Who staged the tourist kidnappings?
El Para, the Maghreb’s Bin Laden
The mysterious El Para affair in Algeria may prove that the Maghreb has become a target for the United States in its military and political redeployments. Could the Algerian government be arranging events, such as the kidnapping of foreign tourists in the Sahara and inventing its own Osama bin Laden, to capture Washington’s attention and ensure attendant arms sales?
By Salima Mellah, Jean-Baptiste Rivoire, Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2005
THE Algerian government launched a major diplomatic offensive early in 2003 to obtain financial and military support from Washington. Its efforts were given an enormous boost by Abderrazak “El Para”, a former Algerian special forces officer who had gone over to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). On 4 January, the day before a high-level United States military delegation arrived in Algiers to discuss the resumption of arms sales to Algeria as part of the fight against terrorism, El Para’s group attacked a military convoy near Batna, killing 43 soldiers.
On the basis of a video recording subsequently revealed as a forgery, the Algerian army’s secret service, the all-powerful Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS, formerly Military Security), tried to persuade public opinion that El Para was a lieutenant of Osama bin Laden in charge of establishing al-Qaida in the Sahel region. Shortly after, the US eased the arms embargo on Algeria and announced the sale of anti-terrorist equipment to it (1). William Burns, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, had already declared in Algiers in 2002 that “Washington has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism” (2).
Another El Para operation speeded the rapprochement between Algiers and Washington. Between 22 February and 23 March 2003, 32 tourists - 16 Germans, 10 Austrians, four Swiss, a Swede and a Dutchman - were abducted in the Illizi region of the Algerian Sahara. After secret negotiations, of which no details ever leaked out, they were released in two stages: the first group in May 2003 and the second in August 2003. A female German hostage died in the desert and was buried there.
As a target of al-Qaida, Algeria was of course a natural ally of the US. Just as the hunt for Bin Laden was used to justify the occupation of Afghanistan and the establishment of military bases in the strategically important region of central Asia, El Para was to serve as a minor bogeyman justifying a US military presence in the Sahel, alleged to be a potential rear base for al-Qaida.
In March 2004 General Charles Wald, deputy commander of the US European Command (Eucom), claimed that members of al-Qaida were trying to establish themselves “in the northern part of Africa, in the Sahel and the Maghreb. They are looking for sanctuary as they did in Afghanistan when the Taliban were in power. They need a stable place in which to equip themselves, organise and recruit new members” (3).
One thing is certain: the rapprochement between Algiers and Washington could only benefit the Algerian military regime’s efforts to have its own crimes forgotten. In the 1990s the DRS had already brilliantly exploited “Islamic terrorism” to force the West to support it. In 1993 the Algerian military command, which had been waging a merciless war against the Islamist opposition for almost two years, was intent on winning French support. France’s interior minister, Charles Pasqua, and his adviser, Jean-Charles Marchiani, enthusiastically supported the Algerian government’s policy of eradication, while President François Mitterrand and the foreign minister, Alain Juppé, favoured a less repressive approach.
Neutralise the opposition
To bring Paris into line and neutralise the Algerian opposition that had sought refuge in France, the DRS leadership and Marchiani arranged the suspicious kidnapping of three officials from the French embassy in Algiers (4). The prime minister, Edouard Balladur, finally authorised Pasqua to launch Operation Chrysanthemum, the largest round-up of the Algerian opposition in France since 17 October 1961. Pleased with this response, the Algerian secret services mounted a phoney operation to convince public opinion they had freed the French hostages from “Islamist terrorists”.
The DRS stepped up its counter-insurgency war by helping to get Djamel Zitouni, an “emir” under its control, appointed head of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Zitouni and his men claimed responsibility for the hijacking of an Air France Airbus in 1994, bombings of Paris’s public transport in 1995, the kidnapping and murder of Tibhirine monks in 1996, and widespread massacres of civilians. By manipulating the GIA through Zitouni, the éradicateurs (5) in the Algerian military leadership achieved their aims of discrediting the Islamists, consolidating support from Paris, and scuppering any prospect of political compromise in Algeria.
