It came from the desert

According to American and European intelligence and military sources, there is a growing menace to Western security in (to use the intervention-justifying cliché of recent times) “the vast ungoverned spaces” of northwest Africa. A New York Times story published earlier this month itemized a string of violent events in the region that officials blame on Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group that apparently formed in the final years of the Algerian civil war of the 1990s and that was until recently known as the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC).

“Is there a threat? There sure is a threat,” Gen. William E. “Kip” Ward, commander of the two-year old United States Africa Command, told journalists in June, and the NYT piece echoes his tone of certainty. By only its third paragraph, the idea that the incidents “reflect Al Qaeda’s growing tentacles” in the region has already appeared as a foundational assumption.

Yet follow the story into its details and ambiguities arise. One analyst points out that the religious soil of the southern Sahara — based on a Sufi-influenced form of Islam in large part — would be inhospitable to an extremist group like Al Qaeda. Further, the intelligence that supports the “tentacles” thesis seems to be based on some fairly thin gruel. “Some American intelligence analysts say there are initial signs that small numbers of foreign fighters from North Africa who fought in Iraq are returning home”. Initial signs. Small numbers. Returning home to do what? There are more maybes to this case than the headline implies.

The map that accompanies the story shows the location of all of the violent incidents mentioned. But rather than presenting a neat picture of repeated operations in a given area — the general mode of insurgents around the world — the map shows a remarkably wide dispersion of both locations and types of event. In northern Algeria, two insurgent-style attacks against police convoys and a gunfight with a unit of paratroopers. In Mali, about 1000 miles to the south on the other side of the Sahara desert, an assassination of a Mali intelligence officer and a subsequent battle with the army. And finally — separated from each other by another 1000-mile space, this time east to west — the killing of an American aid worker on the Atlantic coast of Mauritania, and the kidnapping of four European tourists in Niger. (Canadian readers may note that the map and the article do not mention the kidnapping in Niger of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, his aide, and their UN driver in December).

Tying all of these diverse acts of violence together is a website that claims to speak for AQIM, and that takes credit for these and other such events. But in the absence of such a site, we might have reasonably concluded instead that the map depicts three or four distinct phenomena: a continued insurgency in Algeria, a nascent insurgency in Mali, and some scattered (if high profile) criminal activity in Mauritania and Niger.

Anthropologist Jeremy Keenan, director of the University of Bristol’s Saharan Studies Program and author of The Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror in Africa, doesn’t believe in AQIM or the GSPC. “Probably 90% of the Saharan population just knows that the GSPC is just a pseudonym for the Algerian security services, and there’s a lot of truth in that,” he told the BBC just after the US held Flintlock 2005, a set of military exercises conducted with seven countries in the region. Keenan has reason for his skepticism, having spent years working closely with the Tuaregs, the ancient nomadic tribes of the Sahara. As a people, they have had a front row seat to the supposed war on terror in the region.

In “The Banana Theory of Terrorism: Alternative Truths and the Collapse of the ‘Second’ (Saharan) Front in the War on Terror” (published in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies), Keenan contrasts the “official” truth of American security officials with an “alternative” truth that he has built over seven years of field research with the Tuareg. “The entire war on terror in the Sahara-Sahel region,” he concludes, “has been fabricated by the military intelligence services of the US and Algeria.”

Keenan considers a 2004 military offensive by US, Algerian, and Malian forces (operating under the Bush administration’s new “Pan-Sahel Initiative”) against the GSPC. Its aim was to sweep the group out of the border areas between Algeria and Mali, an action — so goes the story — that led to a “chase” from Mali through northern Niger and into Chad, culminating in a battle between the GSPC and the Chad army in the Tibesti mountains. Widely publicized, the short campaign helped to confirm the popular perception of Africa as a second front in the war on terror.

