Algerian gas plant terror: the real story

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


  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.

How Washington helped foster the Islamist uprising in Mali

On 12 October 2012, the UN Security Council voted unanimously in favour of a French-drafted resolution asking Mali’s government to draw up plans for a military mission to re-establish control over the northern part of Mali, an area of the Sahara bigger than France. Known as Azawad by local Tuareg people, northern Mali has been under the control of Islamist extremists following a Tuareg rebellion at the beginning of the year. For several months, the international media have been referring to northern Mali as ‘Africa’s Afghanistan’, with calls for international military intervention becoming inexorable.

Calling the shots: a US Special Forces soldier training Malian troops in Kita, May 2010.

Alfred de Montesquiou

While the media have provided abundant descriptive coverage of the course of events and atrocities committed in Azawad since the outbreak in January of what was ostensibly just another Tuareg rebellion, some pretty basic questions have not been addressed. No journalist has asked, or at least answered satisfactorily, how this latest Tuareg rebellion was hijacked, almost as soon as it started, by a few hundred Islamist extremists.

In short, the world’s media have failed to explain the situation in Azawad. That is because the real story of what has been going on there borders on the incredible, taking us deep into the murky reaches of Western intelligence and its hook-up with Algeria’s secret service.

The real story of what has been going on borders on the incredible, taking us deep into the murky reaches of Western intelligence

Azawad’s current nightmare is generally explained as the unintended outcome of the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar al-Qadafi. That is true in so far as his downfall precipitated the return to the Sahel (Niger and Mali) of thousands of angry, disillusioned and well-armed Tuareg fighters who had gone to seek their metaphorical fortunes by serving the Qadafi regime. But this was merely the last straw in a decade of increasing exploitation, repression and marginalization that has underpinned an ongoing cycle of Tuareg protest, unrest and rebellion. In that respect, Libya was the catalyst for the Azawad rebellion, not its underlying cause. Rather, the catastrophe now being played out in Mali is the inevitable outcome of the way in which the Global War On Terror has been inserted into the Sahara-Sahel by the US, in concert with Algerian intelligence operatives, since 2002.

Why Algeria and the US needed terrorism

When Abdelaziz Bouteflika took over as Algeria’s President in 1999, the country was faced with two major problems. One was its standing in the world. The role of the army and the DRS (the Algerian intelligence service, see box Algeria’s ‘state terrorism’) in the ‘Dirty War’ had made Algeria a pariah state. The other was that the army, the core institution of the state, was lacking modern high-tech weaponry as a result of international sanctions and arms embargoes.

The solution to both these problems lay in Washington. During the Clinton era, relations between the US and Algeria had fallen to a particularly low level. However, with a Republican victory in the November 2000 election, Algeria’s President Bouteflika, an experienced former Foreign Minister, quickly made his sentiments known to the new US administration and was invited in July 2001 to a summit meeting in Washington with President Bush. Bush listened sympathetically to Bouteflika’s account of how his country had dealt with the fight against terrorists and to his request for specific military equipment that would enable his army to maintain peace, security and stability in Algeria.

At that moment, Algeria had a greater need for US support than vice-versa. But that was soon to change. The 9/11 terrorist attacks precipitated a whole new era in US-Algerian relations. Over the next four years, Bush and Bouteflika met six more times to develop a largely covert and highly duplicitous alliance.

Algeria's 'state terrorism'

In January 1992, legislative elections in Algeria were on the point of being won by the Front Islamique du Salut, which would have resulted in the world’s first democratically elected Islamist government. With a ‘green light’ from the US and France, Algeria’s generals annulled the elections in what was effectively a military coup d’état. It led almost immediately to a ‘civil war’ (known as the ‘Dirty War’) that continued through the 1990s, allegedly between the Islamists and the army, in which an estimated 200,000 people were killed.

By 1994, the Algerian regime’s secret intelligence service, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), had succeeded in infiltrating the main armed Islamist groups, the Groupes Islamiques Armées (GIA), to the extent that even the GIA leader, Djamel Zitouni, was a DRS agent. Indeed, many of the killings and civilian massacres were either undertaken by the DRS masquerading as Islamists or by GIA elements tipped off and protected by the DRS.

