New Internationalist

Algerian gas plant terror: the real story

April 2013

The incident has been used to justify Western involvement in a long-term ‘war on terror’ in North Africa, including the French intervention in northern Mali but we have not been told the truth about the attack on the Tiguentourine gas plant writes Jeremy Keenan

On 16 January, the Tiguentourine gas plant in the Algerian Sahara was attacked by terrorists. By the end of the siege, five days later, 29 of the 32 attackers and at least 37 of the plant’s foreign workers had been killed. Several Western governments referred to this as an Al Qaeda operation that marked a new phase in the global ‘war on terror’. Apocalyptic pronouncements about the Islamist threat in the region have been commonplace and the attack on the gas plant has been used to justify Western support for the French military intervention in Mali. British prime minister David Cameron even talked about the situation in the Maghreb providing a ‘generational’ and ‘existential’ threat to his country.

In fact, as more evidence comes to light, far from being an example of a strategic attack by a highly organized North African branch of Al Qaeda, the Tiguentourine gas plant incident looks like another case of collusion between Algeria’s secret police, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) and local terrorists – of the kind detailed in the December issue of New Internationalist. Such collusion between Algeria’s DRS and various ‘terrorists’ has been common in North Africa. This time, however, whatever was being planned appears to have gone drastically wrong, ending in a bloodbath.

Louiza / ABACA / Press Association Images
On guard: Algerian troops at the Tiguentourine plant in the wake of the attack. Louiza / ABACA / Press Association Images

What happened at the Tiguentourine plant is still unclear. That is because Algeria imposed a complete ‘information black-out’. All the information that was given to the Western media came from anonymous ‘security sources’ – in other words, from the Algerian secret service. After the operation, the West was able to get some information from the survivors, which, although useful, was necessarily fragmented. It was enough, however, to indicate that much of what Algeria had been saying was patently untrue.

Fortunately, a whole new ray of light has been thrown on the incident by Habib Souaïdia, the former DRS officer (1989-95) who blew the whistle on the DRS’s role in Algeria’s ‘Dirty War’ of the 1990s.1 In his 2001 book La Sale Guerre, Souaïdia revealed how the DRS had not only infiltrated and manipulated the armed Islamic groups in Algeria but also masqueraded as Islamists, ultimately making them responsible for a large proportion of the estimated 200,000 killed in the ‘Dirty War’. Victory in the libel case brought against him in Paris by Algeria’s former defence minister, Khaled Nezzar, rubber-stamped Souaïdia’s book as the authoritative account of the criminality of the Algerian regime and its secret service.

Contradictions in the ‘official version’

The main contradiction, among many, in the official version of the attack concerns how the terrorists entered Algeria. Algeria’s interior minister Dahou Ould Kablia said on 16 January that the attack did not come from Libya. Three days later, Mounir B, a journalist at Algerian newspaper Liberté and a DRS mouthpiece, confirmed that the attack had come from Libya. Then, following an official denial from the Libyans, Ould Kablia attempted to clarify the situation by saying that the attackers had come from northern Mali, crossing the border into Algeria then dipping into Niger (a bit of a geographical contortion) before reaching the Tiguentourine plant. The trip was supposed to have taken two months. The Algerians subsequently plumped for the Libya option.

This looks like another case of collusion between Algeria's secret police and local terrorists

If the attackers had come from Mali, by whichever route, they would have had to cross well over 1,000 kilometres of Algerian territory in which security is ‘thick on the ground’. There are at least 7,000 border guards along the Algerian-Libyan frontier, as well as over 20,000 troops in the region. Habib Souaïdia believes that such a journey would have been virtually impossible without the complicity of the security services.

