A sift through sands reveals no grain of truth

December 15, 2006

Anthropologist Jeremy Keenan says his fieldwork in Algeria shows the Bush Administration distorted truth to open a Saharan front in its War on Terror

In the second week of March 2003, 32 European tourists went missing somewhere in southern Algeria. As the wider picture unfolded, it became clear that the tourists had been captured and taken hostage in the Algerian Sahara. The hostage-taking was soon attributed by the Algerian authorities and their American allies to Algeria's Islamist "terrorist" organisation, the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC).

The mastermind of the plot was said to be the GSPC's second-in-command, who went by at least a dozen aliases, including "El Para" after his stint as a parachutist in the Algerian Army.

The hostages were held captive in the mountains of Tamelrik and Immidir, the traditional domain of two groups of northern (now Algerian) Tuareg. After nearly three months, some of the hostages were liberated by an Algerian Army assault. The captors took the remaining hostages to northern Mali, where they were finally released in August 2003 after an alleged ransom payment of €5 million (£3.4 million).

Even before the hostage-taking, the US had identified a swath of territory across the Sahelian regions of the southern Sahara that it presumed was harbouring Islamic militants and Osama bin Laden sympathisers on the run from Afghanistan. There was no hard evidence for this belief. In fact, the opposite was the case. However, the hostage-taking confirmed US suspicions.

Even before the hostages were released, the Bush Administration, drawing on a fraudulent video recording from the Algerian Army's secret service, was branding the Sahara a terror zone and El Para a top al-Qaeda operative and "bin Laden's man in the Sahel".

Between the time of the hostages' release and the end of the year, the entire Central Saharan region of southern Algeria, northern Mali and northern Niger became heavily "securitised", with Algeria reporting various, albeit small-scale, bandit activities in the region. Then in January 2004, following earlier visits from the US Office of Counterterrorism to Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, President George W.

Bush's Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI) rolled into action with the arrival of a US anti-terror team in Nouakchott, Mauritania's capital.

By the end of January, Algerian and Malian forces, reportedly with US support, were said to have driven the GSPC from northern Mali. Then, in a series of engagements, El Para's men were reportedly chased from Niger into Chad by a combined military operation of Niger and Algerian forces, supported by US satellite surveillance. There, thanks to the reported support of US aerial reconnaissance, Chadian forces allegedly engaged El Para's group in early March in a battle lasting three days. Forty-three members of the GSPC were reportedly killed. El Para, however, was reported to have escaped the carnage, only to fall into the hands of the rebel Mouvement pour La Democratie et la Justice au Chad (MDJT). Later, he was handed over to Algeria, allegedly with the help of Libya. According to the Algerian authorities, he remained in military detention until June 2005, when an Algerian court convicted him of "creating an armed terrorist group and spreading terror among the population" and sentenced him to life imprisonment. He was tried in absentia.

Within a year, the US and its allies had transformed the Sahara-Sahel region into a second front in the War on Terror. In the years immediately prior to the hostage-taking in March 2003, no act of terror in the conventional meaning of the term had occurred in this vast region. Yet by the following year, US military commanders described terrorists "swarming"

across the Sahel and the Sahara as a "swamp of terror". Typical of the media hype were articles in The Village Voice such as "Pursuing terrorists in the great desert", "The US military's $500 million gamble to prevent the next Afghanistan" and "Hunting the bin Laden of the Sahara".

The US spin on these events was thoroughly misleading. As a result of more or less continuous and at times microscopically detailed field research, we now know that all the incidents used to justify the launch of this new front in the War on Terror simply did not happen or were fabricated by US and Algerian military intelligence services.

