Algerian gas plant terror: the real story

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Algerian gas plant terror: the real story

What happened in Algeria is used to explain the involvement of the West in a long ‘war on terror’ in North Africa. This includes the French sending military to northern Mali. But we do not know the truth about the attack on the Tiguentourine gas plant, writes Jeremy Keenan.

On 16 January, terrorists attacked the Tiguentourine gas plant in the Algerian Sahara. After five days 29 of the 32 attackers were killed. And at least 37 of the gas plant’s foreign workers were killed. Many Western governments called this an Al Qaeda attack which started a new part in the international ‘war on terror’. People have often thought that the Islamist danger in the region is greater than it is. And the attack on the gas plant was used to explain Western help for the French military in Mali. British Prime Minister David Cameron even talked about the situation in the Maghreb as a real danger to the UK. But as we learn more, we see that the attack on the Tiguentourine gas plant was not an attack by a well organized North African group of Al Qaeda. It looks like another example of Algeria’s secret police, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) working with local terrorists. Algeria’s DRS or secret police has often worked with ‘terrorists’ in North Africa. But this time the plan went very wrong and there were a lot of deaths.

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Algerian military at the Tiguentourine plant after the attack. Louiza / ABACA / Press Association Images

What happened at the Tiguentourine plant is still not clear. That is because Algeria stopped all information from coming out. All the information given to the Western media came from unknown ‘security sources’. In other words, the information came from the Algerian secret police. After the attack the West got some information from the survivors. The information was useful but, of course, very limited. But the information showed that a lot of what Algeria said was clearly not true. Fortunately new information about the attack has come from Habib Souaïdia. He was a DRS officer from 1989 to 1995. He also gave new information about what the DRS did in Algeria’s ‘Dirty War’ of the 1990s. In 2001 in his book La Sale Guerre, Souaïdia showed how the DRS worked secretly with and controlled the armed Islamic groups in Algeria. He showed, too, how the DRS pretended to be Islamists. This means they helped to kill a large number of the possible 200,000 people killed in the ‘Dirty War’. Algeria’s former defence minister, Khaled Nezzar, tried to bring a case against Habib Souaïdia in the courts in Paris and failed. This showed that Souaïdia’s book tells the truth about the crimes of the Algerian government and its secret police.

Problems with what the Algerian government said

One of the many problems with what the Algerian government said was how the terrorists entered Algeria. Algeria’s interior minister Dahou Ould Kablia said on 16 January that the attack did not come from Libya. Mounir B is a journalist at the Algerian newspaper Liberté, which is controlled by the DRS. Three days later he said that the attack came from Libya. Then the Libyans said that this was not true. Next Dahou Ould Kablia tried to explain the situation and said that the attackers came from northern Mali and crossed the border into Algeria and then went into Niger before arriving at the Tiguentourine plant. He said the trip took two months. The Algerians decided to agree with the story about the attackers coming from Libya.

Coming from Mali means crossing over 1,000 kilometres of Algerian land in which security is very strong. There are at least 7,000 guards along the Algerian-Libyan border and more than 20,000 troops in the region. Habib Souaïdia believes that this journey was almost impossible without the help of security services.

Working with terrorists

Algeria’s DRS has worked with terrorists for a long time. In the 1990s, it was often impossible to know whether the DRS or the Islamist terrorists did the killings. There is good reason to believe that, since 2003, most of the ‘terrorist’ incidents in the country have included the DRS and the terrorists working together.

This is the problem that US intelligence officer John Schindler spoke about last year. He spoke about the problem again after the Tiguentourine attack and he compared it with the way in which Algeria’s DRS and Pakistan’s ISI worked together.

The Algerians say again and again that the Tiguentourine attack was planned by Mokhtar ben Mokhtar, and led by Mohamed Lamine Bouchneb, his right-hand man. The Algerians said that Bouchneb was killed on the second day of the attack.