The rather big wrinkle in the story, writes Keenan, is that there is no evidence that this chase actually happened. Local people living along the claimed route deny having seen any military forces at all in that time period, and the group of “terrorists” in question are reported by witnesses as having entirely insufficient fuel supplies for a 2000 km drive to Chad. As for the climactic battle in the Tibesti mountains, Keenan notes that “after two years of scratching around in the area of the reported battle (SW Wour), [the Tuareg] have still not found a single cartridge case or other material evidence of a battle.”

Keenan believes that the United States may well be colluding with Algeria and nearby states to build popular support for a US military involvement in the region by hyping the threat from “Al Qaeda-linked” terrorists. America benefits from this collaboration by tying another large region of the world (a region, by the way, that includes oil-rich Nigeria) into its client state system, and local governments benefit by getting access to American weaponry and intelligence for use in their own counter-insurgency campaigns. This would be especially attractive to Algeria, which was a near-pariah during the vicious civil war of the 1990s.

Given that America’s two most recent multi-year wars were launched on false pretenses (think Gulf of Tonkin and Iraqi WMD), the notion that the US government may well be trumping up the terrorist threat in northwest Africa cannot be dismissed. But whatever the truth of Keenan’s collusion thesis may ultimately be, the incessant media and government drumbeat about “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” does at the very least blind us to the complexity of the region itself, and to the dominant role that local issues have played in sparking and perpetuating violent conflict there.

Consider the Tuareg. When states like Mali, Niger, and Algeria were established, Tuareg territories were simply divided up by the map makers and allocated to each state. It was inevitable that this would lead to tensions, and subsequent disagreements over resource ownership, language policy, and political autonomy have only added to the pressures. A Tuareg uprising in Mali occurred in the 1960s, violent demonstrations against Algerian cultural policies occurred in 1980, and a full-scale insurgency broke out in 1990 in both Mali and Niger after police reprisals for the killing of two officers in a Tuareg refugee camp led to the massacre of literally hundreds of nomads. The war led to the scattering around the region of hundreds of thousands of Tuareg refugees, and only ended with peace agreements in the mid-1990s. Conflict broke out again in 2007 in both Mali and Niger, and though ceasefires were concluded in the spring of this year, the violent encounters in Mali highlighted by the New York Times would normally, and quite logically, be attributed to Tuareg unrest — that is, if a certain regional bogeyman hadn’t been assigned the blame first.

Likewise, Algeria’s history of civil war provides more than enough context to explain the recent violence there, without having to assume the existence of a pan-Sahel insurgent group with designs on all of northwest Africa and tight links to Al Qaeda proper. If AQIM exists, the presence of the word “Maghreb” in its name may in fact declare its intended geographic focus. While the modern Maghreb is defined by an economic union of Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Mauritania, the more traditional Arabic reference is to that relatively narrow strip of land between the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. The three recent attacks in the northern Algerian towns of Bordj-Bou-Arreridj, Biskra, and Timezrit would roughly fit an area of operations thus defined, and would support the idea that AQIM is indeed a group born of the Algerian civil war, and one that continues to fight it.

The evidence reported in newspapers (as opposed to that provided “on background” by anonymous security officials) supports the modest and undramatic hypothesis that a handful of local and long-standing conflicts are likely to blame for the various events on the NYT‘s list. Yet like those ardent Cold Warriors who once saw the shadowy hand of Moscow or Peking behind every land reform movement or revolutionary struggle in the Third World, the Global War on Terror has bequeathed us a mental framework in which every violent dot is connected by slender thread to a puppet master lurking somewhere in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Not only is this assumption likely to be mistaken, but it can be dangerous too. One of the most ancient games of international politics is the one in which a belligerent draws a major power into its fight by recasting a local dispute into one with “universal” resonance. Civilization vs. barbarism. Freedom vs. Communism. Democracy vs. Islamofascism. Human rights vs. tyranny. These grand distortions work not because our governments fall for them, but because we, the public, do. By accepting the truth of their claims without subjecting them to skeptical review — an activity that is second nature to us when it comes to assessing junk mail or sales pitches — we effectively hand policymakers a blank sheet of paper with our signatures on it. And having done so, we should remind ourselves, we’re responsible for what follows.

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