What began ostensibly in January 2012 as just another rebellion by the Sahara desert's Tuareg tribesmen has evolved into what media commentators are calling 'Africa's Afghanistan'.
The Tuareg are Berbers, not Arabs, and are the indigenous population of much of the Central Sahara and Sahel. Their population is estimated at 2-3 millions. Their largest numbers, some 800,000, live in Mali, followed by Niger, with smaller concentrations in Algeria, Burkina Faso and Libya. In addition, a diaspora extends to Europe, North America, other parts of North and West Africa, the Sahel and beyond.
Since Independence in 1960, the Tuareg of Mali and Niger have rebelled against their central governments on several occasions. In 1962-4, a rebellion by Mali's Tuareg was crushed ruthlessly. Major rebellions in both countries in the 1990s were forcibly repressed, with government forces specifically targeting civilians. Since then, Niger experienced a small rebellion in 2004 and a much greater one from 2007 to 2009. In Mali, a brief rebellion in May 2006 was followed by a two-year uprising from 2007 until 2009 when it dissipated into an inconclusive and transient peace. While the Niger and Mali governments have both been guilty of provoking Tuareg into taking up arms, all Tuareg rebellions have been driven by a sense of political marginalisation.
However, the rebellion that began in Mali in January 2012 was different. The Tuareg had more and better equipped fighters than in previous rebellions. This was because many had returned from Libya after Gaddafi's overthrow, bringing with them extensive supplies of modern and even heavy armaments. For the first time in the long history of Tuareg rebellions, there was a real likelihood that the Tuareg might drive Malian government forces out of northern Mali, or Azawad, as it is known to Tuareg.
In October 2011, the Malian Tuareg who had returned from Libya joined up with fighters belonging to Ibrahim ag Bahanga's rebel Mouvement Touareg du Nord Mali (MTNM) to form the Mouvement National de Libération de l'Azawad (MNLA). Even though Bahanga had died under mysterious circumstances in August, his men were still intent on continuing their fight against the central government. They were also joined by several hundred Tuareg who had deserted from the Malian army.
The first shots in the new rebellion were fired on January 17 when the MNLA attacked the town of Ménaka. The following week, the MNLA attacked both Tessalit and Aguelhok. Tessalit was besieged for several weeks before falling to the MNLA in March. At Aguelhok, some 82 Malian troops, who had run out of ammunition, were massacred in cold blood on January 24. This 'war crime' has been referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Such a humiliating demise of Mali's poorly equipped forces led to an army mutiny on March 22 and a junta of low-ranking officers taking power in Bamako. Within a week, the three provincial capitals of Azawad - Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu - all fell to the rebels without resistance, leaving the whole of Azawad in rebel hands. On April 5 the MNLA declared Azawad an independent state.
The declaration of Azawad's independence received no international support, nor was it ever likely to do so. One reason for this was because of the alliance between the MNLA and the Islamist group called Ansar al-Din, a jihadist movement led by a local Tuareg notable, Iyad ag Ghaly. Ansar al-Din was in alliance with another jihadist group, Jamat Tawhid Wal Jihad Fi Garbi Afriqqiya (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa - MUJAO), with both being supported by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
At the start of the rebellion in January, the MNLA claimed to number several thousand, while Ansar al-Din numbered scarcely a hundred. However, by April, and for reasons that have remained a mystery to the media, it was the Islamists rather than the MNLA who were calling the shots in Azawad. Indeed, on June 25, fighting between the Islamists and MNLA led to the latter being displaced from Gao, leaving Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu being ruled respectively by Ansar al-Din, MUJAO and AQIM.
With the MNLA marginalized, the Islamists quickly began imposing shari'a law in Azawad. In Gao, a young man died after having his hand amputated for alleged theft; in Aguelhok, a couple were stoned to death for alleged adultery; in Timbuktu, ancient Sufi tombs, UNESCO world heritage sites, were destroyed. Throughout the region, music, smoking, alcohol, TV, football, traditional forms of dress and lifestyle were all banned as Islamists dished out beatings, amputations and executions with a vengeance. By August, nearly half a million people had fled or been displaced.
In spite of concern being expressed at the apparent emergence of 'Africa's Afghanistan' in the heart of the Sahara, no one has been prepared to address the key issue behind what is really going on in northern Mali. This is that the Islamist 'terrorist' groups that have taken over control of the region are not only the creations of Algeria's secret police, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), but they are being supplied, supported and orchestrated by the DRS.