Did Mokthar, Bouchneb, and the DRS work together? Perhaps this shows that the DRS and the Tiguentourine attackers worked together.

Mokhtar ben Mokhtar and the DRS

Mokhtar ben Mokhtar is the Sahara’s most famous ‘terrorist’. We first knew about him in the early or mid 1990s and later he became very well known but he did not do as many of the terrorist acts that people thought he did. This was mainly because the DRS said he was involved. This included the 2003 kidnapping of 32 European tourists in the Algerian Sahara, which was actually the work of another DRS agent, Saifi Lamari (also known as El Para). Mokhtar has worked with Al Qaeda groups and leaders in the Islamic Maghreb for long periods of time. But he has also left them sometimes and worked alone. More important, he has also worked sometimes for the DRS. In fact many people who live in the Sahara think Mokhtar is a DRS agent. And many who understand how the DRS control ‘security’ and ‘terrorism’ in Algeriaalso think he is a DRS agent.

The Tiguentourine attack was only a few weeks after the news that Mokhtar left Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and started his own attacks across the Sahara from Mauritania through the Sahel and Algeria to Libya and even Chad. This information was very difficult to believe.

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Rescue workers taker the coffin of one of the hostages to the hospital in the town of Amenas. Ramzi Boudina / Reuters

I believe that the information that he was “leaving” Al Qaeda was partly a story by the DRS and partly true. In early December, it was clear that there were disagreements in the Islamist/terrorist groups that took control of northern Mali during 2012. A ‘new’ group called Les Signataires par le sang (‘Those who sign in blood’), appears to have become active near that time with Mokhtar as the leader.

There is a lot of information to show that Algeria’s DRS have helped the leaders of Islamist groups in northern Mali. Since the start of the Mali crisis in the beginning of 2012, I have received many reports from northern Mali saying that Mokhtar is in the Gao region with a group of DRS forces.

People have seen Mokhtar with Baba Ould Sheikh and Sultan Ould Badi, the Gao-based hostage dealers, cocaine dealers and leaders of MUJAO (the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa). The DRS protects Sultan Ould Badi’s drug business. When Mali’s police arrested Ould Badi by mistake in late 2010, General Rachid Lalali, head of the DRS’s External Security Directorate, flew from Berlin to free him. He was in Berlin with President Bouteflika on a visit to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Mohamed Lamine Bouchneb and the DRS

On 16 January Mounir B, the reporter who writes stories for the DRS in the Algerian press, wrote an article about Mohamed Lamine Bouchneb. Clearly he wanted to show Bouchneb was one of the Sahara’s leading terrorists. He described him as Mokhtar’s ‘businessman’ and the leader of Fils du Sahara pour la justice islamique (Sons of the Sahara for Islamic Justice), a group of smugglers and drug dealers that controlled the drug routes into Libya from southeast Algeria.

Mounir B wrote that Bouchneb organised the attack on Djanet airport in 2007 and the kidnapping in 2011 of an Italian tourist, Maria Sandra Mariani. Both ideas are correct, but Mounir B did not say that the DRS wanted these two attacks.

Three witnesses who were held at the Tamouret terrorist training camp in the Algerian Sahara say more to show that Bouchneb and Mokhtar work with the DRS. They say the main organizer of the camp was Abdelhamid abou Zaïd, possibly now the head of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali. They say they saw him with senior army and DRS officers almost every evening. Bouchneb often visited the camp. He was often seen with the camp organizer, Mokhtar and the army/DRS officers. One of the Tamouret witnesses does not believe Bouchneb was killed at Tiguentourine, saying that the risk was too big for him to be in the attack.

What was behind Tiguentourine?

The Tiguentourine attackers and many Islamist sources said that the attack was because Algeria gave France rights to fly over Mali and this made it possible to bomb northern Mali from 11 January. It is certa?in that people were angry when Algeria seemed to betray the Islamists. But it is unlikely, even impossible, that an attack in a place so far from Mali was planned and done in such a short time.

