You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

British Anthropologist Jeremy Keenan on “The Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror in Africa”

StoryAugust 06, 2009
Watch Full Show
Media Options

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues her seven-nation tour of Africa, we hear from British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan. He traces AFRICOM, the US military command in Africa, to a 2003 kidnapping of European tourists. The hostage taking was widely blamed on Islamic militants thought to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, but Keenan argues that the Bush administration and the Algerian government were the ones responsible. [includes rush transcript]

Related Story

StoryApr 11, 2024“We’re Responsible for This”: American Surgeons Return from Gaza, Call for End of U.S. Culpability in Genocide
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has emphasized that her seven-country tour of Africa is intended to promote democracy, fight corruption, and boost US investments in African trade and agriculture.

We turn now to another issue that’s widely expected to be discussed on every stop: AFRICOM, the US military command in Africa, which has been publicly opposed by every country on the continent except Liberia.

Now Secretary Clinton will not be visiting the countries in and around the oil- and gas-rich Sahara desert — Mali, Niger, Chad, Algeria and Mauritania. But a new book by British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan argues this area is crucial to understanding the birth of AFRICOM and the Bush administration’s expansion of the global war on terror into Africa.

Keenan is a professor of social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and has spent over four decades working in and writing about this region. He traces AFRICOM and the US military concern over al-Qaeda’s presence in Africa back to the February 2003 kidnapping of thirty-two European tourists in Algeria’s Sahara desert. The hostage taking was widely blamed on Islamic militants thought to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, but Professor Keenan argues that the Bush administration and the Algerian government were the ones to blame.

His latest book is called The Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror in Africa. Its sequel is called The Dying Sahara, will be released next year.

Anjali Kamat and I spoke with Professor Keenan last week and asked him to lay out the story.

    JEREMY KEENAN: Really, the story begins in 2002. That, you will remember, is after the Americans had thought they had successfully defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan. So we move from Afghanistan at the end of 2001 with the America now sort of launching its global war on terror. And there was a feeling — there was very little evidence for this, but at least the American military felt, and they were saying, that the terrorists that they thought they had dislodged from Afghanistan had moved across through that part of Asia, across the Horn of Africa, into the Sudan and across into the Sahara, and from there, they were going to attack Europe. There was absolutely no evidence for that, and that, of course, is really a figment of imagination. And that was in sort of 2002.

    And what America was trying to do or the Bush administration was trying to do was to justify the militarization of Africa. In other words, the early seeds, the growth of AFRICOM. It wanted a reason, an excuse, to, if you like, secure Africa, primarily for its oil resources, the gradually increasing threat of China on the continent. But it hadn’t got a reason, or it hadn’t got an excuse or a justification to do so. And the war on terror provided just such a reason. It provided the justification for the Bush administration, if you like, to get a grip on Africa and to launch the war on terror in Africa.

    The problem was, there was very little terror in Africa. In fact, if we exclude the incidents in Mombasa in the hotels in 1998, a few incidents in Egypt, in North Africa and the Algerian coast, all of which are rather marginal to the main oil areas of Africa, which are around Nigeria and West Africa, there was effectively no terrorism on the continent.

    And so, what happened was they fabricated it. And what they did was to kidnap, hijack and take hostage seven different groups of tourists, Europeans, traveling in the Central Sahara in Algeria, the Central Algerian Sahara. And over a period of about three to four weeks, seven different groups literally just disappeared into thin air. There were all sorts of stories of sort of Bermuda Triangles in the Sahara and so forth. Gradually, the idea or the news came out that these had been taken by Islamist or Islamic terrorists. But there was no certainty. It was being manipulated by Algeria, the Algerian secret services, working with the Americans.

    And the name of the leader gradually sort of percolated out, only after about three or four months, as a man called El Para. That was his pseudonym or his war name. He had twelve — he has at least twelve aliases that I know of. There’s even a rumor that he was trained as a Green Beret in America in the 1990s. Certainly, he was working for the Algerian DRS. That’s the Algerian security services, secret military intelligence services. He was in charge of a group of so-called terrorists who kidnapped, took hostage these thirty-two European hostages. That was the beginning of the story.

    That incident itself ran on for six months. The tourists were held in two different hideouts in the Algerian Sahara, literally hundreds of miles — thousands of miles from anywhere. One group was released under a rather theatrically established attack, a sort of false attack, by the military after three months. Then the second group were taken all the way south into Mali. That’s two, two-and-a-half thousand miles, sort of — or kilometers south of the Mediterranean coast, right into bottom half of the Sahara. And eventually, they were released, after six months in captivity.

