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Lies, lies and yet more lies

Jeremy Keenan’s The Dark Sahara reveals a web of state-inspired disinformation and myths behind “the war on terror” in Africa. Corinna Lotz reviews this pioneering and often shocking book.

Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited seven African states on a tour of the continent as part of a charm offensive by the Obama administration. But as The Dark Sahara author Jeremy Keenan has pointed out, the US government is still giving primacy to AFRICOM, its military command in Africa. AFRICOM, Keenan notes, grew out of EUCOM, European Command while it was in the charge of General Jim Jones, who is presently President Obama’s national security adviser.


photo ©Alberto Arzoz

Keenan is a social anthropologist and a renowned authority on the Tuareg nomads, ethnic Berbers who inhabit the Sahel belt which lies below the Sahara desert and stretches from west to east bordering on Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea. According to the World Bank, it is one of the poorest and most environmentally damaged regions in Africa.  In September 2007, Tuaregs came together to declare an independent state.

A dangerous turn of events in the region surfaced briefly in the British media when a British national, Edwin Dyer, was kidnapped at the beginning of this year. Dyer was with a group of Austrian tourists at a cultural festival in north east Mali, near the Niger border. Dyer was executed on May 31, 2009 by terrorists belonging to Al Qa’ida of the Islamic Maghreb(AQIM). AQIM is an Algerian-based terrorist group that changed its name from the Groupe Salafiste pour La Prédication et le Combat (GSPC)in 2007.

Months before Dyer’s death, Keenan had dissected the elaborate tissue of myths and disinformation woven by a sinister alliance between Algerian military intelligence, the DRS (Direction des Renseignement et de la Sécurité) and the Bush-Cheney White House.

He believes that after the 9/11 terror attacks on the US, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika of the FLN (National Liberation Front) seized what he saw as an opportunity to secure sophisticated US military and intelligence technology by “getting into bed with America” after the 9/11 attacks.

The Algerian state had waged a notoriously brutal civil war during the 1990s, in which 200,000 died. The war was originally sparked by the imminent electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) which was prevented by a military coup d’etat early in 1992. After 9/11, the Algerian state sought to wheedle favours from the US government by preying on the notion that Al Qaeda terrorism was spreading west from Afghanistan into Africa through the Sahel region.

In his book, Keenan deconstructs the unholy alliance between US military hawks and the politically bankrupt Algerian state. With the connivance of allies elsewhere in Africa and Europe, they have funded and encouraged the rise of terrorist thugs. In this sorcerer’s apprentice-style process, Islam has often become a cover for military, financial and power struggles.

The Dark Sahara tracks the rise and rise of a half-real, half-mythical terrorist dubbed “El Para”, believed by many to be run by Algeria’s military intelligence. The Bush administration declared El Para a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist”, but as Keenan notes, he was not “taken out”, as is normally the case with such individuals.

A chilling and at times farcical story is told of innocent tourists being made pawns as the Algerian government plotted with a rag-tag band of fighters-turned Algerian government agents and performed elaborate fake kidnappings and pseudo-battles in the vast expanses of the Sahara. The hostage taking, Keenan explains, "enabled the US to launch a new 'African' – or, more accurately, a Sahara-Sahelian – front in the GWOT. The Pan-Sahel Initiative, launched in 2002, was expanded in May 2005 into a $100 million, five-year programme known in Washington as the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI)."

“The ‘US invasion’ as locals described it, has led to ‘blowback’, or what I prefer to call résistance,” Keenan writes. His 273-page book seeks to document how “terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel, fabricated to justify the launch of the GWOT [global war on terror] in Africa, has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Multiple Tuareg rebellions have transformed the Sahara-Sahel from what the Bush administration and military imagined as a ‘terror zone’ into a very real war zone.”

But it is not only the tourists who became pawns. In the bigger picture, it is nomadic peoples like the Tuareg who suffer the most. Behind the war on terror propaganda lie other motives. Africa has become the target of a neo-colonialist land and resources grab. Keenan highlights The 2001 Cheney Report, which warned of the decline in US oil production and singled out Africa as an area which could help to satisfy US energy requirements. Keenan’s chapter “Oil and Empire”, provides a wealth of statistics showing the vast reserves of Libya, Nigeria, Gabon, Chad and the waters off the Gulf of Guinea. Readers may be surprised to discover that in 2007, Nigeria overtook Saudi Arabia as the third largest oil exporter to the US.

Moisés Naím, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, has noted that “oil can be a curse on poor nations”. This bitter truth, first observed by Venezuela’s oil minister in the 1960s, points to the underlying – but by no way the only – reason for the expansion of the war on terror into Africa, which Keenan has researched and documented so well in his book.

The days when the Algerian FLN were heroic fighters against French imperialism are long gone. And it is some time since Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi championed the cause of oppressed peoples like the Bedouin and the Tuareg. Today, neither they nor the other tribal peoples in the area have anyone to turn to.

Not surprisingly, as in Palestine, Egypt and elsewhere, religious as well as mercenary forces of one kind and another have cashed in on the political vacuum. But the days of Bouteflika and his ilk in the Algerian ruling caste are numbered as a crisis of leadership extends right across an entire generation of former anti-colonial fighters turned corrupt dictators,  who still hide behind the rhetoric of their glory days.

Keenan exposes the network of state sponsored myth-spinners who plant stories in the global media, from The Washington Post in US, the Münchner Merkur in Germany through to the Daily Telegraph and The Economist in the UK.  He has done sterling work in showing the mythology and disinformation behind the “war on terror” in this pioneering and often shocking book. It deserves to be read by any serious opponent of the US-UK axis of occupation and illegal wars.

19 August 2009

The Dark Sahara, America’s War on Terror in Africa by Jeremy Keenan is published by Pluto Press. £ 17.99 A sequel to The Dark Sahara, The Dying Sahara, will be published in January 2010.

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