons of other religions ( such as Sufism and Christianity). These policies are being resisted by the local population, including by elements among the relatively secular MNLA. Some Tuaregs have also joined the exodus of about 300,000 refugees from the north, who have been fleeing the fighting over the past six months, and also the ongoing drought.
On paper, the MNLA and Ansar Dine seem to share much in common. As Keenan points out, half the MNLA leadership are cousins or have other kinship ties of one sort or another with Iyad Ag Ghaly, the semi-legendary leader of Ansar Dine – and in return, the MNLA’s lower class/middle class profile has helped to offset any lingering resentment felt by ordinary Tuaregs about the clan of nobles to which Iyad belongs, and which has reportedly lorded it over the region for years.
At the same time though, the MNLA realise full well that Ansar Dine and AQIM currently provide the pretext for outside intervention – not to mention the fact that the high-handed imposition of sharia law is fast undermining local respect for what is being seen as an ineffectual MNLA leadership. Other forces may be entering the field. Keenan : “At the moment [June 14] the local Tuareg Facebook chitchat has said that they had seen American and French troops being positioned in Niger..northwest of Agadas. There are also reports of EU security personnel going into Niger.”
In the context of a UN invasion, Keenan adds, a key player could well turn out to be a fighter who has broken with the MNLA and currently commands a number of former MNLA fighters. “In Niger you have got what may become a very significant group of 400-500 Tuareg soldiers under the command of a guy called [Colonel El Haji] Ag Gamou, He was a colonel in the Libyan Army. He’s a Tuareg. He was the commander [in the Mali Army] at Kidal. He eventually switched sides and joined the MNLA but then deserted them two days later, and then took his troops across the border to Niger.“ For a deeply felt combination of political, economic and personal reasons, Keenan indicates, the colonel “hates” the current leadership of Ansar Dine and the MNLA.
So if an intervention occurs, he could become a Tuareg figurehead? “He could be, yeah. He fits the bill. He’s sort of Mali Army, but he’s also Tuareg. The Tuareg are pretty well divided on a lot of issues up there, though.” Besides Ag Gamou’s 400-500 soldiers, Keenan estimates, ECOWAS claims to have 3,000 troops available, and the coup-raddled Malian Army in Bamako claims to have 2,000 troops able to be dispatched north to form a blockade across the narrow neck of Mali, from Segou to a point southwest of Timbuktu. “We’ll believe that when we see it. I don’t think France would commit troops. It would commit logistics. Same with the Americans. Also, on the northwest side, Mauritania would also be activated to put a collar around the northwest. The head of the Mauritanian Army went to France two weeks ago, and we don’t know what was discussed but I’m sure it wasn’t his health…You can see the formative elements coming together here, with both America and France making supportive noises…”
Political action to forestall the spread of radical Islam may be the pretext for UN intervention but the more tangible motivation, Keenan believes, is the maintenance of the drug trade – a business that provides the region with its biggest and most reliable flow of cash, and in which the Algerian DRS and the Malian Army (and almost everyone else) is involved. “Every party involved in the Mali conflict has a finger in the till on the drug trade..Its big business.” Moreover, Keenan continues, it is important to look at just who the so called Islamists in Mali really are.
He ticks them off for my benefit : AQIM (aka Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) has three or four small military units or cells in the region, along with an AQIM splinter group called MUJWA (The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa). “Then there is Ansar Dine. All these groups have one thing in common. All of them are connected to the Algerian secret service, the DRS.” Algeria had emerged from the 1990s as a virtual pariah state. Its armed forces had run down their capacity, and could not readily be re-equipped. America, post 9/11, was seen by the regime, as Algeria’s way back in.
The Bush/Cheney administration, with one eye on the war against terrorism and its other eye on Algeria’s vast oil and gas reserves, was happy to accept these overtures – and from 2003 onwards, the fabricated threat posed by the tiny remnants of the GIA and the GSPC (now fortuitously re-configured as a franchise operation of Al Qaeda) provided the pretext for consummating the relationship. Ultimately, Keenan believes, the Mali analogy that fits most accurately is not Afghanistan, but Pakistan. Just as the Pakistan ISI security service created and nurtured the Taliban so too, so has Algeria’s DRS entered into a covert working relationship with those groups in the Sahara/Sahel regions that most reliably inspire the West’s ongoing fear and paranoia.