Complicity with terrorists

Algeria’s DRS has a long history of both creating and colluding with terrorists. In the 1990s, it was often impossible to know whether the DRS or the Islamist militants were responsible for the slaughter. There is good reason to believe that, since 2003, the majority of ‘terrorist’ incidents in the country (and its Sahelian neighbours) have involved some degree of collusion between the DRS and the terrorists.2

This is the problem that US intelligence officer John Schindler spoke about last year.3 He did so again after the Tiguentourine attack, drawing a parallel between Algeria’s DRS and another rogue intelligence agency, Pakistan’s ISI.4

The Algerian authorities are adamant that the Tiguentourine attack was masterminded by Mokhtar ben Mokhtar, while being led on the ground by Mohamed Lamine Bouchneb, his right-hand man.5 The Algerian authorities reported Bouchneb as having been killed on the second day of the attack.

A starting point in investigating any possible complicity between the DRS and the Tiguentourine assailants is therefore to check for any previous ‘working’ relations or links between Mokthar, Bouchneb and the DRS.

Mokhtar ben Mokhtar and the DRS

Mokhtar ben Mokhtar is the Sahara’s most infamous ‘outlaw’ or ‘terrorist’, arriving on the scene in the early-to-mid 1990s and subsequently acquiring an almost mythical reputation, with many acts of terrorism in which he had no part being attributed to him, largely thanks to DRS propaganda – including the 2003 kidnapping of 32 European tourists in the Algerian Sahara, which was actually carried out by another DRS agent, Saifi Lamari (aka El Para). Mokhtar has worked with cells and leaders of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb for long periods. But he has also ‘broken’ from them on occasion and ‘done his own thing’. More importantly, he has also worked at times for the DRS. Indeed, many local residents in the Sahara, as well as many others who know how ‘security’ and ‘terrorism’ in Algeria is manipulated by the intelligence service there, regard Mokhtar as a DRS agent.

The Tiguentourine attack came only a few weeks after a highly suspicious and very public series of announcements saying that Mokhtar, who for most of 2012 was being portrayed as one of the top Islamist leaders in Mali, had broken with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to set up his own jihadist operation that would span the Sahara from Mauritania, through the Sahel and Algeria to Libya and even Chad.

Ramzi Boudina / Reuters
Rescue workers deliver the coffin of one of the hostages to the hospital in the nearby town of Amenas. Ramzi Boudina / Reuters

I believe that this ‘break’ was based on a mixture of DRS propaganda and an element of truth. By early December, there was firm evidence of fragmentations taking place within the Islamist/terrorist groupings that had taken control of northern Mali during 2012. A ‘new’ jihadist grouping, under the name of Les Signataires par le sang (‘Those who sign in blood’), appears to have come into play around that time under the leadership, real or fictive, of Mokhtar.

There is abundant evidence that the leaders of Islamist groups in northern Mali have been supported and provisioned by Algeria’s DRS. Since the start of the Mali crisis in the beginning of 2012, I have received countless reports from local sources in northern Mali identifying Mokhtar as being in the Gao region in the company of Algerian special forces.

Souaïdia believes that the Tiguentourine operation was intended by the DRS to convince the West that the Algerian army was the best guarantor of Western interests in the region

Mokhtar has also been seen with Baba Ould Sheikh and Sultan Ould Badi, the Gao-based hostage dealers, cocaine traffickers and leaders of MUJAO (the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa). Sultan Ould Badi’s drug-trafficking business is protected directly by the DRS. When Ould Badi was inadvertently arrested by Mali’s police in late 2010, General Rachid Lalali, head of the DRS’s External Security Directorate, flew straight from Berlin, where he was accompanying President Bouteflika on a visit to Chancellor Angela Merkel, to secure his immediate release.

Mohamed Lamine Bouchneb and the DRS

On 16 January, Mounir B, the aforementioned DRS mouthpiece in the Algerian press, published a detailed article on Mohamed Lamine Bouchneb, with the clear objective of portraying him as one of the Sahara’s leading ‘jihadists’.6 He was described as Mokhtar’s ‘businessman’ and the leader of Fils du Sahara pour la justice islamique (Sons of the Sahara for Islamic Justice), a regrouping of smugglers and drug traffickers that controlled the drug routes into Libya from southeast Algeria.

