At about the time that the United States, the European Union and NATO were putting the final touches on their not-so `humanitarian’ interventionalism in Libya, U.S. Middle East policy was developing along quite different lines in Algeria.
On March 4-7, in Algiers, the United States and Algeria formed what both countries are referring to as `a new contact group’ for counter-terrorism collaboration, cementing even further a decade of close intelligence and military cooperation between the two countries.
Underlining the importance of the security arrangement, the United States sent Daniel Benjamin, the U.S. State Department’s Coordinator for Counter Terrorism, to attend. The Algerian side was represented by Algerian presidential advisor, Kamel Rezzag Bara.
At a press conference Benjamin welcomed `the inaugural meeting of the bilateral contact group,’. He asserted the U.S. intended to work with Algeria to `counter groups that seek to launch attacks against innocents’. The crusader bombast and confrontational style of the Bush years has been replaced by a much softer touch stylistically at least. Poised, cutting a handsome `Kennedy-like’ image, Benjamin chose his words carefully.
‘Algeria’s future should be in its own hands’, Benjamin told an audience of Algerian journalists. He continued, `The U.S. supports the democratization process in Algeria and elsewhere in the Middle East, North Africa and the Sahel.’ In response to a question, Benjamin categorically stated that `the United States does not seek any more military bases in Africa’. Benjamin went on to state `the future of Algeria is for Algerians to determine”.
In response to a question, Benjamin categorically stated that `the United States does not seek any more military bases in Africa’.
Indeed, the rhetoric was impeccable. If only it matched the reality!
Take, for instance, the comment that the United States does not seek military bases in Africa. The United States has been `frantically’ looking for an African home for AFRICOM, the African command center created during the Bush years to deal with Africa’s strategic importance in terms of oil and rare minerals, and to counter China’s growing influence throughout the continent.
It seems African countries – even allies – don’t believe that AFRICOM is a Peace Corps-like outfit concerned with development and fighting AIDs. Despite repeated U.S. denials to the contrary, African leaders fear it is something more sinister, Imagine!
Furthermore the United States has at least one military base of some size and significance in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. There is evidence that another one existed for a number of years in Tamanrassett, deep in the Algerian Sahara out of which U.S. Special Forces operated.
U.S. and Algerian security cooperation is more than a decade old, beginning sometime just after the ending of Algeria’s `dirty war’ in 1999. One could argue it began even earlier with a number of visits by then Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney to Algeria to cut oil and gas deals with the North African country despite the fact that Algeria was bogged down in what is referred to as `The Dirty War’, a civil war that nearly split the country apart.
Willing to open its oil and gas deposits to U.S. companies, the Algerian government was also able to convince the Bush Administration in the days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack that it stood with the United States as a partner in global war on terrorism; unbeknownst to many, the relations between the two countries improved considerably. Then in 2002-2003, the US, in collusion with its new regional ally Algeria, launched a second front in its global war on terrorism across the Sahara and Sahelian regions of Africa.
What seems to be the chemistry to bring these unlikely allies together? If British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan is to be believed – and he makes an excellent case – U.S.-Algerian cooperation `countering terrorism’ has been little more than a pretext for a strategic military alliance in which both countries gained in different ways. The actual relationship bears little of the moral rectitude suggested in Benjamin’s remarks.
“For Algeria, the partnership has meant increased access to U.S. military and surveillance technology which it was denied during the 1990s due to the `dirty war’. In the name of fighting terrorism, the alliance also extends Algerian influence over its southern neighbors in the Sahara and Sahel: Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania.
“For the United States, the arrangement permits Washington to `piggy back’ on Algerian security concerns, real and imagined, to create a security network that today extends in the north, from Algeria in the north – one of Africa’s most prolific oil and natural gas producing countries, to Nigeria on Africa’s western coast, another of the continent’s great oil producing countries.
“The Algerian-U.S. relationship, a marriage of convenience, was cemented not long after 9-11 by a rather bizarre, if not surrealistic and apparently heavily contrived set of circumstances that fit the needs of both. The Bush Administration, with Dick Cheney taking the lead, wanted to open a second front on the `global war on terrorism’ (GWOT) in Africa focusing on the Sahara.”
Only one minor problem: there was virtually no terrorism, no terrorist groups in the area. Indeed, despite its natural hazards, in 2001-2, the Sahara was arguably one of the safest places to travel anywhere in the world. If Keenan is correct, the Algerian Departement de Reseignement et Securite (DRS), the Algerian Security Service, in cooperation with the U.S. military – under the auspices then of EUCOM based in Germany -fabricated an incident and then blew it all out of proportion in the medias of both countries.
In The Dark Sahara, Keenan makes the case that the kidnapping of German speaking tourists from Germany, Austria and Switzerland in 2002 was managed by the Algerian DRS with the knowledge if not complicity of the U.S. Special Forces with whom the Algerians worked rather closely. He substantiates claims that:
“The so-called Islamic groups which participated in the kidnappings were either penetrated or run by the DRS.
There was no `terrorist’ pipeline from Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda in Afghanstan through to Africa.
“The whole kidnapping incident was essentially staged, and then blown out of proportion by both the Algerian press (with close ties to its security establishment) to create the myth of the Saharan terrorist threat.
My favorite part of this pervasive scam is the likelihood that the `leader’ of the Islamic fundamentalist group, a fellow named El Para, was an Algerian DRS operative who trained in counter insurgency for two years at Ft. Bragg North Carolina. Keenan claims El Para was in constant contact with his Algerian security handlers during the entire time of the 2002 kidnapping.”
As a result, the Algerian military and security forces got their high tech death and communication toys, and the Bush Administration its pretext to deepen its military involvement in Africa.
Keenan’s hypothesis fits the Bush GWOT pattern to a tee: Military intervention requires embellishing or fabricating an impending threat. An elaborate disinformation campaign is launched. The remoteness of the Sahara makes verifying fabrication difficult, permitting Algerians and the U.S. military to liberally embellish the truth. Who could disprove what was or was not going on in the southeastern corner of Algeria or northwestern Niger?
But then they didn’t reckon with Jeremy Keenan, with his encyclopedic knowledge of the Sahara, his decades long human connection with the Tuareg peoples who live there, and his unflagging sense of decency and unwillingness not to go along with a dangerous political charade.
There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; across the Sahara and the Sahel, a terrorist threat with links to Al Qaeda was more a scheme hatched by the DRS in Algiers than a viable Islamic resistance movement. We’ve been conned once again.
ROB PRINCE lectures in International Studies at the University of Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org