Pursuing Terrorists in the Great Desert

The U.S. Military's $500 Million Gamble to Prevent the Next Afghanistan

Still, the information on Mokhtar's activities was worrying, and taken with other intelligence from the region, it said a great deal about the Sahel's vulnerabilities. In October 2002 an American counterterrorism team visited Chad, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania to invite those countries into a program called the Pan Sahel Initiative. The program was officially "designed to protect borders, track the movement of people, combat terrorism, and enhance regional cooperation and stability." Small groups of Special Forces and Marines, operating under European Command, would deploy to each state, where they would train select, 150-man companies. They would provide the African troops with equipment, such as night-vision goggles, ammunition, and communications gear. They would facilitate military cooperation by putting the region's top defense chiefs in touch with each other. (Within the Sahel, open channels of communication between militaries barely exist.) They would, essentially, lay the foundation for a network that could stymie the growth of regional terrorism. The four countries were eager to participate, and the Pan Sahel Initiative was budgeted for roughly $6.5 million for its first year. Initially, it seemed like an abstract, preventative exercise, but as preparations were under way circumstances on the ground changed. In early 2003, news emerged that Saifi had kidnapped the 32 tourists. Suddenly the initiative's planners had a real target. Wald has called the hostage taking a "blessing in disguise." It provided European Command with not only an important test case, but also the strongest argument for its newfound mission in Africa.

At first, no one knew what had happened to the 32 Europeans. The men and women—German, Austrian, Swiss, and Dutch—were traveling on motorcycles and in trucks, in scattered groups along the faint pistes that cut across badlands near Illizi, an oasis town in eastern Algeria. They were drawn to the Sahara for its savage beauty, its promise of isolation and adventure, and a chance to explore what one geologist describes as "landscapes of cliffs shaped like the bizarre towers and bridges of a dream city; valleys in which thousand-year-old trees flourish; deep lakes in whose untroubled surface palm crests are mirrored; golden sand dunes, beetles, lizards, and gazelles." The Sahara has man-made monuments too, isolated oil rigs and the military outposts that protect them. When Saifi and his men rounded up the travelers among such places, he did not announce it; the Europeans simply disappeared. Under the cover of night, as he shuttled hostages to various hideouts, he unveiled another Saharan vista—one as perilous as any sandstorm: the desert's chaotic political order.

Ammari Saifi
Illustration: Tim O'Brien
Ammari Saifi

Rainer Bracht, an engineer from Detmold, Germany, was with three companions, located about a day's journey by motorcycle west of Illizi, when the first sign of trouble emerged. It was late afternoon. Bracht and his friends had decided to camp behind a dune a hundred or so yards from the piste. ("You go away from the track so that nobody can see you," he explained. "In this area, there were bandits who stole cars from oil companies.") The setting sun cast intense hues across the sky. The men took photos. They pitched tents. Then Bracht walked a few paces from the encampment to relax beneath a tree. At one point, he peered over the dune and noticed three motorbikes and several Toyota pickups approaching the camp. The scene seemed wrong. The vehicles were overloaded with men. The men on the motorcycles were without helmets, and had "long beards and Kalashnikovs and things like this." The pickup trucks were bristling with weapons, including a large, mounted machine gun. Bracht kept still. These were jihadists, he thought. Then he said to himself, "Oh, this isn't good."

The jihadists quickly took over the camp. It was a surreally quiescent abduction. Bracht and his friends did not resist. The jihadists behaved calmly. In fact, barely anyone said a word. As the fighters confiscated the motorcycles and equipment, one man stood apart from the rest. It was Saifi. "He was tall, much taller than most of the others," Bracht remembered. "He commanded great respect. He didn't talk much, but when he gave orders, the men performed them without question." Saifi wore an orange headscarf and a long curly beard. He spoke in soft Arabic, and when he conversed with the Europeans, he insisted on using a translator, even though he was fluent in French, a language everyone understood. The first thing Saifi said was: "We have no problems." He assured Bracht and his friends that they would not find harm. Later, en route to a haven where the other hostages were being kept, several fighters explained what Saifi intended to do. "They said that they wanted money for us because they were fighting the Algerian government," Bracht said. "Their original plan was to buy weapons in Niger, but then they noticed that there were a lot of tourists in the area, and they decided to kidnap some of the tourists for money, because, of course, with more money you can get more weapons."

Saifi fell into jihad the way many Algerian militants of his generation did. He was born in an Algerian town called Kef el-Rih, meaning "ravine of the wind," in the late 1960s, not long after Algeria's war for independence. His mother is French; his father, a villager from the Aurés Mountains. In 1988, at the age of 20, he joined the Algerian military, perhaps the country's most secular institution. He trained to become a paratrooper, "but after a year, he left because of back problems," said Cherif Ouazani, a North Africa specialist with Jeune Afrique L'Intelligent, the French journal of African affairs. One year with the paratroopers was enough to earn Saifi the nom de guerre "al Para," and he quickly entered the ranks of Algeria's growing Islamist movement, just as economic and political pressures forced the government to open the floodgates of democracy. The constitution was rewritten, political parties were allowed to organize, and national elections were scheduled. But the abrupt political transition quickly turned into disaster. Those first free elections, in 1991, brought the country's main religious party, the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, into a position of political dominance. This was something Algeria's generals would not tolerate. The army staged a coup, ejected the president responsible for the reforms from office, and banned the FIS.
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