Sand Castles in the Sahara: US Military Basing in Algeria

December 16 2003

From: Mustafa Barth

Two years on from 9/11 and the nature of American military involvement in the vast Saharan expanse of North-West Africa, especially in Algeria, is finally taking shape. The construction by Halliburton subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root, of what is billed as a NASA base (believed by locals to be doubling as a US military/CIA listening post) alongside the main airport of Algeria’s southern garrison and administrative capital of Tamanrasset, has been in progress for about a year. However, the clincher in the establishment of a US listening and basing network across the Central-Western Sahara came in the first week of September (2003). According to local people, a top US General, subsequently reported to be General James (Jim) Jones, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (EUCOM), met top Algerian military personnel at the remote, former French foreign legion outpost of Arak, 1,500 kms south of Algiers and 384 kms NNW of Tamanrasset. The purpose of the meeting was thought to be the establishment of a forward helicopter-attack and listening base at this strategically critical Saharan location.

Understanding the significance and implications of this latest move in US global military dominance requires an appreciation of:

  • how Africa, and North-West Africa in particular, fits into America’s imperial grand design;

  • post 9/11 developments in US-Algerian relations; and

  • the events surrounding the abduction of 32 European tourists in the Algerian Sahara in 2003.

Strategic Importance of North & West Africa to the US

The US, driven by economic interests, notably oil, and terrorism, is currently establishing a string of long-term military bases across the African continent. Three interrelated ‘zones’ of interest can be identified. One is oil-rich West Africa, especially Nigeria, the fifth largest source of US imported oil, where US investments of $10 billion are expected to rise substantially over the next decade.[i]

The second zone is the oil and gas rich northern Sahara, notably Algeria, where several US companies are major investors.[ii] Algeria’s hydrocarbons[iii] are of critical strategic importance to Europe. New exploration and production techniques are seeing proven oil reserves of 9.2 billion barrels being revised upwards, while oil exports, 90% of which go to Western Europe, are also set to increase substantially.[iv] Algeria’s gas resources[v] are even more significant. Proven reserves of 160 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) are being revised upwards of 200 Tcf, making Algeria one of the world’s top gas producers. Exports are by pipeline under the Mediterranean and by LNG (liquid natural gas).[vi] A significant contribution to this enhanced gas production will come from the recently discovered gas fields close to In Salah (a metaphorical stone’s throw from Arak), where engineering work is expected to begin in 2004. Two of the main contractors are the US-based Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root (already engaged at the NASA base at Tamanrasset) and the Bechtel corporation.

The third zone is the belt of political instability and unrest, marginal to and largely beyond any effective state control, which extends from the Horn of Africa to the Atlantic coast of Mauritania and Senegal. Four features of this extensive region are exercising the minds of US military intelligence. First, it is a conduit for potential ‘terrorists’ moving between the traditional terrorist havens of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Sudan, and the Western Saharan-Sahel regions of Niger, Mali, Southern Algeria, Mauritania and the Senegal valley. Second, it is the base for major trans-Saharan narcotics and other smuggling operations. Third, the zone feeds into and threatens to destabilise the adjoining regions of West and North Africa. Fourth, the central part of this zone, straddling much of Niger, Mali and southern Algeria and lying strategically between the two oil/gas rich regions of Nigeria (and the rest of West Africa) to the south and Algeria (and Libya) to the north, has become the base for what the US believes to be al-Qaeda subsidiaries.[vii]

These three regions and their critical juxtaposition are at the centre of US military thinking on Africa, which involves ‘the establishment of a string of long-term military bases across the continent’.[viii] This ‘family of bases’, as General Jones called them, would include ‘forward-operating bases’, perhaps with an airfield nearby, that could house up to 3,000-5,000 troops, and ‘forward-operating locations’, which would be lightly equipped bases where Special Forces, marines or possibly an infantry rifle platoon or company that could land and build up as the mission required.[ix] As far as North and West Africa are concerned, the US Defense Department has spent the last two years discussing the prospect of a US military presence or greater military access rights in countries stretching from Djibouti to Morocco.[x] The US would like enhanced military ties, including port facilities, with countries like Morocco and Tunisia and long-term access to bases in countries like Algeria and Mali, in the belief that North Africa, the southern Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa will be a major source of tension in the next decade.[xi] In May (2003), General Jones, referring to Algeria and the third of the zones outlined above, said: 'We might wish to have more presence in the southern rim of the Mediterranean, where there are a certain number of countries that can be destabilized in the near future, large ungoverned areas across Africa that are clearly the new routes of narco trafficking, terrorist training and hotbeds of instability.'[xii] Two months later, the General was even more specific: 'As we pursue the global war on terrorism, we’re going to have to go where the terrorists are. And we’re seeing some evidence, at least preliminary, that more and more of these large uncontrolled, ungoverned areas (vast swaths of the Sahara, from Mauritania … to Sudan) are going to be potential havens for that kind of activity'.[xiii] EUCOM’s second-in-command, air-force General Charles Wald described these groups as 'similar to al-Qaeda, but not as sophisticated or with the same reach, but the same objectives. They’re bad people, and we need to keep an eye on that.'[xiv]

Developments in US-Algerian Relations

Washington’s ability to ‘keep an eye’ on these ‘bad people’ depends above all on collaboration with Algeria in the form of basing or access rights of one sort or another, and better intelligence of what precisely is happening in the ‘large uncontrolled, ungoverned swaths of the Sahara’.

