The following is an extract from my forthcoming book Kel Tinariwen – A Saharan Odyssey. The context is a visit I made to Tamanrasset in southern Algeria in January 2010, where I stayed with Eyadou Ag Leche, the bassist of Tinariwen. Obviously, the story of AQIM has evolved substantially since then but for present purposes I’ve decided to keep the context intact and limit this extract to the period 1990-2007. I made no reference to subsequent events such as the Touareg uprising of January 2012, the alliance of Touareg Islamist leader Iyad Ag Ghali with AQIM, the Islamist takeover of northern Mali in 2012 or Belmokhtar’s dramatic hostage grab at the In Amenas oil refinery in January 2013. I will be bringing the story up to date before publication, but in the meantime, I hope this offers some useful background today’s dramatic headlines…
Out in the yard of Eyadou’s house, we talked about the Great Game that had gripped the southern Sahara. We asked all the usual questions in the eager hope that Eyadou might be able to throw some light on them. Who exactly are Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb? Why are they allowed to operate in northern eastern Mali? Why has the Adagh, the home of Tinariwen and their ancestors, become a bolt-hole for terrorists and their hostages? Are AQIM involved in the drug trafficking trade? Do they have links with the Touareg in the area? Or with local Arabs? Are they an invention of the Algerian secret services? Are they in cahoots with the Malian government? Is the President of Mali involved in drug trafficking? How come a Boeing 727 can land in the desert, unload up to ten tonnes of coke into a waiting convoy of 4x4s and then get torched without the local authorities intervening or even raising the alarm? Many questions spiralled in and out of each other like eddies of sand. It was as if our vision of the whole problem ended at the tip of our noses.
Eyadou didn’t know the answers either. Not many people know the answers, and those who do aren’t the type to blithely spill the beans over a good lunch. Terrorist emirs, Malian secret service operatives, corrupt local politicians, Saharan drug barons, Algerian generals, politicians in Bamako, Touareg rebel leaders in Kidal, arms dealers from Tamanrasset and Timbuktu, Mauritanian customs chiefs, none of them are the most garrulous conversationalists and raconteurs, especially if they happen to be talking to a western journalist who’s asking too many questions.
There are facts about Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that are reassuringly hard and verifiable. The organisation exists. It’s run by Algerian Arabs. It’s made a home from home in the north east of Mali, on Tinariwen’s native earth. It earns millions and millions of euros from kidnapping westerners. No one knows exactly how much. Every now and then it chops the head off one of its victims. All in the name of Allah.
But beyond that solid core of certainties floats a penumbra of intrigue and supposition, a mist of conspiracy theorising that turns AQIM into a mystery with the power to obsess, like the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster or the grassy knoll in Dallas, Texas. And beneath all that speculative hot air, the people of the deserts, the Kel Tinariwen, languish in misery. Many of them live the truth, a daily gritty unglamorous truth that armchair theorists and analysts cannot know. But most live without knowing the geopolitical mechanisms behind that truth. They know their desert is dying. They know that rain is rarer than it was, that the government 1,500km away in Bamako has abandoned them, that the basics of civilization – schools, clinics, sustainable energy, a functioning economy, welfare – are absent from their lives, and that tourism has been killed by foreigners, i.e Algerian Arabs, in the name of Islam. But why?
In the early 1990s, the small cabal of army generals who had wielded real power in Algeria since independence found themselves unpopular at home and isolated abroad. The anger and resentment of ordinary Algerians against these shady strong men and their party, the FLN, the only party in this one party state, had reached breaking point by the middle of the 1980s. Inspired by the Berber Spring of 1982, feelings exploded into a inflammable display of people power in October 1988. This popular uprising, an ‘Arab spring’ un-fêted and largely ignored by the rest of the world, lead directly to Algeria’s first free multi-party democratic elections in 1991. The first round of the ballot, held in late December 1991, gave an unassailable lead to an Islamist party called the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamic du Salud or FIS in French). But the generals decided that they couldn’t risk handing power to a party that considered democracy itself to be an unIslamic western apostasy. Islamist dogma held that power can only come from God, not the people, and that democracy itself is therefore ungodly. The general’s dogma held that power was theirs, by right and privilege. The two dogmas were incompatible and so the generals cancelled the second round of voting, which was due to be held in late January 1992.
This spectacular abortion of the democratic process soiled the image of the Algerian leadership in the eyes of western democracies such as France and the USA. Back home, its effect was catastrophic. Fury cooked the nation’s heart. Some Algerians came to the conclusion that the generals, the ruling FLN and their entire rotten system of power had to be annihilated by any means necessary. Anyone with a stake in that system would have to be punished for robbing the nation of its dignity and its freedom. The generals tried to appease the popular ire by importing a new leader in the shape of Mohammed Boudiaf, a hero of the struggle for independence who had been exiled to Morocco for opposing President Ben Bella in the early 1960s. They installed him as temporary President in January 1991 but the move turned out to offer little more than a flicker of light in a storm of emotion that refused to abate. Boudiaf was assassinated six months later by a sub-lieutenant who belonged to an elite security unit affiliated to the Algerian secret services.
Gradually, throughout 1991, the hope that the Algerian people had placed in democracy mutated into gross civil disobedience, bloodshed and guerrilla war. The more radical elements in the FIS took to the hills and formed a number of different Islamist militias who vowed to continue their struggle for an Islamic state by violent means. Most of these home grown jihadists were clear that their enemies were the state, the army and the police. They considered the targeting of civilians to be haram, a sin. Hearts soon hardened however, and vengeance grew colder, a process that accelerated with the return of Algerian men who had fought with the mujahedeen against the Russian army in Afghanistan during the 1980s and others who went there to do a stint in the new Islamist training camps in the 1990s. Collectively, these ‘pros’ were known as Les Afghans and they were responsible for introducing ever more lethal guerrilla tactics as the decade went on.
The Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armée or GIA) was formed by one of these Afghans, a man called Mansour Meliani, in the summer of 1992 and it soon became the most feared and powerful terror organisation in the country. It vowed death to all heretics and unbelievers, who, by their definition, meant not only the government, the army and the police but also journalists, writers, artists, musicians, academics, commentators, intellectuals, opposition politicians and countless entirely innocent civilians. In their polarised vision of the world, almost the entire Algerian population was guilty of complacency and ‘co-operation’ with the government, and thus were legitimate targets for their bullets and bombs. Eminent cultural figures like the rai singer Cheb Hasni and the writer Tahar Djaout were killed by GIA mujahedeen.
The FIS soon tried to alienate themselves from the GIA by forming their own Islamic Salvation Army (Armée Islamique du Salut – AIS) in order to conduct jihad in what they considered to be the ‘proper’ and ‘moral’ way. The GIA then became more bent on fighting the FIS, the AIS, and the old Islamist militia, the Armed Islamic Movement (Movement Islamique Armée – MIA), than the Algerian army or police. The political intrigue and blood-letting within the jihadi movement became murderous and complex. By the end of 1994, the GIA was under the command of the bloodthirsty Djamel Zitouni, whose ambition was to refocus some of the GIA’s brutal power directly on France, Algeria’s hated ex-colonial overlord. He masterminded the highjacking of Air France Flight 8689 in Algiers on Christmas Day 1994, intending to fly it into the Eiffel Tower. He also sent mujahedeen to plant bombs on the Paris Metro, killing many innocent civilians. But the suffering of foreigners was nothing compared to that of Algerians themselves.
After Zitouni was killed by a splinter group in 1996, the GIA was taken over by Antar Zouabri, a man with an even greater thirst for innocent blood. He espoused the notion that the entire Algeria population were guilty of heretical behaviour, by their docility, their moral depravity and their aspiration to democracy. Religious guidance was sought from the Jordanian preacher and jurist Abou Qatada, then based in London, who issued a legal judgement or fatwa in 1995 which claimed that the killing of innocent women and children was justified if they had converted from Islam or were ‘apostates’. Abou Qatada and the GIA espoused the extreme Kharijite doctrine of takfir, whereby entire groups or populations of Muslims are declared to be unbelievers, sinners and apostates and therefore condemnable to death under Shari’a law. This was the judgement which lead to the killing of over 100,000 innocent Algerians. Even though, by 1997, the GIA had begun to fall apart under the weight of its own internal cat-fighting and frequent purges, the carnage it perpetrated during Algeria’s dirty war of the 1990s has been well documented and lamented. By the middle of the decade, not only the level of violence, but its sheer inventiveness and depravity had plumbed unimaginable depths.
GIA recruitment policies were famously lax, and the organisation was soon burdened not only with large number of petty criminals turned opportunistic jihadists, but also by undercover government agents. The theory soon began to emerge that early in their campaign of terror, armed Islamic groups, especially the GIA, had been infiltrated the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), aka La Sécurité Militaire (SM), aka the Algerian secret services. The general whisper was that shadowy forces in the government were in fact responsible for instigating some of the inhuman acts outwardly committed in the name of jihad. The stench of conspiracy was reinforced by the testimony of former DRS agents who ‘turned’ and sought asylum abroad, where they revealed some of dark machinery of power that operated within Algeria. The finger was often pointed at the head of the Algerian secret services, General Mohammed Mediène, aka ‘Tewfik’, one of the most secretive figures in the Algerian military high-command, and, together with General Smain Lamari, the real power in Algeria.
