As promised by Rob, here is my assessment of the ‘war on terror’ in the southern Sahara. While I dislike the term ‘war on terror’, nothing better exists so I’ll use it in this essay. First I’ll give a brief overview of the various groups, then I’ll evaluate the Trans Saharan Counter Terrorism Partnership, a US Department of State and Defense operation in northern Africa. One theme you might notice throughout the essay is “X happened, or possibly the opposite happened instead.” It’s extremely difficult (perhaps impossible) to really know what is going on in this area of the world. A couple observers blame this on the nature of local media, but whatever the cause, the facts are frequently up in the air.
AQIM stands for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. It was formerly known as the GSPC, or Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. The GSPC started in 1998 when Hassan Hattab, a member of the GIA (an anti-government insurgency started in 1993), created a splinter group and called it the GSPC. Hattab thought that the GIA’s practice of massacring entire villages that they decided had betrayed Islam by siding with the Algerian government was counterproductive. (In fact some former Algerian mukhabarat members claimed they infiltrated the GIA to push them towards more extreme killings in order to alienate the population). After Hattab started the GSPC, the Algerian government offered an amnesty to GIA members who wanted to stop fighting, and so by 2000 most GIA members had surrendered and the GSPC was the only group left fighting the Algerian government, numbering approximately 300 members (although who really knows, and it’s difficult to define a “member” of an insurgency/terrorist group anyway), most of them in the north of Algeria in Kabylie. The GIA, founded in 1993, only paid attention to southern Algeria starting in 1996 when it declared that foreign oil companies and their employees in the Sahara were fair game as their revenue supported the government. The resulting civilian deaths helped cause the schism between the GIA and Hassan Hattab.
Since this essay concentrates on the southern Sahara, most of the history of the GIA or GSPC is not relevant. The most relevant GSPC people in the southern Sahara are El Para (aka Aberrezak Lamari OR Amari Saifi) and Mokhtar Belmokhtar (real name probably Khalid Abu al-Abbas). El Para allegedly took hostages and moved them throughout the entire Sahara desert, while Mokhtar Belmokhtar was (and possibly still is) the leader of a group loosely affiliated with the GSPC, which funds the northern groups via smuggling.
El Para’s nom de guerre comes from his background in the Algerian special forces as a parachutist. His “terrorist act” was in reality an act of kidnapping and extortion rather than terrorism. He took 32 European (mostly German) tourists hostage in March 2003 and demanded ransom from Germany. He kept them in two groups, one of which was freed by an Algerian military operation. The other was freed when Germany paid a ransom of 5 million euro. Then American, Algerian, Malian and Nigerien military forces chased El Para across the Sahara from Mali to Chad, where he was captured for ransom by the MDJT (the group that drove to Khartoum recently). Libya’s Qaddafi then stepped in and over the course of months helped negotiate with Algeria to get El Para sent back to Algeria where he was either imprisoned or repatriated back into Algerian special forces. The second possibility is because there is an alternative theory that states that El Para never left the Algerian special forces, which is why he was able to evade capture for so long – he was being aided by the Algerian mukhabarrat so that the Algerian government can say “look America, we have a terrorist problem, give us military goodies.” There is a further theory that the United States was in on it in order to further its militarization of Africa policy with the goal of obtaining oil (currently there is a lot of oil prospecting going on in Saharan Niger and Mali). While I doubt the US could keep anything like that secret very well, it is quite possible that El Para was controlled by the DRS especially as it fits with what the DRS did in the 1990s with the GIA.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar is an “Afghan Arab” – he fought in Afghanistan against the USSR and then came back in the 1990s. His claim to fame was controlling a lot of the smuggling in northern Mali, southern Algeria, and northern Niger, mainly in South American cocaine and ciggarettes. He also is allegedly responsible for an attack killing 17 Mauritanian soldiers under the noses of their American trainers. He’s also been killed numerous times (this past February, in September 2006, etc.) and reportedly surrendered for good earlier this year. His gang was frequently described as the “southern wing” of GSPC (now AQIM) but in reality it’s difficult to know how tight he ever was with the GSPC – his smuggling operations raised money for the terrorist activities in northern Algeria but its unlikely he did anything else, and he made a pretty penny for himself in those operations as well. The GSPC alliance with al Qaeda announced in September 2006 (a decision Belmokhtar was totally cut out of) probably alienated Belmokhtar for good. There are reports now that he is living large in Benin, safe from Algerian intelligence in exchange for dishing the goods on the main AQIM. It remains to be seen who will fill the void left by his absence to control smuggling in that corner of the Sahara. It will probably be Yahia Djouadi, formerly head of AQIM’s military committee, or local Tuareg smugglers such as Ibrahim Bahanga.
