Mirage in the Desert?

Since 2003 a number of Europeans have been abducted in the Sahara. Officially, the Maghreb branch of the Islamist group Al Qaeda has been held responsible. Alfred Hackensberger spoke with anthropologist Jeremy Keenan, who has been consulted as a specialist and mediator in some of the kidnapping cases

Captured Italian hostages in Mauritania (photo: dpa)
"It was all about the money and not so much about ideological or political conflicts": According to Jeremy Keenan, the Algerian secret service, DRS, helped set up Islamist terror organisations in the Maghreb

​​ At the end of July French special forces tried to rescue the kidnapped Michel Germaneau. Their mission failed. What went wrong?

Jeremy Keenan: The French would have been unable to carry out this rescue attempt on foreign soil on their own and had to first gain the cooperation of Algeria and its secret service.

Are you saying that, because of cooperation with DRS, the Algerian secret service, neither the terrorist camp nor the hostage could be found?

Keenan: That would be the obvious conclusion.

And that's because the Algerian secret service invented Al Qaida in the Maghreb, AQIM, and staged the kidnappings, as we are led to believe by your books and articles?

Keenan: It would be wrong to claim that the whole thing was merely a staged set-up. The truth is much more complicated.

What do you mean?

Keenan: The relationship between the DRS and militant Islamists goes back to the 1990s, when the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) was still battling the Algerian state. Starting in 1994 the Algerian secret service was able to infiltrate the group's leadership ranks. Back then the military, the security service and the Islamists were all active on the "black market".

Smuggling food, arms and drugs?

Amari Saifi alias Abderrezak El Para (photo: AP)
Terrorist crossover: According to Keenan, Amari Saifi, alias Abderrezak El Para, who led the first abduction of Europeans in Algeria in 2003, is an agent in the Algerian secret service

​​ Keenan: Yes, that was indeed a dark chapter. It was all about the money and not so much about ideological or political conflicts. They all knew who the others were and did each other small favours, or sometimes larger ones. That's how contacts were forged between what were in fact hostile parties. A crossover, we would call it today. This is the period when "El Para" also emerged.

Amari Saifi, alias Abderrezak El Para, who led the first abduction of Europeans in Algeria in 2003, and who you claim was an agent in the Algerian DRS.

Keenan: He was also active as a smuggler back then, and his ties to the DRS might stem from those days. It's important to realise that he's not one of those secret agents, hired like James Bond to carry out a specific mission. That kind of black-and-white pattern doesn't apply here. There are many grey zones, complex webs of relationships in which common interests emerge either briefly or for a longer span of time.

If I may ask quite naively, how does someone who is an agent in the DRS create a "terror group" to abduct tourists?

Keenan: The group around El Para counted about 60 members. These men had very simple-minded Salafist notions, but were for the most part authentic Islamists. Only El Para himself and his sub-commanders, for example Abdel Hamid Abu Zaid, worked with the DRS.

Abu Zaid is one of those responsible for the kidnappings in recent years.

Keenan: Yes, Abu Zaid, and also Yahia Djouadi.

Michel Germaneau (photo: AP)
Tragic end of a kidnapping: When an attempt was made to rescue Michel Germaneau from the clutches of the AQIM in late July, the Frenchman lost his life in the raid

​​ So there were some genuine militant Islamists and one or more DRS operatives who were told to go out and organise a terror group. That might be helpful for us to know.

Keenan: That's putting it too simply. Infiltration is a process that can take years. All we know is that the leaders of the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GPSC), a successor organisation to GIA, was infiltrated in northern Algeria. The exact details as to when, where and how are not known.

Do we have more information available about the kidnappers who recently abducted a Spanish group and took several French hostages?

Keenan: The guy at the top of the group hierarchy and one or two of those just below him in the line of command are connected in some way with the DRS. We just don't know what the link is exactly: whether they are being blackmailed, bribed, if they are true operatives, simple accomplices, mercenaries, whether they work all the time or only occasionally with the DRS.

But El Para was a true agent, who received his commands directly from the Algerian secret service?

