Identifying the enemy in the Sahel

For fear of too-closely echoing Aaron and quickly making this blog a forum only for angry ranting and ad hominem attacks against noted and widely-published, respected figures, I want to make clear that what follows is not so much an attack as a plea for better citation of evidence as well as a fairer discussion of context when dealing with Sahelian politics. Caveat Lector.

When I saw SOAS researcher and Tuareg expert Jeremy Keenan‘s new Al-Jazeera piece on the most recent bin Laden audiotape and the Sahel, I already had a rough idea where it would go, or at least where it would begin. And indeed, Keenan didn’t disappoint. After a brief discussion of the tape (which I covered separately here), my thoughts tracked roughly with Keenan’s that bin Laden’s “blessing” of the September 16 kidnapping of seven employees of the nuclear giant Areva and a subsidiary in Niger would be “transformative.”

And then, with, “This is because al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahara-Sahel was a creation of the Algerian DRS (Direction du Renseignement et la Sécurité) with its three main emirs in the Sahara-Sahel – Abdelhamid abou Zaïd, Yahia Djouadi and Mokhtar ben Mokhtar (all with many aliases) – being strongly suspected of being DRS agents,” Keenan promptly lost me.

I’ve never been a particularly big fan of this theory. On the one hand, there has been consistent suspicion for years that the DRS, the main Algerian intelligence service, was working with Islamist terrorist groups in some fashion. Notably former Algerian and French officers as well as some writers and even other jihadist groups have accused the DRS and various army units of at least some coordination with, if not infiltration of, units of the hyper-violent Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA) during Algeria’s civil war, and the treatment of certain key militants in more recent years has continued to fuel speculation about dirty tricks and terrorism in Algeria. For instance, the former commander of the GIA splinter group (and AQIM forerunner) the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC), Abdelrazek el-Para, has still not seen a court room despite having been arrested in Chad in 2004 and ruled by a court to still be at large when he had been, for several months, in the custody of Algerian authorities. He has since renounced terrorism, and not been punished. And the first GSPC leader, Hassan Hattab, currently lives freely in Algiers after having broken with the group in 2003 and renounced terrorism several times in the past years, despite at one point being subject to a death sentence for his role in the anti-government insurgency, and threatened with death by his former compatriots.

For some, this anecdotal evidence (evidence of what, I’m not quite sure) is enough to suggest that the Algerian security services are in league with AQIM. While this isn’t impossible, and the DRS and Algerian military were certainly responsible for horrible things and nasty coverups during the civil war and after, there’s simply no real evidence that these ties exist. Now, absence of evidence is not by any means the evidence of absence, but the available information does not allow one to make claims such as, “The DRS created AQIM” especially when AQIM sprang from the GSPC, which was in turn a reaction to the insane violence of the GIA, which itself was founded by a group of “Afghan Arabs” who eventually took over from a host of other armed militant groups waging war against Algeria’s government in 1992. You get the picture.

This is something Keenan does fairly regularly, asserting as fact the idea that the DRS created and to a certain extent ran or still runs AQIM, but without any sort of specific or even general sourcing for his claims or reference to specific other people who agree with him.

Keenan also contradicts his own argument about the level of DRS “control” of AQIM. He writes:

Between the end of 2008 and this year, as the group’s estimated strength increased from around 200 to some 300 to 400, its composition changed. As young Mauritanian Islamists have become increasingly attracted to the Sahara Emirate, as they call it, so they have come to outnumber Algerians, possibly diminishing DRS influence and control over the group.

Indications are that AQIM recruitment from young and more ‘Islamist’ and ‘jihadist’ elements in the region leapt in the wake of the disastrous Franco-Mauritanian raids into Mali on July 22, ostensibly to liberate the French hostage Michel Germaneau, and again after September 16 when France’s ally (‘proxy’) Mauritania, which had joined France in ‘declaring war’ on AQIM, was given a very bloody nose by AQIM fighters at Ras el Ma (west of Timbuktu).

