The Dying Sahara: Jeremy Keenan’s Latest Book Reviewed

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

drone base-The Dying Sahara-Global War On Terrorism-Jeremy Keenan-Niger-Pan Sahel Initiative, the Long War-Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative

Their main outlines by now hardly secret, still, the extent of U.S. military machinations in Africa, which intensified after 9/11, are neither well known nor appreciated. The pretext for the military buildup is, once again, a terrorist threat to the region, the claim that the Sahara in particular has become a hotbed of terrorism requiring nothing less than a ‘second front of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT)’. Or so it has been argued in a U.S. mainstream media that rarely questions the intentions of its military abroad and takes their oft-distorted version of events as sacred truth.

Although it might be much closer to the truth, in American academic, media and government circles it is of course rather crude and graceless to assert that the U.S. role in Africa is little more than a scramble for oil, natural gas and strategic minerals. Indeed, the U.S. Africa policy, stripped of human rights and democracy rhetoric, is essentially a repeat of the late 19th century colonial scramble to get a piece of ‘that magnificent African cake’. The epicenter of the concern is the Sahara, the region which straddles the Algerian oil and natural gas fields to the north, the Niger uranium mines in the center, and the oil, gold and diamonds of the West African ‘Gold Coast,’ as it used to be called.

Playing down the language, but at the same time intensifying the policy, the Obama Administration prefers to put a softer face on this new arena of American militarized frenzy, preferring the less crusader-like term ‘the Long War’ to the Global War On Terrorism, too much associated with the Bush years. Let us not be again hoodwinked by language.

‘The Long War’ or GWOT 2 includes the creation of a special regional U.S. command, AFRICOM; a new regional strategic partner a la Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia (Algeria), a series of U.S. sponsored ‘anti-terrorism networks’ — first the Pan Sahel Initiative, which, in 2006, was replaced by the more inclusive Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative — an array of joint military maneuvers with African countries; and the growing use of American special operations throughout the region, and the establishment of a network of small military bases. Using the Malian crisis as the most recent pretext, the latest addition to the U.S.-African military footprint is a recently opened drone base in Niger.

Algeria and the United States – The Making of a Quiet Love Affair

A few months ago, British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan published his second volume on the growing instability in the African Sahara. The Dying Sahara: US Imperialism and Terror in Africa (Pluto Press, 2013) is a follow-up to The Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror in Africa (Pluto Press, 2009). That is not the end of it, as a third volume appears to be in the making. This, the second volume, builds nicely on the first. Taken together they are a rather well-documented, well-reasoned and damning indictment of the U.S. Africa policy. The Obama Administration’s softer linguistic approach will find it difficult to counter Keenan’s arguments.

Given Keenan’s lifelong association with the Sahara and its diverse peoples, and his truly encyclopedic knowledge and prolific writings on the region, the books are more than the titles suggest. They not only probe the growing U.S. military infiltration into the region using what in large measure has been a fabricated terrorist threat to the region, but provide far more: a detailed description and analysis of Sahara regional politics along with some valuable cultural history. Both books always return to the main theme: the whys and hows of the decade-long U.S. strategic focus to the region.

The essence of Keenan’s argument in both volumes goes something like this: in an effort to beef up the U.S. military presence in Africa to provide the security net for oil and natural gas sources from North Africa to Nigeria, the United States needed to either dramatically amplify the ‘terrorist threat’ to the region or literally fabricate one. True, this took some doing and some time, but with more than a little help from its new-found alliance with Algiers, the pretext was successfully enough shaped to provide the necessary U.S. military buildup. Keenan’s Sahara series shows, in excruciating detail, in fact, how it was done.

Love at First Sight

Washington also needed a strong, militaristic regional ally which it has found in, of all places, Algeria. While State Department rhetoric is thick with references to democracy and human rights, when it comes to the nitty-gritty, Washington always prefers military strongmen. It was love at first sight between Cheney, Rumsfeld, Mediene and Lamari. By way of comparison, the U.S. strategic alliance with Israel elsewhere in the region strengthened appreciatively after Israel’s overwhelming military victory in the 1967 War. Unlike Saudi Arabia, here was a country that knew actually knew how to use its Mirage and F-4 jet fighters.

Likewise, impressed, rather than repulsed, by the manner in which the Algerian military and security force was able to maintain political power and crush its opponents torturing and killing its way to victory during the ‘dirty war’ in that country in the 1990s, first the Bush and then the Obama Administration saw in this regime yet another perfect partner.

Keenan explains the rationale behind the U.S. Africa policy early on in The Dying Sahara. A long paragraph is worth quoting in full:

Africa’s strategic importance to the US over the last decade has undergone several significant shifts and reappraisals… In 1998, US dependency on foreign oil supplies surpassed the psychologically critical 50 per cent level and in 2000 became an election issue as George W. Bush pledged to make energy security a top priority of his presidency. True to his word, he established a National Energy Policy Development (NEPD) Group within two weeks of taking office. The Group, under the Chairmanship of Vice-President Dick Cheney, published its strategically critical report in May 2003, four months before 9/11. Although the intended impact of the report was subsumed by the overwhelming events of 9/11, the Cheney Report, as it became known, set the direction of subsequent U.S. policy towards Africa by identifying the continent, especially West Africa, as a major new source of US oil imports. The report had estimated that Africa would provide 25% of US oil imports by 2015. Since 2011, US oil imports from Africa have nearly doubled, with more recent estimates putting Africa’s contribution as high as 35%. It is not surprising that the Bush Administration, shortly after coming to power, defined African oil as a ‘strategic national interest’ and thus a resource that the US might choose military force to control.