John Schindler, a former high-ranking US intelligence officer and member of the National Security Council and now the Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, recently ‘blew the whistle’ on Algeria’s creation of terrorists and use of ‘state terrorism’. Writing about the 1990s, he said:

‘The GIA was the creation of the DRS. Using proven Soviet methods of penetration and provocation, the agency assembled it to discredit the extremists. Much of [the] GIA’s leadership consisted of DRS agents, who drove the group into the dead end of mass murder, a ruthless tactic that thoroughly discredited GIA Islamists among nearly all Algerians. Most of its major operations were the handiwork of the DRS, including the 1995 wave of bombings in France. Some of the most notorious massacres of civilians were perpetrated by military special units masquerading as Mujahedin, or by GIA squads under DRS control.’ 1

By 1998, the killing had become so bad that many Islamists abandoned the GIA to form the Groupe Salafiste pour le Prédication et le combat (GSPC) but it soon became evident that it too had been infiltrated by the DRS.

Although the ‘Dirty War’ began winding down after 1998, it has never really ended. The GSPC, which changed its name to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2006, is still operative both in northern Algeria and the Sahara-Sahel.

In many respects, little has changed since the 1990s in that the DRS is still creating terrorists and using ‘false flag’ incidents and ‘state terrorism’ as fundamental means of control. The DRS has certainly not changed: its head, General Mohamed Mediène, who was trained by the KGB and once referred to himself as ‘The God of Algeria’,2 was appointed in 1990 and is still in post. He is regarded as the most powerful man in Algeria.

As for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, its leaders in the Sahara and Sahel regions, namely Abdelhamid Abou Zaid, Mokhtar ben Mokhtar and Yahia Djouadi (all have many aliases) are either agents of the DRS or closely connected to it.

  1. John Schindler, ‘The ugly truth about Algeria, The National Interest, 10 Jul 2012.
  2. Jeremy Keenan, ‘General Toufik: “God of Algeria”’, Al Jazeera, 29 Sep 2010.

My first book on the Global War On Terror in the Sahara, The Dark Sahara (Pluto 2009), described and explained the development of this extraordinary relationship. It revealed why it was that the Bush administration and the regime in Algiers both needed a ‘little more terrorism’ in the region. The Algerians wanted more terrorism to legitimize their need for more high-tech and up-to-date weaponry. The Bush administration, meanwhile, saw the development of such terrorism as providing the justification for launching a new Saharan front in the Global War On Terror. Such a ‘second front’ would legitimize America’s increased militarization of Africa so as better to secure the continent’s natural resources, notably oil. This, in turn, was soon to lead to the creation in 2008 of a new US combat command for Africa – AFRICOM.

The first US-Algerian ‘false flag’ terrorist operation in the Sahara-Sahel was undertaken in 2003 when a group led by an ‘infiltrated’ DRS agent, Amari Saifi (aka Abderrazak Lamari and ‘El Para’), took 32 European tourists hostage in the Algerian Sahara. The Bush administration immediately branded El Para as ‘Osama bin Laden’s man in the Sahara’.

Rumsfeld’s Cuban blueprint

The US government has a long history of using false flag incidents to justify military intervention. The thinking behind the El Para operation in 2003 can actually be traced directly to a similar plan conceived by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff 40 years earlier.

In the wake of the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster – when a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles, supported by US armed forces, attempted unsuccessfully to invade Cuba and overthrow the government of Fidel Castro – the US Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up plans, codenamed Operation Northwoods, to justify a US military invasion of Cuba. The plan was presented to President John F Kennedy’s Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, on 13 March 1962. Entitled ‘Justification for US Military Intervention in Cuba (Top Secret),’1 the Northwoods Operation proposed launching a secret and bloody war of terrorism against their own country in order to trick the American public into supporting an ill-conceived war that the Joint Chiefs of Staff intended to launch against Cuba. It called on the CIA and other operatives to undertake a range of atrocities. As US investigative journalist James Bamford described it: ‘Innocent civilians were to be shot on American streets; boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba were to be sunk on the high seas; a wave of violent terrorism was to be launched in Washington DC, Miami and elsewhere. People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on Castro, thus giving Lemnitzer [Chair of US Joint Chiefs of Staff] and his cabal the excuse, as well as the public and international backing, they needed to launch their war against Fidel Castro’s Cuba.’2