Keenan’s assessment of AQIM’s changing composition fits with reports from the region, the increased pace of attacks against Mauritanian civil and military targets stretching back several years,  and AQIM propaganda, which has tried not only to showcase the group’s increasingly diverse (and increasingly Moorish) composition but to attract more Moors, as well as Haussa speakers and Tuareg.

That said, Keenan’s point about changing AQIM recruitment targets and composition undermine his image of a DRS-controlled or -infiltrated AQIM; if Belmokhtar, Abu Zeid and Djouadi are all DRS agents, why would they recruit in a way that would, as Keenan put it, diminish DRS influence? And would the all-powerful DRS continue to tolerate an increasingly dangerous, large, and wealthy organization slide out of its control? And even assuming that the origins of AQIM are as Keenan suggests, his own point about the organization’s changing structure would suggest that the group is becoming more localized and more organic to the Sahel. This in turn means that AQIM could pose a genuine regional threat, a fact and flaw in his argument that Keenan refuses to address.

The second major issue with this article is that it takes at face value the negative statements other Sahelian countries make with regards to Algeria, terrorism, and AQIM without mentioning the context behind those statements. Case in point:

Most of Algeria’s neighbours have recently begun to accuse it of being in some way responsible for the development of the AQIM ‘terrorist’ threat in the Sahel.

Cheikh El Moctar Ould Horma, Mauritania’s minister of health, recently ‘suggested’ that Algeria was the ‘porte-parole’ (spokesperson) for AQIM; elements in the Moroccan media have accused Washington of appeasing Algeria in its relationship with and use of AQIM as a ‘terrorist’ organisation; a senior member of Mali’s security forces accused the DRS of being ‘at the heart of AQIM’; Niger is angry with the role played by Algeria’s DRS in the political destabilisation of its northern regions; while Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s leader, has suggested euphemistically that the problem in the region is Algeria’s DRS.

Again, we have the problem of broad statements made without any hint at the evidence (or, in the case of Niger, a statement made about an entire government in one line). But more importantly, Keenan makes this statement and then fails to acknowledge the general reasons why various countries in the region are upset with Algeria that don’t have to do with Keenan’s claims about Algeria creating AQIM, or the specific motivations behind the statements.

Let’s start with the regional context; Algeria has by far the largest and most combat-tested military in the region, and specifically in the Sahel likes to throw its weight around. While there has been cooperation between the major Sahelian countries (Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger) and others on counterterrorism issues, including various intelligence and military discussions as well as the creation of a joint military headquarters at Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria, Algeria often does not see eye-to-eye with its neighbors on AQIM, ransom payments for hostages, and more.

More locally, Algeria has been critical of Mauritanian anti-AQIM operations in Mali,  lashed out in July against Franco-Mauritanian operations against AQIM as well as cooperation between Mauritania and Mali on ransom payments that led to the liberation of two Spanish hostages in exchange for AQIM-linked kidnapper Omar al-Sahrawi (and several million euros). More recently, Algeria rather petulantly ridiculed the “incompetence” of the Malian army in fighting AQIM on their own territory.

But more important to understanding the context behind anti-Algeria statements is one of the seminal issues in the Sahel, the presence of the various Tuareg populations that reside in it. Relations between Algeria and Mali have been tense for several years in part due to Algerian intervention over Mali’s trouble with its Tuareg; Algeria helped negotiate an end to Mali’s most recent Tuareg rebellion in 2006, and has since been pushing (directly and in the Algerian press) for more Tuareg autonomy as well as the arming of Tuareg in order to help keep security in northern Mali, something that is part of the Algiers Accords that ended the conflict, but understandably worries Mali. In Niger the same is true, where in the wake of a more recent Tuareg rebellion both Algeria and Libya have tried to take leadership roles in “settling” the conflict, raising the prospect of more money and support going to Nigerien Tuareg, to the detriment of the Nigerien government (especially in the wake of September’s kidnapping, which led some to ask if Niger’s Tuareg, in the absence of government support and money, are being radicalized by AQIM).