El Para was not "bin Laden's man in the Sahara" but an agent of Algeria's counterterrorist organisation, the Direction des Renseignements et de la Sécurité (DRS), whom many Algerians believe was trained by the US military as a Green Beret at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in the 1990s. There is a certain irony in the fact that such key "terrorists" may have been US-trained. More serious, it seems that through his training and infiltration of the GSPC he was part of Algerian "state terrorism". Indeed, almost every statement issued by the Algerians in the course of the hostage drama has now been proven to be false. For example, there is strong evidence that elements in the Algerian security forces communicated the travel schedules of those taken hostage to their captors.

Moreover, the people who live in the region where El Para and his men were alleged to have been chased, mostly Tuareg nomads and villagers, are adamant that this did not happen. They add that El Para was not even with his men as they stumbled around the Aïr mountains in Niger lost, in search of a guide and having themselves photographed by tourists - hardly the pack drill of top al-Qaeda terrorists. As for the much-lauded battle in Chad, there is no evidence that it happened. Certain leaders of the rebel MDJT say it never occurred, while nomads, after two years of scratching around in the area, have still not found a single cartridge case or other material evidence.

How and why did such a monstrous deception take place? The "how" is simple. First, the Algerian and US military intelligence services channelled a stream of disinformation to an industry of "terrorism experts", conservative ideologues and a compliant media, whose prevailing cut-and-paste culture has made them the perfect apparatchiks for an Administration that operates through the Orwellian concept of "reality control" and "proof by reiteration". The result is that some 3,000 articles have turned the great lie into the official truth. Second, if a story is to be fabricated, it helps if the location is far away and beyond verification. The Sahara is the perfect place: larger than the US and in effect closed to public access.

A particularly good example of being beyond verification is currently in progress. On May 23, 2006, the Tuareg in the Kidal region of northeast Mali rebelled, taking over three military posts for some hours before retreating to their "base camp" in the Tigharghar hills 120km north of Kidal and the same distance from the Algerian border. The rebels are known to have been backed and provisioned by the Algerian DRS with the aim of making it appear as if Libya's leader, Muammar Gaddafi, who had recently opened a consulate in Kidal and was advocating the creation of a Tuareg state across the Sahara, had instigated the rebellion. The rebellion did not spread, largely because other Tuareg groups suspected Algeria's complicity. In the meantime, however, highly publicised skirmishes during September and October have reportedly broken out between the Algerian-backed Tuareg rebels and alleged GSPC terrorists, thought by many local Tuareg to be former GSPC repentis (repentants) who they know have been sent into Algeria's extreme south by the military authorities presumably, and in their own words, to "cause trouble". In other words, a new and highly publicised phase in the Saharan War on Terror is taking shape in which both parties, the Algerian-backed Malian Tuareg "rebels" and the GSPC, appear to be manipulated by Algeria's counterterrorist services. Most Tuareg are aware of this situation. However, they are also aware of a potentially far more dangerous third-party involvement in this developing scenario, namely the presence of US forces.

These US forces, initially reported by several local informants as numbering some 400, plus dogs, were seen in February-March 2006 at the new Algerian-US military base being built at Tamanrasset, the administrative capital of Algeria's extreme south. My inquiries to US authorities about the presence of US troops at the base have resulted in adamant denials. In the wake of these denials, further field research has gained access to Algerian flight records of planes arriving at Tamanrasset during that period. They reveal that at least two US military flights landed at Tamanrasset on February 16, 2006, carrying 100 Special Forces personnel and their dogs. A third flight, reportedly carrying "surveillance and listening equipment" for the new base, arrived the next day. Further inquiries among local people have also revealed that these same troops travelled overland, passing into northern Mali on a date that they recorded as "at the same time as the Adrar clashes" (the Kidal rebellion).

Why were US Special Forces and their dogs in northeast Mali? The answer has much to do with Washington's banana theory of terrorism, so named because of the banana-shaped route Washington believed the dislodged terrorists from Afghanistan were taking into Africa and across the Sahelian countries of Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania to link up with Islamist militants in the Maghreb. Hard evidence for this theory was lacking. There was little or no Islamic extremism in the Sahel, no indigenous cases of terrorism and no firm evidence that terrorists from Afghanistan, Pakistan or the Middle East were taking this route.

