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Dennis Sammut reviews Jeremy Keenan's 'The Dark Sahara: America's War on Terror in Africa', a book which tackles US counter-terrorist activities in Africa and alliances with dubious governments in the wake of 9/11.

Jeremy Keenan's love for the Sahara and for the Tuareg tribes that roam it is well known, and there is no escape from this in his book 'The Dark Sahara' as he tells of the pain inflicted on the region and its people as a result of the civil strife in Algeria over the last two decades, and particularly since the events of 9/11 brought the region to the attention of those chasing al Qaeda and its allies.

Keenan sets on a task to expose various shady activities of the Algerian military and security services as they sought to avail themselves of the United States's new interest in the region after 9/11. The Algerians were desperate to secure American backing in their fight against the insurgency that gripped the country after the Islamic parties had their election victories stolen away from them in 1991. In doing so Keenan has tried to connect three very distinct processes that have by fate come together in the vast expanse of the Sahara Desert: the global war on terror' (or GWOT), Algeria's painful civil war and post-colonial convulsions, and the aspirations of the Tuareg people for a better deal from the post-colonial states that now rule over them from distant and largely insensitive capitals.

Whatever one's views of the many conspiracy theories that have followed 9/11, nobody questions that in their pursuit of al Qaeda and its associates the Bush administration made alliances and cut deals with some of the most unpleasant regimes in the world – regimes with atrocious human rights records. From Tashkent to Sana'a, from Cairo to Islamabad, all other considerations were put aside in favour of the larger objective of winning the 'War on Terror'. Many fledgling democratic experiments – in the Middle East, Africa, the Caucasus and beyond – that emerged at the end of the Cold War were suddenly made a scapegoat of the new priorities. When in the fullness of time history takes stock of the costs of 9/11, it will find that apart from those who died from that heinous plot, many others in faraway places paid the price of the consequences that followed.

In 'The Dark Sahara' Keenan argues that the Tuareg people of the Sahara, and the Algerian people in general, were such victims who paid the price for 9/11 as the Algerian military–security apparatus persuaded the Bush administration that it was engaged in a war with al Qaeda and its allies in North Africa and that the Sahara was one area where al Qaeda terrorists were finding safe haven. Keenan accuses the Bush administration of creating a simplistic and misinformed reading of the situation in the Sahel, which he dubs 'the banana theory of terrorism'. This envisaged hordes of al Qaeda operatives moving from Afghanistan and Pakistan, through Somalia and the Sahel region to link up with Islamic militants in the Maghreb.

Keenan says that the 'events of 9/11 provided a heaven-sent opportunity for Algeria'. Its government, and those of other states in the region, rushed to join the GWOT. Keenan argues this was '… not simply because the regimes of the region were doing America's bidding. It was more complex and nastier than that; their alliance with the US in the GWOT has encouraged and enabled all of them, without exception – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Mali Niger and Chad – to strengthen their repressive apparatus and to manipulate and use GWOT for their own benefits and purposes. This has been done in two distinct but related ways. Firstly the GWOT has provided them with the pretext to crack down on almost all forms of opposition, especially minority groups, and almost any expression of civil society democratisation. Secondly it has provided them with what I call 'terrorism rents'. These comprise the military and other aid and largesse that these regimes receive from the US for allying themselves to the US in fighting the "war on terror". However with no terrorism (except state terrorism) in many parts of the region, notably in the Sahara-Sahel, before the launch of the GWOT, it has had to be contrived.'

In 'The Dark Sahara' Keenan argues that the Algerian government went even further by creating incidents, including the kidnapping of European tourists, aimed at proving the existence of a terrorist threat in the Sahel.

On their own Keenan's claims do not always add up. In the murky world of intelligence services and counter-terrorism operations, and in a region of the world were criminality, smuggling, religious fervour and a general lack of transparency is the order of the day, Keenan tries to give black-and-white answers to questions than a sceptical reader would feel have been left largely unanswered.

However, Keenan tells his story in parallel with that of atrocities said to have been perpetrated by the Algerian state as part of its 'dirty war', aimed at discrediting the Islamist insurgency and cutting popular support from under its feet. This story has been much better documented. Keenan himself refers to Habib Souaidia's book 'La Sale Guerre', published in 2001. Keenan says that 'once in a while there is a book that turns history' and that Souaidia's book 'is one of them, not just because of what it revealed about the role of Algeria's military regime in that war, but because of its subsequent passage through the French courts which gave Algeria's people a reaffirmation of the truth…'

Keenan claims that the Algerian state and the Bush administration conspired to create a narrative – at the expense of the Tuareg people of the Sahara – that would allow the US to support the Algerian government politically, economically and militarily, in return for which Algeria opened its energy industry to American interests.

For many the Sahara is part of the last frontier, a region of the world largely unspoiled by the ugly hand of 20th century progress. Sustainable tourism in 2001 and 2002 had started to provide the region and its people with a livelihood, returning some of the prosperity seen at the time of the caravan routes of earlier centuries. The incidents with the kidnapping of tourists, and claims of terrorists running amok in the region put a brake to this process. It also gave a justification for the central government in Algiers, and in other Sahel states, to use strong-hand tactics in dealing with any claims for political rights for the Tuareg people. Keenan talks of the impact of the GWOT on the peoples of the Sahara: 'I was able to see the immense damage that the deception of its GWOT was causing to the livelihoods and well being of the peoples of much of this part of the Sahara-Sahel (and beyond), and that it was only a matter of time before it would encounter blowback…' In fact it is this warning that the 'War on Terror' in the Sahel may be turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy that should cause those dealing with the region to take Keenan's book seriously.

How this came to be is however a matter for discussion. Keenan accuses the United States of conniving with Algeria, saying that 'there is no doubt that the Algerian and US military intelligence services have been complicit in exaggerating and fabricating the evidence used to launch the Saharan front in the GWOT'. While the book does provide some evidence of this, it leaves many questions only partly answered.


* Jeremy Keenan's 'The Dark Sahara: America's War on Terror in Africa' is available from Pluto Press (ISBN: 9780745324524, 2009).
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.