Ten years later, the DRS was apparently engaged in another bloody manipulation, this time using El Para.
To prove the existence of a link between the GSPC and al-Qaida, the Algerian authorities claimed that Imad ibn al-Wahid, a Yemeni killed by the army near Batna on 12 September 2002, was an “emissary of Bin Laden in the Sahel-Maghreb region” who, before his death, recorded a message granting al-Qaida’s approval to the Algerian Salafists. Three former members of the GSPC have stated that the recording is a fake concocted by the group’s audiovisual unit (8).
Yet proof of this kind, whose only known source is the DRS or its mouthpieces in the Algerian press, has allowed the US administration to put the GSPC on its list of foreign terrorist organisations. While some US experts doubt this affiliation, they say that “the GSPC is now regularly equated with al-Qaida in the national and foreign press” (9).
While the Sahara tourists were held hostage in 2003, their mysterious kidnappers issued no communique claiming responsibility, and made no financial or political demands. It was only on 12 April 2003 that the press alleged, without offering any evidence, that the GSPC was responsible. Even more suspicious is the fact that some of those held prisoner subsequently testified that the operation was ordered by El Para rather than Hassan Hattab, the supposed head of the GSPC (10). They also reported that their kidnappers regularly communicated by radio and that Algerian army helicopters quickly appeared over the places in which they were being held, even though they were moved frequently. If El Para had been spotted by the army, why wasn’t he put out of action?
On 10 May 2003 the German foreign minister, Joseph Fischer, and the head of the federal intelligence service (BND), August Hanning, visited Algiers. The first group of hostages was freed by the Algerian army two days later. According to the official account, the military carried out a “brief attack during which precautions were taken to protect the lives of the hostages”. On closer examination, however, the operation looks like a put-up job. Instead of using the hostages as human shields, El Para’s men ordered them to take cover in caves. When they emerged after the attack, the tourists were surprised to see no dead or wounded, nor any sign of bloodshed, although the military were reported to have killed four kidnappers.
Although they were surrounded by government troops and had no motor vehicles, some of the kidnappers miraculously escaped, only to reappear soon after with the second group of hostages, over 1,000km away. The second group of hostages was freed in Mali on 18 August, in even stranger circumstances, after Germany, Austria and Switzerland had reportedly paid a ransom of $5m (12). From then on, people began to suspect that the ex-army officer whose terrorist operations were so helpful to the Algerian regime in its quest for international support was still secretly in the pay of his former employers.
El Para and 50 of his men were spotted and attacked by a military unit in northern Chad in March 2004. After escaping with his accomplices, he was captured by rebels from the Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad (MDJT), which was at war with the Idriss Deby regime. The rebels soon guessed they had stumbled upon “the Salafist everyone is looking for and the international radio stations are talking about” (13).
El Para seemed sure of himself and convinced he would soon be freed: “I know a lot of people in Algiers,” he told his jailers. “If it’s money you want, we’ll give it to you.” The MDJT rejected the offer. “We contacted all the parties with a view to extraditing El Para so that he could stand trial,” says Brahim Tchouma, the MDJT’s foreign affairs representative.
Three representatives of the Chadian rebels in France were discreetly invited to Algeria in April. Convinced that the Algerian authorities wanted to lay hands on their “public enemy No 1”, they accepted the invitation and were received by the formidable boss of the DRS, General Mohamed Médiène. “When we described the leader of the prisoners to him, he confirmed that it was Amari Saifi, alias Abderrazak El Para,” said Mohamed Mehdi, vice-chairman of the MDJT abroad. “The DRS officers were very well informed. They even pointed out a mistake in El Para’s satellite phone number, which we had written down on a piece of paper. They had his real number. We dialled it together and El Para’s phone, which had been recovered by our men, rang in Tibesti.” So why had the Algerian authorities not arrested him?
Even more strange, the discussions with the DRS dragged on: “The Algerians demanded total secrecy,” says Medhi. “They didn’t want us to announce El Para’s capture. We proposed that they come and get him, but they insisted we bring him to southern Algeria.”