    Now, by this time, America was talking, or the Bush administration was talking about the Sahara being a swamp of terror. “We’ve got to drain it.” El Para was being described as Osama bin Laden’s man in the Sahara. And so on and so forth. And there were lots of little incidents along the way, so to speak. El Para, himself, over the next six months was allegedly chased by combined forces of American Special Forces along with the Mali army, Algerian army, the Nigerian army, into Chad, a story which all the evidence suggests never even ever took place. This lasted for almost two years, a year and a half. And it provided the Bush administration with, if you like, the information or the disinformation to launch a new front in the war on terror, what they call the Saharan front or a second front. And I should say the word “second front” was used by the Americans for almost every new phase in the war on terror, every part of the world where they launched a new front was usually called a “second front.” So there were lots of second fronts — in Latin America, in the Far East, in Southeast Asia, and, of course, in the Sahara. And that was really the story.

    What is extraordinary is that, by a thousand-to-one chance, million-to-one chance, I was sort of there in the region for two or three years, more or less continuously, before this incident took place. I was there for much of the time while it happened and afterwards. And I’ve been working there for a long time, so I knew — I had a network of very close friends all through this region, local people. I mean, I talk about this region, we’re talking about a very large sort of chunk of the Sahara, much of the Central Sahara and what we call the Sahel. That’s the southern shore. So, all this region, I had a sort of network of close friends, people I’d been working with, local people, mostly Tuareg, Tuareg tribesmen, who were able to provide me with details of what didn’t happen in the area. You know, we’re talking about events which were being fabricated.

    But it provided the basis for launching this new front in the war on terror, and that has become, if you like, the base for more or less everything that has happened in Africa since then. When I say everything that’s happened, in terms of the development of AFRICOM and much of the ideology, if you like, that propaganda, if you want to call it that, that the Americans have used to justify much of the military action that they have taken in the rest of the continent. And when they talk about the threat of terrorism in Africa, various countries to the south, the justification for this, the argument is, “Look what happened in the Sahara. This is where al-Qaeda was, and now is. And these vast, ungoverned spaces, these are the dangerous areas, the failed states, the areas which aren’t being governed. This is where terrorists are lurking, where they’re hanging out. They’re threatening Europe. They’re threatening the rest of Africa.” So, this story, which was fabricated over this period of time, 2003 and 2004, has become, if you like, the base, the fact, the truth behind what is really an enormous lie.

    AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Keenan, who ordered the kidnapping?

    JEREMY KEENAN: The leader was a man called El Para. We know that he is — there is overwhelming evidence that he is an agent for the DRS. So the question is who — the DRS is the Algerian —-

    AMY GOODMAN: The DRS being…?

    JEREMY KEENAN: That’s the Department of Renseignement et Sécurité, the Department of Information and Security, so the secret military intelligence services in Algeria. The head of that, or the operational head, was a man called General Smain Lamari. His boss, the overall command, is General Mohamed Mediène. Mediène is still alive. He still holds that job. Smain Lamari, who almost certainly managing the operation, died in August two years ago. So he was managing it, and it is almost certain that he would have been ordering it and controlling it from Algiers itself.

    ANJALI KAMAT: You talk about how Algeria colluded with the United States, but what’s in it for Algeria?

    JEREMY KEENAN: With 9/11, Algeria saw an opportunity, and the President, Bouteflika, President Bouteflika -— I think I’m right in saying — was the first foreign president to visit George Bush in the States. And I think I’m correct in saying he probably undertook more visits than almost any other at that time. Anyhow, the development of a very close relationship between Algeria and America.

    I should say, at that time, it was Algeria being a bit pushy. And what they wanted, in essence, was a deal with America, the deal being that Algeria was saying, “Look, you’ve had this horrific atrocity happen in America, 3,000 people killed, but we know this. We understand this. We’ve been the front line against terrorism for the last ten years. We’ve had 200,000 people killed. You know, we are in the same boat together.” So, Algeria wanting to, if you like, get into bed with America. What America — what Algeria wanted, of course, was high-tech equipment for its army, surveillance equipment, communications equipment. Ideally, they wanted attack helicopters and night-vision equipment and so forth.

    America, for its turn, was saying, “Look, it’s all very well, you know, you saying these things about us, but, you know, you’re on top of the terrorist situation. You know, really, you don’t need this sort of equipment. You know, the country is the best it’s been now for well over — you know, for ten years. There’s very little terrorism left. There are a few incidents up in the east in the mountains, but, by and large, you know, you’re in control of the situation.” So this was the American excuse, if you like, for not delivering, you know, what Algeria was wanting. That was in September.

    Literally a month later, there was the first kidnap attempt on European hostages in the Sahara. And what Algeria was saying, to itself, was, “Look, you know, we’ve got to show to the Americans that we’re not on top of terrorism. We’ve got to show that it exists and it’s a problem.” And also, at that same time, the Algerians knew that the Americans were sort of imagining, if you like, this movement of Taliban terrorists from Afghanistan through the southern Sahara, weaving across and getting up into Europe in that way, which is a crazy idea. So the Algerians were saying, “Well, if we can sort of get some terrorism in that area, we can hopefully win the argument that we’re not on top of it, and also we can sort of give the Americans some concrete evidence to bolster their own theory,” which was based on no intelligence at all.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Let me fast-forward to the present. In your book, you talk about the role of General Jim Jones, who is now national security adviser to President Obama. Can you talk about current US policy in Africa and what the current status of AFRICOM is, now that you’ve set up for us the story of what created the rationale for AFRICOM?

