US opens new war front in North Africa By Jason Motlagh
Despite a setback in Somalia, where anti-Islamist warlords recently lost
control of the capital, Mogadishu, to a jihadist militia, the United States is
plunging into a far vaster set of commitments, stretching across the "Wild
West" of Saharan Africa.
Over the next five years, Washington is expected to spend US$500 million on an
overt counter-terror program to secure what it has dubbed the latest front in
its "global war on terror". Detractors insist the move could backfire and have
the same unintended consequences as in the Horn of Africa, albeit on a much
larger scale with even more at stake.
The Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) kicked off last June to
provide military expertise, equipment and
development aid to nine Saharan nations whose vast, ungoverned reaches are
considered fertile ground for militant Islamist groups looking to establish
Afghanistan-style terror training camps and to engage in smuggling and other
The TSCTI represents a massive upgrade from the Pan-Sahel Initiative, a $7
million forerunner that was initiated in 2002 in what Theresa Whelan, US deputy
assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, called "just a drop in the
bucket" compared with the region's security needs.
In its campaign to justify the increase, the US military has likened the Sahara
to the "Wild West", and the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (Groupe
Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat, or GSPC) is its most wanted enemy.
On the US State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations and
estimated to have a few hundred remaining members based in Algeria, the group
was formed in the late 1990s to overthrow the government in Algiers and create
a hardline Islamic state. Its founders broke ranks with the notorious Armed
Islamic Group over its policy of killing civilians indiscriminately during
Algeria's 1992-99 civil war that left more than 100,000 dead. The GSPC was
accused of kidnapping European tourists in 2003 and claimed responsibility for
a spate of strikes around the Sahara last year that reportedly killed a total
of 40 soldiers from Algeria and Mauritania. But some observers say terrorism in
the Sahara is little more than a mirage and that protracted, high-profile US
involvement could destabilize the region.
"If anything, the [initiative] ... will generate terrorism, by which I mean
resistance to the overall US presence and strategy," said Jeremy Keenan, a
Sahara specialist at the University of East Anglia in Britain.
Aside from the 2003 kidnapping issue, US and Algerian authorities have failed
to present "indisputable verification of a single act of alleged terrorism in
the Sahara", Keenan insists. "Without the GSPC, the US has no legitimacy for
its presence in the region," he said, noting that a growing US dependence on
African oil, which the administration of President George W Bush has declared a
"national strategic interest", has moved the United States to bolster its
presence in the region.
A report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, said
that although the Sahara is "not a terrorist hotbed", repressive governments in
the region are taking advantage of the Bush administration's "war on terror" to
tap US largess and deny civil freedoms. The report noted that former
Mauritanian president Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya - a US ally in West Africa who
was deposed last August in a bloodless coup - used the threat of terrorism to
justify human-rights abuses.
Taya jailed and harassed dozens of opposition politicians, charging that they
were connected to the GSPC; this fed popular discontent, and it is said that
the military junta that ousted Taya while he was abroad did so to appease a
simmering public. Hundreds of Mauritanians took to the streets of the capital,
Nouakchott, to denounce the United States at the start of the TSCTI.
The United States is already under fire for secretly supporting the
anti-Islamist warlords who last week lost control of Mogadishu to jihadist
militia after a 15-year stranglehold. A number of opponents of the Central
Intelligence Agency-administered program claim that enterprising warlords have
exploited US fears that the lawless East African country is becoming a
terrorist haven. The warlords use this fear to gain funding and arms to
reinforce existing criminal operations under the pretense of fighting radicals,
They also argue that the effect of this policy at the grassroots is a witches'
brew of anti-American sentiment and Islamic radicalism among Somalis fed up
with US involvement in their affairs, particularly when the Americans are
backing forces that have torn the country apart.
Critics say the same scenario threatens to take hold in Saharan Africa, only
there the warlords are dictators, and national borders substitute for city
They also contend that the limited threat the GSPC may have posed on the
African continent in recent years has been all but snuffed out. Since the
isolated attacks last summer, Algerian authorities have cracked down hard on
the group: the latest fatal GSPC strike resulted in just one death and the
unexpected surrender two days later of three ranking militants. This supports
intelligence reports that the group's leadership is in tatters and on the run.
Analysts say a recent threat by one ranking militant that US military
installations may come under attack is little more than hot air.