In May, increasingly intrigued by the embarrassment that the capture of El Para seemed to be causing, the Chadian rebels described the Algerian authorities’ strange reluctance to take charge of him in an article in Le Monde (15). That set the cat among the pigeons. A few days later the DRS dispatched a top-secret commando unit to the Chadian frontier to recover El Para by offering a large sum of money to a local MDJT commander. It also mounted a media operation to cover its tracks. On 2 June a journalist on Radio-France Internationale announced that “Abderrazak El Para, one of Algeria’s most wanted men, is free” and that “GSPC members paid a ransom of €200,000 to the Chadian rebels for his liberation and that of two other Algerian militants” (16).
The information was wrong, and the RFI journalist, who had probably been set up, later invoked mysterious “Algerian military sources”.
“We had made no agreement,” Mehdi says. “Why did the Algerians negotiate with one of our local commanders behind our backs? Why did they pretend we had sold El Para back to the Salafists, when Military Security was trying to recover him on the quiet?”
In October the embarrassed Algerian secret services managed to persuade a local MDJT commander to hand over the unwanted prisoner. Once he was back in the hands of the DRS, El Para’s importance was played down (18). According to reports in the Algerian press, he now supports President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan for a general amnesty covering both terrorists and military leaders implicated in crimes against humanity during the “dirty war” (19).
‘Most democratic country’
Curiously, the Bush administration seemed in no hurry to get hold of “Bin Laden’s right-hand man in the Sahel”. The cynical explanation is probably the correct one: after the 9/11 attacks the US had every interest in a rapprochement with the Algerian regime. Announcing the sale of anti-terrorist equipment to Algeria in 2003, Washington declared it “the most democratic country” in the Arab world.
Northern and western Africa are central to this project because of their oil reserves, which currently cover 17% of US needs and will probably account for 25% of US imports over the next 10 years. Algeria’s Sonatrach plays a major role, as the largest company in Africa, with an estimated turnover of $32bn in 2004. The US has already stationed a contingent of 2,000 troops in Djibouti, which has been a French military base since the colonial period, and it plans to establish another dozen bases in the region: in Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Ghana, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria (20).
The elimination of El Para would embarrass the US and the Sahel countries, since it is in all their interests that he should continue to provoke trouble in the region. If he were to be arrested, it would be better for it to be done by the Algerians, to avoid embarrassing revelations.
In July 2004 the state department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said: “El Para and his accomplices must be handed over to the Algerian authorities as soon as possible, so they can be judged for the crimes of which they are accused” (22).
Despite its support for the Algerian military regime throughout the years of “total war”, France is clearly worried that it will be pushed aside by the world’s greatest power, which is advancing on all fronts - in arms supplies, oil prospecting and exploitation contracts, and trade agreements. A prime example is the Eizenstat plan to establish a US-Middle East free-trade area in opposition to the Euro-Mediterranean free-trade area planned for 2010: a free-trade agreement has already been concluded with Morocco.
With the Barcelona Process (24) at a standstill, the French government has concentrated on bilateral relations with Algeria. President Jacques Chirac’s visit in 2003, culminating in the Algiers Declaration of 2 March (25), was intended to lead to a treaty of friendship in 2005 and the establishment of an exceptional partnership in economic, cultural, scientific and military matters. It has been followed by many ministerial visits in both directions.
The Algerian regime cleverly exploited the fallout from the 9/11 attacks. Understanding that the US was trying to establish a position in north Africa, it probably sponsored a local Bin Laden, or at least allowed him to operate. His capture by the Chadian rebels was not part of the programme.
The Algerian press is now hyping up a new terrorist to replace him. According to the Algiers daily L’Expression, the authorities’ sights are on Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a bandit chief who has long been accused of links with the GSPC: “Since the kidnapping of European tourists . . . Belmokhtar’s group has become the bugbear of all western secret services” (26). Watch this space.
© Le Monde diplomatique.
Salima Mellah runs the Algeria Watch website
Translated by Barry Smerin
(1) La Tribune, Algiers, 12 October 2004.