Keenan: Yes, yes. There is no doubt that he was a DRS agent. Of course there is no concrete proof of that fact; he wasn't carrying an agent ID or anything. But none of the events in which his group were involved would have been possible without the support of the DRS. Everything was manipulated, the "terrorists" used as tools.

Can you cite examples?

Keenan: When El Para kidnapped 32 Europeans in 2003, Algerian army helicopters circled above the terrorist camp, although it had continually been moved.

How do you know that?

Keenan: The hostages said so in their accounts of the incident. And the raid by the special forces, which freed 17 of the hostages, was staged. There were reports of casualties, but the hostages saw nothing of the sort. It seemed to them instead as if they had been taken to an agreed meeting place. There was no sign of a surprise raid by the Algerian military.

Captured Spanish hostages Roque Pascual Salazar (r.) and Albert Vilalta (l.) (photo: dpa)
Lucrative terrorism: "The threat posed by Al Qaeda in the Sahara made Algeria a partner of the US Administration under President George W. Bush in the battle against terror," says Jeremy Keenan

​​ Wasn't El Para arrested and convicted?

Keenan: Yes, months after the ransom money was paid, he was apprehended, allegedly on the lam, by Chad rebels from the Movement for Democracy and Justice (MDJT), handed over to the Libyan authorities and then delivered to the Algerians. In June 2005 a court in Algiers gave El Para a life sentence. Albeit "in absentia", although he would have had to have been in custody for eight months by then. There were renewed negotiations in May 2007, but they once again took place without the defendant. This time the 2005 sentence was suspended for specious reasons and the case was adjourned.

And since then El Para has vanished without a trace?

Keenan: Not entirely. His name came up again in 2008 in connection with the next abduction. The kidnappers of two Austrians demanded that El Para be set free.

Although he was apparently not even in custody. What was the real motive behind this demand?

Keenan: Shortly before this second kidnapping, Switzerland had requested permission to review the files on the 2003 abduction, as two Swiss citizens were among the hostages. They intended to question El Para as well. A request with which the Algerians were unable to comply.

And, at a loss about what to do, they played the kidnapper card?

Keenan: Yes, it seems that someone called in Abu Zaid and told him to abduct some tourists. Which he then very obviously did in southern Tunisia.

And this helped Algeria solve its diplomatic problem?

Keenan: The Swiss had to realise that in this crisis situation, with the lives of two captured Europeans depending on him, El Para could not be extradited. They would first have to wait until the abduction was resolved. But that took months and by that time the five-year deadline was past within which the Swiss could have applied for extradition proceedings.

How did the Algerian government benefit from the 2003 kidnapping led by El Para and from all the other kidnappings?

​​ Keenan: You see, after the bloody civil war in Algeria, in which 200,000 lost their lives, the country no longer had an international reputation; it was a pariah state and the army was forced to rely on outdated weapons. The threat posed by Al Qaeda in the Sahara drove Algeria into partnership with the US Administration under President George W. Bush in the battle against terrorism. The White House lifted its arms embargo, supplied Algeria with modern equipment, and the country advanced over the years to the respected number one terror combatant in the region.

And the USA?

Keenan: They used the kidnapping of 32 tourists by El Para as justification for new military bases in the Sahara.

The USA knew that El Para was an operative of the Algerian secret service?

Keenan: In August and September 2002, the US government's Defense Science Board presented to then defence minister Donald Rumsfeld a new programme for fighting terrorism. The idea was to infiltrate terrorist groupings and provoke them to take action.

You're talking about the Proactive, Pre-emptive Operations Group, P20G for short.

Keenan: Yes, and the programme's first pilot project was El Para.

A pilot project that could only be conducted with the help of Algeria.

Keenan: Both sides had an interest in fabricating terrorism here.

And today?

Keenan: Some of the recent kidnappings are accidents, like that of Michel Germaneau. He was abducted by two gangsters and then sold to Al Qaeda. The whole kidnapping thing has taken on a life of its own and is no longer always under the control of the Algerian DRS.

Interview: Alfred Hackensberger

© Qantara.de 2010

Jeremy Keenan is a professor of anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His latest book is "The Dark Sahara. America's War on Terror in Africa" (Pluto Press 2009).

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de


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