Counter Terrorism in Pan-Sahel
© 2007 FrontLine Security (Vol 2, No 3)

In the wake of independence in 1962, Algeria came under the growing authoritarian governance of the socialist National Liberation Front (FLN). Tensions exploded in 1988 when a series of youth riots, which left over 500 dead, set off a new Islamic revolt in Algeria. The government subsequently acquiesced to the first multiparty election, however, when the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut – FIS) won a round of parliamentary elections for local councils in 1990, the FLN changed the electoral laws so it could win in the future. Even with the fix in, the FIS won a massive electoral victory a year later in national elections. The FLN promptly ­nullified the victory and banned the FIS, as the military did not want to lose political control to an Islamic political party. On their part, the FIS called for a general strike, which led to widespread rioting, which in turn precipitated the government to call a state of emergency.

The Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Armé Islamique-GAI or GIA in English), a radical FIS splinter faction, very quickly became the most violent anti-government terrorist group in Algeria. Many members came from the ranks of the approximately 1,500 Algerian volunteers returning from fighting in Afghanistan. The GIA continues to fight against the government and the military – in order, as it claims, to overthrow the secular Algerian regime and replace it with an Islamic state.

The GIA has driven Algeria into a bloody civil war that has led to the massacre of between 100,000 to 200,000 Algerians by both sides in the conflict. North African terrorism has itself immigrated to the cities of Western Europe.

Algeria’s insurgency war has been clearly exacerbated by the heavy-handed and in many cases brutal and bloody ­tactics of the government. As Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch stated to the US Senate in 2005: “In the name of combating the insurgency, security forces arrested and tortured thousands of suspects. They engaged in summary executions, often rounding up victims arbitrarily in reprisal for attacks on their own troops. And between 1993 and 1997, they picked up and ‘made disappear’ an estimated 7,000 Algerians who remain unaccounted for until this day.”

These tactics alienated the population from both government and security forces. Moreover, the government’s effort to “normalize” the country through ­elections was just another ruse to maintain power. Both the 1995 and 1997 elections were far from democratic, characterized by massive electoral fraud, which included voter intimidation, ballot box stuffing and the rigging of vote tallies. These actions ­further reduced the credibility of the govern­ment both nationally and interna­tionally. It was estimated that some $30 billion in material and infrastructural damage occurred ­during the 1990s. However, popular support for the GIA was fading fast by the late 1990s, as its tactics were just as bloody as the government’s.

As support dwindled for the GIA, the government attempted to negotiate a ceasefire. In 1999, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika offered amnesty through the “Civil Concord Law” to the majority of Islamic extremists who had fought the government in the 1990s. The amnesty was a blanket agreement, as long as a member of an armed group laid down arms by mid-2000, and had not been convicted of “blood crimes” like rape or murder. As an organization, the GIA rejected the idea, however, 85 percent of those fighting the regime accepted the amnesty according to Algerian officials.

In 1998, as support for the GIA faded, a former GIA leader, Hassan Hattab, formed the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat also known as The Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC). GSPC essentially replaced the GIA as the primary anti-government Islamic terrorist group in Algeria. The GSPC follows a strict Salafiyyah interpretation of Islam, which is part of the same ideology followed by Al Qaeda. It has become clear that, aside from ideological associations, GSPC has affiliated itself with Al Qaeda. The GSPC has published numerous supportive communiqués, and Al Qaeda had used GSPC’s European terror networks (usurped from the GIA) in its global operations.

The GSPC’s efforts have not been as effective as the GIA, nor has the Algerian government’s response been as brutal as it was in the 1990s, yet the US government has seen fit to support this brushfire war on a much larger scale, bringing many of Algeria’s southern Saharan neighbours into the conflict.

In 2002, the US Department of State initiated the Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI), designed to protect borders, track movement of people, combat terrorism, and enhance regional cooperation and ­stability in and between Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. According to the Office of Counterterrorism, the “PSI is a State-led effort to assist Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania in detecting and responding to suspicious movement of people and goods across and within their borders through training, equipment and cooperation.”

As U.S. national security interests in Africa have grown, the PSI falls within the rubric of “waging the war on terrorism and enhancing regional peace and security.” In short, the idea is to eliminate, or at the very least, limit the ability of ­terrorist organizations to operate in the region, and to deny them access to safe havens, training bases, and routes into North Africa in general, but more specifically Algeria, and the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Djibouti and across the Red Sea in Yemen).