Whether or not their struggle was partly puppeteered from above, by 1997 many GIA foot soldiers, and some cadres too, were tired and dismayed with the brutality that their leaders, especially Antar Zouabri, seemed happy to continue inflicting on a bruised and battered Algeria. One of these GIA leaders, a former army paratrooper and commander of the GIA’s eastern sector, Hassan Hattab aka Abou Hamza, broke away with other dissidents and announced the formation of a new organisation, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (Groupe Salafist pour le Predication et le Combat – GSPC), in March 1999. Hattab defined the group’s enemy strictly and narrowly as the army and the state. Killing innocent civilians was forbidden. This new direction attracted thousands of defectors from both the GIA and the AIS, and GSPC numbers soon swelled to over 3,000 fighters. Osama Bid Laden was alleged to have given the project his blessing. GIA tactics had proved too extreme even for the don of global jihad.
The horror in Algeria had become overwhelming. The generals and the FLN government confessed to have realised that military victory against the insurgents was an impossibility and a more conciliatory approach was required. Between 1995 and 1998, President Lamine Zeroual issued numerous decrees of clemency and pardon which persuaded over 4000 Islamist fighters to lay down their arms. In April 1999, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a 62 year-old FLN cadre who had the backing of the army, was elected President on a platform of national reconciliation. A law known as the Concorde Civile was passed in September 1999, offering a general amnesty that persuaded many more GIA grunts to come in from the cold. Further pardons were granted in 2005 by The Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation which was approved by the people in a referendum. The nation was sick of violence and a large proportion of the Islamist movement began to turn away from Semtex and the Kalash’ towards the ballot box and other forms of non-violent opposition.
Only the GIA and GSPC spurned all peaceful overtures and vowed to keep on fighting until their dream of an Islamic caliphate in Algeria became a reality. But by the turn of the millennium, a combination of battle fatigue, conciliatory government policies and successful army and police operations against Islamist militias was slowly re-establishing law and order in the north of Algeria. The GSPC decided to seek new battlefields in areas where the government’s grip was still limp. They also wanted to implement a new ‘internationalist’ agenda, and bring their movement in line with the objectives of the global jihad. Representatives of the GSPC had travelled to Pakistan in 1998 to attend a meeting organised by Osama Bin Laden in an attempt to unite disparate groups of mujahedeen around the world into one global Islamist front. The predominant doctrines that united these groups were Salafism and Wahabbism.
The Salafists preach a return to the pure and unsullied moral principles of the as-Saaleh as-Salaf, the ‘righteous originators’, those first Muslims whose life and moral rectitude is admired and venerated by modern adepts. It’s a kind of religious nostalgia that looks back to what it imagines was a complete, unified and morally clean doctrine for living that held sway in the years immediately following the death of the Prophet but had since been corrupted and tarnished. Some claim that Salafism is actually a rather modern concept cobbled together by scholars in the Asian subcontinent at the end of the 19th century to free young Muslim minds from the chains of colonialism and bind them to a strict interpretation and application of the Qu’ran and hadith, or body of Muslim law. Since then, ‘Salafis’ has become something of a catch-all adjective used to describe any Muslim who vows to impose Sharia law and an unadulaterated Islamic way of life on an unwilling society by peaceful, or, if necessary, violent means.
An early proselytiser for a return the pure life of the as-Salaf was Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th century Arabian preacher who wrote the highly influential Kitab at-Tawhid or ‘Book of Oneness’. His ideas became entrenched in the Arabian peninsula and were adopted by the House of Saud in the early 20th century. Despite their love of material excess and their warm relationship with the USA, the Saudi royal family and princes from Qatar and other Arabian principalities have been among the chief funders of Salafism and Wahabbism throughout the world. Their money has helped to build mosques and madrassas in North and West Africa and fund the activities of Salafists. The GSPC were Salafists through and through, and they began to believe that they would be better off signing up to a worldwide movement of similarly minded mujahedeen, rather than continuing to fight their corner in Algeria alone.
New leaders emerged to challenge Hattab’s tenure as the overall emir or leader of the GSPC, especially after Hattab had tried to distance the movement from Al Qaida and its brazen violence against civilians following the 11th September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington. Furthermore, many men in the movement considered Hattab to be a weak leader, lacking in total commitment and unable to produce sufficiently horrifying and headline spawning results. Most prominent among these new dissenters were three men; Abdelmalek Droukdel aka Abu Mousad Abdel Wadoud, a graduate in mathematics and one of the GSPC’s most talented bomb makers, Nabil Sahraoui aka Mustapha Abou Ibrahim, one of the most admired and revered militia leaders in the GSPC, and Amari Saïfi aka Abou Haidara aka Abderrazak El Para.
The debate raged around the question whether the GSPC should be fighting a battle for the soul of Algeria or the soul of the entire world. In other words, were the Algerian generals the ultimate target, or was it America, Israel and ikufar or unbelievers and apostates throughout the globe. Droukdel, Sahraoui and Saïfi wanted the organisation to be part of a global jihad, modelled on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Hattab however still thought of the FLN and the Algerian state as the main enemy. In the end, the internationalists won the argument. Hassan Hattab was forced to resign and Nabil Sahraoui, “a towering minaret and courageous hero” according to the GSPC website, became the new emir in August 2003. In May 2004 he released a communiqué entitled “The War on Foreigners”, in which he vowed vengeance against Zionists, crusaders and the apostate regimes of the Arabo-islamic world. He also announced a plan to start attacking foreigners on Algerian soil. Less than a month later, he died in a hail of bullets near Akfadou in the Kabyle mountains. The copiously bearded Abdelmalek Droukdel took his place as the new emir.
A key matchmaker in the looming nuptials between the GSPC and Al Qaida was a Yemenite called Abdel Wahid Ahmed Alouane, aka Abou Mohammed al Yemeni, who visited the GSPC on many occasions in the early years of the new millennium as Bin Laden’s special envoy in North Africa. Following the US invasion in 2003, Bin Laden knew that Afghanistan’s days as the ideal training ground for the global mujahedeen were numbered. Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman az-Zawahiri, were looking for another part of world in which to base their operations. The Sahara seemed to offer a number of advantages as a theatre for jihad; weak government control, remote hiding places, porous borders, corrupt officials already tainted by their involvement in smuggling, a poor and therefore pliable population and a thousand unwatched desert tracks on which to flee beyond the reach of the security forces. It was also the ideal pad from which to further the Al Qaida project in Africa, a continent which Bin Laden deemed most propitious for his hardline vision of the future.
After a few particularly bloody seasons, the GSPC leadership began to accept that they weren’t exactly winning hearts and minds in Algeria’s north. Their tactics were simply too brutal, and too damaging to the human and material capital of the country. The support of the populace, so essential to any guerrilla insurgency, was increasingly sporadic and begrudging. Moving south and targeting foreigners seemed to be a wise diversionary tactic, which would hopefully ease the bruised sensibilities of ordinary Algerians in the north and tap in their deep-seated resentment against France in particular and whites in general, who had been bogeymen in the general conscious ever since the debasement of the colonial era and the brutality of the war of independence.
The two GSPC emirs in charge of Algeria’s southern and eastern sectors at the turn of the millennium, Abderrazak El Para and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, had already been active in the Sahara and Sahel for a few years. By ‘active’ it should be understood that the pair indulged in a range of activities, not all of which were inspired by the divine call to jihad. A large part of their time was spent smuggling. Belmokhtar was an archetypal Saharan smuggler and had been since his early teens.
Terrorism and insurgency, which involves feeding and arming many hundreds of full-time fighters, is an expensive business that needs a constant supply of black cash. During the 1990s it was relatively easy to raise the necessary funds by appealing to Islamist pockets worldwide. In the places like Saudi Arab and Qatar, those pockets were extremely deep. Apart from large donations from Middle Eastern princes, emirs and business, contributions were sought from the faithful in mosques, madrassas, universities, clubs and societies from Paris to Peshawar and Detroit to Djakarta. A complex network of Islamic charities, associations and banks was set up to channel these funds from the donors to the mujahedeen in far-flung parts of the world. However, after 9/11, the ease with which this money could fly backwards and forwards across the globe was severely diminished by new laws prohibiting the funding of terror. Other means of generating cash needed to be found.
The GSPC involved themselves in the more lucrative end of the trans-Saharan smuggling game, namely cigarettes, second hand cars, illicit petrol, weapons, illegal migrants and drugs. Arms purchased in Northern Mali, Libya, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and countries further afield, were used to fight jihad or secessionist rebellions in Algeria and Mali. There was no dearth of stock. Small weaponry, from hand guns to automatic rifles and RPGs, often of Russian and East European manufacture, had flooded into West Africa during many forgotten wars of the previous decade. Tobacco, a favourite cash cow of armed insurgencies around the world, was a good earner. Marlboro cigarettes or other pirated brands could be snapped up cheap in the ports of West Africa, especially Lomé and Cotonou, and then smuggled north through the desert to Algeria’s mediterranean coast and on into Europe. The stringent duties payable in many north African and European countries on legally imported cigarettes made the black-market trade very profitable.
Unemployment, corruption and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa were also the root causes for an ever more lucrative trade in people. Poor African migrants on an epic search for a better life were loaded up onto trucks on the southern perimeter of the Sahara and transported north by people traffickers before being dumped and left to their own devices in the coastal towns of Algeria, Morocco and Libya. Finally there were drugs. Hashish was purchased from growers in the Rif mountains of Morocco and carried south through Mauritania and Mali, and then west up through Niger, Egypt, the Middle East and up into Europe via Turkey and Balkans. Cocaine was also beginning to trickle into the desert, but not yet in the quantities that were later to shock the world.
Smuggling has been around in the southern Sahara for as long as trans-Saharan caravan trading has existed, in other words, since time immemorial. The transport of goods from north to south across the Sahara and vice versa is the prerogative of desert people, most notably the Arabs, or Moors, and the Touareg. Members of certain families and clans are caravan traders almost by birthright, and the desert road is in their blood. Nice distinctions between the legality and illegality of different types of cargo matter less to these traders than to the distant governments under whose authority they are supposed to operate. After all, one man’s legitimate desert caravan is another man’s train of contraband. Dates, palm oil, ostrich feathers, ivory, salt, slaves, gold, cars, Marlboro cigarettes, ghetto blasters, transistor radios, fake Rolex watches, cooking oil, pasta, powdered milk, sugar, jeans, diesel, petrol, hashish, second hand cars, illegal migrants, weapons, cocaine; whatever the cargo, it’s always just been a question of supplying demand and earning a living. Without caravanning and smuggling, the Saharan economy, such as it is, would have collapsed long ago.
In bygone colonial and pre-colonial times, trans-Saharan trading was often dominated by large Arab families and clans, especially the Chaambi from the Tidikelt, the Ahl Azzi of the Touat, the M’zabi of the Ghardaia region, the Berabiche clans who lived in the deserts north of Timbuktu and the Kounta who lived on the eastern shores of the Niger bend, north of Gao. These families would trade across the desert with each other, turning the Sahara into one unified economic, social and cultural space. Their activity created links and ties that have survived and gradually mutated into the trading or smuggling networks of today. As British anthropologist Judith Scheele’s superb work on the subject, Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara: Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century (African Studies) so ably explains, the Sahara works on quite different economic and spatial principles than many other parts of the world. A trader in Adrar in the Touat might have closer family and clan ties with people in Timbuktu or Gao that with his immediate neighbours. Not only trade goods, but politics, religion, tribal loyalty, power and influence are determined by those ties, making the Sahara one of the most complex regions in the world to understand. This economic and social unity of the Saharan space also explains why the borders imposed on the region at the end of the colonial era were so problematic to livelihoods and connections and so often despised by desert people.
As the 19th century drew to a close, there was a large influx of Arabs from Mauritania into the deserts north of Gao, many of whom came to fight for the Kounta in its wars against the most powerful Touareg confederation at that time; the Iwellemeden. Many of these Mauritanian Arabs settled in the area and formed a distinct sub-tribe known as the Tilemsi Arabs, who became vassals of the Kounta and paid tribute to them. The descendants of these Tilemsi Arabs have become successful businessmen, smugglers and livestock herders, whose networks stretch far north and west into Algeria and Mauritania. In recent decades, smuggling hasn’t just been the get-rich-quick solution for the ‘lower class’ Arabs of the Tilemsi and Timbuktu regions, it has also been a means of securing political, social and tribal independence from their former masters. This process has been accompanied by deep and often severe social strain and political upheaval.
Nowadays Algeria, with its soft currency and its strictly controlled or ‘closed’ import and export policy, is a paradise for smugglers. Travel through Morocco and everyone wants to sell you something. Travel through Algeria and everyone wants to buy something from you. The Algerian state imposes ludicrous restrictions on the movement of basic food stuffs and livestock across its southern borders. Only second-rate and barely edible dates seem to be allowed through without hindrance. And yet, almost everything that goes into peoples’ bellies in Kidal and Gao has been smuggled into Mali from Algeria, whether it’s pasta, sugar, powdered-milk, flour or couscous. And the flow south of other essentials, including petrol, is constant and unstoppable. In such an environment, black economies thrive and provide ample opportunities to make, and loose, fortunes.
But smuggling isn’t only about money. It provides an answer to the soulful yearnings of the desert man. It’s a way of regaining pride, of pitting your wits, your courage and your physical strength against nature and against the oppressive control of distant States. It’s a way of becoming a young man of means, fit to marry one or even more wives from ‘good’ families, an asset to family and tribe, a ‘true Arab’ who feels pride in his heart. The smuggling road leads to independence and freedom, both of the pocket and the spirit. It allows a young Arab or Touareg to feel good about himself and his world once again, after decades of drought, of degradation, of rebellion against the state, of social change and collapse. Speeding across the lunar flatness of the Tanezrouft, behind the wheel of a powerful boulboul or Toyota Landcruiser HG60, at 120 kmph, with money in the pocket, payload in the back and eyes firmly fixed on the horizon, is a dream so much more powerful than anything else the Sahara can offer a 16 year old youth. It beats sitting around in some distant desert villages, penniless, wifeless, hopeless. It’s a dream of freedom.
Neither the GSPC, nor the GIA before them, actually controlled the trans-Saharan smuggling rackets. The Saharan emirs or militia leaders often came from a smuggling background and were well versed in the ways and wiles of the trade. But the notorious smuggling dons of the 80s and 90s, men like the drug lord Ahmed Zendjabil aka El Chelfaoui aka The Pablo Escobar of Algeria or Tamanrasset’s smuggling lynchpin Hadj Bettou, weren’t necessarily Islamists. They were simply businessmen and mafia godfathers with enormous power. Hadj Bettou is suspected by many to have instigated the successful plan to assassinate the interim President Mohammed Boudiaf in 1992. Boudiaf vowed to ‘clean up’ Algeria in general, and Tamanrasset in particular. Big mistake.
Terrorists and traffickers the world over co-exist in the same murky underworld. In the Sahara, family, clan and tribal links often bind together the smuggler, the Islamist mujahid and the agent of the State – whether a policeman, a customs official or an army officer – in one large and geographically far flung network of self-interest and self-preservation. It’s not that the presence of the state is necessarily weak in the distant border areas of southern Algeria and northern Mali, it’s just that what state officials do operate there are often more interested in making sure that in the daily struggle for security and advancement, the interests of their family and their clan aren’t overlooked.
If drug lord or people smuggler wants to transport his cargo through an area controlled by Islamists, then a brown envelope stuffed with protection money is handed over. If some impoverished army officer at the barracks in Tamanrasset or Timbuktu needs to earn a little extra on the side by selling a few surplus semi-automatic weapons and rounds of ammunition then he can just call the man from the GSPC. If a mafia boss wants to secure a more long term advantage then he can fund an Islamist group on a regular basis, just to keep things clean and stable. That’s how the cogs of underworld turn. Other examples of insurgency and crime sharing different sides of the same coin are plentiful: The Taliban in Afghanistan and the heroine trade, Colombia’s FARC and cocaine, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and precious gems or rare wood, the IRA or ETA and narcotics or weapons, the Kurdish PKK and narcotics…the list goes on. What’s happening in the Sahara fits a well established global pattern.
Terrorism and smuggling meet in the figure of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, aka Khaled Abou El Abassa, aka Laaouar, ‘the one-eyed’, who is something of a Bin Laden, Scarlet Pimpernel and Al Capone all rolled into one; a desert boy, born and bred in Ghardaia, Algeria, who was “seduced”, in his own words, by jihad and especially by the writings and recordings of the Palestinian Abdallah Azzam. In his teenage years he travelled to Afghanistan to receive training in Al Qaida camps near the city of Jalalabad and it was in Afghanistan, so he claims, that a piece of Russian shrapnel robbed him of an eye. Belmokhtar returned home in the early 1990s and became the Mr Big Stuff of southern Algeria’s smuggling rackets, forging strong links with arms, drugs and people smugglers and befriending various Touareg and Berabiche tribal leaders in the process. He even married one, or possibly several Berabiche Arab girls from Timbuktu and once declared that he would like to ‘retire’ to northern Mali when his hustling days are over. He also joined the GIA soon after its inception and then left with Hattab to become part of the GSPC in 1999.
By the turn of the millennium, Belmokhtar had risen up the ranks to become the GSPC’s emir of zone 9, the southern beat that comprised most of Algeria grand sud, the open southern deserts so enticing to the inveterate criminal smuggler. In the early naughties he collaborated with Abderrazak El Para, then the emir of zone 5, the eastern zone, on refocussing GSPC operations further south, but the pair soon fell out, jealous of each others’ power. Whereas El Para ventured into ill-advised waters by seeking to buy arms in Chad and eventually got himself caught and extradited back to Algeria, Belmokhtar, with unfailing shrewdness of judgement, has evaded capture for more than two decades. The French security services call him l’inssaisisable, the ‘uncatchable’. Whilst his current rival at the top of AQIM’s Saharan hierarchy, Abou Zeid, is reviled for his brute cruelty and appetite for chopping the heads off his kidnap victims, Sahara watchers often regard the one-eyed Belmokhtar aka Monsieur Marlboro with a grudging respect, recognising his relative restraint in the treatment of hostages and his nose for a good deal. Many are convinced he’s only in it for the money and always has been. “Belmokhtar will kidnap, rob or smuggle anything for anyone,” a silver-haired Saharanist once said to me, “so long as the price is right.”
In 2003, the GSPC katiba or ‘militia’ lead by Amari Saïfi aka Abderrazak El Para kidnapped thirty two German, Swiss, Austrian and Dutch tourists in southern Algeria. This spectacular coup launched Islamic terrorism in the southern Sahara, an area that had hitherto been spared the worst excesses of Algeria’s horror. El Para, as his nickname implies, was a one time para-commando and captain of special forces in the Algerian army who had trained with US Green Berets in Fort Bragg and elite troops in Russia. He then served as bodyguard to General Khaled Nezzar, minister of Defence and one of the seven senior generals, or salopards (‘arseholes’) as GSPC fighters liked call them, who rule Algeria. He deserted the Algerian army not once, but twice, joining an armed Islamic terror group each time. His last desertion dated back to 1997, when he joined the GIA and then the GSPC under the leadership of Hassan Hattab. He soon emerged as an able man in the field, and a contender for Hattab’s crown. But the incident that clinched his fame was, according to the ‘official’ account at least, the result of an accident.
In February 2003, El Para and the men in the katiba el Maout, were still basking the ‘success’ of their spectacular ambush of an Algerian army column near Batna in the Aurès mountains, which had claimed the lives of over forty paratroopers. In order to make himself and his men scarce, El Para decided to travel south and buy some weapons in Niger. The katiba was crossing the remote desert near Illizi, a small town north of Djanet in the depths of the Algerian Sahara, when it happened to chance on a group of Swiss and German tourists who were indulging in some deep desert rough riding on all-terrain motorbikes, without a guide. Or so the story goes. El Para kidnapped the tourists and proceeded to lay his hands on a further five separate groups of European adventurers who had the misfortune of being in the Algerian Sahara and within the reach of El Para’s men in those months of February and March 2003.
After the final tourist had been captured, and a large number of Land Cruisers and dirt bikes requisitioned by the terrorists, El Para found himself in charge of a total of 32 hostages; sixteen Germans, ten Austrians, four Swiss, one Dutchman and a Swede. They were held captive in two completely separate groups, several hundred kilometres apart. El Para enlisted the help of Belmokhtar to guard them. A group of 16 hostages who had been captured in March were freed only a few months later after a bizarre ‘non’ battle with the Algerian army near Djanet. The other fifteen were held in the remote Tanezrouft desert and then taken south into Northern Mali, to a secret camp somewhere near Tessalit, the birthplace of Ibrahim and Hassan from Tinariwen. By the end of August, all but one of the hostages had been freed. Michaela Spitzer, a middle-aged German women, died of heat exhaustion and other desert maladies on the long trek from Algeria to Mali, and was buried in the desert.
El Para’s haul generated about 5 million euros in ransom revenue and cemented a relationship of sorts between the GSPC, the military security establishment of Mali, certain leaders of the Touareg rebellion, Arab army officers and business men and other key hustlers in the southern Sahara. The fatal agreement of the German and Swiss governments to pay a ransom established an irresistible economic case for further kidnappings, with disastrous consequences for the region and its relationship with the outside world. From that moment, tourism, an important means of livelihood for hundreds and thousands of Touareg, began to die a slow death. The doors of the desert creaked shut, slowly, inexorably. In the meantime, the GSPC used their ill-begotten lucre to buy more sophisticated weaponry, faster cars and the hearts and minds of more young recruits.
After numerous chases across vast expanses of desert with US special forces in hot pursuit, Aberrazak El Para was captured by the Chadian rebels of the MTDJ and kept prisoner in north western Chad, hidden away in the remote Tibesti mountains, until he was eventually handed over to Libya and then extradited back to Algeria. Since then, he has been the subject of a veritable judicial farce involving abortive and inconclusive trials in his native country. For many years after his return to Algeria in October 2004, he was kept in secret locations under the surveillance of the DRS, during which time he was tried in absentia and sentenced to death by an Algerian court. How the law of a land can find a man guilty in absentia when that country’s own security services are holding him in their custody is beyond baffling. Only recently, in 2011, was he transferred to a more ‘regular’ prison in Serkadji. His definitive trial for numerous crimes of terrorism, which include not only the 2003 kidnappings, but also the murder of seven French monks at Tibhirine in 1996 (subject of the famous film ‘Of Gods and Men’) and of the paratroopers in the ambush near Batna, has yet to take place.
In reaction to this increase in terrorism and illicit trans-border activity, the US government declared a new front in the Sahel under the umbrella of Operation Enduring Freedom, their global war on terror. In 2004 the Americans set up the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI) to funnel training and equipment to the armies of Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad, in order to help establish specialist anti-terror and anti-crime units tasked with taking on and defeating both the Islamic terrorists and the traffickers. The PSI mutated into the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) in 2005, with a wide-ranging five year programme and a budget of half a billion dollars. Algeria, Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia were brought into the field of play and anti-terror and anti-crime bases began to be established with American backing all over the southern Sahara and Sahel, including several in the Kidal region of north-eastern Mali. White men with army crew cuts were seen travelling through the desert in convoys of new 4×4 vehicles, or wandering nonchalantly around Kidal’s central market. US Army transport planes landed on Kidal’s dirt air-strip.
The Americans were convinced that the Sahel was becoming a crucible for anti-western terror groups inspired by Islam. Pondering the anti-american topography of the globe, they noticed that a huge contiguous swathe of central Asia, east and west Africa was becoming ‘radicalised’, from Afghanistan, through Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine and Yemen, into Africa via Somalia, the Sudan and across finally to Niger, Mali, Algeria and Mauritania. With that strategic and remote point of view so favoured by intelligence analysts and their political clients, this banana shaped chunk of earth was seen as a homogenous battleground, with each territory within it linked to the others by dark and hostile forces.
Tinariwen’s home region of the Adagh in north eastern Mali, right in the middle of the banana, was deemed especially significant in this struggle against terror. The Touareg from this region had long been categorised as ‘trouble-makers’ by governments and security heads, ever since the rebellion of 1963. The uprising of 2006 only confirmed this. Furthermore, a proselytising missionary organisation called the Tablighi Jama’at, who preached an uncompromising return to piety and the core tenets Islam had been active in the Adagh for many years, building mosques, organising social welfare at a grass-roots level, and charming political and tribal leaders with their vision of purity and the pursuit of religious excellence. The GSPC, who had begun to use the Adagh as a convenient rear-base, over the border and beyond the reach of the Algerian security apparatus, were also digging their claws into Adagh society, making alliances with local communities and leaders, and ’sweetening’ this desperately impoverished corner of the desert with their ill-gotten gains. The Saharanist Baz Lecocq also points out that the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, physicist Abdul Kadeer Khan, had become a fan of Mali’s northern deserts, and had bought himself a house in Timbuktu. Just over the border in Niger were the uranium mines of Arlit, from where, according to false information given to the Pentagon, Saddam Hussein had obtained the uranium for his weapons of mass destruction. There were huge as yet unexploited deposits of the mineral all over northern Niger and Mali. This coincidence of dark and threatening circumstances was, for the Americans, a ‘no-brainer’. And yet there were brains, and very good ones at that, who disputed the logic of American policy.
Professor Jeremy Keenan is a controversial figure in the global community of Saharanists. The bluff old English anthropologist once had an enviable reputation, rare for an anglophone academic, as a specialist on the Kel Ahaggar Touareg of southern Algeria. Despite a number of books and treatises by German, Danish, Dutch, Italian and American historians and anthropologists, the academic study of the Sahara has mainly been a francophone preserve. Keenan’s seminal works The Touareg, People of the Ahaggar (1973), Sahara Man: Travelling with the Touareg (19??) and The Lesser Gods of the Sahara: Social Change and Contested Terrain (2004) are respectable mainstays of the Saharan bibliography. Then, in 2003, according to some of his fellow academics, Keenan ‘lost the plot.’ Or did he find it?
Fascinated by the 2003 hostage crisis, he became convinced that El Para was in fact, an agent of the DRS and that entire kidnapping episode had been masterminded by the black ops stooges of the Algerian secret services, with the approval of the CIA. Their aim was to concoct a high profile terrorist outrage, of sufficient magnetism to hypnotise the international media, and thereby provide a dramatic headline-grabbing premise for the USA to increase its military presence in the Sahara and Sahel. Whether by pure coincidence, or by some darker chain of cause and effect, it was indeed in the wake of El Para’s hostage grab that the USA began the implementation of various large scale military-security initiatives in the Sahel. The result is that US influence in the Sahel, and especially in Mali and Mauritania, has increased exponentially, and military ties of a seemingly deep and enduring nature have been cemented with with the regional powers. What’s in it for the Americans? Well, according to Keenan and the conspiracy theorists, it’s all the usual unholy grails: Security, influence, oil and blocking the Chinese take over of Africa.