In my two volumes on terrorism and the global war on terror (GWOT) in the Sahara-Sahel, The Dark Sahara (Pluto, 2009) and The Dying Sahara (Pluto 2012, in press), I describe and give detailed evidence of how Algeria's DRS has colluded with western military intelligence in fabricating 'false-flag' terrorism to justify the West's GWOT in Africa. The two volumes detail how AQIM was created by the DRS; how the DRS has been behind almost all of the more than 60 kidnaps of western hostages in the region since 2003 and how it has worked with the US, UK and French intelligence services in promoting the GWOT, state terrorism and co-called counter-terrorism policies.
What we have seen unfold in Mali during 2012 is merely the latest manifestation of the way in which the DRS has used the 'terrorists' that it has created to further the interests of Algeria's 'mafiosi' state.
Corroboration of my long-standing analysis of the Algerian regime's use of terrorism ('state terrorism') in helping to further and justify the west's GWOT in North Africa and beyond was provided by John Schindler on July 10 (2012). In an article in The National Interest entitled 'The Ugly truth about Algeria', Schindler, a former high-ranking US intelligence officer and long-standing member of the US National Security Council (NSC) and currently Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, 'blew the whistle' on Algeria when he described how:
'the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) [of the 1990s] was the creation of the DRS; using proven Soviet methods of penetration and provocation, the agency assembled it to discredit the extremists. Much of 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 mujahidin, or by GIA squads under DRS control.'
The DRS's 'state terrorism' of the 1990s has changed little during this millennium. In the same way as Schindler describes how the DRS assembled the GIA in the 1990s, so, in this century, the DRS, in collusion with US, British, French and other NATO intelligence agencies, as well as the EU Commission (as documented in my two volumes: 'The Dark Sahara' and 'The Dying Sahara'), has created AQIM, or what I have referred to as 'Al Qaeda in the West for the West'.
This diabolical strategy, straight from the tradecraft manual of the KGB (who, incidentally trained Mohamed Mediène, the current DRS boss, and other top DRS Generals), was reactivated in 2003, when a DRS agent, Saifi Lamari (known as El Para), supported by DRS agent Abdelhamid Abou Zaïd, at the head of some 60 genuine members of the Groupe Salafiste pour le Predication et le Combat (GSPC), the successor to the GIA, in collusion with US military intelligence, took 32 European tourists hostage in the Algerian Sahara. This operation, which received world headlines and was the subject of my book 'The Dark Sahara', was used by the US and other western countries to justify the launch of a new or 'second front' in the GWOT into the Sahara and Africa.
In September 2006, the nondescript GSPC, with the help of the DRS and US intelligence agencies, internationalised itself by adopting the Al Qaeda brand and renaming itself as AQIM. AQIM's three emirs (leaders) in the Sahara, Abdelhamid Abou Zaïd, Yahia Djouadi and Mokhtar ben Mokhtar (they have many aliases), were and still are DRS agents. They have now been responsible for the kidnapping of over 60 western hostages (two have been killed and two have died) and most of the other acts of terrorism perpetrated in the Sahara-Sahel region over the last few years. This is known to most western intelligence agencies.
The creation of the MNLA in October 2011 was 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 in Algeria and in the neighbouring Sahel States. The distinct possibility of a militarily successful Tuareg nationalist movement in northern Mali, which Algeria has always regarded as its own backyard (the Kidal region is sometimes referred to as Algeria's 49th wilaya), could not be countenanced.
The DRS's strategy to remove this threat was to use its control of AQIM to weaken and then destroy the credibility and political effectiveness of the MNLA. Although denied by the Algerian government, it sent some 200 Special Forces into Azawad on December 20, stationing them at Tessalit, Aguelhok and Kidal (and possibly elsewhere). Their purpose appears to have been to:
(1) protect AQIM which had moved from its training base(s) in southern Algeria into the Tigharghar mountains of northern Mali around 2008. Most of AQIM's subsequent terrorism, especially hostage-taking, had been conducted from bases in northern Mali. The MNLA, however, was threatening to attack AQIM and drive its estimated 300 members out of the country;
(2) assess the strengths and intentions of the MNLA;
(3) help establish two 'new' salafist-jihadist terrorist groups Ansar al-Din and MUJAO, alleged 'offshoots' of AQIM, in the region.