Mounir B gave Bouchneb a glowing ‘jihadist CV’, stating that he was responsible for the attack on Djanet airport in 2007 and the kidnapping in 2011 of an Italian tourist, Maria Sandra Mariani. Both assertions are correct, but what was not mentioned was that both these operations were instructed by the DRS.

Even stronger evidence of Bouchneb’s (and Mokhtar’s) relationship with the DRS comes from the testimonies of three independent witnesses who had been held at the Tamouret terrorist training camp in the Algerian Sahara (see box Algeria’s ‘killing camp’ ).

Witnesses identified the main organizer of the camp as Abdelhamid abou Zaïd, currently said to be head of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali. Witnesses claim to have seen him in the company of senior army and DRS officers almost every evening. Bouchneb, however, was identified as being one of the most frequent visitors to the camp. He was seen regularly in the company of the camp organizer, Mokhtar when he visited, and the army/DRS officers. One of the Tamouret witnesses does not believe Bouchneb was killed at Tiguentourine, maintaining that he is too seasoned a DRS operative to have been risked in such an operation.

What lay behind Tiguentourine?

The Tiguentourine attackers, as well as a multitude of Islamist sources, stated that the operation was launched as revenge for Algeria granting France overfly rights, thus enabling it to launch the bombing raids into northern Mali that began on 11 January. It is certain that there was immense anger at Algeria’s perceived betrayal of the Islamists. But it is unlikely, even impossible, that such an operation in a location so far from Mali could have been planned and launched in such a short space of time.

Terrorist incidents at Djanet

The Algerian authorities claim that the Djanet airport attack in 2007 was undertaken by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. It was not. It was a demonstration by Tuareg youths against the local authorities over unemployment. Mohamed Lamine Bouchneb acted as the DRS’s agent provocateur, encouraging and leading the youths out to the airport where some shots were fired at a parked passenger aircraft or helicopter, causing only slight damage. The attack was given maximum billing by the US, which claimed it demonstrated that the newly named Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was an ‘international’ terrorist organization with ‘long reach’.

Numerous reliable sources in Djanet assert that Maria Sandra Mariani’s 2011 kidnapping was undertaken by Bouchneb. Immediately after her abduction, Mariani’s Tuareg cook and guide reached the nearby Algerian military base at In Ezzane to sound the alarm. The army refused to follow the kidnappers’ tracks, saying they had no fuel. A Djanet dignitary contacted Mokhtar ben Mokhtar, whom he had known since childhood, who confirmed that he had arranged for the kidnap at the request of the DRS. The kidnapping followed accusations by the Tuaregs that the government was using the pretext of terrorism to stop tourism and ‘clear land’ for environmentally damaging mining exploration. The kidnapping was seen by local people as giving the Algerian authorities sufficient reason to close the region – which they did a month later.* *Both incidents are documented in detail in my book The Dying Sahara.

The obvious question, in the light of the clear threat from Islamists, is why the Tiguentourine plant was not better protected by Algeria’s large and professional security forces. France moved immediately to a state of high-security alert following the Islamists’ call for jihad. Why did Algeria take no precautions to protect such an obvious target as a Western gas plant? Was it because the DRS knew that the call by Mali’s Islamists for jihad against the infidel was without foundation? Or were there other reasons?

A French intelligence source, speaking on condition of anonymity, believes the Tiguentourine attack was a replication of the murder of seven Catholic monks at Tibhirine in Algeria in 1996. The French source believes that Tiguentourine may have been another ‘false-flag’ operation between the DRS and terrorists that ‘went wrong’. The supposed plan was that hostages would be seized, rather in the manner in which the Tibhirine monks were taken, and that they would be ‘rescued’ by the Algerian army. Somehow, however, the plan, as at Tibhirine, misfired.

Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire
Red alert: David Cameron in Algiers with Algerian prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal. Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire

The former DRS agent turned whistleblower Habib Souaïdia believes that there is much about the Tiguentourine attack that resembles a DRS-directed operation. He refers to the long history of the DRS’s ‘double game’ of infiltrating and manipulating the different terrorist groups in the same way as Pakistan’s ISI operates with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He goes further, confirming how, for more than 20 years, the heads of the DRS have manipulated and used terrorists to persuade the West to back the Algerian regime and to use its intelligence agency as the privileged interlocutor in confronting the changes which threaten to turn the region upside down. Souaïdia believes that the Tiguentourine operation was intended by the DRS to convince the West, following France’s intervention in Mali, that the Algerian army was the best guarantor of Western interests in the region.

This may explain why David Cameron changed his tune so markedly within 24 hours of his initial display of anger at Algeria’s handling of the situation. The prime minister was taken in hand immediately by the British intelligence agency MI6, whose chief, Sir John Sawers, then accompanied him to Algeria, where they talked about closer intelligence ties between MI6 and the DRS. It also explains why US AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez then hailed the Algerian army’s intervention at Tiguentourine as ‘a success’.

What went wrong?

Although exactly what went wrong at Tiguentourine is still not entirely clear, Souaïdia, through his contacts in the DRS and the Algerian army, is able to provide a totally different explanation from the official version of events.

In most other countries, there is one special service dedicated to managing such crises. In Algeria’s case, three units/commands of ‘Special Forces’ were involved, totalling 450 men: a recipe for disaster. They were:

l The GIS (Groupe d’intervention spéciale), which is answerable to the DRS.

l The Gendarmerie’s SSI (Section spéciale d’intervention), an operational unit created in 1989 in the image of France’s élite force.

l Three parachute commando companies, from the 5th, 12th and 18th regiments.

The commanders of all these groups were in the operational control office set up close to Tiguentourine. They were: Major-General Athmane Tartag (aka ‘Bachir’), who is the DRS’s new ‘strong man’ and who had come directly from Algiers with his GIS men; Major-General Ahmed Boustila, head of the National Gendarmerie; Major-General Abderrezak El-Chérif (a parachutist and commander of the 4th military region, Ouargla); General Hadji, also of the 4th military region, along with his HQ staff; and Colonel Abdelhafid Abdaoui, commandant of the regional gendarmerie.

AP / Press Association Images
Weapons allegedly used by the terrorists and confiscated by the Algerian security forces. AP / Press Association Images

Fighting broke out between these commanders almost immediately. Tartag set the ball rolling by calling Abdaoui an ‘uled el-qahba’ (son of a whore). The reason for Tartag’s loss of control was because Abdaoui, on the orders of his commanding officer, had begun discussions with the hostage-takers and local notables. This was followed by a clash between General El-Chérif and his officers and Tartag’s DRS officers, who wanted to take over control of the operation. Souaïdia says that the tension between the groups was so high that one could hear the click of the safety catches on their weapons.

Fighting broke out between these commanders almost immediately. Tartag set the ball rolling by calling Abdaoui an ‘uled el-qahba’ (son of a whore)

In short, this unprecedented clash between senior DRS officers on the one hand and those of the gendarmerie and army on the other led to the entire operation spiralling out of control and to the resulting bloodbath. The Algerian prime minister’s reports of his country’s ‘united command’ of the situation could not have been further from the truth.

By 17 January the situation had become very tense. After entering the site, the assailants searched for the expatriates. Some had been killed the previous day in the attack on the bus heading to the airport, but 30 were being held by 11 terrorists in the living quarters. According to Souaïdia, Tartag took ‘the brutal decision’ to bombard them from a distance. He ordered three M24 helicopters to fire laser-guided missiles into the group, killing the 11 terrorists along with the 30 hostages. General El-Chérif was reportedly angered by and wholly opposed to such brutality.

