AFRICOM: America's War on Terror
Amy Goodman interviews British
Anthropologist Jeremy Keenan
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.
Jeremy Keenan, Professor of social anthropology
at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His latest
book is The Dark Sahara: America's War on Terror in Africa. Its
sequel, The Dying Sahara, will be released next year.
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
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
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
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
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