The first US-Algerian ‘false flag’ terrorist operation in the Sahara-Sahel was undertaken in 2003

The plan was ultimately rejected by President Kennedy. Operation Northwoods remained ‘classified’ and unknown to the American public until declassified by the National Security Archive and revealed by Bamford in April 2001. In 2002, a not dissimilar plan was presented to US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by his Defense Science Board. Excerpts from its ‘Summer Study on Special Operations and Joint Forces in Support of Countering Terrorism’ were revealed on 16 August 2002,3 with Pamela Hess,4 William Arkin5 and David Isenberg,6 amongst others, publishing further details and analysis of the plan. The plan recommended the creation of a ‘Proactive, Preemptive Operations Group’ (P20G as it became known), a covert organization that would carry out secret missions to ‘stimulate reactions’ among terrorist groups by provoking them into undertaking violent acts that would expose them to ‘counter-attack’ by US forces.7

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

My new book on the Global War On Terror in the Sahara (The Dying Sahara, Pluto 2013) will present strong evidence that the El Para operation was the first ‘test run’ of Rumsfeld’s decision, made in 2002, to operationalize the P20G plan. In his recent investigation of false flag operations, Nafeez Ahmed states that the US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh8 was told by a Pentagon advisor that the Algerian [El Para] operation was a pilot for the new Pentagon covert P20G programme.9

So happy together: Algeria’s then president Abdelaziz Bouteflika with George W Bush in 2001.

Win McNamee / Reuters

The Sahara-Sahel front is not the only case of such fabricated incidents in the Global War On Terror. In May 2008, President George W Bush requested some $400 million in covert funding for terrorist groups across much of the Middle East-Afghanistan region in a covert offensive directed ultimately against the Iranian regime. An initial outlay of $300 million was approved by Congress.

Since the El Para operation, Algeria’s DRS, with the complicity of the US and the knowledge of other Western intelligence agencies, has used Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, through the almost complete infiltration of its leadership, to create a terrorist scenario. Much of the terrorist landscape that Algeria and its Western allies have painted in the Sahara-Sahel region is completely false.

The Dying Sahara analyzes every supposed ‘terrorism’ incident in the region over this last, terrible decade. It shows that a few are genuine, but that the vast majority were fabricated or orchestrated by the DRS. Some incidents, such as the widely reported Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb attack on Algeria’s Djanet airport in 2007, simply didn’t happen. What actually transpired was that a demonstration against the Algerian administration over unemployment by local Tuareg youths ended with the youths firing shots at the airport. It was nothing to do with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Much of the terrorist landscape that Algeria and its Western allies have painted in the Sahara-Sahel region is completely false

In order to justify or increase what I have called their ‘terrorism rents’ from Washington, the governments of Mali, Niger and Algeria have been responsible on at least five occasions since 2004 for provoking Tuareg into taking up arms, as in 2004 (Niger), 2005 (Tamanrasset, Algeria), 2006 (Mali), 2007-09 (Niger and Mali). In July 2005, for example, Tuareg youths rioted in the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset, setting ablaze some 40 government and commercial buildings. It was finally proven in court that the riots and arson attacks had been led by Algeria’s police as agents provocateurs. The matter was hushed up and some 80 youths freed and compensated. But the object of the exercise had been achieved: the DRS’s allies in Washington were able to talk of ‘putative terrorism’ among the Tuareg of Tamanrasset, thus lending more justification to George Bush’s Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative and the Pentagon’s almost concurrent ‘Operation Flintlock’ military exercise across the Sahara.