And then, of course, there’s Morocco. While the now decades-long animosity between the two is due to the conflict in Western Sahara, and Algerian support for the pro-independence Polisario front, Morocco has for the past several months attempted to use terrorism and AQIM to propel themselves into a position of influence in the Sahel. Moroccan media sources and friendly writers and “experts” have been talking increasingly of late about links between the Polisario and AQIM, even though there is little or no evidence of any linkage beyond a few scattered Sahrawis joining or partnering with the group.

By establishing a link between an Algerian-supported group and terrorism, Morocco stands to gain several very real benefits; among other things, this link could get Morocco access to counterterrorism money that the EU and U.S. are pouring into the region, threatening the credibility of Morocco’s negotiating adversary in talks about the future of Western Sahara (in addition to strengthening Morocco’s case for their “autonomy” proposal which guarantees Morocco’s right to guard Western Sahara’s borders) and undermines confidence in Algeria’s anti-terrorism leadership. Gaining inclusion into the terrorism debate in the Sahel also gains Morocco access to regional counterterrorism forums, such as the recent G8-sponsored summit in Bamako, which Algeria predictably boycotted because of Morocco’s presence.

None of this is to say that other countries do not have reason to be pushing back against Algeria for their own efforts to assert their place in the Sahel and against AQIM; rather, it is to demonstrate just a fraction of the incredible complexity of the power dynamics in the region, which covers the fighting between regional powers (Algeria, Libya, Morocco) for influence and power, amongst both Western and Sahelian countries, long-running power struggles between Morocco and Algeria, internal and inter-Sahelian conflicts that touch Mauritania, Mali and Niger, and the ongoing efforts of these countries to defend their own sovereignty against outside intervention. With all of the countries (and the West) concerned about terrorism in the region, it makes sense that the threat of terrorism could be wielded in public as a response to a whole host of conflicts. Instead, Keenan simply takes these claims at face value in order to criticize Algeria, without looking at any of the underlying motivations each state might have to play the terrorism card.

This is at heart my greatest issue with Keenan’s writing, his unquestioning acceptance of accusations that benefit his argument without any exploration either of the truth of his evidence or the varied and shifting motivations of outside actors for talking about terrorism the way they do. Sourcing, context, and questioning are an analysts’ friend, and in the absence of those three Keenan becomes an advocate at best, a polemicist at worst. And until that changes, his work should be read with an eye not to what Keenan argues, but rather to what he leaves out.

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8 Responses to Identifying the enemy in the Sahel

  1. alle says:

    Thank you! A voice of reason, finally. Keenan has been poisoning the debate for years, and so many people take him at face value just because there’s no one around to call him out on his myriad inconsistencies. Sure he spins a good tale, but only by skipping over everything that doesn’t fit into his narrative.

    While he clearly knows the Sahel quite well, it’s equally obvious he doesn’t have a clue about jihadist politics, doesn’t speak Arabic, and doesn’t really care about what’s true or not, as long as he can push his pet theory and get some bylines in the paper. I’ve never seen him cite any of the many statements by al-Qaida central that confirms their sponsorship of AQIM, nor anything written by people who actually (unlike him) do know something about Algerian jihadism — like Camille al-Tawil at al-Hayat, who has been tracking the GIA faction that developed into AQIM since the mid-nineties, and clearly treats it as a proper AQ franchise.

    I mean, if he did bother to acknowledge these things, there are some really basic questions that he would need to answer: Why does Ayman al-Zawahiri and bin Ladin recognize AQIM as a bona fide AQ wing if “everyone” knows its really a front for the DRS and the CIA? Are al-Qaida’s top leaders not particularly concerned about infiltration, or are they perhaps also secret agents of this great DRS-CIA cabal? Keenan doesn’t even acknowledge such basic flaws in his argument, he hides them and hopes that people won’t notice — and sadly, most people don’t. It’s an incredibly dishonest way of treating a serious issue, and it has real world consequences. This group kills tens and sometimes hundreds of people every year (although the handful of Europeans get all the attention), and for him to claim it doesn’t actually exist really isn’t helping.