Keenan believes that the French, British and American intelligence services all know about the linkages between the DRS and the Islamists in Mali. That knowledge may serve to slow the pace of events. “ Are those countries really going to go out on a limb to fight “Afghanistan” in this area? When they know that most of the baddies are kind of linked to the Algerian DRS, and that they work with the DRS, and that the DRS could cut off access to supplies of fuel etc pretty well overnight ? ”
As a result, Keenan concludes, “I think that this Chapter Seven business [ie the UN charter clause needed to authorise the invasion of Mali] will stall. I think it will drag on for several more weeks, because on the one hand the West wants to keep the story going, but it doesn’t really want to see a large scale intervention because that could generate all sorts of ramifications.”
Such as ? “The Tuareg in Niger …some of them may well decide we’re not putting up with any foreign intervention, we’ve seen the bloody Yanks over the hill. They may join in on the MNLA side. That could spark off into southern Libya, which is open territory – there is no security there at all. Then you’re on into Chad and God knows what else, and down into northern Nigeria. You’ve got instability in Senegal. You’ve got Mauritania waiting to blow up. There’s a nightmare scenario, right there. The West is aware of that. “ So, on the one hand a rationale for UN intervention is on the table. “ But on the other, things could easily get out of hand.”
Could a surgical strike be mounted, solely against the Islamists? Not easily. “You’re putting a surgical strike into an area the size of France. Very difficult terrain…and the numbers are small.” But they are increasing. Back in November, Keenan says, Iyad and his supporters were only about 70 in number – all Tuareg, all from his own clan – and they drove out of Kidal in only nine vehicles.” Now they are said to be about 400-500 in number.
The big loser has been the MNLA – which, only a few months ago seemed to be becoming a genuine liberation movement for the Tuareg in northern Mali and an inspiration for other Tuareg within the wider region. Not so much anymore. The MNLA is being out manoevured by the diplomatic encirclement from the outside, and outgunned by the Islamists from within what are virtually its own ranks. What capacity then has the MNLA leadership to assert its original project – which was to establish a relatively secular independent Tuareg state in northern Mali? Not much, Keenan maintains.
At most, any intervention might be used simply and conveniently to wipe out the foot soldiers among the jihadists. The cynical view, Keenan concludes, would be that the mess in Mali has sucked into one place the 500 or so jihadists in the entire region who could – with the help of good intelligence – be zapped, while the leadership in the actual employ of the Algerians, quietly melts back into the same part of the Algerian Sahara from whence they came, only a year ago. The drug trade resumes, the Tuareg dreams of autonomy are put back for another decade or so, and another victory over the forces of al Qaeda and militant fundamentalism can be announced to the world. “Even if the whole thing has been a set-up.” Which is not to deny, Keenan quickly that the area isn’t politically unstable, and that there aren’t a few genuine jihadists running around within it.
“I’ve been saying for years.” Keenan says. “that if this was such a big problem for the West and for Algeria, everyone knows exactly where these guys are camped out. With a couple of helicopter gunships [or drones] you could wipe them out before breakfast. Why hasn’t it happened?” Good question, but few are asking it.
Footnote : And then, there are the locusts. To compound Mali’s problems with all of the above, there are signs that the desert locusts are about to arrive in large numbers. In the wake of the fighting in Libya last year, the pest control activities formerly carried out in the locust breeding grounds by the Ghaddafi regime have been left to lapse.
When the crop-destroying insects aren’t kept in check, swarms can develop and move south into neighboring countries, such as Niger and Mali. During a plague, a swarm of billions of locusts stretching hundreds of square miles can descend on farmland, each insect capable of eating its own weight in food every day.
Such a plague affected farmers in two dozen mainly African countries from 2003 to 2005. Although the current infestation is nowhere near as severe as that one was, the FAO said the conflict in Mali (the north of the country has been taken over by rebel Islamists) could hamper response efforts there, aggravating the problem.