Terrorists at Djanet

The Algerians say that the Djanet airport attack in 2007 was by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. It was not. It was a demonstration by Tuareg youths against the local authorities about unemployment. Mohamed Lamine Bouchneb helped the DRS by helping and taking the youths to the airport. There some shots were fired at a parked passenger aircraft or helicopter with no real damage. The US wrongly thought the attack was very important and said it showed that the newly named Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was an ‘international’ terrorist organization which could reach a long way.

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Many in Djanet say that Maria Sandra Mariani’s 2011 kidnapping was by Bouchneb. Immediately after her kidnap, Mariani’s Tuareg cook and guide arrived at the nearby Algerian military base at In Ezzane to give the alarm. The army refused to follow the kidnappers and said they had no fuel. An important person in Djanet contacted Mokhtar ben Mokhtar, who he had known since he was a child. Mokhtar ben Mokthar said that he had arranged the kidnap when the DRS asked for it. The kidnapping came after the Tuaregs said that the government was using terrorism to stop tourism and clear the land for mining and this would be bad for the environment. Local people thought that the kidnapping gave the Algerians a good reason to close the region. They did this a month later.

Why was the Tiguentourine plant not protected better by Algeria’s large and professional security forces? France moved immediately to a state of high-security alert after the Islamists’ call for jihad. Why did Algeria do nothing to protect an important Western gas plant? Was it because the DRS knew that there was no reason for the call by Mali’s Islamists for a war of terror against the West? Or were there other reasons?

A French intelligence source, who did not want to give their name, believes the Tiguentourine attack was a repeat of the murder of seven Catholic monks at Tibhirine in Algeria in 1996. The French source believes that Tiguentourine was possibly another attack by the DRS and terrorists that ‘went wrong’. The plan, it seems, was to take hostages in the same way the Tibhirine monks were taken, and that they would be ‘rescued’ by the Algerian army. Somehow, however, the plan, as at Tibhirine, did not work as they wanted it.

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David Cameron in Algiers with Algerian prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal. Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire

Habib Souaïdia believes that the Tiguentourine attack is very like a DRS attack. He talks about the long history of the DRS secretly going into and controlling the different terrorist groups in the same way as Pakistan’s ISI does with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He also says that for more than 20 years the heads of the DRS have used terrorists to persuade the West to help the Algerian government. Souaïdia believes that the DRS planned the Tiguentourine attack to persuade the West, after France’s move into Mali, that the Algerian army was the best to look after Western interests in the region.

Perhaps this is why David Cameron changed his opinion so much after 24 hours of being angry at what Algeria did. The British intelligence agency MI6 talked to the prime minister. The MI6 chief, Sir John Sawers, then went with him to Algeria. There they talked about MI6 and DRS working more closely. It also explains why US AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez then said that Algerian army had ‘a success’ at Tiguentourine.

What went wrong?

It is not clear what went wrong at Tiguentourine but Souaïdia, through his contacts in the DRS and the Algerian army, gives a very different explanation from the official story.

In most other countries, there is one special service to manage crises. In Algeria three ‘Special Forces’ were involved with 450 men – this was always going to be a big mistake. They were:

1 The GIS (Groupe d’intervention spéciale), which is controlled by the DRS.

2 The Gendarmerie’s SSI (Section spéciale d’intervention), created in 1989 like France’s special force.

3 Three parachute commando companies, from the 5th, 12th and 18th regiments.

The commanders of all these groups were close to Tiguentourine. They were: Major-General Athmane Tartag (also called ‘Bachir’), who is the DRS’s new ‘strong man’ and who came from Algiers with his GIS men; Major-General Ahmed Boustila, head of the National Gendarmerie; Major-General Abderrezak El-Chérif (a parachutist and commander of the 4th military region, Ouargla); General Hadji, also of the 4th military region, with his HQ staff; and Colonel Abdelhafid Abdaoui, commandant of the regional gendarmerie.