The Algerian DRS’s Specialty: Fabricating Terrorism, at Home and Abroad

As a part of the strategy for increasing oil and natural gas flows from Africa, the White House concluded that a U.S. ‘military structure’ would be needed to assure the free flow of African oil to the North American continent. As it is a bit crude (if accurate) for the United States to argue its African military buildup was much more about satisfying the American energy addiction than promoting democracy and human rights, the usual pretexts, another more dramatic rationalization needed to be provided. The chosen pretext – the one that worked well enough to justify the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq – was the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT).

But as Keenan notes, in 2001-2, when Washington made this strategic choice, there was a problem with the project: “launching a new front on the GWOT in a continent largely devoid of terrorism was a little trickier.” Terrorism hardly existed (or not at all) in the regions targeted by the White House for oil production.[ii] The situation created a bit of a problem: how to wage war against a terrorism that didn’t exist! Not to worry (if you are an oil company), the Bush Administration did have an answer, which any crooked district attorney or any war-hungry general knows: if the case is politically important enough, when in doubt, fabricate the evidence!

To a great degree this has been accomplished, through a decade-long regional strategic alliance between U.S. intelligence and military (C.I.A., AFRICOM and the like) and the Algerian security apparatus, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS).

In order to make the Sahara ‘terrorist threat’ credible – a difficult task given the overwhelming absence of evidence – both the Bush and Obama Administrations have tried both to establish links between Al Qaeda in Afghanistan-Pakistan and Sahara Islamist terrorist organizations on the one hand and then magnify the threat that these groups present to the region, and ultimately to U.S. strategic interests there. Keenan dedicates a whole chapter in The Dark Sahara to what he calls ‘the Banana Theory of Terrorism’, detailing how the supposed links between the North African and Afghan/Pakistani terrorists are more the creation of American public relations than reality.

In the same vein, while there were a small number of terrorist acts – mostly kidnappings of European tourists – over the decade since 9-11, Keenan notes that, actually, if highly publicized in the European and American media, that there were very few incidents all told. Those terrorist incidents that did occur repeatedly bore the markings of false flag operations either organized by the Algerian DRS, or done in conjunction with them.

The Utility of Ignorance

American military penetration of the Sahara was made more difficult – but not impossible – by the vast level of ignorance on the part of American authorities and the public concerning the cultural/political dynamics of the countries of North Africa and the Sahara. Nothing new here. A decade on, other than the skewed data learned from satellite and drone electronic spying, not much has changed on this score. One might add to this, that despite all the work of U.S. intelligence agencies, the actual intelligence that the United States has on the ground in North Africa and the Sahara is – as it was in Afghanistan and Iraq – scant at best. Thus the need for a well-informed local partner like the Algerian generals to fill the gap.

By now, we should be accustomed to the pattern – the pretexts for intervention. For starters, one needs an exaggerated or fabricated threat, which an all-too-willing media spoon-feeds to an all-too-gullible public, be it Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the supposed link between Islamists in the North African Sahara and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, or Assad’s Syria using chemical weapons.

The fabricated threats are given credence through a variety of false flag operations, provocations, what have you. In the case of the Sahara, carefully orchestrated kidnappings and highly publicized kidnappings of foreign – mostly European – tourists by terrorist groups were carried out either under the auspices of, or in close cooperation with the Algerian DRS. In so doing the DRS provided an important service to its American partners.

False flag operations are, admittedly, difficult, but not impossible, to prove. Few people do it better, more carefully, more thoroughly than Keenan. He makes a strong case based in part on his extensive, lifelong contacts on the ground among the peoples of the Sahara, in part as a result of careful documented research of the U.S. Saharan military buildup. If one or two of his hypotheses might be open to question, the fact remains that, taken in its entirety, Keenan’s compelling argument for the whys and hows of the U.S. military involvement in the Sahara is deadly accurate. He’s nailed the skunks to the wall and, not surprisingly, now they are starting to squirm. AFRICOM (and the Algerians) can deny the existence of a U.S. Special Forces base in Tamanrasset until they turn blue, but it existed. Likewise, Washington might deny the use of U.S. Special Operations in Northern Mali, but the growing evidence suggests otherwise. In a number of these operations war crimes and slaughter of civilians were committed.

Read Keenan, learn something about where your sons and daughters are going to go next, to torture and kill people, mostly innocent people participating in legitimate social movements to improve their lives economically and politically, in the name of ‘fighting terrorism’, but mostly to protect access to African oil, natural gas, uranium. It’s the same old song, new pretext.

References:

[i] Jeremy Keenan. The Dying Sahara: US Imperialism and Terror in Africa. Pluto Press. 2013, p. 10

[ii] Most of the terrorism in North Africa, when not concerning the terrorism of undemocratic regimes against their own people, existed only on the continent’s periphery – far from the oil-producing regimes, and there was precious little of that.

Rob Prince, whose teaching title has changed five times in the past twenty years, although the job is the same, is Teaching Professor at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. In recent years, he has written extensively on North Africa.