The Tuareg groups in northern Mali and Niger were the focus of my thesis, finished in May and available online here. Generally Tuareg rebels say they are fighting because they are marginalized socially and economically, shut out of the national life of Mali and Niger, which are both countries dominated by sub-Saharan ethnic groups like Hausa and Bambara (Tuareg are Berbers). It doesn’t hurt that fighting the government is both easy and profitable; easy, because the militaries of Mali and Niger are very small and don’t have the necessary air power to control such a vast space, and profitable because the lawlessness that accompanies guerrilla warfare encourages drug smuggling. On top of this, Libya almost definitely played a role in instigating the violence in 2006 and 2007 by providing arms to the rebels, although lately has changed tack and is helping negotiations to end the fighting.
Tuareg armed groups are fluid and frequently splinter. Ibrahim Bahanga is a Tuareg (Berber nomads) from Mali who has been fighting the Malian government on a part-time basis for about twenty years. The May 23rd Democratic Alliance for Change is a more mainstream Tuareg that started the current rebellion on May 23rd 2006, demanding more government aid and autonomy for the Kidal region. After initial rebel success, the Malian government immediately negotiated a truce and an agreement with the help of Algeria. Bahanga kept fighting, but just recently (on Sept. 10) Mali and Bahanga exchanged all their prisoners and it looks like Bahanga might finally lay down his arms. The Movement of Nigeriens for Justice (MNJ) is still fighting even after a recent split, profiting off the drug trade through the Sahara. They have avoided defeat because of the lack of resources of Niger’s military, because of resupply from Libya, and because of the difficult terrain; however they’ve failed to gain much popular support (my impression from afar is that most locals dislike both sides and want the conflict to stop so they can get their tourism businesses running again).
There are also the low-level smugglers running around the sahara. one reason Bahanga has been able to keep fighting is that a lot of young men join his crew to fight for a little while and get to know the smuggling routes that Bahanga uses, and then they leave Bahanga’s group and go solo, hiring themselves out as guides to other smugglers. The important smuggling routes seem to be three: the first, South American cocaine lands on the West African coast and goes up to the tri-border area of Mauritania, Algeria and Mali, then east skirting Algeria’s border, and then north to the coast in either Libya or Egypt where security officials take over the goods and they are shipped up to Eastern Europe and then into the EU. The second is from illicit cigarette factories in northern Nigeria that make fake Marlboros, north up to Algeria and Libya and into Europe, avoiding the high EU tariffs. The third is people buying groceries and gasoline in Algeria at subsidized prices and a fixed exchange rate and selling them in Niger and Mali – as far as I know, this third route is just low-level stuff, not profitable enough to be worth Belmokhtar, Bahanga or the MNJ’s time.
American military assistance has primarily taken the form of small-unit training and technical assistance, for instance providing GPS navigation units, and radios at border crossings so the Malian and Algerian (for example) units can more easily talk to each other and coordinate their activities. USAID has also been active in the area and one military attache I spoke with said people refer to all US government assistance in the region as falling under the Trans Saharan Counter Terrorism Partnership, a 500 million dollar Pentagon nation-building project that grew out of the much more modest Pan Sahel Initiative, which was just aimed at helping nations control their borders. Obviously military assistance will be under the Pentagon, but even traditional development aid (such as helping set up local radio stations) is part of DoD’s Phase Zero philosophy in which any non-military aid can be viewed as resolving conditions that lead to conflict (and hence under DoD’s scope even though State is supposedly the lead agency). In addition to American aid, the French provide signals intelligence on local rebels, and the Chinese have been giving assistance in the form of helicopters to Niger and Chad (in exchange for oil exploration rights).
The counter-insurgent philosophies of Mali and Niger provide a good contrast to each other. Both countries have very few resources to spend on their militaries. They are patrolling areas the size of France with the equivalent of a few motorized infantry companies each. Mali has gone the political route, negotiating with any rebel or insurgent group that agrees to not seek outright independence (which is all of them). Niger on the other hand has chosen to go the direct military route, refusing to acknowledge any political dimension of the conflict and using search and destroy missions that don’t always end well. Both approaches have their problems. In negotiations, Mali ends up making promises of aid it can’t keep simply because the country is so poor. Nigerien military forces are so far unable to achieve a decision, and so the conflict drags on there too.