Algeria’s ‘killing camp’

The existence of the Tamouret (the name is a pseudonym) ‘Al Qaeda’ training camp in the Algerian Sahara has been suspected for several years. Hard evidence of its existence came to light 18 months ago. Witness accounts, now corroborated by photographic evidence, have revealed how it was run by the DRS and the Algerian army. Tamouret is believed to have been opened around 2005, although witnesses believe that similar camps existed before then. Tamouret was closed and moved to northern Mali around 2009.

The camp’s purpose was to press-gang, train and indoctrinate marginalized youths, in various degrees of alienation from their communities across North Africa (and even further afield), to commit atrocities in Algerian communities with which they had no connection. They were generally executed after they had performed their tasks, or before if they showed any sign of dissent.

The camp numbered about 270 at any one time. Inmates were trained specifically in sniping and throat-slitting (égorgement). The camp was visited by senior army officers (believed by witnesses to be both regular army and DRS) almost every evening. The ordnance used in the camp was Algerian army issue. Prisoners, to be killed as part of the training process, were delivered to the camp in a more or less continual flow (on average four times a week). One witness claims to have seen some 180 murders undertaken during his seven-month stay in the camp. Witnesses identified many of those killed as army officers (presumably potential dissidents) and common prisoners from the jails (les disparus – the ‘disappeared’).

Some of the partially buried bodies have been located, with photographic evidence made available to the International Criminal Court.

The security forces then set about tracking down the remaining terrorists. On 19 January, four terrorists who were holding three Japanese and two others (possibly Americans) were encircled by a group of parachutists and members of the SSI. Information released by the Algerian authorities claimed that ‘the hostage-takers tried to leave the base with their hostages in their vehicles’. According to Souaïdia, this statement was untrue. Instead, Tartag, in defiance of General El-Chérif, ordered an M24 helicopter to fire three missiles into the vehicle. In addition to killing the terrorists and their hostages, nine parachutists and two gendarmes were killed, with 17 others severely wounded.

In Souaïdia’s opinion, the security forces had all the means available to prevent the terrorists leaving the base. There was no need to inflict such a massacre. Souaïdia details evidence indicating that the objective of the terrorists was to take hostages, not to blow up the plant. Indeed, the explosive belts, landmines and other such equipment they carried were in keeping with a hostage-taking operation, not with blowing up the plant.

Why then, did Tartag ‘lose it’? Why was he determined to kill so many people in a bloodbath that appears to have been quite unnecessary? Was it to wipe away the evidence of DRS complicity in this terrorist operation?

At the very least, all the evidence that we have so far points to a ‘reality’ that is very different from that portrayed by the Algerian authorities and so blandly accepted and reiterated by their Western allies – and which has remained unchallenged by the mainstream media. These are difficult events to follow – and intelligence agencies rely upon the fog that such complexity throws up before the public. But, at a time when Western troops are yet again being committed to African soil and there is idle talk of this latest front in the global ‘war on terror’ lasting a generation, the international community surely has a right to a clearer picture of exactly what transpired at Tiguentourine.

Jeremy Keenan is Professorial Research Associate in the Department of Social Anthropology and Sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University.

On 2 March Chadian troops participating in the French offensive in northern Mali claimed that Mokhtar ben Mokhtar was among 14 people they had killed in an assault on a cave stronghold in the Adras des Ifoghas mountains. The report remains unconfirmed at the time of going to press – and this is by no means the first time that Mokhtar’s death has been reported.

  1. algeria-watch.org/fr/aw/souaidia_in_amenas.htm

  2. For details, see Jeremy Keenan, The Dying Sahara. Pluto, London. 2013

  3. John Schindler, ‘The Ugly truth about Algeria’, The National Interest, 10 Jul 2012.

  4. John Schindler, ‘Algeria’s hidden hand’, The National Interest, 22 Jan 2013.

  5. Other names put forward at various times by the DRS, but whose identities cannot be verified have been Bara Al Jazaïri, alias Abou Walid, Abou Doujana and Abdel Rahman al-Nigiri.

  6. Liberté, 19 Jan 2013.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 461 This feature was published in the April 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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