For Professor Keenan, going public with this enticing conspiracy theory represented a leap out of hard-edged factual academia and into the murky world of supposition. The change was reflected perhaps in the fact that he chose to publish his first article on the subject, entitled ‘Building Castles in the Sand: US Military Basing in Algeria’ (Review of African Political Economy, Dec 2003) under the engaging pseudonym of Mustafa Barth. Keenan then resumed his habitual identity and published numerous lengthy articles exploring the obscure whys and wherefores of his theory, which he eventually summarised in his book ‘The Dark Sahara’, published in 2009.
But Keenan wasn’t the only one to smell a desert rat. Algerian journalists like Salima Mellah and Salima Tlemçani have also written extensively about DRS involvement in terror groups, and about the many unanswered questions that still hover around the 2003 hostage crisis. Frenchmen, like the terrorism consultant Alain Chevalérias and François Gèze, the CEO of Éditions La Découverte, also support the notion of DRS collusion with the GSPC and AQIM. In fact, a sizeable body of French and Algerian writers, journalists, analysts and obsessives continue to uphold the idea that El Para was a DRS man through and through. They see nothing surprising or outrageous in the claim. After all, cases of collusion and manipulation of Islamist groups by the Algerian secret services during the ‘dirty war’ of 1990s are legion. El Para was a ‘special ops’ man in the Algerian army before he allegedly became an Islamist. Join the dots and this was just more of the same.
For these doubters, there’s too much about the 2003 hostage crisis that doesn’t chime. According to the hostages themselves, far from being the result of happenstance, the kidnappings seem to have been prepared in advance, although clearly not that well. Soon after their capture, they were taken to secret bases in the desert, already stocked with food and provisions, along specially prepared tracks. Their captors, who didn’t seem to know the desert or its climate very well, were never short of provisions. Where did these provisions come from and who supplied them? The hostages saw Algerian army helicopters flying near the base, almost on a daily basis, and were perplexed as to why their location hadn’t been discovered and they hadn’t been freed. El Para issued no ransom demand for months and the GSPC itself never actually claimed any official responsibility at all for the kidnappings. The GSPC had never taken western hostages before. It just wasn’t their style. Why now?
After the initial kidnappings, a bizarre silence reigned around the whole affair, both nationally and internationally, at least until mid April. The first group of 17 hostages were freed near Amguid only three days after the German foreign minister, Joska Fischer and the head of German intelligence paid a high level visit to Algiers. The ‘light skirmish’ that took place during the Algerian army’s assault on the camp seemed, according to several hostages, to have been staged. All the debriefings of hostages in Algeria were conducted by the DRS and not the army or police. Back in Germany the hostages underwent further interrogations, this time by the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), the German criminal investigation police. Several hostages were astonished to be shown photos of their captors by the BKA, photos that were recently taken, at ground level.
By mid June, the second group of 15 hostages were being held in remote mountain range north west of Tamanrasset. Although they had been in captivity since mid February, El Para had yet to issue a formal ransom demand. He asked a french speaking hostage to help him write a letter to the Swiss and German embassies in Algiers, but it contained nothing except a rather verbose outline of the GSPC’s general aims and philosophy. El Para himself was often absent from the group, leaving his fellow jihadists perplexed and ignorant of his purpose or whereabouts, feelings which became the cause of increasing frustration among the katiba’s foot soldiers.
Towards the end of June, El Para came back to the camp and lead the entire group south into northern Mali, an arduous and often waterless journey that cost the life of Michaela Sptizer. By mid july, a full five months after the kidnapping of the first hostages near Djanet, El Para was finally in contact with the German Embassy in Bamako to begin formal ransom negotiations, albeit amid much confusion and uncertainty. During the negotiations, various Malian mediators including Touareg rebel leaders like Iyad Ag Ghaly, Alhaji Ag Gamou and Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, or northern Arab strong men like Colonel Ould Meydou and Major-Colonel Lamana Ould Bou, were tasked by the Malian government with leading negotiations.
The question of what alliances were then formed and what promises were then made is the subject of enduring and irresolvable debate between Sahara heads and conspiracy theorists. What’s certain is that from this moment onwards AQIM acquired a ‘home from home’ in the north east of Mali, a safe haven in which the terrorists could while away the hours and days with their hostages whilst the business of ransom negotiation was pursued. With a couple of rare if significant exceptions, AQIM have never actually kidnapped their victims on Malian soil. They’ve only brought them back to Mali for safe-keeping. And with the equally rare exception of a major clash north of Timbuktu in July 2009, in which 28 soldiers were killed, the Malian army have never actually lead a full frontal assault on Al Qaida.
These two facts alone have lead many conspiracy theorists and almost the entire Touareg intelligentsia at home and abroad, to conclude that Al Qaida were invited on to Malian soil by the Malian government in order to the discredit the Touareg nationalist movement and mask the illegal trafficking going on in the north, from which a number of middle-ranking and senior Malian officials were drawing hefty amounts of black cash. In the atmosphere of anti-Islamist paranoia that seized the world following the 9/11 attacks, it was expedient for any government to twist the international image of a recalcitrant separatist movement and pass it off as an Islamist terror one instead. The strategy masked the true nature of the separatist struggle, confused international opinion and secured almost immediate benefits in the form of better diplomatic and security ties with the USA and Europe, more military aid, both in money and in kind. That’s what happened in Mali in the years following 2003.
The problem with the theory of collusion between AQIM and the Malian government is that no firm evidence has ever been produced to back it up. No one has actually photographed or recorded a Malian army officer or secret service agent chatting with an Al Qaida emir, or taking possession of a fat brown envelope full of narco-cash in some distant corner of the northern deserts. Of course, that’s the nature of this shadowy world. Nothing is ever written down. Dirty deals are done behind closed doors, or on an impossibly remote sand dune right in the middle of nowhere. The north of Mali has been closed to outsiders, especially journalists, for years. AQIM money is carefully laundered through various banks and legitimate businesses in Mali, Niger, Mauritania and further afield. Or it’s used to buy huge herds that chomp happily on the pastures of the north, away from the prying eyes of the world. There are no witnesses on record because there has never been any proper investigation. And even if there had been, who would risk their skin to expose skullduggery at such high levels. Fully uncovering the matrix of villainy that has been choking Tinariwen’s homeland since the beginning of the millennium presents a journalistic challenge that would make Watergate look like an episode of Miss Marple.
At the moment, all it can ever boil down to is one enormous hunch, a devil’s choice between a damning and a marginally less damning scenario. At best, finding AQIM on their territory, the Malian government just left them there to fester, knowing full well that their presence would putrefy the social fabric of the northern deserts. They did this because they didn’t want to risk Malian lives by taking fight to the terrorists, and / or because there were Northern Arabs in the Malian army and secret services who had strong family and cultural ties to AQIM and encouraged its presence on Malian soil because it provided an effective screen behind which they could continue with their high-stakes smuggling. Furthermore, AQIM’s presence in the north east would sully the Touareg independence cause with the taint of Islamic terrorism, an especially apt consideration following the Touareg rebellion of May 23rd 2006. At worst, all of the above is true, except that instead of waking up one morning and finding them there, the Malians actually invited AQIM to come and establish their iniquitous presence on this once open and welcoming land. That Malian policy towards AQIM should have been quite so cynical might come as quite a surprise to many. Diplomats at the US Embassy in Bamako were certainly quit taken aback when, in October 2006, a key official in the Malian Ministry of Territorial Administration told them that hostilities between the GSPC and the latest in a long line of Touareg rebel movements, the ADC, worked to the government of Mali’s advantage. Following clashes between the Touareg rebels and the GSPC, the terrorists had vowed to wipe out the ADC leadership. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” stated the Malian politician. Exactly how friendly, he refused to say.
On August 18th 2003, El Para’s remaining fourteen hostages were finally handed over to the Malian authorities and driven back to Bamako via Gao. Their ordeal was over. The Americans ‘honoured’ El Para by conferring the title of “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” on him, one normally reserved only for the “most wanted” of jihadis, including Osama Bin Laden. A court in Karlsruhe, Germany, issued an international arrest warrant for El Para, but neither Germany nor the US made any real attempt to bring him to justice. No due and proper police investigation or judicial process was ever conducted against El Para and his men, either in Algeria or Europe. After the hostages returned home to Europe, some of them seemed to display the partial effects of Stockholm Syndrome and spoke about the strangely warm and amicable relationships they had struck up with some of their captors, referring to them not as brutal terrorists, but almost as friends, much in the same way that a desert tourist might remember his or her guide after the Saharan trip of a lifetime. It seems that one of the GSPC men even gave the hostages his personal mobile number, and that a year after their release, some of the hostages were still in touch with him.
Whatever the mission or the alliances that motivated El Para in this affair, the German government committed a grave and unpardonable error in the opinion of many when they handed over their huge ransom to El Para and his men. Kidnapping now had form and precedence in the criminal sub-culture of the region, and it was adopted as a strategy of choice by an Islamic insurgency who had never indulged in it before. It became the fast-track to cash par excellence, far more effective than cigarettes, arms, drugs and protection rackets. And what’s more, it had the immense advantage of generating huge international publicity and sowing fear in the hearts and minds of western infidels. It was win, win and double win.
