In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, US security mandarins made a deal with the Algerian intelligence services, as they pursued Islamists across the region, with an eye cast on Africa's oil reserves. The scheme went horribly wrong, recounts Jeremy Keenan, and turned the Sahel from a quiet backwater into a hotbed of terror.
Thirteen years ago, the western Sahel, which stretches from the Atlantic shores of Mauritania through Mali and Niger to the Lake Chad region, was one of the safest places on earth. The biggest risks for a foreign tourist, or anyone else for that matter, might have been falling down a well, treading on a scorpion, too much sun, or not carrying enough water.
Today, few places in the world are more dangerous.
Despite the region's safety, Donald Rumsfeld's US Defence Department produced a series of maps at that time depicting the region as a major terrorist zone. That was because Rumsfeld probably had a good idea of what was to befall the region.
Today, while the Pentagon's maps are a stark reminder of what has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, the US authorities' explanations for the terrorism that came to overwhelm the region contain as much propaganda and disinformation as truth.
I will explain.
In the Sahel, terrorism--in the post-9/11 sense of the term--has never been simply a matter of growing Islamist militant extremism as is generally portrayed in Western media. Wahhabi preachers, funded mostly by Saudi Arabia, have had a presence in the region, especially Mali, for decades. But although "fundamentalist", Wahhabism condones neither violence nor terrorism.
Rather, the "terrorism" that has engulfed the region over the last few years has come from other external sources and forces.
Terrorism in the Sahel since 2003 has gone through several distinct phases or "turns", notably in 2003, 2006,2008,2011 and 2013. The emergence of the Islamic State (IS), or "Daesh", as it is known, in 2015 might be considered another, although its impact on the Sahel is still secondary to that of Al Qaeda or its local franchise, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The roots of terrorism in the region lie in Algeria's civil war--the "Dirty War" of the 1990s. Algeria's military regime, with a "green light" from the West, annulled democratic elections in 1992 and thus prohibited the Islamist Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) from victory. The outcome was a vicious and bloody war between Islamists and the army, leaving some 200,000 dead and Algeria indelibly scarred. The essential strategy of the army, its leadership of eradicateurs, and the secret intelligence service, the Departement du Renseignement et de la Securite (DRS), had been to infiultrate the armed Islamic groups (GIA). The result was that by the time the war began to wind down in 1999 and the army decided on Abdelaziz Bouteflika as the country's next president, it was difficult to know who was killing who. Many of the worst civilian massacres and other atrocities had been committed by army units and the DRS masquerading as Islamists.
The main agency in the emerging counter-terrorism and black-ops that came to characterise the post9/11 Bouteflika era, both in Algeria and most of the surrounding Maghreb and Sahel regions, was the DRS. The DRS became the real power in Algeria, a state-within-a-state. Under its director General Mohammed "Toufik" Mediene, it wielded power through an elaborate patronage system that coopted the political and business elite, providing the DRS access to both political and business rents.
The essence of the DRS-Western intelligence relationship, which came to define the post-9/11 landscape in Northwest Africa, was that the DRS's unique experience of both infiltrating and fighting Islamists, provided the West with experience, information and access to terrorist networks. In return, the West outfitted the DRS and the Algerian army with the new, high tech weapon systems that had been denied to them during the 1990s because of sanctions against Algeria's military regime.
The reason for this covert US-Algerian...