The military component of the PSI falls under the US European Command (USEUCOM), which has, since 2003, trained and equipped indigenous company-sized military formations to conduct rapid-reaction operations to execute the objectives of the PSI.

Some US$6.25 million has been allocated by Congress for counter-terrorism Mobile Training Teams, of which Mali received US$3.5 million, Niger US$1.7 million, Mauritania US$500,000 and Chad another US$500,000. Though not huge amounts in the greater scheme of things, they are grist for the mill of fourth-generation war operations. By 2004 the name “TSI” had been changed to the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative.

TSCTI is envisioned as a long-term interagency plan to combat terrorism in Trans-Saharan Africa, with the goal of assisting “friendly” governments in the region to better control their territory and to prevent huge tracts of largely deserted land from becoming safe havens for “terrorist” groups. TSCTI will receive approximately $500 million over its estimated five-year mandate.

Oran Avenue, Front de Mer buildings (Photo: Maryam Yahyavi)

The TSCTI officially started in June with Exercise Flintlock 2005 (June 6-26). U.S. special operations forces trained their counterparts in a number of Saharan countries, teaching military tactics considered critical to enhancing regional security and stability.

American units participating in the TSCTI include the U.S. Special Operations Command Europe (Stuttgart, Germany), 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group-Airborne (Stuttgart, Germany), 352nd Special Operations Group (Mildenhall, England), 86th Contingency Response Group (Ramstein, Germany), 37th Airlift Squadron (Ramstein, Germany), US Marine Forces Europe (Stuttgart, Germany), Marine Corps Forces Atlantic (Norfolk, Virginia), and the Second Marine Expeditionary Force (Camp Lejeune, North Carolina).

With the implementation of the TSCTI, Chad’s military began to use its new capabilities by supporting the rebels fighting the Sudanese central government in the Darfur region of Sudan. Prior to this, when oil began pumping through the new Chad-Cameroon pipeline, in October 2003, in classic African dictatorial cronyism, President Deby of Chad appointed his nephew as Prime Minister and then in January 2004 appointed his brother-in-law to head Chad’s Central African Bank. With this position goes the title of President of the nine-member Revenue Management Oversight Com­mittee that oversees Chad’s oil revenues.

Conspiracies aside, it is interesting to note that the consortium that developed the pipeline includes Chevron Texaco, Exxon Mobil, Halliburton, Petronas of Malaysia and the World Bank. In and around this critical pipeline, regional forces involved in the TSI could be found. These same forces are now part of the TSCTI.

Furthermore, it is relevant to note that Deby and his family are all from the northern Zaghawa tribe, a group that only represents one percent of Chad’s population. Moreover, traditionally, if the President is from the north, then the Prime Minister should be from the south or vice versa. Deby, by appointing a relative, broke with this tradition that mitigated tribal dominance in government leadership.

Also, some of the rebels fighting in Darfur against the Arab Muslim militias, who have committed the genocidal attacks against both Muslim and non-Muslim black Sudanese, are from the Zaghawa tribe. Many of these are former members of Deby’s Presidential Guard who came from the Chad-Sudan border region. There is no question that U.S. military aid to Chad is being used in the growing conflict in Darfur.     

U.S. Ambassador Cofer Black, Coordinator for Counterterrorism, during an October 2004 meeting in Algeria on terrorism, observed, “that training and equipment alone will not be enough to eliminate terrorism. Strong militaries are necessary for a government to protect its citizens against external threats...”

 In what has become somewhat of a hypocritical policy, the U.S., by supporting non-democratic regimes in Africa under the guise of the ‘War on Terrorism,’ is setting itself up for blowback, as in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. As Dr. Harlan Ullman stated in his March 2005 testimony to Congress: “this is not a war [on terrorism] in the sense that the nation has mobilized or taken the steps that generally occur when we are at war. But more importantly, we fail to understand that this is not a war against terror per se. Terror is a tool and tactic. It is a symptom. But terror does not have a strategic center of gravity that can be found and beaten by military force alone.”

North Africa and the Pan Sahel regions are hardly a “strategic center of gravity,” yet American interests have crept into this remote part of the world and, like Iraq, it now threatens to become a raging asymmetric conflict zone of the future.

Sunil Ram was a military adviser to the Saudis in the Horn and Yemen in the post Gulf War period and saw the beginnings of much of what has spread across Saharan Africa.
© FrontLine Security 2007