Ansar al-Din and MUJAO, which had not been heard of before, first appeared on local websites on December 10 and 15 respectively. The leaders of both groups were closely associated with the DRS. Iyad ag Ghaly first became acquainted with the DRS when he worked for an Algerian enterprise in Tamanrasset (Algeria) in the 1980s. He had subsequently been used and paid by the DRS to help manage their resolution of EL Para's 2003 hostage-taking. He had been used again by the Algerians and the US in 2006 to engineer the short-lived May 23 Kidal rebellion and to then undertake two fabricated terrorist actions in northern Mali in September and October 2006. These were used to draw attention to seemingly renewed 'terrorism' in the Sahara and to advertise the name change of the GSPC to AQIM. After 2008, he became heavily involved, with his cousin Hamada ag Hama (alias Taleb Abdoulkrim), in AQIM's hostage-taking operations.
MUJAO's leadership is less clear. Its initial leaders are believed to have included both Mohamed Ould Lamine Ould Kheirou, a Mauritanian, and Sultan Ould Badi (alias Abu Ali). Ould Badi is a Malian, said to be half Tuareg and half Arab, from north of Gao with good connections with the Polisario movement of the Western Sahara. It seems to have been through this later connection that he established himself as a major drugs (cocaine) trafficker in the region, working under the direct protection of General Rachid Laalali, head of the DRS's external security branch. One reason for the DRS's interest in northern Mali is that the region is the focal point on the cocaine trafficking route from South America to Europe. The UN estimates that some 60 per cent of Europe's cocaine, with a street value of some $11 billion, crosses through this region. It is a trade which, until the MNLA threatened to take over the region, has been controlled in large part by elements within Algeria's DRS.
These two Islamist groups, Ansar al-Din and MUJAO, although starting out as few in number, were immediately supported with manpower from AQIM in the form of seasoned, well-trained killers, and by the DRS with fuel, cash and other logistical necessities. This explains why the Islamists were able to expand so quickly and dominate the MNLA both politically and militarily.
The DRS's strategy has been brilliantly effective, at least so far, in achieving its object of completely discrediting the MNLA (and Tuareg nationalism) and minimising its threat as both a political and military force.
The DRS's strategy has, however, been extremely dangerous. Apart from turning the region into a human catastrophe, there has been, and still is, a major risk of military intervention and the possibility of a conflagration that could embrace much of the wider region. From the outset, various parties, notably the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), backed in varying degree by the African Union, France and other parties, has threatened to intervene militarily. There are also a considerable number of internal Malian forces, including a range of largely ethnic-based militia, straining on the leash to revenge themselves against both the MNLA and more especially the Islamists.
A potential bloodbath has not yet been averted. However, having said that, the likelihood of such military intervention is progressively diminishing. One reason for this is because neither the African Union (whose Peace and Security Commission is headed by an Algerian) or the UN Security Council (UNSC) have given the green light for such intervention. The reason for the UNSC's position is, I believe, quite simply because all five of its permanent members - the US, UK, France, Russia and China - are aware of Algeria's strategy and therefore do not see the situation as being 'Africa's Afghanistan', as described in the media and by those self-proclaimed 'security analysts' who are unaware of the true nature of Al Qaeda in this part of the world.
This is not to imply that Algeria will be able to call off its dogs easily. However, signs are that Algeria and other powers in the region are trying to move towards a negotiated solution. But that will not be easy. With so many armed militias in the wings and so much anger, suffering and desire for revenge in the air, the likelihood of individual agency coming to the fore is very high. While the DRS leadership of the Islamist groups is obviously managed easily, the question of the genuine Islamists, the foot soldiers, may not be resolved so easily. Already, there are signs that Algeria is pushing towards a solution centering around the creation of some sort of shari'a based political party, amongst others, in the region. Such a party is unlikely to be endorsed wholeheartedly by the bulk of the population, and if introduced coercively is more than likely to lead to further conflict.
Whatever sort of dispensation is found for the region, it will almost certainly be tied to Algeria's hegemonic designs on the region and drugs trafficking, both of which are recipes for future regional instability.
Finally, there is the matter of the ICC's investigation. If the ICC does progress from its current preliminary investigation to a full-blown investigation of war crimes and associated atrocities in the region, it could conceivably pave the way for justice and a more stable future. However, I believe that there will be huge pressure on the ICC from western powers not to proceed with the investigation. A full ICC investigation is likely to expose the involvement of US, British and French intelligence services in their support for the DRS and therefore, it could be argued, their complicity in the atrocities that have been committed.
Jeremy H. Keenan is Professorial Research Associate, Department of Social Anthropology and Sociology, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University.