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Weapons perhaps used by the terrorists and taken by the Algerian security forces. AP / Press Association Images These commanders started arguing immediately. Tartag started by calling Abdaoui a bad name. Tartag was angry because Abdaoui, on the orders of his commanding officer, began discussions with the hostage-takers. Then General El-Chérif disagreed with his officers and Tartag’s DRS officers, who wanted to take control of the operation. Souaïdia says that there wasa lot of anger between the groups.

These disagreements between senior DRS officers and the gendarmerie officers and army resulted in the operation failing and in many deaths. The Algerian prime minister said that his country was in control of the situation but this was very wrong. On 17 January the situation was very bad. After entering the site, the attackers looked for the expatriates. Some were killed the day before in the attack on the bus going to the airport, but 30 were held by 11 terrorists in the houses. Souaïdia said that Tartag took the terrible decision to attack them from a distance. He ordered three M24 helicopters to fire at the group and killed the 11 terrorists and the 30 hostages. People said General El-Chérif was angry about this.

Algeria’s ‘killing camp

Many have thought for years that there was a Tamouret ‘Al Qaeda’ training camp in the Algerian Sahara. Information about this was found 18 months ago. Witnesses and photographs show how the DRS and the Algerian army organised it. People believe Tamouret was opened around 2005, and witnesses believe there were similar camps before then. Tamouret was closed and moved to northern Mali around 2009.

The camp’s purpose was to find, train and persuade young men to join and to commit violent crimes in Algerian communities with which they had no connection. They were usually killed after they had done their tasks, or before if they refused.

There were about 270 in the camp. The young men were trained specifically in shooting and killing. Senior army officers visited the camp almost every evening. Witnesses thought they were regular army and DRS. The guns in the camp were from the Algerian army. Prisoners were killed as part of the training and were taken to the camp all the time – usually four times a week. One witness says he saw 180 murders during his seven months in the camp. Witnesses said many of those killed were army officers and common prisoners from the jails. Some of the buried bodies have been found with photographs shown to the International Criminal Court.

The security forces then started looking for the other terrorists. On 19 January four terrorists, who were holding three Japanese and two others (possibly Americans), were surrounded by a group of parachutists and members of the SSI. Information from the Algerian authorities said that ‘the hostage-takers tried to leave the base with their hostages in their vehicles’. Souaïdia said this statement was untrue. Instead, Tartag disagreed with General El-Chérif and ordered an M24 helicopter to fire three missiles into the vehicle. The terrorists and their hostages were killed and nine parachutists and two gendarmes with 17 others badly wounded.

In Souaïdia’s opinion, it was possible for the security forces to stop the terrorists leaving the base. There was no need to kill so many people. Souaïdia has evidence which says that the objective of the terrorists was to take hostages, not to bomb the plant. In fact the equipment they carried was the kind used for taking hostages but not for bombing the plant.

Why did Tartag decide to kill so many people when it appears to have been unnecessary? Was it to hide the evidence of DRS being involved in the terrorism? All the evidence that we have so far tells a different story from the story told by the Algerian authorities. The story told by the Algerians was accepted and repeated by their Western allies and by the media. It is difficult to follow these events and intelligence agencies know the public will find it difficult to follow them. But when we are sending Western troops again to Africa and people say this latest part in the global ‘war on terror’ will last a long time, the international community has a right to a clearer picture of exactly what happened at Tiguentourine.

Jeremy Keenan is Professorial Research Associate in the Department of Social Anthropology and Sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University.

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On 2 March military from Chad in the French attack in northern Mali said that Mokhtar ben Mokhtar was one of the 14 people they killed in an attack on a camp in the Adras des Ifoghas mountains. The report is still not certain as I write this and this is not the first time that someone has reported Mokhtar’s death.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see http://newint.org/features/2013/04/01/real-story-terrorist-attack-algerian-gas-plant/