Pursuing Terrorists in the Great Desert

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

The Islamists, for their part, went underground. They launched an insurgency to take by force the political power they felt was rightfully theirs. Out of this mess evolved one of modern history's most savage rebel movements: the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, which by 1996 had declared total war, not simply against the government, but against anyone who did not support the GIA. In Algeria, there could be no neutrality. The rebels—some of them veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan—slaughtered entire villages they deemed insufficiently sympathetic to their cause. The government responded brutally in kind. During the 1990s, more than 150,000 Algerians perished in the fighting. As many as 7,000 people were disappeared. Saifi's political and religious awakening developed within this charnel house of violence. He had joined the FIS, but as the violence spiraled out of control, he began to drift toward a circle of rebels who, in the late 1990s, called for a more disciplined strategy. These rebels gained support from Islamists overseas. A prominent fundamentalist cleric in London denounced the GIA's conduct. Osama bin Laden agreed, and decided to throw his support behind the new faction, which soon became the GSPC.

Wald has called the hostage taking a 'blessing in disguise.' European Command had not only an important test case but also the strongest argument for its newfound mission in Africa.

Ammari Saifi
Illustration: Tim O'Brien
Ammari Saifi

Bin Laden had pragmatic reasons for involving himself in Algeria's civil war. While in Sudan, he had dispatched emissaries throughout the continent to learn where and how to support Muslim militants. "As for enlarging the scope of Al Qaeda in Africa, that is true," bin Laden's former bodyguard told the London newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, adding that bin Laden followed "events in all the states near Sudan or surrounding it, such as the events in Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea, and Egypt—even events in Liberia, although it is a faraway country in West Africa." Algeria was particularly significant because French support for the government offered an opportunity to engage the West. Rohan Gunaratna, the author of Inside Al Qaeda, said bin Laden hoped that by supporting the Algerian militants he might one day co-opt their cells in Europe. Michael Scheuer, the CIA's former top bin Laden analyst, said there were two main reasons for bin Laden's interest in Algeria: "One was the extraordinary violence, the indiscriminate violence of the GIA. The second was that bin Laden wanted—in many Muslim countries—to destroy the nationalist orientation of local Islamic groups."

The GSPC eventually subsumed the GIA, and after 9-11 its leadership announced that it fully supported Al Qaeda in the "jihad against the heretic America." GSPC cells in North America and Europe are suspected to have played important roles in Al Qaeda plots, including the Madrid bombings. European Command believes that Islamists from North Africa have joined the Iraqi insurgency in significant numbers. This year, suspected terrorists arrested in Morocco claimed that North African Islamic groups were converging to form a movement "under the Al Qaeda leadership with a single organization for Morocco and Algeria," according to Olivier Guitta, a Washington-based terrorism analyst.

As these developments unfolded, Saifi expanded his influence within Algeria's insurgency. By 2000, he had become the GSPC's chief commander for northeastern Algeria, a crucial stronghold. His target remained the Algerian government. (In a rare interview, with the French journalist Patrick Forestier, he explained: "Our objective is to change the regime through jihad.") But he also appears to have had dealings with Al Qaeda. Forestier told me that Saifi once boasted he knew the satellite phone number for al-Zawahiri. In 2001, after the GSPC suffered significant setbacks, a Yemeni Al Qaeda envoy reportedly met with Saifi in Algeria. Selma Belaala, a scholar of North African jihadist movements at the Institut d'Études Politiques in Paris, said the envoy had toured the Sahara and the Sahel hoping to "find a place where Islamic militants could not be attacked," but Algerian forces assassinated him in September 2002. Weeks later they delivered "harsh blows" to Saifi's operation, killing Saifi's "right-hand man and mufti," according to Algerian press reports. Several months after that battle, Saifi committed the hostage taking and fled into the desert. Kidnapping the tourists was atypical for the GSPC, and it is true, there were easier ways to raise money and weapons. Scheuer speculates that Saifi may have wanted to boldly demonstrate that the GSPC was not beaten. Another possibility is that he was heeding a 2002 recommendation from Al Qaeda's leadership to attack "the enemy's tourist industry" because it "includes easy targets with major economic, political, and security importance," and because its impact can sometimes surpass "an attack against an enemy warship."

With pressure from the Algerian government intensifying in the Sahara, in July Saifi moved Bracht and the other European hostages into northern Mali. As he shifted his operations further south, the U.S. military kept its distance. The United States provided Algeria with intelligence, but as one American diplomat who then served in Algeria told me, "Keep in mind the time frame. This was only a couple of months after the Iraq invasion. The main nationality among the hostages was German, and the Germans wanted us to keep it hands-off, at least publicly." After Saifi released the hostages in Mali, in mid August, there was no more danger of getting in the German government's way. Wald invited the Sahel's defense chiefs to Germany, in part to develop a plan to capture Saifi. The men gathered in a wood-paneled conference room at European Command's headquarters, where "the chief of defense from Niger met the chief of defense from Chad, and that's the first time they'd ever talked to each other in their lives," Wald has said. The men discussed Saifi's movements. The Malian defense chief was also at the meeting, and immediately afterward he went with Wald to a phone and called Mali to start up "coordinating operations."

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