The US may not ‘see’ any evidence of Algerian support for Libya’s Gaddafi, but that does not mean it does not exist.
Far be it from me to compare Britain's most famous sea-lord with the commander of US AFRICOM, other than to point out that there is something very Nelsonian about General Carter F Ham's statement on June 1 that he "could see no evidence" of Algeria's support for Muammar Gaddafi's beleaguered regime in Libya.
Saying that one 'cannot see' something, like Nelson placing his telescope to his blind eye, is invariably just a disingenuous semanticism for denying the existence of something which, as in the case of Algerian support for Gaddafi, is becoming increasingly evident.
Algeria's support for Gaddafi
Algeria's support for Gaddafi has been extensive. It began with energetic lobbying by Algerian diplomats at the UN and with the EU, NATO and the Arab League to deter any external intervention in Libya. These efforts, first reported by the German-based Algeria Watch and Al Jazeera's Inside Story on February 25, were led by Abdelkader Messahel, Algeria's minister of Maghrebian and African affairs, with Amar Bendjama, Algeria's ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, and Belkacem Belkaid, Algeria's representative to the EU and NATO, playing key roles.
Algeria Watch also reported that the Algerian government had sent armed detachments to Libya. These were first identified in the western Libyan town of Zawiyah where some of them were captured and identified by anti-Gaddafi forces. Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, a National Transitional Council (NTC) spokesman, later reported the capture of 15 Algerian mercenaries and the deaths of three others in fighting near Ajdabiya – claims were supported by several independent sources.
According to Algeria Watch, Algeria's Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) employed many of the private security forces and Republican Guard of deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sent them to Libya to shore up Gaddafi. This operation was reportedly directed by Colonel Djamel Bouzghaia, who works directly under Major General Rachid Laalali (alias Attafi), the head of the DRS' external relations directorate. Many of these units were previously used as snipers to assassinate demonstrators in Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid and Thala in Tunisia.
Following the defection of Libyan pilots to Malta in the early stages of the conflict, and prior to the authorisation of the UN 'No-Fly zone' on March 17, Algeria sent 21 of its pilots to the Mitiga air base in Tripoli. There have also been numerous reports of Algerian military transport planes airlifting mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa. One airlift, reported in Britain's Daily Telegraph on April 20 and sourced to a former Gaddafi loyalist who gave the details to NATO officials, involved 450 mercenaries, believed to be Polisario members, recruited in Algeria's Tindouf camps and airlifted to Libya by Algerian planes.
Data collected from the air traffic control tower at Benghazi's Benina airport ascertained that there had been 22 flights by Algerian aircraft to Libyan destinations between February 19 and 26. Some were listed as Air Algérie and were possibly evacuating nationals. Most, however, were listed as 'special flights' by aircraft bearing registration codes used by the Algerian military. These records show repeated flights by C-130 Hercules and Ilyushin Il-76, aircraft big enough to carry battle tanks. Destinations included the airports at Sebha and Sirte. By March, in a memorandum to the Arab League, the NTC had put the number of Algerian flights that had landed at Tripoli's Mitiga airport at 51. The memorandum said the shipments included ammunition, weapons and Algerian and mercenary fighters.
On April 18, Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, confronted Algeria with evidence discovered by French military advisers working with the Libyan rebels that a number of military jeeps and trucks used by Gaddafi's forces, which had been abandoned after a military battle, carried serial numbers which identified them as French military equipment that had been sold to Algeria.
As I reported on April 20, both the UK and US governments are embarrassed and irritated at seeing the Algerian regime, which they support, propping up the Libyan dictator whom they are struggling to depose. Washington's growing displeasure at this situation led to an invitation, although 'summons' might be a more appropriate word, for Mourad Medelci, Algeria's foreign minister, to come to Washington. During his two-day visit on May 2-3, Medelci met with Clinton and a number of top US officials involved in North Africa and counter-terrorism. Behind the bonhomie of the press releases, sources reported that Medelci received a rap over the knuckles over Algeria's support for Gaddafi.