    JEREMY KEENAN: Yes, certainly. General Jim Jones plays an interesting role in this. He was, if you like, at the beginning of the story, and he’s at the end of it, or if you talk about the present, now, as of course Obama’s head of national security, national security adviser. At the beginning of this story, in 2002, 2003, he was head of EUCOM, so the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and head of EUCOM, and EUCOM, that’s European Command, of course covered Africa. Africa was minute; it took up very little attention from EUCOM. But that has changed. And so, in a sense, the growth of AFRICOM out of EUCOM, European Command, sort of covers this period. So it began with General Jones, when he was in charge, and the story that I’ve just told you, that was under his — on his watch, so to speak. And, of course, now he is Obama’s national security adviser.

    So what is happening with American policy in Africa now? There was a huge amount of optimism, of course, with Obama coming to power. I think now, a few months further on, we are a little bit more cautious and uncertain of what is actually happening, particularly on the AFRICOM front. At the sort of time of Obama’s election, I think there was a feeling amongst or within AFRICOM that it might well get the chop. There was certainly political pressure, and still is, in Washington not to use a military presence in this way. But what we’ve seen in the last few months suggests, and it’s still early days for Obama, that in fact he is following rather in the lines — in the footsteps of his predecessor in promoting and pushing AFRICOM.

    And this, I think, is very serious for Africa, and it is not going to do American foreign policy any good at all, because what we’re seeing at the moment, in the last few months there’s been almost a replay of the story I’ve just told you and the same individuals concerned. That is, the people who took the hostages in 2003, the same people, have been taking hostages again now — a very complicated story; I won’t go into the details of it — but since last December, that’s December 2008, and up until last month. So more hostage takings again by the same people who kidnapped them in 2003. So we know that there is some involvement of the Algerian security forces, and the question is, is America involved again?

    Now, in what I have written on this in the last few weeks and so forth, I have been very careful to say that I have no evidence, direct evidence, of America being involved in the way that it was in 2003 and during the Bush period. However, I do not know if the odd phone call took place. Just because I don’t have evidence doesn’t mean to say there is no involvement.

    What is worrying is that the AFRICOM and America now, the American government, is now talking, again, in the same language as in 2003, ’04: “Yes, we’ve got al-Qaeda all over the Sahara. This is a security threat, and need AFRICOM,” etc. So, this is very worrying. Again, as I emphasize, it’s the early days in the Obama administration. I don’t think he’s being particularly well advised on this, the what’s going on in Africa in this particular context. But it does — it sounds very, very familiar: the same place, exactly the same people, the people who assassinated the hostage who was killed on the 31st of May, a man called Edwin Dyer, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a tourist. He happened to be British, living in Austria. The person who assassinated him and beheaded him was the same person who took — who was El Para’s number two, who took the hostages in 2003, the same people.

    AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Keenan, I wanted to ask you about Hillary Clinton’s trip to Africa, seven countries. She’ll be going to Kenya, South Africa, Angola, Congo, Nigeria, Liberia, Cape Verde. The significance of these countries and US policy in Africa?

    JEREMY KEENAN: Well, I remain a little reserved. Trips and words are one thing; actions are another. And while, of course, one obviously welcomes this apparent change in policy between the Bush administration and the Obama administration, and, if you like, the attempts to reconstruct better relations between America and the rest of the world, as long as America is peddling the AFRICOM idea and, if you like, giving primacy to the military, because this is what is happening, AFRICOM is the front line, if you like, of American policy in Africa. As long as that line is being pushed, we’re not going to have really much change in Africa.

    The present line of giving primacy to AFRICOM, given its history and given what it is doing, is not what Africa itself wants. And I think the question is quite self-evident: why is it that, so far, every single country in Africa has said, “We do not want AFRICOM?” What could be clearer than that? So no matter what Hillary is doing running around Africa, the message from Africa has been, even from rulers who are fairly despotic and certainly by no means very democratic. Authoritarian rulers who have done the bidding of the United States over these years are saying, “We do not want AFRICOM in our country,” as at least a base for it.

    So, until America gets that message onboard, loud and clear, and it sees and understands the history of how AFRICOM has developed from this very, very murky past, which I document in this volume — then the second volume will be out in the beginning of the year, that covers the last two or three years of what is happening — American-African policy is — sure, it will improve, because it can’t get any worse, but it’s going to be very suspect. And it is not, in my view, the right path.

AMY GOODMAN: British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan. His latest book, The Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror in Africa.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

“We’re Responsible for This”: American Surgeons Return from Gaza, Call for End of U.S. Culpability in Genocide

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation