Jake Lynch, with additional research by Emily Parsons-Lord

Drug money from trading across the Sahara desert is funding insurgents and ‘terrorists’. So said the UN Office on Drugs and Crime this week, invoking an alarming vision of West African cocaine meeting heroin coming through East Africa, with the proceeds being used by “terrorists and anti-government forces… to fund their operations, purchase equipment and pay foot soldiers”.

The “dramatic situation in Somalia” has cleared the way for 35 tonnes a year of Afghan heroin to enter the continent, according to the UN drugs chief, Antonio Maria Costa. It’s a good example of how conflict dynamics are cloaked in official euphemism. Somalia was enjoying some semblance of law and order, for the first time in years, under the Union of Islamic Courts, when the US-backed Ethiopian invasion, in 2006, plunged the country back into war. And of course, Afghan heroin production had shrunk almost to zero under the Taliban, until that regime, also, was knocked over: by Northern Alliance ‘warlords’ with US air power as their new strategic advantage.

News reports of Maria Costa’s remarks generally did not dwell on these aspects. It’s a habit of war journalism, the dominant strain in western corporate media: a focus on the here and now, ‘the way it is’, rather than looking more widely for how it came to be that way – and for suggestions of how it could be different. That’s why we need more peace journalism – to pick up the bits that fall off the news agenda and put them back in.

News can be a useful vehicle for propaganda precisely because of its general disinclination to delve too deeply into sequences of cause and effect and its lack of critical self-awareness. In a memorable aphorism from an important book, Making News, Gaye Tuchman says “the acceptance of representational conventions as facticity makes reality vulnerable to manipulation”.

And there seems to be an effort at manipulation underway, with this menace now being conjured up in a broadly defined area in the northern half of Africa, encompassing the Maghreb countries, bordering the Sahara to the north, and the Sahel region to the south. Maria Costa said investigations into the nexus between drug smuggling and ‘terrorism’ in the region were stepped up last month, after traces of cocaine were found in the debris of a Boeing cargo plane that came down in the Gao region of Mali. “It is scary that this new example of the links between drugs, crime and terrorism was discovered by chance following the plane crash”, he added.

The Gao is a typical example of a patch of territory with its own historical identity – as an independent trading ‘Empire’ until the 16th Century – finding itself parked on the edge of a nation state when borders were drawn in colonial times. Because such regions tend to get left behind in whatever development then takes place, there are present-day grievances to go with the historical narrative, and these combine to give rise to political demands for greater control over their own affairs. The Touareg rebellion has been largely bought off, for now, under an Algerian-sponsored deal that is supposed to provide for enhanced development in exchange for relinquishing demands for regional autonomy.

In an equally familiar scenario, however, one commander still holds out. Malian troops have been trying to finish off the Alliance Touareg Nord-Mali (ATNM), led by Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, in order to clear the way for Chinese and Australian companies, who are exploring for oil in the area, to step up their operations. The rebels’ likely response to this demarche can be gauged in a statement attributed to Ag Bahanga himself, to the newspaper El Khabar, published in Algiers: “Today, the only alternative offered to us is the counter-thrust and armed warfare”.

A situation report by the Jamestown Foundation, a US corporate-funded think-tank, notes that the ATNM appears, for the moment, to enjoy “little public support”. Its author, Andrew McGregor, is on surely on firm ground, however, in observing that the formation of Arab militia, to do the government’s dirty work, risks propelling the ethnically distinct Touareg population back into the rebel fold. The ATNM may, as the Jamestown report suggests, simply be a front for Ag Bahanga’s “smuggling operations”, but the experience in countless similar situations across the developing world is that dividing lines between criminal and political activities are often difficult to distinguish, and can shift over time.

Agencies and ‘agency’

McGregor also reminds us that “US Special Forces training missions are based in Mali as part of the Trans-Sahara Counter-terrorism Initiative”, although “there are no reports of direct US involvement in the government offensive”. This is where this familiar post-colonial narrative takes on a new twist. Jeremy Keenan, a researcher at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies and a leading authority on the Touareg people, has published a series of scholarly articles in the Review of African Political Economy, uncovering the role of western intelligence agencies in the apparent spread of ‘terrorist’ activities across the Sahelian Sahara, involving, in particular, a militant Algerian splinter group: the ‘al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb’, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.

Important corroboration appeared in a recent edition of the New Internationalist, in a column by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development (a UK think-tank that does not, curiously, say anything about its funding on its website). Keenan had argued that an al-Qaeda hostage-taking of European tourists in early 2003 “was initiated and orchestrated by elements within the Algerian military establishment” – an operation “condoned by the US” – and that al-Qaeda leader Ammar Saifi (also known as ‘the Maghreb’s bin Laden’) “was ‘turned’ by the Algerian security forces in January 2003”.

Now, Ahmed wrote, Keenan’s findings had been borne out:

“A Pentagon adviser told US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that the Algerian operation was part of a new Pentagon covert operations programme, originally proposed in August 2002 by the Defense Science Board as the ‘Proactive, Pre-emptive Operations Group’. The covert programme would aim to ‘stimulate reactions’ among al-Qaeda terrorists by duping them into undertaking operations through US military penetration of terrorist groups and recruitment of locals to conduct ‘combat operations, or even terrorist activities’. The capture of Ammar Saifi was a pilot for the new programme”.

The underlying agenda was “energy security”, Ahmed wrote: Algeria’s huge gas reserves, along with the new Cameroon-Chad oil pipeline, combined to make this a region of strategic interest to Washington. This, plus the plotting uncovered by Keenan and Hersh, suggests a conspiracy, and that may very well be part of the picture. These developments are not ‘just’ happening, ‘like the weather’, so to speak: in academic jargon, ‘agency’ is being applied to make them happen. But it is not the whole picture. The Trans-Sahara Counter-terrorism Initiative explains itself, on its own website, thus:

“Torn apart by war, disease and poverty, and marked by vast ungoverned spaces, Africa is an emerging haven for our enemies in the Global War on Terrorism”.