GSPC founder Hassan Hattab, now in government custody, has called on all
remaining militants to take advantage of a new government amnesty under which
they can give up the gun in exchange for immunity from prosecution, saying
those who continue to fight do not belong to his organization, since they harm
Muslims. This week the Algerian army killed five GSPC gunmen and destroyed 30
hideouts in eastern Algeria; security sources confirmed that the operation was
"based on accurate information given to the army by repenting gunmen". Algeria
has freed some 2,200 jailed Islamist militants under the amnesty since
A limited number of holdouts still stir occasional trouble in the remote
Algerian countryside, but the GSPC has shifted the focus of its operations to
Europe, where an elusive network of sleeper cells has shown a willingness, and
means, to target civilians. Dozens of operatives have been arrested and a
number of major plots foiled over the past year, including a scheme to outdo
the attacks of September 11, 2001. US and European intelligence officials also
have evidence that Europe-based operatives continue to recruit, train and
finance North African jihadists to fight US-led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These factors make the GSPC-Europe "the largest, most cohesive and dangerous
terrorist organization in the al-Qaeda orbit", according to a report by the
Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think-tank.
In December, three Algerian members of a GSPC cell in southern Italy were
arrested in a sweep and implicated in a plot to kill "at least 10,000 people"
and blow up a vessel "as big as the Titanic". More than $22 million is said to
have been found in the vehicle used by the three; attacks would have targeted
ships, stadiums and railway stations in a deliberate attempt to exceed the
September 11 carnage, according to Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu.
The plan was foreshadowed in a communique issued by the GSPC four days after
the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center came crashing down, pledging
its support to al-Qaeda and threatening to harm "the interests of European
countries and the US". It is still debated as to whether the GSPC has formally
aligned itself with Osama bin Laden, but the group has repeatedly avowed a
Italy has "evolved from a logistics base" to a "de facto base of operations"
for GSPC activities targeting Europe, says the Jamestown report. Algerian GSPC
operatives based out of a Milan mosque were first arrested in 2002 for
illegally acquiring explosives and weapons. In 2005, Italian police detained
five of 11 Algerians suspected of belonging to the GSPC and investigated their
involvement in a failed terrorist attack against the Spanish National Court in
Madrid, among other incidents. "GSPC cells in Italy employ a dual-track
approach to planning terrorist attacks and provide support infrastructure -
safe houses, communications, weapons ... and [forged documents] to cells
elsewhere in Europe," the report noted.
However, the terror group has singled out France as its primary foreign target.
In January 2005, French authorities arrested 11 suspects with ties to the GSPC
and charged them with recruiting suicide bombers to send to Iraq. In September,
police seized three other Algerians affiliated with the GSPC purported to be
preparing to bomb the Paris subway. "The only way to discipline France is jihad
and Islamic martyrdom," group leaders said in a statement. "France is our Enemy
No 1, the enemy of our religion, the enemy of our community."
Spain, too, has seen a spike in GSPC activity. Authorities there arrested 20
suspected terrorists on January 12 in Barcelona and Madrid. Among them were
Moroccan-born Omar Nakhcha, the head of a GSPC cell said to recruit and give
logistical support to Iraq-bound militants and suicide bombers. A spokesman for
Spain's Interior Ministry said one of the group's recruits was responsible for
a suicide attack in November 2003 in Nasiriyah, Iraq, that killed 19 Italians
and nine Iraqis. Nakhcha, for his part, is thought to have led a cell of a
shadowy GSPC affiliate, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, that helped the
escape of three suspects in the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191
people and participated in the 2003 Casablanca attacks.
A prominent Spanish judge and the head of France's domestic security service
are carrying out extensive inquiries into loose-knit terror networks in both
countries. Those arrested have disclosed information on interconnected cells
responsible for recruitment, falsifying documents and acquiring explosive
materials. At least 50 French Arabs have journeyed to Iraq for suicide
operations over the past two years, according to one Spanish research
Western intelligence agencies estimate the GSPC has an exile network of 800-900
active operatives and supporters spread throughout Europe. So far arrests have
been made in Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands, but
authorities fear that the group may hold a growing appeal to the thousands of
frustrated young Muslims who idle at the fringes of major European cities.
North America has not been bypassed by the GPSC either. A Toronto-based cell
that had included an al-Qaeda-trained bomb-maker was broken up in November.
Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian militant recruited by the GSPC, was arrested by US
authorities in Seattle after crossing from Canada. Tried on charges he planned
to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve 1999, he was
sentenced to 22 years in prison.