Around the time of the El Para operation, the Pentagon produced a series of maps of Africa, depicting most of the Sahara-Sahel region as a ‘Terror Zone’ or ‘Terror Corridor’. That has now become a self-fulfilled prophecy. In addition, the region has also become one of the world’s main drug conduits. In the last few years, cocaine trafficking from South America through Azawad to Europe, under the protection of the region’s political and military élites, notably Mali’s former president and security forces and Algeria’s DRS, has burgeoned. The UN Office of Drugs Control recently estimated that 60 per cent of Europe’s cocaine passed through the region. It put its value, at Paris street prices, at some $11 billion, with an estimated $2 billion remaining in the region.

Halos of power: Malian coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo (right) with interim president Dioncounda Traoré in April 2012.

Reuters / Stringer

The impact of Washington’s machinations on the peoples of the Sahara-Sahel has been devastating, not least for the regional economy. More than 60 kidnappings of Westerners have led to the collapse of the tourism industry through which Tuareg communities in Mali, Niger and Algeria previously acquired much of their cash income. For example, the killing of four French tourists in Mauritania, in addition to subsequent kidnappings, resulted in only 173 tourists visiting Mauritania in 2011, compared with 72,500 in 2007.10 The loss of tourism has deprived the region of tens of millions of dollars and forced more and more Tuareg (and others), especially young men, into the ‘criminality’ of banditry and drug trafficking.

Mali’s current mess

While it will be clear from all this that Mali’s latest Tuareg rebellion had a complex background, the rebellion that began in January 2012 was different from all previous Tuareg rebellions in that there was a very real likelihood that it would succeed, at least in taking control of the whole of northern Mali. The creation of the rebel MNLA in October 2011 (see box below) was therefore not only a potentially serious threat to Algeria, but one which appears to have taken the Algerian regime by surprise. Algeria has always been a little fearful of the Tuareg, both domestically and in the neighbouring Sahel countries. The distinct possibility of a militarily successful Tuareg nationalist movement in northern Mali, which Algeria has always regarded as its own backyard, could not be countenanced.

The impact of Washington’s machinations on the peoples of the Sahara-Sahel has been devastating

The Algerian intelligence agency’s strategy to remove this threat was to use its control of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to weaken and then destroy the credibility and political effectiveness of the MNLA. This is precisely what we have seen happening in northern Mali over the last nine months.

Although the Algerian government has denied doing so, it sent some 200 Special Forces into Azawad on 20 December 2011. Their purpose appears to have been to:

  • protect Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which had moved from its training base(s) in southern Algeria into northern Mali around 2008
  • assess the strengths and intentions of the MNLA, and
  • help establish two ‘new’ salafist-jihadist terrorist groups in the region – Ansar al-Din and MUJAO.

The leaders of these new groups – Ansar al-Din’s Iyad ag Ghaly, and MUJAO’s Sultan Ould Badi – are both closely associated with the Algerian intelligence agency, the DRS. Although Ansar al-Din and MUJAO both started out as few in number, they were immediately supported with personpower in the form of seasoned, well-trained killers from the DRS’s Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb brigades. This explains why the Islamists were able to expand so quickly and dominate the MNLA both politically and militarily.

Although Algeria’s strategy has been effective, at least so far, in achieving its object of weakening and discrediting the MNLA, it has already turned the region into a human catastrophe. Foreign military intervention now looks increasingly likely. That is something to which Algeria has always been strongly opposed in that it regards itself, not France, as the hegemonic power in the Sahel. The UN Security Council’s 12 October Resolution effectively gave Algeria a last window of opportunity to ‘rein in its dogs’ and engineer a peaceful political solution. But, as anger against the Islamists mounts and the desire for revenge from Mali’s civil society grows ever stronger, a peaceful solution is looking increasingly unlikely.

Mali's Tuareg rebellions

The Tuareg people number approximately 2-3 million and are the indigenous population of much of the Central Sahara and Sahel. Their largest number, estimated at 800,000, live in Mali, followed by Niger, with smaller populations in Algeria, Burkina Faso and Libya.

