In 2003, there were a series of kidnappings in southern Algeria in which a total of 31 Europeans were taken hostage. The Bush Administration claimed that this was proof of a global terror network operating in Africa, and used the incidents to justify the expansion of American military activity on the continent as part of the global "War on Terror".
In The Dark Sahara, anthropologist Jeremy Keenan, the West's most knowledgeable source on the Tuareg and southern Saharan culture, uses his vast amount of experience, field knowledge, research and political insight to examine the question of who was responsible for, and who profited from, these events. The Dark Sahara is an academic detective story with a political edge, constructing and deconstructing alternative narratives with the hope that what remains casts light on events cloaked in shadows. Keenan works hard to establish motive, means and opportunity, and he goes the full distance in establishing the first and third of these elements - yet absolute proof of the second element remains to be found.
It is a complex story with a cast of characters reminiscent of John le Carre's work: the mysterious "El Para", a former member of the Algerian military, reportedly trained by US Special Forces at Fort Bragg and allegedly one of the masterminds behind the kidnappings; and Mokhtar Ben Mokhtar, nicknamed the "Phantom of the Sahara", whose exploits, movements and vague identity give him a Keyser Soze-like reputation.
Keenan establishes clear motives for the involvement of both US and Algerian military forces. Whether or not the US played a direct role in the kidnappings, it certainly exploited the opportunities they provided.
Keenan links the growing importance of African petroleum with the US' desire for an increased military presence. Without active, demonstrable African terror networks, however, the US faced difficulties in establishing the need to expand its military activities there. Keenan argues that the expansive liquefied natural gas resources in Algeria, Nigeria and Libya provided the motive for the US to exploit, or even engineer, these kidnappings as a means of rationalising an increased military presence with the growth of the United States African Command (AFRICOM) and other agencies. He contends that the kidnappings provided the missing terrorist activities needed to ramp up the War on Terror.
But more powerful than his identification of these Machiavellian motives and opportunities is his analysis - based on decades of ethnographic experience of the region - that establishes a convincing anti-motive for the Tuareg to have been involved in these events: the measly few million euros earned in ransom was a pittance compared with the near-billions already earned from smuggling operations. Indeed, these lucrative activities would be threatened by the sort of military attention the kidnappings would inevitably bring.
While military and intelligence agencies have the means and opportunity to carry out covert operations such as kidnappings, the weakness in definitively establishing Keenan's case is the limited evidence he produces establishing direct American or Algerian culpability.
However, he documents an impressive number of elements in the Algerian Government's official version of the kidnappings that simply don't add up, and he explores the possibility that the Algerian and US governments made use of the opportunities offered by these events, or played a direct, covert role in them.
Some of the irregularities in the official version of events identified by Keenan are astounding. For example, one of the soon-to-be-kidnapped group's immediate whereabouts and timetable was known only to an Algerian military commander at a desert checkpoint, yet after the group's vehicle broke down, the occupants spent an unexpected night camping in dunes. When they were stopped by bandits the following day, they were asked: "What has taken you so long?"
Instances of the Tuareg alerting the Algerian military about suspicious activity by armed groups linked to the kidnappers, only to be ignored, raise serious questions, as does Keenan's attempt to connect the bandit El Para to Algerian and US forces.
Keenan's analysis draws important attention to the global politics at work in Africa. He gives the available information on the kidnappings a close critical reading and, while his interpretations of the data are reasonable and he presents motives, means and opportunity for Algerian or American collusion, there is no definitive proof of US involvement - although definitive proof would necessarily be difficult to come by if the subject at hand is intentionally obscured, like a wilderness of mirrors.
In The Dark Sahara, Keenan establishes that, even without direct involvement in the initial kidnappings, the US exploited a relatively minor instance of desert banditry as a justification to expand the War on Terror into a new sphere.
Keenan is to be commended for examining so critically how the US empire exploits regional events to justify military expansion.
The Dark Sahara: America's War on Terror in Africa
By Jeremy Keenan
Pluto Press 256pp, £60.00 and £17.99
ISBN 9780745324531 and 24524
Published 22 June 2009