    Now, I do think there’s a debate to be had about how the Algerian gov/military treats the jihadi problem. It is being shamelessly exploited domestically, where it is used to justify all sorts of repressive laws, and I’m also open to the possibility that security infiltration of GIA/GSPC/AQIM has at times crossed the border into conscious manipulation, although obviously not to the absurd degree proposed by Keenan. It certainly wouldn’t be beyond the Algerian state morally (perhaps in terms of competence, though).

    But, as you write, people who want to investigate that side of AQIM should be looking for evidence, not making up wild tales of what could have happened. Occam’s razor is right there for anyone who wants to use it — it’s just that Keenan doesn’t want to, since it would shave off 95% of his theory.

    • Kal says:

      All excellent points.

      While he clearly knows the Sahel quite well, it’s equally obvious he doesn’t have a clue about jihadist politics, doesn’t speak Arabic, and doesn’t really care about what’s true or not, as long as he can push his pet theory and get some bylines in the paper. I’ve never seen him cite any of the many statements by al-Qaida central that confirms their sponsorship of AQIM, nor anything written by people who actually (unlike him) do know something about Algerian jihadism — like Camille al-Tawil at al-Hayat, who has been tracking the GIA faction that developed into AQIM since the mid-nineties, and clearly treats it as a proper AQ franchise.

      His Dark Sahara actually has close to no Arabic citations and has only two references to Morocco and almost none to Russia, when writing about Algeria’s “desire” for more American weapons and its defense posture. It also references his own work excessively, includes only a “list of other works by Jeremy Keenan” (which is labeled as the “bibliography”) and constantly has has lines like “more information on this is my next book” or “an expanded version of this is online at…”; tons of illogic such as “all Algerian news reports in this period must be regarded as disinformation” … as he continues to cite them almost exclusively (with some reports from Le Monde, Guardian, Telegraph, etc.). He also has footnotes like “I spend X Y Z hours on the phone with this reporter who did not quote any of what I said”; as well as footnotes that read EXACTLY as the sentences they supposedly reference or provide evidence of. Even more obnoxiously, he complains that his own tourism company suffered as a result of the downturn in tourism after the 03 kidnappings and blames it on the DRS-CIA-AQIM conspiracy.

      There are so many gaps and omissions and hyperbolic statements (such as section headers like “a diabolical plot” and adjectives like “evil” and so on) that it’s frustrating to even attempt to review because its just so, so bizarrely terrible. And with all his theorizing and accusations of disinformation he has the gaul to provide no bibliography and to call a self-promoting CV insert a “bibliography”! Add to this academic slams on his work in the journals (to which he almost never responds) and you have the essence of that saying “a lie (perhaps too strong here) told often enough becomes fact”.

  2. Tommy Miles says:

    This is indeed a valuable corrective, Andrew, and I think you are correct that Keenan’s Dark Sahara is accepted by journalists largely through ignorance of the region.

    Let me say that Keenan’s earlier writing is invaluable, and is the fruit of two long stays among the Ahaggar Tuareg in the 70s and again in the 90s (hence 1977′s The Tuareg & the essays collected in the more recent Lesser Gods of the Sahara). But since he has gone off the deep end, which is sad.

    There is nothing, I would argue, progressive or anti-Imperialist about Keenan’s motivations here, despite the ill-judged attentions of many on the left. They do themselves a disservice in giving Keenan’s recent writing a stage.

    Keenan’s problem is, and I think always has been, one which grows out of his disciple (Anthropology) and his subject (the Tuareg).