There have been five Tuareg rebellions in Mali since Independence, in addition to three in Niger and sporadic unrest in Algeria. The latest Tuareg rebellion in Mali, by the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), began in January 2012. The MNLA comprised Tuareg who had returned from Libya around October 2011, rebels who had not laid down arms after the 2007-09 uprising and others who had defected from the Malian army. Their number was estimated at around 3,000. By mid-March, they had driven Mali’s ill-equipped and ill-led forces out of most of northern Mali (Azawad), meeting little resistance.

Following this humiliation of Mali’s army, soldiers in the Kati barracks near Bamako mutinied on 22 March, an incident that led to a junta of junior officers taking power in the country. Within a week, the three northern provincial capitals of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu were in rebel hands, and on 5 April the MNLA declared Azawad an independent state.

The declaration of Azawad’s independence received no international support. One reason for this was because of the alliance between the MNLA and Ansar al-Din, a newly created jihadist movement led by a Tuareg notable, Iyad ag Ghaly, and another jihadist group, Jamat Tawhid Wal Jihad Fi Garbi Afriqqiya (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa – MUJAO). Both Ansar al-Din and MUJAO were connected to and supported by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). By May, it was these Islamist groups, not the MNLA, who were calling the political and military shots in Azawad.

By the end of June, tension between the MNLA and the Islamists broke into open fighting, resulting in the MNLA being driven out of Gao and becoming increasingly marginalized politically. Since then, the Islamists have imposed strict sharia law in Azawad, especially in Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Summary executions, amputations, stonings and other such atrocities, as well as the destruction of holy shrines in Timbuktu – UNESCO world heritage sites – are currently being investigated by the International Criminal Court. By August, nearly half a million people had fled or been displaced.

I have warned on numerous occasions in the past decade that the way in which terrorism was being fabricated and orchestrated in the Sahara-Sahel by the Algerian DRS, with the knowledge of the US and other Western powers, would inevitably result in a catastrophic outcome, quite possibly in the form of region-wide conflagration. Unless something fairly miraculous can be achieved by around the turn of the year, northern Mali looks like becoming the site for the start of just such a conflagration.

Having said that, there is the prospect of one appalling scenario that is being raised by some of the local, mostly Tuareg, militia commanders. They are postulating as to whether Algeria’s DRS and its Western allies have been using the Azawad situation to encourage the concentration of ‘salafist-jihadists’ into the region – in the form of the long-talked about ‘Saharan emirate’ – before ‘eradicating’ them. In that instance, Algeria’s DRS would pluck out its ‘agents’ and leave the foot-soldiers – the Islamist fanatics – to face the bombardment.

But whatever dire scenario develops in Mali, when you hear the news stories related to it, do not by any means think: ‘oh, just another war in Africa’. Remember this murky, squalid background and how Washington’s Global War On Terror has come home to roost for the peoples of the Sahara.

  1. US Joint Chiefs of Staff, ‘Justification for US Military Intervention in Cuba (Top Secret)’, US Department of Defense, 13 Mar 1962. It was published online in a more complete form by the National Security Archive on 30 April 2001.

  2. James Bamford, Body of Secrets, Doubleday 2001.

  3. Defense Science Board, ‘DSB Summer Study on Special Operations and Joint Forces in Support of Countering Terrorism’. Available at

  4. Pamela Hess, ‘Panel wants $7bn élite counter-terror unit.’ United Press International, 26 Sep 2002.

  5. William M Arkin, ‘The Secret War,’ Los Angeles Times, 27 Oct 2002.

  6. David Isenberg, ‘“P2OG” allows Pentagon to fight dirty’, Asia Times Online, 5 Nov 2002.

  7. Chris Floyd, ‘Into the Dark: The Pentagon Plan to promote terrorist attacks,’ Counterpunch, 1 Nov 2002; Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, ‘Our Terrorists’, New Internationalist, Oct 2009.

  8. Seymour Hersh, ‘The Coming Wars: What the Pentagon can now do in Secret.’ The New Yorker, 24 Jan 2005.

  9. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, op cit.

  10. eTN Global Travel Industry News, 19 Nov 2008,

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