Washington appears to have based its notion on an unpublished academic commentary, Algerian press reports on banditry in the Sahel and associated smuggling across the Sahara. It also misconstrued the Tablighi Jamaat movement, whose 200 or so members in Mali are nicknamed "the Pakistanis" because the sect's headquarters are in Pakistan. Finally, local government agents told US officials what they wanted to hear.

Notwithstanding lack of evidence, Washington saw a Saharan front as the linchpin in creating the ideological conditions for the militarisation of Africa, especially its oil resources, and for sustaining old Europe involvement in America's contentious counterterrorism programme. More significant, a Saharan front reinforced the cherry-picked intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq by demonstrating that al-Qaeda's influence had spread to North Africa.

Washington's interest in the Sahel and the flimsiness of its intelligence were extremely propitious for Algeria's own designs. As Western countries became aware of the Algerian Army's role in its "dirty war" of the 1990s against Islamic extremists, they became increasingly reluctant to sell it arms for fear of Islamist reprisals and criticism from human rights groups.

As a result, Algeria's Army became progressively under-equipped and increasingly preoccupied with acquiring modern, high-tech weapon systems.

Whereas the Clinton Administration kept its distance, the Bush Administration invited Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika as one of its first guests to Washington. Bouteflika told his American counterpart that his country was seeking specific equipment that would enable it to maintain peace, security and stability.

The attacks on New York and Washington of September 11, 2001, were a golden opportunity for both regimes, especially Algeria, which sold its "expertise" in counterterrorism to Washington on the basis of its long "war" against Islamists through the 1990s that had left 200,000 people dead. This common ground in the War on Terror was the basis of a new US-Algerian relationship. But by late 2002, Algeria was publicly admonishing the US for its tardiness in delivering on promises of military equipment. Washington's caution, however, was justified by the fact that Algeria was on top of its "terrorist" problem and no longer in need of such sophisticated equipment.

El Para was proof that terrorism was far from eradicated in Algeria and that Islamic militancy now linked the Maghreb and Sahel. His activities not only eased Washington's political reticence on military support for Algeria, but also provided the missing link in its banana theory of terrorism.

Who conned who is perhaps immaterial, although the US lack of human intelligence on the ground and its cherry-picking of unverified intelligence certainly made the Bush Administration vulnerable to Algeria's military intelligence services. The Sahara-Sahel replicated the "Chalabi syndrome". However, while Algeria certainly duped US intelligence services, the overall fabrication of the so-called second front involved the collusion of both parties. The extremely close relationship between the two countries' intelligence agencies and the US monitoring of the hostage situation are testimony to Washington's willing participation.

A core issue running through the narrative outlined above is "truth". Against the "official truth" of the US and Algeria, we have the evidence derived from my prolonged and detailed anthropological fieldwork. In the context of the Bush Administration's modus operandi of "proof by reiteration", it is no contest, the current score being something like 3,000 to ten, with this article being one of those ten. These ten are already being written off as conspiracy theory. They will also be rejected for their reliance on "participant observation" and the lack of readily citable sources, unlike the official truth.

In earlier articles on the US intervention in the Sahara-Sahel, when evidence of the "big lie" was still materialising, I spoke of this anthropological evidence as the alternative truth. That should no longer be the case. Such postmodernist nuance implies that all narratives are somehow equal, or at least competing, and empowers the Bush Administration by enabling it to wrap itself in notions of truthfulness in which the existence of everything from torture to wiretaps is open to differing interpretations.

The official truth about the War on Terror on the Sahara-Sahel is a "lie". In making a series of claims about the way in which "terrorism" has unfolded across the Sahara-Sahel, the burden of proof lies with the US and Algerian governments. So far, they have failed to provide verifiable, irrefutable evidence to substantiate their claims. Indeed, their evidence, such as it is, is little more than constant repetition of their own statements of what they would like us to believe.

