Pursuing Terrorists in the Great Desert


Part One of Two: Hunting Ammari Saifi

In the early months of 2004, a lone convoy of Toyota pickup trucks and SUVs raced eastward across the southern extremities of the Sahara. The convoy, led by a wanted Islamic militant named Ammari Saifi, had just slipped from Mali into northern Niger, where the desert rolls out into an immense, flat pan of gravelly sand. Saifi, who has been called the “bin Laden of the Sahara,” was traveling with about 50 jihadists, some from Algeria, the rest from nearby African countries such as Mauritania and Nigeria. There are virtually no roads in this part of the desert, but the convoy moved rapidly. For nearly half a year Saifi and his men had been the object of an international hunt coordinated by the United States military and conducted primarily by the countries that share the desert. Soldiers from Niger, assisted by American and Algerian special forces, had fought with Saifi twice in the past several weeks. Each time, the convoy escaped. Now it was heading further east, toward a remote mountain range in northern Chad.

At the time, Saifi was by far the most sophisticated and resourceful Islamic militant in North Africa and the Sahel, an expansive swath of territory that runs along the Sahara’s southern fringe. In the Sahel, the Sahara’s windswept dunes gradually reduce to semi-desert, and then, further south, become arid savanna. The terrain extends roughly 3,000 miles across Africa—from Senegal through Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and into Sudan. It is awesome in its scale, poverty, and lack of governance. Troubled by restive minorities, environmental degradation, economic collapse, coups, famine, genocide, and geographic isolation, the Sahel has been described by one top U.S. military commander as “a belt of instability.” (Last year, the U.N. ranked Niger as having the world’s worst living conditions; Mali and Chad were among the five worst.) The region is also home to some 70 million Muslims, and since 9-11 there have been reports that Islamic radicals from other parts of Africa, as well as from the Middle East and South Asia, are proselytizing there, or seeking refuge from their home countries, or simply attempting to wage jihad.

Saifi seemed to belong to this final, most worrying, category. He had spent much of his adult life trying to unseat the secular Algerian government, and in 2003 he orchestrated a terrorist act of stupendous bravado: taking 32 European adventure travelers hostage in the Algerian Sahara, shuttling half of them hundreds of miles south, into Mali, and after 177 days of captivity, exchanging the tourists for suitcases filled with 5 million euros in ransom—an immense sum of money in the Sahel, by some estimates a quarter of Niger’s defense budget. Most of the tourists were German, and the German government, which reportedly paid the ransom, filed an international arrest warrant for Saifi. The United States declared him a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, a classification shared by bin Laden and his senior commanders. The United Nations put his name on a roster known as “The New Consolidated List of Individuals and Entities Belonging to or Associated With the Taliban and Al-Qaida.”

The hostage taking was not just brazen, it had strategic implications. Bin Laden’s top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, once noted that “a jihadist movement needs an arena that would act like an incubator where its seeds would grow and where it can acquire practical experience in combat, politics, and organizational matters,” and it appeared that Saifi, with his loose connections to Al Qaeda, could make the Sahara’s wild south just such a place. After releasing the hostages, Saifi remained in the Malian desert for several months, using the ransom to buy “new vehicles, lots of weapons,” a U.S. intelligence officer told me. Saifi established an alliance with nomadic tribesmen by marrying the teenage daughter of a sheikh near the Mauritanian border, and soon enough his small militia had gained enough strength to give the Malian army a “bloody nose,” a European diplomat in Mali said. For a decade, Saifi’s organization, the Algeria-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or GSPC, had killed scores of Algerian officials and soldiers; it was among the deadliest organizations in the world, with operatives in Europe and North America. Saifi appeared to be extending its reach further into Africa.

For the Defense Department, Saifi’s activities became the central and most vivid justification for expanding the U.S. military presence in the Sahel. In 2004, American Special Forces and Marines visited Mauritania, Mali, Chad, and Niger to train local armies how to bring order to the desert, and that program will grow this year. Meanwhile, covertly, the American military experimented with a new form of battle. Some analysts call it “netwar”—an innovative melding of U.S. intelligence and manpower with local forces. Netwar, according to its proponents, promises to be an effective way to fight terrorists, but it also risks causing political chaos, or worse, lethal military confusion. The hunt for Saifi may be one of its most important modern prototypes.

Saifi’s activities were the central and most vivid justification for expanding the U.S. military presence
in the Sahel.