The Algerian military is much better equipped due to Algeria’s oil money. With helicopters and better reconnaissance, they are in a better position to control their borders. They also pay Algerian Tuaregs to act as something like national park keepers – this is a joke, everyone knows it is in order to give Tuaregs money so they aren’t forced into aiding smugglers or AQIM and can instead work on their tourism businesses which otherwise wouldn’t be sustainable. Thus southern Algeria isn’t a good environment for transnational drug smuggling, and smugglers try to skirt the Algerian border. It is also not a good environment for terrorism – the Tuareg in Algeria hate terrorism because it kills the tourism that they depend on, there is nowhere to hide in a landscape that looks like this when your opponent has aerial reconnaissance, and there aren’t many good terrorist targets in the south anyway other than well-protected oil infrastructure and military bases (AQIM prefers mountainous ambushes and urban bombings).
So has the Trans Saharan Counter Terrorism Partnership been effective for the United States, in denying terrorists sanctuary in the Sahara desert? American involvement began in 2002 with the Pan Sahel Initiative, during a time of relative peace in the region (the GSPC’s violence was only in northern Algeria). After 6 years of American involvement, the GSPC has spread south, aligned with Al Qaeda, and insurgencies have started in both Mali and Niger. While these events were definitely not caused by American involvement, the US could not stop them either. However it is pretty undeniable that there has been no actual terrorist (as opposed to insurgent) attacks in the Sahara or coming out of the Sahara since the start of TSCTP – it has not become, as was feared, “the next Afghanistan“. But that is probably because there was very little terrorism in the Sahara before TSCTP either (a fact well documented by the ICG, by area expert Jeremy Keenan, and plenty of others). In fact a recent American GAO study criticizes TSCTP for measuring inputs (soldiers trained, etc.) instead of results (decrease in terrorism), but this is largely because it is difficult to decrease something that is already zero. The entire rationale of TSCTP was that in the future maybe something bad might happen, so we better get in there now, which frankly can be used to justify intervention in 95% of the globe. So why was there a TSCTP in the first place? While Keenan believes it is because of America’s thirst for oil, I think there is a better explanation: bureaucracy.
The bureaucratic argument goes like this: with the collapse of any Soviet/Russian military threat, the Pentagon’s European Command (which included Africa before AFRICOM was created in 2007) was “a hammer looking for a nail“. Since “9/11 changed everything” in the American defense/intelligence world, EUCOM needed a counter terrorism project. Their first one was in Georgia from 2002 to 2004. However EUCOM also looked at the Sahara and thought “Afghanistan“, and started the Pan Sahel Initiative, which grew via bureaucratic momentum into the Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative – the Pentagon asked for $125 million and received $500 million over 5 years for the TSCTI (now it is a Partnership – the TSCTP).
David Gutelius, like Jeremy Keenan, is an academic with lots of experience in the region and argues that American policy can end up alienating locals and making them more likely to allow anti-American groups to live in their areas. This is true given the nature of how information travels in the Sahara, a point mentioned in the beginning of this piece. The region is too big for newspapers to be distributed easily, too poor for widespread internet/computers, and TVs are hard for nomads to carry around on camels, so a lot of information is spread by word of mouth/rumors on satellite phones. There is one rumor that an American Special Forces soldier in Gao, Mali, made a scissors cutting motion to a local Muslim guy, joking that he would cut off his beard. Maybe the soldier found it amusing or maybe it never even happened at all, but the story spread at the detriment of the United States. Direct US involvement carries the risk of more stories like this, especially with culturally ignorant soldiers (no fault of their own, they should be trained on this stuff).
I would say the TSCTP has been a waste of money for the United States in the sense that it wasn’t necessary in terms of the American national interest, but the program still has accomplished good things and has been pretty well implemented. It tackled a problem that didn’t exist on the rationale that it might exist in the future, but it did a great job of it. Even if the ability of Mali or Niger to control their borders, to create economic opportunities for their people, and to protect against frequent war and conflict doesn’t directly impact American national security, these are still good things for most of the region (unless you are a nomad or smuggler depending on weak national borders). Under the umbrella of TSCTP, USAID has helped create community radio stations in Mali, State has funded educational exchange programs, and Malian and Nigerien military units receive training not only in tactical skills but also in professionalism (critically that training is done by uniformed American soldiers, not by contractors like some farcical training operations).
The danger is that these short-term benefits may be canceled out by long-term blowback, caused by incidents like the beard-cutting one mentioned above or by a shift from a hands-off strategy to a hands-on strategy like Somalia in which the US isn’t just assisting with intel but is actively killing people. Blowback could take the form of small numbers of locals deciding their government is an American puppet and attacking it, or attacking Western tourists which would harm the economy.
Since this series has been on evaluating America’s response to the 9/11 attacks, my editor has informed me that a grade is called for. I would say “B” for the design of a project (unnecessary, risk of blowback, but a hands-off approach minimizes the risks and costs) and an A for implementation (by government/military efficiency standards of course). Of course if Professor Keenan is correct about cooperation with Algeria and El Para, that grade might drop just as if a student is caught cheating on a test…