The anthropological evidence, in contrast, is derived from prolonged investigative field research. It has two things going for it. First, it is what most of the region's indigenous people actually believe. Second, it contains an overwhelming amount of data that reveal that what we have seen constructed in the Sahara-Sahel is a conspiracy, perhaps one of the most audacious of modern times.

So far, this conspiracy has succeeded admirably well in that it has achieved most of the objectives of both the US and Algerian governments. For the US especially, it has provided the ideological conditions for the securitisation and militarisation of most of the continent. However, this deception has done immense damage to the peoples and fabric of the Sahara-Sahel region. The launch of a Saharan front in the War on Terror has not put an end to terror in the region for the simple reason that there was none to start with. But it has created immense anger, frustration, rebellion, political instability and insecurity across the entire region.

The successful Mauritanian coup (2005), the Tuareg rebellion in Niger (2004-05), the riots in southern Algeria (2005) and the Tuareg rebellion in Mali in May of this year as well as the ongoing political crisis in Chad are all direct outcomes of this policy. America's imperialist intervention in the Sahara-Sahel has also destroyed the region's tourism industry and the livelihoods of families, forcing hundreds of young men into the burgeoning smuggling and trafficking businesses for a living. In Washington, the same people who failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and al-Qaeda links to Saddam Hussein are now busy classifying these innocent victims of US foreign policy as putative "terrorists". The region and its people have been "securitised" and are being rebranded as "terrorists". For what other reason did the Italian police name their operation against a suspected terrorist cell in Milan on October 2 "Operation Tuareg"?

The terrible irony is that this attempt to fight "terrorists" in what was a terrorism-free region and against a people who were, and predominantly still are, strongly opposed to Salafiste doctrines is likely to produce the very movements and activities that the US Government claimed it wanted to expunge in the first place.

While this story raises many questions about the nature of US foreign policy, its War on Terror and its imperial designs on Africa and elsewhere, it also raises many questions about the role and responsibilities of anthropologists.

The situation in the Sahara-Sahel is not unique. However, there are a number of things, such as the difficulty of access to many regions of the world, the unacceptability and perhaps even inappropriateness of anthropological intrusions (participation) among an increasing number of peoples, the postmodernist partial withdrawal from the field, as well as concern for many of the questions and issues raised by postmodernism itself, which incline me to believe that many anthropologists have had to beat tactical retreats from, or not even enter in the first place, such politically sensitive and perhaps dangerous situations. Fieldwork in such situations often requires ingenious methods of research that are not found in teaching manuals and that themselves raise ethical, and even life-and-death issues. And for these, the anthropologist is usually on their own.

The role of the anthropologist in such situations must be to provide field-based information that can provide a counter-check to the propaganda provided by the ever growing (and increasingly privatised) intelligence and other war agencies. At the very least, the anthropologist must be the witness, the recorder, perhaps the interpreter and, where necessary, the author of the "truth".

Anthropologists have a key role to play in the War on Terror: to remain located outside the corrupting sphere of intelligence agencies and government bodies and to act as independent witnesses and reporters. This requires considerable courage, not necessarily because of dangers in the field situation, but because access to the field, on which the anthropologist's professional career often depends, is likely to be terminated.

Even more serious for anthropologists in American universities is that such actions, especially in the prevailing McCarthyism of the Bush-Cheney Administration, may increasingly lead to self-censorship as the result of threats to employment prospects. There is no certainty that similar pressures will not be brought to bear on anthropologists and other academics in the UK. After all, it was only in October that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's offer of £1.3 million to the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council attempted to inveigle academics, anthropologists in particular, to help it in "Combating Terrorism by Countering Radicalisation".

Jeremy Keenan is teaching fellow, department of anthropology and archaeology, Bristol University, and visiting professor, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter University. His anthropological fieldwork among the Tuareg began in the 1960s. This is an edited version of an article published this month in Anthropology Today .

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