While senior U.S. military commanders monitored Saifi’s growing influence in the Sahel, they pressured the Malian government to take aggressive action. According to a U.N. official, the Malian government was hesitant to attack the convoy because it “feared that the GSPC might retaliate.” A former U.S. diplomat in the region said the Defense Department was “unhappy because basically, the Malians haven’t gone and kicked butt in the desert.” Where Mali’s impoverished army was too timid, or unable, to act, the U.S. military stepped in. American Navy P-3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft, dispatched from Italy, tracked Saifi’s movements, and U.S. “military experts,” according to a local press report, conducted operations on the ground. American military teams in northern Mali helped Algerian and local security forces chase Saifi’s militia into Niger, where they engaged in several gunfights. They found that the convoy, though battered, was well equipped for desert warfare. Saifi had fitted the vehicles with GPS navigational devices that enabled his men to locate secret caches of water and supplies in the vast, uninhabited stretches of desert. In truck beds, 12.7mm machine guns and 14.5mm Russian anti-aircraft guns threatened adversaries that approached by land and air.

With the multinational force closing in, and American reconnaissance planes observing from above, Saifi’s convoy raced across Niger toward the Chadian border. As the vehicles pushed forward, weapons rattled in their mountings and the roar of engines cut through the desert silence. Stray rocks and loose sand battered the vehicles’ exteriors. Windshields clouded over with sediment. During a recent battle, fire had damaged some gear, and certain electrical devices began to fail. One truck broke down near a forlorn place in Niger known as the Tree of Ténéré, where an ancient and solitary acacia once stood. The truck was abandoned. Occasionally, if Saifi believed there was time for prayer, he might stop the convoy. At these moments, his men would walk some way from the trucks, lay in a row their small woven rugs over the ocher dust, shriveled scrub, and stones, and bow toward Mecca. Sometimes, as they prayed, fierce winds would blow through the folds of their desert gowns, and the sun would cast their shadows across the sand.

The American most attentively following the convoy’s trajectory as it approached the jagged foothills of Chad’s Tibesti Mountains was arguably Charles F. Wald, a four-star Air Force general and the deputy commander of U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany. European Command oversees American troops and military operations in 91 countries, from Europe to the former Soviet Union to Africa. Wald is a former F-15 fighter pilot who has flown missions in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, and Bosnia, and is known as a forward-thinking strategist and a man who is quick to speak his mind. (Recently, he announced that the Pentagon might soon begin working with Libya—a prediction that, he later kidded, provoked a reprimand from the military’s public affairs office, but which he holds to be true.) In the 1980s, Wald headed a counterterrorism center for the Air Force. After the 9-11 attacks, he became a key architect in developing the Pentagon’s new strategy for northern, western, and southern Africa.

The United States began taking an interest in the security problems of North Africa and the Sahel not long after 9-11. In 2002, State Department officials were monitoring terrorist groups worldwide and determined that people and money with “links” to Al Qaeda had been moving into the region. The links seemed to be small and isolated, but the State Department believed that, if ignored, they could lead to an entrenched Al Qaeda presence. After all, from 1992 to 1996, bin Laden had operated from the Sahel, in Sudan. And so the officials approached Wald and other members of European Command with a proposal to deploy U.S. forces to the region. As Wald would later recall, the logic behind the program was: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire—and one of the lessons we’ve learned [from Afghanistan] is you can’t wait for the problem to become large and then address it.” Wald has called for better intelligence on African terrorism, and for U.S. operatives to “infiltrate” the countries that share the desert “so we can get into their environment.”

Netwar promises to be an effective way to fight terrorists, but it also risks causing political chaos, or worse, lethal military confusion.

Some State Department officials said that European Command began with an inappropriately aggressive strategy. For instance, in 2002 the two sides fought bitterly over aerial bombing missions that the military had drawn up for the region. A Pentagon official told me that these missions were never “serious options.” But on at least one occasion, military strategists in Germany clashed with the State Department over how to deal with an Algerian militant named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, “The One-Eyed.” Mokhtar had ties to the GSPC, and for years had run a transnational smuggling and banditry operation from the deserts of northern Mali. The U.S. military believed that after 9-11 Mokhtar was recruiting and arming religious radicals in the area; it wanted to attack his camps. The State Department argued that the intelligence on Mokhtar was not conclusive, and the American embassy in Mali insisted that an air strike on Mokhtar would “radicalize people you don’t want to radicalize,” according to a U.S. government official in the Sahel. In the end, the attack was called off. Vicki Huddleston, who was then U.S. ambassador to Mali, said that rather than arming terrorists, Mokhtar was supporting the Kunta Arabs, a nomadic group that was fighting other desert tribes. Huddleston has since retired from government, and declined to discuss her official conversations with European Command, but when asked about the dispute, she said, “If you’re correct that we discouraged [the Defense Department], it was a good thing. If we had bombed a bunch of Kuntas, I think the whole place would have gone crazy. They’re certainly not terrorists.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”