Algeria, however, does not take kindly to external 'advice' from major powers and immediately dispatched one of its rougher political apparatchiks, Sadek Bouguetaya, to address Gaddafi's meeting of Libyan tribes in Tripoli on May 8. Bouguetaya is a member of the central committee of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), president of the National Assembly's Commission on Foreign Affairs, Cooperation and Community Abroad, and a right hand man of Abdelaziz Belkhadem, the secretary-general of the FLN and special representative of President Bouteflika. In a rabble-rousing speech, Bouguetaya voiced the FLN's unconditional support for Gaddafi and blasted the NATO operations in Libya. He called Gaddafi's effort to stay in power heroic and criticised the West for its "bombing of the civilian population". With specific reference to Algeria's War of Independence, Bouguetaya said that he had confidence that the Libyan people would defeat France, as the Algerian revolutionary forces had done in 1962.
Bouguetaya's remarks did not pass unnoticed in Washington. Apart from implying that both Algeria and Libya were fighting NATO, Bouguetaya likened the NATO operation to the attempts of Paul Brenner, the former US administrator to Iraq, to control Baghdad.
At the same time that Bouguetaya was haranguing NATO in Tripoli, the Libyan ambassador to Algeria publicly announced that his embassy had purchased 500 'military grade' vehicles (believed to be Toyota pickups) from Algerian dealers, with more in the pipeline, to help Gaddafi's forces.
On May 18, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, described by Robert Fisk, The Independent's acclaimed Middle East correspondent, as "the wisest bird in the Arabian Gulf," paid a one-day visit to Algiers. Sheikh Hamad's message to his Algerian counterpart is believed to have been two-fold. One was that Qatar, and by implication Algeria's other 'friends', were disappointed at Algeria's lack of meaningful political reform. The other, as Robert Fisk reported a few days later on May 30, was to try to 'persuade' the Algerian regime from resupplying Gaddafi with tanks and armoured vehicles. "Qatar," said Fisk, "is committed to the Libyan rebels in Benghazi; its planes are flying over Libya from Crete and – undisclosed until now – it has Qatari officers advising the rebels inside the city of Misrata." Indeed, one reason suggested by Fisk for the ridiculously slow progress the NATO campaign is making against Gaddafi is that Algerian armour of superior quality has been replacing the Libyan material destroyed in air strikes.
The limitations of AFRICOM
In some respects, it would be surprising if AFRICOM were to actually 'see something'. Unlike other US military commands, AFRICOM is woefully short of boots on the ground. With a force of only 1,500, mostly based in Stuttgart as no country in Africa is willing to headquarter it, AFRICOM is very reliant on second-hand and often highly dubious intelligence sources. In fact, its specialties are neither in fighting campaigns nor intelligence, but in handing out contracts to private military contractors; dabbling in the more intellectually impoverished end of the social sciences and producing false information. General Ham's statement falls within the latter.
AFRICOM's commander may be 'one-eyed', but in this instance Ham's duplicitous statement is not the outcome of AFRICOM's limitations but a 'package deal' worked out very hastily between top officials in the US and French governments and Algeria's DRS. The 'deal' has two strands. One is to effectively rehabilitate the Algerian regime with NATO and the Pentagon. The other is to try to save the Algerian regime from itself by 'encouraging' it to move more rapidly on meaningful political reform. The West, notably the US, UK and France, is doing its best, misguidedly in the view of many Algerians, to save Algeria's regime from going the same way as Tunisia's Ben Ali, Egypt's Mubarak and soon, it is presumed, Gaddafi.
While the seeds of the 'deal' may have been sown during Medelci's visit to Washington, or possibly earlier, the first indication that something was afoot came with reports in the third week of May that two of the DRS' top generals – Rachid Laalali, the head the DRS' external relations directorate (DDSE), and Ahmed Kherfi, the head of the DRS' counter-espionage directorate (DCE) – had travelled secretly to France to meet with top French government officials.
