Recent intelligence reports describe Iraq’s al Qaeda chief Abu Musab al Zarqawi as secretly sending some top commanders to one of the most forbidding regions of Saharan Africa – the Sahel. The wanted terrorist with a finger in every pie may even have arrived in the region in person.
Some accounts contend that al Qaeda’s networks are now poised in their Sahel and Saharan sanctuaries for a fresh wave of attacks on American targets in Europe, possibly even using unconventional weapons.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly discloses that this information brought US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld hurrying over to North Africa last Saturday for three days of talks on Feb. 11-13 with the rulers of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.
Sahel, a 3,000-mile strip of arid savanna girdling the continent, cuts through Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan. It is the belt that separates the arid Sahara from tropical West Africa
From their havens in Sahel and the Sahara, the terrorists plague Algeria and Morocco.
The United States has conducted repeated joint exercises in the countries in and around the Sahel-Saharan region as part of its Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative. US troops have also conducted pursuits of wanted terrorist chiefs in the lawless wasteland, which al Qaeda calls its “Zone 9.” In the last seven months, the July 7 transport bombing attack in London, which left 53 dead, prompted British ventures to reach the masterminds of the attack in their Saharan lairs.
Monday, Rumsfeld called in British foreign secretary Jack Straw for support in his talks with King Muhammad VI.
Both are aware that none of their past initiatives has dented the deepening operational ties al Qaeda has established with its local offshoots, Morocco’s West African Jama’a and the Algerian Salafist Group of Preaching and Combat – the GSPC. Founded in 1998, the GSPC pledged allegiance to al Qaeda in 2003 and is even more radical than its master. The Jamaa is thriving, despite Morocco’s crackdown on terrorists after suicide bombings killed 45 people in Casablanca – also in 2003.
Jump starting a new pan-Sahara multinational force
The rising danger, according to the same intelligence sources, also emanates from al Qaeda’s spreading use of the Saharan crime networks, which smuggle cheap labor and drugs over the Mediterranean to West Europe, to plant dozens, if not hundreds, of terrorist operatives in the West in the guise of job seekers.
Despite previous setbacks, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter terror and military sources report that Rumsfeld sought to jump start a fresh initiative with three fairly tricky projects for re-opening this front in the war on terror:
1. A new pan-Sahara force under US and British command for a concerted offensive against al Qaeda networks as well as the Saharan tribes hosting their bases of operation.
2. New US bases, eavesdropping stations and information-gathering centers to go up in the Sahara or the nations on its fringes.
3. Trickier still, the allocation by Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco of military units for Iraq, to help Washington reduce US troop levels. This would be their quid pro quo for US military assistance in boosting counter-terror security at home. Rumsfeld assured the rulers that their contingents would operate under Iraqi rather than US command and at the behest of the Baghdad government.
Straw’s most uphill task, according to our sources, was to persuade the Moroccan king and Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to work together in the new trans-Sahara force. Such cooperation meant they would have to put behind them their historic war over the Western Sahara. The Polisario Front has been fighting for the territory’s independence since the Spaniards quit in 1975, while Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania are at war over their rival claims on the former colony.
Too much prestige and national pride have been riding too long on the conflict for any of them to give way.
But Rumsfeld and Straw did not leave completely empty-handed. They understood that Algiers and Rabat might be persuaded to let their special forces work separately with American elite units for the common good.
Rumsfeld found a more amenable partner in Tunis, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s North African sources.
All in all, his three days of talks in North Africa were not enough to get a multinational force up and running to challenge al Qaeda’s Zone 9.
Too many issues were left pending.
Proposal to send North African forces for Iraq is nixed
1. The Moroccan and Algerian armies are both in need of upgrading and special equipment for desert combat against al Qaeda’s networks. This requires delicate diplomacy so that neither of the two North African nations suspects Washington of favoring one over the other.
2. The Moroccan and Algerian intelligence services must be convinced to share data not just on al Qaeda in its Saharan bases, but also on each of their domestic counter-terror crackdowns.
Algeria’s counter-terror agencies and their targets, chiefly the GSPC, have for years defied the comprehension of Western intelligence, which finds it hard to know where one begins and the other ends.
Jack Straw, assisted by MI6, appears to have made some headway in getting Algeria and Morocco to agree to a limited trade of intelligence. The British secret service MI6 has made a special study of al Qaeda’s Sahara operations in the last seven months since discovering that the logistical infrastructure for the July 7, 2005 bombing attacks in London was located in the heart of the African desert.
(See DNW 214, July 15, 2005: Al Qaeda’s Zone 9. The Blue-faced Men of the Sahara)
However, the consignment of Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian troops to Iraq presented an insuperable obstacle to Rumsfeld’s North African counter-terror strategy.
President Bouteflika said he would think it over, without any commitment. In internal consultations in Algiers before Rumsfeld arrived, the president reiterated firmly that it was beyond the capabilities of the Algerian army to fight al Qaeda on two fronts – Iraq and the Sahara. He feared that the arrival of Zarqawi’s men in the African desert made it possible for the terrorists to stage dual strikes against Algeria – in the Middle East and North Africa. He was still smarting from the kidnapping of Algeria’s ambassador to Iraq Ali Balarousi and his colleague Azzedin Belkadi on July 21, 2005. Both were executed by Zarqawi’s men a week later. Bouteflika believes the Algerian public would deeply resent the dispatch of troops to Iraq and respond with greater sympathy for al Qaeda.
In Rabat, Rumsfeld found more willingness to send an expeditionary force to Iraq, but King Muhammed stipulated that Saudi King Abdullah must approve the step and Moroccan units must be part of an inter-Arab army under the aegis of the Arab League dispatched at the request of the Baghdad government.
Two elusive al Qaeda commanders in the Sahara
The consistent elusiveness of top al Qaeda commanders is a blot on the American war on terror in the Sahara.
Just as Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri evade capture in Afghanistan and Zarqawi in Iraq, so too, do the GSPC leader Ammari Saifi and the Algerian operative Mokhtar Belmokhtar, known as the One-Eyed.
Salfi, often dubbed the Saharan bin Laden, spends most of his time riding through the Sahel sand dunes in truck convoys, which carry hundreds of fighters – some Algerian, some desert tribesmen. They use pickups and motorbikes bought in neighboring countries like Mali, or robbed from Western oil drilling companies working in the Sahara. Amid the most primitive conditions, these guerillas possess sophisticated desert warfare gear, including GPS navigational devices and night-vision goggles.
For years, the One Eyed Mokhtar has been running a cross-border smuggling and bandit ring from the desert of northern Mali. His West African Jamaa fighters live in hiding among the strange Tuareg tribes.
Describing these tribesmen, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 214 from July 15 noted that they are referred to as the Blue Men of the Desert for their men’s indigo-dyed robes and blue face veils. Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups have set up hideouts and bases in their lawless territories for hard practical reasons. Traveling with Tuareg nomads across seven African countries, al Qaeda’s operatives, disguised by their blue veils, can transact their business with fellow terrorists and smugglers away from prying eyes.
For four years, the two terrorist chiefs Saifi and Belmokhtar have eluded forays by American special forces units in Morocco, Algeria, Mali and Chad, supported by spy satellites and aircraft. Some of those units are flown in from outside bases like Italy.
Until now, the American-led Trans-Sahara multi-national offensive has mostly gone round in circles, much like the parallel offensive in the Pashtun tribal lands of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The message the US defense secretary carried to three African capitals this week was that, to get anywhere in the grim deserts of West Africa, it is necessary to establish five 3,000-strong brigades from various African armies to start policing the continent. His lightning trip laid the foundations for this initiative.