The full extent of Mali’s counterterrorism coordination with the United States is unclear. Publicly, the Defense Department denies sending anyone into the Sahel for purposes other than military training. “We didn’t have any forces on the ground,” Colonel Vic Nelson, the director of West Africa policy at the Pentagon, said when asked if U.S. troops assisted in the hunt for Saifi. But a defense official from Niger confirmed that U.S. special operations forces, working with their Algerian counterparts, had tracked Saifi in the desert, during his race from Mali through Niger to Chad, and that Americans were present during at least one fight. Similarly, two Malian officials said that uniformed and plainclothed Americans had fanned out through the northern reaches of the country for a span of about six months. Meanwhile, just over the Malian border in Algeria, small teams of elite U.S. troops hunted GSPC fighters, and even “put up some kind of infrastructure,” according to The Boston Globe. In other parts of the Sahel, Peace Corps volunteers encountered American soldiers traveling in small units to remote villages, far from training bases.

In March 2004, Africa Analysis Ltd., a British firm that issues subscription-based bulletins on security and economic issues in Africa, reported that there was “gossip” among intelligence experts in Washington that 200 U.S. special-operations forces were in the Sahel for a range of clandestine missions, including “electronic surveillance, coordinating human intelligence with satellite data, and calling in computer-guided air strikes.” The report noted that the operatives were assisting in the hunt for Saifi, and that the Pan Sahel Initiative was at least partly “cover” for such activities. It went on to say that some former Special Forces were “adamant” that the “public face [of the initiative was] only part of the story.” A former Bush administration official familiar with security issues in the Sahel told me that in late 2003 the U.S. military engaged in “a joint effort” with the Malian army to ambush Islamic militants somewhere near the border with Algeria. This would have occurred when Saifi had just begun operating there. “Our guys were advising,” he explained. The former official also suggested that other secret missions had been conducted during that time period. “Rumsfeld had his goons running all over the continent,” he said.

When Saifi’s convoy finally crossed from Niger into Chad’s rugged Tibesti Mountains, it found itself cornered by a small contingent of Chadian soldiers. The two sides fought an intense battle, one that would last for three days. When the Defense Department learned that the Chadian military had intercepted Saifi and his men, orders were rushed to Ramstein Air Base in Germany to prepare two heavy C-130 Hercules aircraft with roughly 20 tons of aid for the Chadian army. Normally, it takes two days for the Air Force to prepare such a mission. Ramstein had to have the planes in the air immediately. There was danger that Saifi might flee again. The convoy had reportedly backed into a large cave for cover, and the soldiers had taken losses—three killed and 16 injured. The Chadian soldiers were ill equipped, with little food, ammunition, or medical supplies. In contrast, Saifi and his men were well armed, with
rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles, ammunition, night-vision goggles, and advanced communications gear. Ramstein had the C-130s airborne in one hour, and 10 hours later, the planes approached an austere military outpost in northern Chad, the Faya-Largeau Airport.

As the pilots prepared to land, the limitations of the Chadian military became evident. Brush and sand encroached on the tarmac. In the 100-degree heat, three dozen Chadian soldiers rushed to help unload the C-130s, but doing the job by hand would be disastrously slow. The crew performed an improvised “offload” and the supplies were rushed to the front. By the battle’s end, the soldiers had killed or captured 43 militants. But Saifi and some of his men, once again, slipped away. Hungry, destitute, and uncertain of their precise location, the militants wandered off on foot, only to confront further hardships. In Tibesti’s desert mountains—some as high as 10,000 feet—there are virtually no natural sources of food or water. The region is controlled by a secular rebel group known as the Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad, or MDJT, which has been fighting the Chadian government since 1998. It wasn’t long before the rebels found Saifi, put him in chains, and announced that the Sahara’s most notorious hostage taker had, himself, been taken hostage.

Raffi Khatchadourian’s previous work for the Voice includes the five-part series “Path of a Pipeline,” about Caspian Sea oil. While researching this story he was a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins University–SAIS, with support from the International Reporting Project.