The great El Para kidnap of 2003 begs questions and attracts speculation like flies to a carcass. But maybe it should be taken at face value. The hostages confirmed that their kidnappers were fanatically devout, and obsessed with all the usual jihadi obsessions: the moral failures of western civilisation, the evil of America, the ‘Great Satan’, and its zionist plot to support Israel and rob the Arab world of its freedom and dignity, the heinous crime of fighting a new crusade against the muslim brothers in Kuwait and Iraq, so near the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, the crimes committed against Muslim brothers in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and Palestine. All the usual stuff. And far from serving the DRS or the CIA, perhaps El Para was merely out to replenish the GSPC coffers. Kidnapping westerners – the killer cash machine.
And yet, despite all these core and fringe benefits, it was to be another five years before AQIM kidnapped another westerner. That fact alone gives pause to wonder. In January 2004, just six months after El Para released his final hostages, the third Festival in the Desert took place amidst the talcum white dunes of Essakane, 60 kilometres due west of Timbuktu, the Malian home of Mokhtar Belmokhtar and many of his Arab Berabiche allies. At least five hundred westerners made their way along the appalling track that links Timbuktu and Essakane, often getting bogged down in the soft sand for hours, even days. In terms of kidnapping potential, we were a turkey shoot. Not only that, but the very presence of a horde of westerners dancing, carousing and revelling in the pure white sands of a Muslim Sahara was surely in itself an unpardonable affront to the Salafist principles of the GSPC. But no band of GSPC desperadoes touting AK47s ever appeared. Not a single solitary bearded preacher or fanatic reared his head to disturb our revels. The atmosphere was open, generous, tolerant, as it always had been in Mali.
The same thing happened in January 2005 and 2006. During those years I travelled with scores of others – French, English, Italian, American, German, Dutch – to see Tinariwen, bombing up to Kidal, Tessalit, Aguel’hoc, Anefis and Gao without a care in the world apart from running out of petrol or missing the flight back home due to a broken axel. Only a few years later, this area was to become the red zone, the off-bounds fiefdom of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb which was deemed suicidal for a westerner to visit. But until 2009, despite El Para’s introduction of the kidnapping business into the region, tourism thrived in Mali’s north east in a state of prelapsarian innocence.
That’s not to say that the GSPC went to ground entirely in those intervening years. After the capture of El Para in Chad in March 2004, the GSPC slowed down their Saharan activities and went through a period of reorganisation. The 9th zone, which had been under the total control of Mokhtar Belmokhtar for some years, was split into two katibat, the katiba Al Moulathamoun, under Belmokhtar’s command, and the katiba Tarik Ibn Ziyad, aka Fatihin, under the command of Abou Zeid. The GSPC were also strengthening their international ties, especially Al Qaida in Iraq. The GSPC leadership had been impressed by the ‘successes’ of Abou Musab az-Zarqawi’s campaign of terror in Iraq between 2004 and 2006. In May 2005, Abdelmalek Droukdel issued a communiqué through an intermediary in which he requested support from his fellow mujahedeen in Iraq for his own struggle in North Africa. A few months later, a letter written to az-Zarqawi by a senior Al Qaida executive proposed an alliance between Al Qaida in Iraq and the GSPC, but not before their ideological strength and trustworthiness had been thoroughly checked. Intriguingly, the Al Qaida leadership still had a suspicion that the GSPC was heavily infiltrated by the Algerian secret services, a hunch that dated from the bad old days of the GIA. Nonetheless, the GSPC continued to followed az-Zarqawi’s exploits in Iraq with admiration and a certain amount of envy, especially when az-Zarqawi kidnapped and then executed two senior Algerian diplomats in the summer of 2005.
The GSPC’s thirst for moral cleansing and infidel blood was sharpened by the arrival of US troops in Mauritania, Mali and other countries in the Sahel from 2004 onwards. The mujahedeen saw this opening of a new battlefront in the US-lead war on terror, right on their doorstep, as a delicious provocation. Delicious, because they now felt part of a global rather than merely local struggle. In the autumn of 2005, the GSPC issued a proclamation that glorified this widening of the battle. “O young men of Islamic Maghreb…” it began, “from Egypt to Mauritania, Algeria to Nigeria, and the remainder of Muslim minorities in Africa. Many of you were unable to go to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Chechnya… However, Allah has brought those evil people to your own homelands… This prolonged and exhaustive war that was begun by Cheikh Usama Bin Laden is starting to bear fruit… This is your chance to erase colonial borders…that were established surrounding our Islamic countries and turning them into prisons ruled by various oppressors who have trampled on our religion and defended our enemies…therefore, demolish those borders. O young Muslim men, travel to the battlefields and attack the fortresses of the criminals and their supporters…Our war against the crusader American enemy is closely linked to the wars of our Muslim brothers around the world. [We] will be another brigade to join the brigades of holy jihad manifested by the holy attacks on New York and Washington under the leadership of Usama Bin Laden.”
The call was being answered in the Sahara; both the Tariq ibn Ziyad and the Mouthalamoun brigades saw increases in their fighter numbers in this period, although neither ever exceeded a couple of hundred. The GSPC was mutating into transnational enterprise. Algerians, Malians, Nigeriens, Nigerians, Moroccans, Libyans, Mauritanians, Burkinabés, Senegalese, Guinéens, Ivory Coasters, Beninois joined up to the cause in a sombre rainbow of ardent young hearts. These youth, often barely past their mid teens, were often recruited in mosques and Qu’ranic schools, seduced by inflammable speeches on grubby cassettes or videos of mujahedeen in Iraq and Afghanistan blowing up US army convoys and giving the Satanic west a bloody nose. Sometimes they promised the chance to fight for Allah in these distant lands, but ended up somewhere under the Sahara sun, as unforgiving as their own born-again spirit. Stripped down, the basic attraction of jihad was simple. It offered opportunities to young men who otherwise had none at all; opportunities to travel, to earn a little money, to carry arms, to defend Islam, to feel a part of something large, important, purposeful. Youth needs opportunity and in lands where poverty, displacement, war, corruption and social degradation have destroyed all most opportunities, it’s a case of take whatever comes along.
The GSPC now needed a major coup to prove the combat readiness and effectiveness of these new southern brigades. For the next major outrage following the 2003 kidnappings, they turned their attention to Mauritania, a country that had hitherto been spared the whip of Islamist violence, and launched an attack near Lemgheity, an outpost of impossible remoteness in the far north east of Mauritania, 400 kilometres east from the mining town of Zouérate. You’ll find it hard to get hold of a map that even recognises Lemgheity’s existence. On the fourth of June 2005 about one hundred and fifty mujahedeen sporting battle fatigues and black cheches attacked a Mauritanian army convoy near the village, killing fifteen soldiers and wounding seventeen more. Belmokhtar and his Mouthalamoun brigade were later revealed to be responsible for this strike. His declared aim was to punish Mauritania for having diplomatic relations with Israel and for cultivating alliances with the Great Satan. Three days later, the US led ‘Operation Flintlock 2005’ against terrorism in the Sahel was launched, with the arrival of up to 1000 US military personnel in Nouakchott. Another red rag to the conspiracy bull.
In April 2006, a GSPC convoy carrying arms through the desert south of Ghardaia attacked a unit of Algerian customs men and killed thirteen of them. The army responded swiftly and heavily, killing a number of GSPC fighters and recovering a trawl of weapons, bought in Niger and destined for northern Algeria, that included: 1 x heavy machine gun, 6 x RPGs, 1 x mortar canon, 4 x RPK machine guns, 59 x automatic machine guns, 15 hand pistols, 311 ammunition chargers, 53 mortar shells and 16 cases of ammunition. Mokhtar Belmokhtar was reportedly behind the attack but, as always, he evaded his pursuers and simply disappeared into the desert.
Meanwhile, the links that El Para, Belmokhtar, Droukdel, Nabil Sahraoui and others had been forging for years had borne fruit. In late 2006, on the ultra-symbolic date of September 11th, Ayman Al Zawahiri, Al Qaida’s no. 2, announced that the GSPC was now officially aligned to the global jihadi franchise. The GSPC pre-empted Al Zawahiri’s announcement with a communiqué released a few days his announcement. “We swear allegiance to Cheikh Ousama Ben Laden,” it read. “We will pursue jihad in Algeria. Our fighters are under his orders so that he might strike who he wants where he wants through our intercession… We advise our brothers in all the other jihadi movements, everywhere in the world, not to miss this blessed union. Al Qaida is the only organisation able to bring together all the mujahedeen, to represent the Islamic nation, and speak on its behalf.” In a separate posting, Abdelmalik Droukdel claimed that “God ordered us to be untied, to be allied, to cooperate and fight against the idolaters…the same way they fight us as military allies and in economic and political groupings. Why shouldn’t we join our brothers while almost all these nations have united against Muslims and separated them, dividing their land, and taking away their Al Aqsa mosque. These crimes are committed by the Jewish-Crusader alliance.” Unity…oneness…tawhid. After so many years of division, of in-fighting, of isolation and internal strife, all the mujahedeen of north Africa would now be united in one struggle, one jihad, under the banner of Al Qaida, in the service of the ultimate goal, an Islamic caliphate, not only in Algeria, but in all the Muslim lands of North and West Africa. Jihad in North Africa was now ‘fit’ for the new globalised millennium.