    Anthropologists, at least in the last two generations, often see their job as placing themselves within a subject culture, and then stepping out to decode that culture for outsiders. Keenan did this magnificently in the 1970s. But he’s also found himself uncritically repeating many of the conspiracy theories rife in some elements of disaffected upper class Tuareg youth who fled abroad, and returned during the 90s rebellions. I compare this with a writer like Baz LeCoq (whose “Disputed Desert: Decolonization, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali ” is due out this month). LeCoq is a firm ally of the Tuareg people he has studied, but is quite explicit in his condemnation of the racism and particularism found prevalent in upper class circles. [This is not to single out Tuareg communities. Such things are found in most societies, and among many of their neighbors. But that doesn’t make it OK].

    Contrast this to Keenan writing about the history of slavery and color bars in Tuareg society. His extensive and detailed works are mostly silent on these topics, and quite defensive when does mention them. In short, I’ve always felt that Keenan is yet another of the western romantic tradition that has since Henri Duveyrier found themselves drawn to Tuareg culture.

    From the 2006 Malian rebellion, Keenan seems to have taken this romantic defense of Tuareg communities to a ridiculous extreme, ascribing any violence that draws the attention of the international community to “dark forces” outside Tuareg communities. His pinning of this on the Algerian government reflects his long stay in the Ahaggar and his sympathy with locals who have long been victim of that state. His marring of this with US imperial ambitions seems entirely drawn from US post-9/11 rampages in other parts of the world, upon which he, his informers (and I, indecently)agree. But this is not evidence of specific US involvement with the Algerian secret service, especially as it seems the US is much more keen on leveraging Morocco, or Algeria’s hegemonic rivals south of the Sahara as a clients.

    Let us not throw out the truth that may be stewing in Keenan’s dubious bathwater, though. AQIM has evolved out of Algerian realities, and these may include state operatives (as well as smugglers, local notables, etc). But you rightly point out that its time festering in the Sahel has allowed it to fit into local realities: radicalism and anti-state protest in Mauritania, smuggling and local elites independence aspirations in Mali, and both criminal and anti-imperial disorder in Agadez Region. Those problems have to be tackled, in the way firefighters rip out walls to keep fire from spreading. What’s at risk may be nothing like AQ Islamism, but more a stew poverty, rentier-neocolonialism, arms, crime, and irredentism that must be tackled at its base.

    The saddest part of Keenan’s recent writing is that it distracts progressives from seeing clearly these problems, and instead diverts them to read their own conflicts and romanticisms onto an African subject.

  3. alle says:

    Hey, I’m happy to report that Keenan will release another book on the same subject in a few months, where I’m sure he will treat these problems more responsibly. I mean, what’s not to like about the Amazon blurb?

    In The Dark Sahara ( Pluto Press, 2009), Jeremy Keenan exposed the collusion between the US and Algeria in fabricating ‘false flag’ terrorism to justify the launch of a new ‘Saharan front’ in Washington’s War on Terror. In this new book, he reveals how the Pentagon’s designation of the region as a ‘Terror Zone’ has destroyed the lives and livelihoods of thousands of innocent people. Beginning in 2004, with what local people called the US ‘invasion’ of the Sahel, The Dying Sahara shows how repressive, authoritarian regimes, cashing in on US terrorism ‘rents’, provoked Tuareg rebellions in both Niger and Mali. Multinationals expropriated Tuareg lands for uranium and puppeteers in Washington and Algiers pulled the strings of a new, narco-trafficking Al Qaeda. Keenan’s chillingly detailed research shows that the US and its new combatant African command (AFRICOM), far from bringing security, peace and development, have created a self-fulfilling prophecy of terror and instability in a region the size of western Europe.

    • Kal says:

      This is what I was talking about in my post above; Dark Sahara is basically a giant ad for the Dying Sahara and he claims his “evidence” in elaborated in his forthcoming book. We’ll see.

  4. tidinit says:

    Hum! Interesting. Will read again.

  5. Heya just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know a few of the images aren’t loading correctly. I’m not sure why but I
    think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different internet browsers and both show the same results.

  6. Can I simply just say what a relief to find a person that actually understands
    what they’re discussing on the net. You definitely know how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More and more people ought to read this and understand this side of your story. I was surprised that you aren’t more popular because you definitely possess the
    gift.

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