Following the cancellation of the 1992 elections[xv] and the ensuing violent struggle between the Algerian army and Islamic militants, both the US and EU countries have been reluctant to sell arms to Algeria for fear of Islamist reprisals (as experienced in France) and criticism from human rights groups. The result has been that the Algerian army has become increasingly under-equipped. A major preoccupation of the Algerian army for some years now has therefore been to acquire modern, high-tec weapon systems, notably night vision devices, sophisticated radar systems, an integrated surveillance system, tactical communications equipment and certain lethal weapon systems. The Clinton administration kept its distance from Algeria.[xvi] However, in July 2001, Algeria’s President Bouteflika was invited to Washington. He told President Bush that Algeria was 'seeking specific equipment which would enable us to maintain peace, security and stability in Algeria.'[xvii] Bouteflika’s visit to Washington was followed less than three weeks later by a visit by Algerian army chief of staff, General Lamari, to US military HQ Stuttgart at which he sought further support for the army’s modernisation effort.

The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre heralded a new era in US-Algerian military relations. Bouteflika, who made a second visit to Washington in November, was one of the first Muslim leaders to offer help and support to the USA in its War on Terror. He hoped that the US would now see Algeria’s struggle against Islamic militants as comparable to its war against al-Qaida and thus be more willing to sell lethal weaponry.

Although 2002 saw a marked increase in military collaboration, with the US announcing that it was planning to expand military and security aid to Algeria through the transfer of equipment and accelerated training, it was mostly symbolic in the form of frequent visits to Algiers by senior US officials,[xviii] regular visits by US naval ships and a doubling of the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET).[xix] Although Bouteflika paid another visit to Washington in June, at which the sale of night vision military systems was agreed, little equipment actually seems to have been transferred during the course of the year. By the end of 2002, Algeria’s mounting frustration was being expressed in public complaints that US assistance was both minimal and slow in arriving. Two reasons for America’s tardiness were the fear of criticism by human rights groups[xx] and the decline of ‘terrorism’ in Algeria,[xxi] the latter giving the impression that the army could manage without US equipment.[xxii]

In 2003, the situation changed dramatically with the kidnapping of 32 European tourists in the Algerian Sahara by Islamist extremists. The action was almost immediately attributed to the GSPC (Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat),[xxiii] now labelled as an al-Qaida subsidiary, and its alleged ‘leaders’ (emirs): Mokhtar ben Mokhtar (Belmokhtar), an outlaw who had been driven over the border into northern Mali in the late 1990s, where he was now established as a local war-lord operating a major bandit-smuggling operation across the Sahara, and Abderazzak Lamari (El Para) whose sphere of operations was in the mountainous north-east of the country.

From Algeria’s perspective, this was stark proof that ‘terrorism’ was not only far from eradicated in Algeria, but that militant Islamists (terrorists) were now established in the hitherto peaceful Sahara. Algeria also made much ado of blaming the long time (3 months) spent in locating and freeing the first group of hostages and the further three months involved in engineering the release of the second group on the fact that its army lacked the sophisticated military equipment that it had been seeking from the Americans.

From the US perspective, this was firm evidence that a network of al-Qaida links not only stretched from the Horn of Africa across the Sahel to Mali and Mauritania, but now straddled the Sahara from Mali (and perhaps elsewhere in West Africa) to northern Algeria, providing a major threat to US oil and gas interests in Algeria, the southern Mediterranean rim and Europe itself. This was the background to General Jones’s dramatic statements in May and July.

The gloves were now off. In May, the State Department appeared to give the green light to Algeria when it confirmed that Algeria had demonstrated its commitment as a US ally against Al-Qaida and that an improvement in its commitment to human rights would prompt sales of lethal combat systems. By July, with one group of hostages in their fifth month of captivity, the US asked Algeria for military basing rights, saying that it wanted to ‘employ Algerian military bases for counter-insurgency missions and the protection of oil interests.’[xxiv] By early September, barely two weeks after the freeing of the second group of hostages, General Jones was at Arak discussing the establishment of what is believed would be a US listening post and forward helicopter attack base.[xxv]

What Really Happened with the Hostages?