The opposition Rachad Movement believes that the secret talks were both political and economic. The political talks, it is believed, involved the DRS sounding out France on the possibility of instigating Clause 88 of the constitution, which allows for the president's removal on medical grounds, if Bouteflika's reform process has achieved nothing, which seems likely, by the end of the summer. This would pave the way for the DRS to present itself as the 'saviour of the nation' and to initiate the sort of reform process Western powers desire.
The two main French figures in the economic talks are believed to have been Pierre Lellouche, the secretary of state for foreign trade and commercial affairs, and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, or 'Monsieur Algérie' as he has been nicknamed since his appointment last September as President Sarkozy's special envoy to manage business relations with Algeria. Having reportedly met with the DRS generals, the two Frenchmen travelled to Algiers to meet with Algeria's Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia on May 31. The back-drop to the meeting was a two-day Franco-Algerian partnership forum, attended by some 150 to 160 French business concerns.
The essence of the economic 'deal' is that if economic and business relations between the two countries are to be boosted through more French business investment in Algeria and partnerships with Algerian companies, Algeria must scrap most, if not all, of the conditions and restrictions imposed on foreign investment by Algeria's nationalistic 2009 Finance Act.
Following their initial talks with top French officials, Laalali and Kherfi met with the Americans. It is not certain whether the meeting took place in Washington, Stuttgart or possibly elsewhere. Nor is it yet known who was involved on the US side. However, the agreement reached between the two sides culminated in Ham making a high-profile visit to Algiers (May 31-June 1), meeting with the president and the country's top brass and making his now famous "I can see no evidence" speech.
The deal struck between the DRS and the US is both a re-affirmation of the strategic importance of Algeria to the US and a reminder to both sides that there has been too much 'recent history' in regard to their joint activities in the global war on terror (GWOT) over the last ten years for them to fall out. By this, I refer to the fabrication of terrorism in 2003 by both parties in order to justify the launch of a Sahara-Sahelian front in the GWOT. In short, neither the US nor Algeria can afford to hang their dirty washing on the line.
The essence of the deal is therefore, that:
1. Algeria will cease its support for Gaddafi. In doing so, the US will save Algeria from international humiliation by reiterating Ham's denial of Algerian support for Gaddafi. Algeria will be encouraged to put the blame for all such 'propaganda' and 'false rumour' onto its steadfast enemy Morocco and opposition movements such as Rachad.
2. Algeria will also desist from its attempts to link the Libyan rebels with al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism.
3. In exchange, the US will back both Algeria's scare-mongering over the threat al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) presents to both Algeria and Europe as well as Algeria's often quite hysterical and unverified statements over the circulation of arms from Libya to AQIM, such as its absurd claim that AQIM has acquired "20 million pieces of armaments" from Libyan arsenals and that AQIM in the Sahel is now armed with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).
In short, the US will go along with ramping up Algeria's al-Qaeda scare-mongering in the western half of the Sahel, as long as Algeria keeps out of Libya, both militarily and 'verbally'.
From the US perspective, the threat of terrorism, real or false, in the Sahel region provides AFRICOM with an important justification for its existence. For Algeria, the scare of al-Qaeda is used to justify its internal repression and to frighten Algerians. The warning, broadcast almost daily, is: "If you revolt, as in Libya, al-Qaeda will take advantage and spread even further chaos and violence in the country."
Rachad fears that the DRS will carry-out a false-flag terrorist strike, as it has in the past, to back up its exaggerated threats that AQIM is in possession of SAMs. It fears that it will target a civilian airliner or smaller aircraft, possibly in southern Algerian.
Jeremy Keenan is a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and author of 'The Dark Sahara: America's War on Terror in Africa'.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.