A few months later, in January 2007, the GSPC changed its name to Tanzim al-Qa’ida fi-Bilad al-Maghreb al-Islam or The Al Qaida Fighting Group in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb. The title quickly contracted to the more portable AQIM or AQMI in the Francophone world, a big nightmare with a little name. The GSPC and Al Qaida leaders hoped that the group would eventually incorporate the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (MICG), the Libyan Islamic Combatant Group (LICG) and the Tunisian Islamic Combatant Group (TICG) into one structure, headed by the GSPC emirs. It was a classic efficiency drive, a rationalisation of disparate entities in the service of greater synergy and success, the kind of process that any management consultant might be proud to foist on a client. It was accompanied by a snappy new website, which proved that the Algerians were learning lessons from their more media and marketing savvy Al Qaida partners.
The last attack perpetrated by the GSPC before they rebranded themselves AQIM occurred on 10th December 2006. Two buses carrying employees of Brown Root & Condor, a joint venture between the Algerian state oil giant Sonatrach and the US firm Halliburton, were blown up as they drove from the wealthy suburb of Bouchaoui back to the Sheraton Hotel in Algiers. An Algerian driver and an American employee were killed. At the time, Brown Root & Condor was implicated in a vast and juicy scandal involving massive overpayments for goods and services, often of American provenance. The company had been distributing the proverbial bulky brown envelopes, stuffed with thousands of dinars and dollars in kickbacks and inducements to senior personnel in Halliburton and Sonatrach as well as the wider military, security and energy communities for years. Brown Root & Condor, which was founded back in 1994, was the nodal point in a tight relationship between the military-industrial complexes of America and Algeria which grew steadily throughout the 1990s and then flourished like a shameless bougainvillea following the attacks of September 11th, 2001. The US security establishment realised that no one in world had more experience of the dark arts of fighting terrorism than Algeria and its DRS, and the Algerian security establishment was only to happy to provide their powerful new friends with information, expertise and lucrative procurement contracts.
2006 had been a relatively light year in GSPC annals. 2007 however was bathed in blood. It started with the detonation of seven bombs at police stations in the Boumerdès and Tizi Ouzou districts of northeastern Algeria. In March AQIM attacked a bus carrying employees of Stroitransgaz, the Russian firm that was building a gas pipeline from the fields in south west of the country up to the Mediterranean coast. One Russian and three Algerians were killed. Matters degenerated from there on. Scores and scores of people, both security personnel and civilians, died in AQIM attacks in Lakhdaria, Batna, Dellys and Algiers. Kidnapping also flourished in the north. Capturing men of wealth, or members of their family, and cashing them in for fat ransoms became a work-a-day pastime. In 2007, there was at least one kidnapping incident a day in Algeria, although, interestingly, none of the victims were European or American. This was thanks in part to the assiduous security measures that were taken to protect foreign business men, workers and tourists. Overall, it was one of bloodiest seasons in the history of the troubles. But none of the violence touched the southern Sahara until the end of the year.
On Christmas Eve 2007, François Tollet, a 73 year old retired chemist from the Charentes area of France was driving south on the road between Aleg and Maghta Lahjar, about 250 kilometres south east of Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. With him in the car were his brother Gérard, his two grown up sons Jean-Philippe and Didier, and a childhood friend of Didier’s, Adda Hacène. They had stopped by the side of the road for a picnic lunch when three turbaned men drove up in a black mercedes, got out and demanded money. When the tourists refused to hand over their cash, the assailants took out AK-47 rifles and killed four of them; Tollet’s two sons, his brother and his friend. Only François Tollet survived the attack, although he was severely wounded in the leg.
Tollet had long been a fan of Africa and the desert, and had travelled there almost on a yearly basis. How cruelly the desert betrayed that love. Or had it always been misplaced? Do desert lovers like Tollet swim in the rose-water of its seemingly endless hospitality, its generosity of space and time, the sweet calmness of its sunset hour. Are they blind to the human struggle that goes on in the Sahara every day, the poverty, the corruption and the anger, the nurseries of violence and extremism. I’ve often pondered that question. Maybe Tollet has too. This was the first time he had taken his two sons along with him on one of his African road trips. To see them murdered with his own eyes, in cold blood, by the side of a lonely desert road, in an immensity of sand and rock stretching to a wide and level horizon, must have been like a punch in the gut from a fist that had once belonged to a friend.
The Mauritanian authorities were quick to lay the blame for the attack at the door of Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. But this knee-jerk attribution was treated with suspicion by some in Mauritania. “I don’t believe in the terrorist attack theory,” a local journalist told The Figaro newspaper, “The GSPC men could more easily have struck in the tourist region of the Adrar if they had wanted to carry out a big coup.” Three men were eventually arrested in Guinea Bissau thanks to an operation reportedly masterminded by French intelligence. One of them, Sidi Ould Sidna, then escaped from the Palace of Justice in Nouakchott before being recaptured by Mauritianian security forces in April 2008. He was only 21 years old. Another jihadist, Maarouf Ould Haiba, an ex soldier and petty criminal, was already behind bars, having admitted taking part in the killing. “I killed those French miscreants,” he told the Mauritanian court.
The attack on Tollet and his family took place over two thousand kilometres away from Tinariwen’s homeland in north eastern Mali. There was a palpable fever of insecurity at the time but that was as a result of the recent Touareg uprising and not Islamic terrorism. Then, on February 22nd 2008, a full five years after El Para’s hostage coup, the strange hiatus in the Islamist kidnapping game came to an end. Wolfgang Ebner and Andrea Kloiber, a tourist couple from Salzburg in Austria, were kidnapped as they were exploring in the Matmata region of south eastern Tunisia, close by the Algerian border, an area famous for its caves and the troglodyte hotel which starred as the original home of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars IV.
Ebner and Koiber were reportedly captured by the Tarik ibn Ziad katiba of AQIM, lead by the dreaded Cheikh Abdelhamid Abou Zeid. Abou Zeid was born Mohammed Ghadir, sometime in the mid to late 1950s, no one knows exactly when. His family belonged to the Chaamba, originally a nomadic tribe that roamed with their herds between Debdeb and El Oued in the far eastern corner of Algeria, near the Libyan border. Abou Zeid’s spent most of his youth looking after the family goats and camels and occasionally attending Qur’anic school. Life was hard, but the young diminutive shepherd, whose nickname was “P’tit” (“Little’un”) was tough and resourceful. He was also steely, stubborn, and prone to violence if contradicted. By his early twenties, he already owned an old Land Rover and had started to smuggle goods, especially tea and cooking oil, along remote desert tracks that crisscrossed the nearby frontiers. The open desert tracks were to him like the sky is to an eagle. He was a loner, ascetic and austere, who abjured the pleasures of alcohol and cigarettes, although not necessarily women, of whom he married four by the end of the decade.
Over time Abou Zeid became a notorious smuggler, a status that earned him a few stints in the El Oued prison. Abou Zeid himself didn’t consider his activities to be criminal, just necessary for a decent life, and most of the youth of the Debdeb area shared his outlook. He even went on pilgrimage to Mecca twice during the late 1980s. His religious faith began to play a central and unforgiving role in his life. Abou Zeid’s strengthening zeal fused with an increasing hatred of the police, customs officials and border guards whose job it was to inhibit his ‘honest’ trade, galvanising eventually into a steely view of the world, streaked with a profound disgust for the political corruption, cronyism and moral degeneracy of modern Algeria. Thanks to his sweat, his courage, his cunning, Abou Zeid had escaped the pecking misery of his youth to become wealthy and independent. No one was going to steal the fruits of his hard labour from him.
When the FIS emerged as the torch bearer of anti-government fervour in the early 1990s, they found a willing recruit in Abou Zeid. He began to propound the imposition of Sharia law as the cure-all remedy for Algeria’s sins and became an active benefactor, distributing alms and food to the poor of Debdeb, especially during Ramadan. His faith was ardent and sincere, although he found the verbal niceties of political and spiritual debate hard to master, a weakness which blocked his path into mainstream politics or religious leadership. This lack of erudition left a void that fuelled envy and resentment against intellectuals who could spin words and ideas beyond his grasp.
In 1994, Abou Zeid was arrested and imprisoned for giving material support to terrorist groups. The charge wasn’t too far off the mark. Using his intimate knowledge of the secret pathways of the desert, Abou Zeid had been smuggling arms into Algeria from Libya and further south, and selling them on to the small terrorist groups who were already beginning to operate in the Sahara. He was sentenced to three years in jail. Prison was a school. Abou Zeid not only absorbed the violent fervour of the other mujahedeen who were locked up with him but he also learnt the tricks of jihad. On his release in 1997 he went underground, below the radar, with a brother and two uncles, joining a GIA katiba operating in the El Oued area. Its leaders had already been his associates in the clandestine supply game, and Abou Zeid was given the role of keeping his katiba stocked with guns, bullets, petrol and food. In 1998, he was sent on a mission to find new sources of arms further south, and he spent the next few years travelling throughout southern Algeria, Libya and northern Mali and Niger, cementing solid business relationships with traffickers, corrupt officials and bent army officers. If Mokhtar Belmokhtar was already enthroned as the King of the Saharan Islamist smugglers, Abou Zeid earned a reputation as the crown prince during those years.