The hostage crisis was certainly convenient for both Algeria and the US. It enabled Algeria to convince America of the seriousness of the 'terrorist threat' in Algeria and that its army was not equipped to deal with it, while for the Americans it provided further legitimation of their ‘War on Terror’ and the establishment of General Jones’s ‘family of bases’ across the continent. But were these Europeans actually taken hostage by Islamist extremists?

A detailed analysis of the hundreds of statements put out by official Algerian sources; the many (mostly German, but some French) websites and internet traffic carrying details of the hostages’ experiences and information about their de-briefings, along with a mix of communications supposedly attributable to various European intelligence services, suggests that reality may have been very different.

There is little doubt that small numbers of Islamist extremists from Afghanistan and Pakistan had spread across the Sahel into Mali and Mauritania since the invasion of Afghanistan and had attracted the attention of the CIA and US military. It is also true that Mokhtar ben Mokhtar has established bases to the south of Algeria’s borders with Niger and Mali, where he was managing major narcotic and other smuggling operations and that he was linked with Hassan Khattab’s GSPC.

However, there appears to be little, if any, direct evidence that he played a major role in either the planning or the execution of the abductions. The whole business was out-of-keeping with his known modus operandi and likely to be extremely damaging to his commercial (smuggling) and associated interests.

The abductors told the hostages that they were members of the GSPC and that the purpose of their abduction was to draw attention to the 1992 elections and the legitimate, democratic rights of the salafistes. They told their captives that they were all from northern Algeria (not Mali or Niger), which was apparent from their lack of knowledge and experience of the desert. Although they never mentioned the name of their emir, their fingers seemed to be pointing to Abderazzak Lamari (El Para). This is of crucial importance as there are several suggestions that El Para was working in close contact with top personnel in the Algerian military intelligence services. If that were true, it would indicate that elements within the military may have been implicated in the hostage-taking.

Other indications of possible military involvement in the abduction are:

An earlier attempt to kidnap Europeans had been attempted near Arak a few months earlier (October 2002) and failed. The abductors, also believed to be men from the north with little experience of the desert, had been tracked down (unwittingly by the Gendarmerie), but freed, allegedly on orders from ‘higher up’.

The hostages report that their abductors had received communications as to their whereabouts from a military checkpoint through which they had passed.

The abductors split into two groups, holding their hostages in mountainous locations (Gharis and Tamelrik) roughly 300 kms apart. The two groups maintained radio contact. However, their radios, according to the hostages’ reports, were ex-Soviet stock, long since discarded by the Algerian military who were consequently unable to intercept their conversations. Members of the Algerian military intelligence services who de-briefed the hostages told the hostages that they had been able to locate them thanks to the Americans who had made their listening facilities available. Whether these facilities were satellite or aircraft-based is not clear. It is inconceivable that the Americans would not have had interpretation facilities available, which leads us to suppose that the Americans were quite possibly aware of what was going on. If that were the case, then it raises the question of whether the US military may actually have been party to the planning of the abduction.

Soldiers (now ‘retired’) claiming to have been engaged in searching for the hostages have told journalists that every time they got close to the hostages and could have attacked and liberated them, they were withdrawn, thus prolonging the hostages’ capture.

The hide-out at Tamelrik was clearly prepared in advance over what must have been a considerable period of time. It is inconceivable that certain authorities did not know about this preparation, which involved equipping caves and tunnel systems and blasting an access route through the mountains.

While the Algerians reported that all the abductors were killed when the army attacked and liberated the first group of hostages (in Gharis), the hostages reported that at least half of their abductors had disappeared during the week preceding the attack and that they only saw three of their remaining abductors killed.

Around midday on 19 May, a week after the liberation of the 17 hostages held in Gharis, national state radio reported that the Algerian army had attacked and liberated the fifteen hostages being held in the Tamelrik mountains. By evening, this had been denied. What now appears to have happened on 19 May is that the abductors, no longer in radio contact with their colleagues and perhaps becoming nervous at hearing on state radio that their colleagues had all been killed, were replaced or joined by El Para himself. This second group of hostages were then taken by their guards from Tamelrik to Mali, their ultimate ‘exit route’, a difficult journey of over 1,000 kms as the crow flies. Debriefing of the group indicates that they were not only escorted by the Algerian military, but may have even been sheltered in a former, now disused, military base.[xxvi]

Journalists in Mali were led to believe that members of Algeria’s military intelligence services were recognised by interlocutors as having prepared the way or as having accompanied the group on its journey across Algeria.