It’s a lineal descendant of the classic orientalist vision, captured in countless colonial representations of empty African and Asian landscapes, ripe for exploitation. The conceptual framing denoted in the term, “ungoverned” is closely related to ‘failed state’ discourse, stemming from judgements based on comparing the state in question with ‘strong states’ such as those in the rich world who generally make such judgements, and such comparisons, and arrogate to themselves the power to act on them. A failed state has been defined as one that is unable to sustain itself as a member of the international community: lacking a central authority with sufficient control over what happens in its territory to guarantee the safe exploitation of oil deposits, say, or enter into agreements to allow US Special Forces training missions to take place.

This is where we get into perspectives that are, again in academic terms, grouped under the heading, ‘Critical International Relations’. Alexander Wendt, one of its prime exponents, has suggested that “anarchy is what states make of it”, implying that the international system is not only a constraint on state action, but in fact constitutes state action through constituting the identities and interest of state agents. Well before the decision to set up the covert Pentagon group to foment ‘terrorist’ violence, and well before the signing of the Trans-Sahara agreement, ‘agency’ was being generated by underlying dynamics such as the dependence on hydrocarbons in advanced economies, and the influence of the military-industrial complex over defence and foreign policy decision-making.

The media, too, are implicated, as I have argued in previous columns discussing James Der Derian’s influential formula, updating the military-industrial complex to MIME-Net: the ‘military-industrial-media-entertainment network’. The think-tanks referred to in this article are among a large and growing number in such places as London and Washington, most with corporate funding and many trying to gain access to media to make the case for escalations in military spending, preparedness or action.

Even in Canberra, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute likes nothing better than to pose a purveyor of ‘independent’ analysis, all of which points to the need to buy more military hardware. Its spokespersons are, no doubt, gratified that journalists never mention the source of its funding: the Department of Defence. All of this means that ‘agency’ is decentred: “enabled by networks, not actors”, Der Derian says. As well as the direct, specific agency identified by investigations such as those by Keenan and Hersh, there is generalised, indirect ‘agency’, at work constantly to predicate such outcomes.

Menace in Mauritania?

George W Bush’s message, “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists”, imposed discipline on the international system by intimidating countries into going along with the so-called ‘War on Terrorism’. The alternative, after all, might be to be constructed as a ‘threat’, in an era when the White House was prepared to state openly that such threats might be met with the use of force even “before they are fully formed”, in the words of the National Security Strategy of 2002.

One of those to join the Trans-Saharan Counter-terrorism Initiative was Mauritania, another state rich in natural gas deposits, but most of whose population live, nevertheless, in poverty. International aid was cut off last year when the country’s first democratically elected government was ousted in a coup led by an army general, Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz, who won an election in August. Despite local complaints of fraud, both the US and France, the former colonial power, pronounced the election acceptable and decided to recognise the result.

Rene Dassie, in, reported:

“Paris and Washington appear to have other reasons to support [the general]… security concerns have, in fact, prevailed over the democratic ideal. The two capitals have been very concerned about the penetration of Islamist networks into West Africa. In December 2007, a group with links to al-Qaeda murdered four French citizens in Mauritania. In June, the North African branch of the terrorist network claimed responsibility for the murder of an American in broad daylight in Nouakchott”.

Days after the election this year, Mauritania suffered its first ever suicide bombing, near the French embassy in Nouakchott. It coincided with the release of new research that counters the popular ‘religious extremist’ paradigm of terrorism. Research published thousands of miles away, by Riaz Hassan of Flinders University in Australia, claims to offer the most comprehensive Suicide Terrorism Database in the world and points to one overriding conclusion: it is political subjugation, rather than religious fanaticism, that leads people to blow themselves up.

Evidence from the database discredits the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis, that the personality of suicide bombers and their religion are the principal cause. It shows that the driving force is a combination of motivations including politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation and altruism, depending on the specifics of the conflict and its context. “Suicide bombing attacks are resolutely a politically-motivated phenomenon” Hassan concludes, in his book, Life as a Weapon: The Global Rise of Suicide

The “defining document” of the Cold War era was the treaty, Thomas Friedman writes, in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, whereas the equivalent in the era he calls “Globalization II” is the deal. To install and maintain governments in the likes of Mali, Mauritania and Cameroon, capable of entering into deals and sticking to them, entails subjugating the likes of the Touaregs, the poor of Nouakchott and – in Cameroon – indigenous people who petitioned the US and British governments in vain to stop them backing a pipeline project that destroys their patrimony and, with it, their identity.

What can we do about this, one might ask? How can we intervene? The answer is: we have always already intervened. It is the entrenched and ongoing hegemony of militarist and ‘strategic’ thinking in capitals in the rich world that gives rise to the agency that brings about this subjugation; subjugation that gives rise, in turn, to violence, which is then used to justify the hegemony.

Now and then, it gets a little helping hand, allowing us to glimpse what Michel Foucault called “the local cynicism of power”. Who knows what hidden influences lie behind attacks in Mauritania attributed to the ‘North African branch of Al Qaeda’. The conclusion is: the struggle against militarism in the US, the UK and Australia is the same struggle as the struggle for freedom and dignity by subjugated peoples the world over. It is not ‘there’ that we need to intervene, but ‘here’.  


-Jake Lynch is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) at the University of Sydney.

-Emily Parsons-Lord is a student on CPACS’ Masters program.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 11 Dec 2009.

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