After Hassan Hattab’s defection from the GIA and the creation of the GPSC, Abou Zeid found a natural ally in Abderrazak ‘El Para’, the new emir of the southern 5th zone. El Para made this tough resourceful man his lieutenant and kept him in his inner circle, until he decided Abou Zeid was ready to lead his own cell, the katiba Tariq Ibn Ziad. Its first mission, in 2002, was to prepare for the planned expansion of jihad south into the Sahel and black Africa. The scene was set for the great hostage crisis of 2003, in which Abou Zeid played a crucial supporting role. His activities in the years between 2003 and 2008 are vague and barely known. However, with the kidnapping of Ebner and Kloiber, he returned to forefront of terrorism in the Sahara and has remained there ever since.
After their capture, the two Austrians were driven through Libya and Algeria and into northern Mali, where they were held in a secret base north of Kidal. It was Ennahar, an Algerian newspaper that has close links with the DRS, that published a list of the five prisoners that AQIM wanted freed in return for the lives of tourists in early March 2008. It included Amari Saïfi aka El Para, who was still being held by the DRS at the time, despite the fact that he had already condemned to death by an Algerian court.
A number of mediators were involved in the negotiations to free Ebner and Kloiber. One of them was Ibrahim Mohammed Assalegh, a Touareg member of the Malian national assembly. He spent months shuttling back and forth between Bamako and the far northeastern corner of the country, where the hostages were being held, although he claims he never actually met anyone from AQIM itself. He left that job to a well known smuggler and border hustler called Mahmoud Ag Mohamed, who came from In Khalil, the border town set up surreptitiously by the Algerian authorities as an ‘market’ for contraband traffic of all kinds. In Khalil isn’t the kind of place you’d ever want to spend a two week holiday. Think of it as a desert version of Dead Man’s Gulch, a lawless little burgh out in the middle of nowhere, a sinkhole of clandestino dreams built out of mud and sweat, a place to import, export, hand over, receive and then get the hell out as quick as humanly possible.
Assalegh and another Touareg bigwig, a former government minister called Mohamed Ag Erlaf, worked with the Malian secret services on a plan to persuade local nomadic groups to put pressure on Al Qaida to free the hostages. The nomads in question included Reguibat tribesmen from the Western Sahara, who Assalegh encountered in the far north of Mali, around the salt mines of Taodenni. He refers to them simply as ‘Polisario’, since the Western Sahara’s independence movement is largely made up of Reguibat. He urged all the nomads he met to help Mali free the hostages. If they didn’t, he argued, they might get caught in the crossfire of a war between the Malian army and Al Qaida. To Malian soldiers from the south, a man in a cheche is a man in a cheche, and differentiating between nomad and terrorist is testing, if not impossible. The nomads in the north were also promised new wells, which were probably never delivered.
Apart from Assalegh and Ag Erlaf, several northern Arabs, or Berabiche were also involved in the negotiations to free Ebner and Kloiber. This group had the backing of Libya, who provided cash, vehicles, satellite phones and other essentials. Why would Libya be interested in helping a couple of kidnapped Austrian tourists? Why, thanks to the warm friendship between far-right Austrian politician Jorg Haider and Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, of course. The desert cultivates strange relationships. Among the Arab team was Major Bou Ould Lamana, a native of Timbuktu who worked for the Malian secret services or DGSE and was a protégé of Colonel Mamy Coulibaly, the Malian secret service supremo. Ould Lamana was also suspected to have been involved in arms trafficking and selling weapons to the GSPC as far back as 2001. The US Embassy called him “The Saharan version of a bent cop.”
Ould Lamana was part of a coterie of northern Arab army officers, political officials and business men who wielded enormous influence and power. They were dons in northern Malian smuggling rackets, and their networks stretched far and wide through West Africa and the Maghreb. Chief among this group were Colonel Mohamed Abderrahmane Ould Meydou, a handsome brick-chinned officer who was one of the Malian army’s ‘desert foxes’, charged with keeping a semblance of government control in the lawless northern provinces and thumping recalcitrant Touareg rebels with his own hand-picked militia of fellow Arab fighters. Then there was Mohammed Ould Aiwanatt, an immensely rich Arab trader and trafficker from the Tilemsi region north of Gao, whose fingers were stuck in all manner of merchandise, both sweet and sour. And last, but not least, there was Baba Ould Cheikh, mayor of the tiny but criminally significant village of Tarkint, north of Bourem.
All these men had their legitimate trades, but a desert potentate cannot operate on a measly government salary or a polite business in kosher goods alone. You’ve got to cross a line or two if you want to be a big shot Saharan player. All four harvested rich pickings in an ever hardening sequence of contraband goods. Their role as government and Gaddafi-backed hostage-negotiators offered a number of synergies with their other activities, including influence, protection for smuggling rackets, fame, kudos and a handsome cut of the ransom pie.
Certain Touareg officials and traders also benefited from AQIM’s presence in northern Mali, even though negotiators like Ibrahim Mohammed Ag Assalegh deny ever receiving a penny for their services. Iyad Ag Ghali, the ultimate Touareg ‘fixer’ and hostage-negotiator has hardly said a word to the media, either national or international, since he swapped rebellion for God in the mid 1990s. But it seems unlikely that men of his ilk would get involved in such a strenuous, draining and time-consuming endeavour as negotiating the release of western hostages without receiving a cut of the millions of euros paid by some western governments in return for the freedom of their subjects. Most Malian Touareg leaders were genuine in their frequently-voiced fear that the presence of AQIM in northern Mali was likely to damage the reputation of their people and lead to a disastrous confusion of Touareg nationalism and Islamist terrorism in the minds of international governments, the media and the public at large. On the other hand, they also held the view that hostage-negotiation was a job that deserved a handsome pay-out. If western governments were going to pour these astronomical sums into the coffers of international terrorists, then why shouldn’t they be recompensed for their honest humanitarian efforts. Furthermore, lower down the food chain, Touaregs, whether petty criminals or ordinary young men out of luck and out of hope, also provided services to AQIM as drivers, guides, cooks, suppliers of fuel, food and other essentials, informants and even, ultimately, ‘procurers’, who job it was to actually kidnap the hapless victims and hand them over to men like Abou Zeid or Mokhtar Belmokhtar for a fee.
But the northern Malian Arabs were closer to AQIM than the Touareg, ethnically, linguistically, ideologically and commercially. They were plugged into networks of kith and kin that extended from Gao to Timbuktu up to Taodenni and deep in Mauritania and Algeria. The one-eyed AQIM emir Mokhtar Belmokhtar was married to an Arab woman from Timbuktu. He was part of a family there, and families in the southern Sahara can be like quasi-political organisations, with far-reaching roots and branches stretching from the Atlantic ocean to the shores of Libya.
Austria dispatched a four man team to Bamako to coordinate efforts to free the hostages, headed by the sharp-suited stripey-shirted diplomat Anton Prohaska. They refused to negotiate directly with Al Qaida, outwardly at least, but instead tried to persuade other ‘friendly’ Muslim nations to put pressure on the Al Qaida leadership. Their dealings with Malian bureaucracy were frustrating, especially when it came the head of the Malian secret services Col. Mamy Coulibaly, whom one of the Austrian team described as “long on promises but short on information.” Prohaska did the rounds of the foreign embassies, frequently dropping into the US Embassy for a chat and some advice. Another Austrian team that was sent to Algiers also made little progress. One of them described the Algerians as “extremely tough and security minded.” There was also a confusing side-track opened by the arrival of a two-man team from the private security firm Blackwater, already notorious for its work for the US government during its occupation of Iraq. The duo booked into one of Bamako swishest hotels and tendered their services to the Malian government and the Austrian, proclaiming their expertise in hostage negotiating and promising to liberate Ebner and Kloiber in return for a handsome cut of the ransom of course. They weren’t successful.
The negotiations dragged and so did the months. Wolfgang Ebner’s son Bernhard pleaded with the terrorists to show clemency, and eventually came to Mali himself to try and help free his father, without success. The phone lines between Vienna and Bamako vibrated with high-level but ineffectual diplomacy. Prohaska was well into his eighth month in the Malian capital, and began telling all and sundry that his useful time there was coming to an end. Ebner tried to escape from the AQIM camp in northern Mali, but managed to walk a mere 25 miles before he was picked up by a trucker who returned him to the camp. In the end, Ebner and Kloiber were released on October 31st 2008, nine months and nine days after they were kidnapped. Did they survive thanks to nomadic pressure, or to the fact that they converted to Islam whilst in captivity, through spiritual conviction or dire expediency it’s hard to tell, or to the Berabiche negotiators and their Libyan slush fund? No, probably none of the above. The real reason was a 2 million euro ransom that was brought to Bamako aboard a special Austrian government airplane by Ursula Plassnik, the Austrian minister of foreign affairs, on board a special flight. 2 million euros in a country where a teacher earns barely 70 euros a month. It was about the same as paying 200 million euros to a criminal gang in Europe. That kind of money buys you a lot of weapons, and brand new cars. And influence. No wonder Al Qaida’s appetite for ransoms only grew keener.
Andy Morgan. (c) 2013, all rights reserved.
An extract from my forthcoming book on Tinariwen and the story of the Sahara desert since independence.