These disturbing allegations suggest that the abduction may have been planned and orchestrated within the highest levels of the Algerian military establishment. If that were the case, then it raises even more disquieting questions regarding the alleged role of the US military in the affair. If the US was assisting the Algerian military in intercepting radio messages between the two groups of abductors, were they aware from the intercepts (and perhaps other information) that senior elements within the Algerian military were possibly incriminated in the abduction. In which case, to what extent did the US military condone, or even participate, in the actions of their new ally?

The outcome of this messy affair is that Algeria may now get its lethal weapon systems and the US its basing facilities across the Sahara. But the long-term damage to the region is inestimable. The Central Sahara is now tarnished as an al-Qaida operative zone, in which diminished tourism is severely damaging the livelihoods of local people. The presence of US military facilities in a region hitherto noted for its lack of sympathy for Islamic extremism, is now likely to attract such elements into the region, further de-stabilising it and posing an even greater threat to both Western and national mining interests in the Sahel as well as Algeria’s rapidly expanding oil and gas operations.

It is rumoured that there are elements within the Algerian army and government that are not happy with these developments. Neither are the French likely to be pleased at what has been going on in their former colony.


Shortly before US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to Algiers on 03 December 2003, Algeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, denied that the US was establishing a military base in Algeria, saying such reports were contrary to Algeria’s policy of not accepting a foreign military presence on its territory. Whether this refutes what we believe was agreed at Arak depends on the meaning given to words such as ‘base’, ‘presence’, etc. The US need for a network of listening and accessible forward attack positions across the region could be met with no more than a handful of US personnel. Irrespective of the semantics, Belkhadem’s confirmation of the professional co-operation between the Algerian and US military carries major risks for both parties.

Mustafa Barth

Africa Newsline, Munich-Cotonou

[i] The US is Nigeria’s largest customer for crude oil, accounting for 40% of Nigeria’s oil exports. In February 2003, a taped message, purportedly from Osama Bin Laden, singled out Nigeria, with its 60% Muslim population, as a potential theatre for al-Qaeda operations.

[ii] More than 30 major foreign companies are involved in Algeria’s hydrocarbons industry. US companies with investment and/or operational involvement in Algeria include Amerada Hess, Anadarko, Bechtel, Burlington Resources (predecessor Louisiana Land & Exploration), ConocoPhillips, Edison, ExxonMobil, Halliburton and Sun Oil (Sunoco), (source. US State Dept.).

[iii] Hydrocarbons account for around 95% of Algeria’s foreign earnings and 30% of GDP.

[iv] Halliburton has an eight-year contract to provide, enhanced oil recovery (EOR) services and boost production at Hassi Messaoud.

[v] Natural gas comprises 60% of Algeria’s hydrocarbons production.

[vi] Algerian gas exports are expected to exceed 3 Tcf by 2010 and to meet some 30% of future European demand. Currently some 39% of Europe’s gas comes from Russia and around 20% from Algeria. In 1964 Algeria became the first LNG producer. In 2000 it was the world’s second largest LNG exporter (behind Indonesia), with significant exports to America’s New England coast.

[vii] The insecurity of this region effectively makes the proposed Trans-Sahara natural gas pipeline from Nigeria to Algeria’s Mediterranean coast a non-starter.

[viii] Al Ahram, July 2003.

[ix] Eric Schmitt, quoting General Jones, in New York Times, 4th July 2003.

[x] Egypt’s President Mubarak has rejected a US request for basing rights in Egypt.

[xi] World Tribune 6th May 2003.

[xii] Ibid. New insurgency threats in these areas would require a greater US presence along the North African coast, which could result in a realignment of US naval forces in the Mediterranean, with carriers spending more time along the African coast than close to Europe, and with carrier-based task forces being positioned in the Gulf of Guinea.

[xiii] New York Times, op cit.

[xiv] ibid.

[xv] The second round of legislative elections, to have been held in January 1992, would clearly have been won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and would have brought to power the first ever democratically elected Islamist government. An estimated 100,000 – 150,000 people have been killed in the ensuing struggle, which is not yet over.

[xvi] Military relations were not cut altogether. In 1997 the US delivered 6 Gulf Stream carriers to Algeria. In 1998 America’s Vice-Admiral Joseph Lopez, second-in-command of NATO’s southern European flank, visited Algiers. A visit to Algiers in February 1999 by US Admirals Abbot (deputy commander US forces in Europe) and Daniel Murphy (US Sixth Fleet) preceded joint naval manoeuvres in 2000 between the small Algerian navy and warships and aircraft from the US Sixth Fleet.

[xvii] World Tribune, 16 July 2001.

[xviii] Notably EUCOM’s Supreme Allied Commander, General Ralston (General Jones predecessor).

[xix] This was from a modest $121,000 in 2001 to $200,000 in 2002 (and to $550,000 in 2003).

[xx] An American official was reported in December 2002 as saying that the US would proceed slowly on the military aid package, in part because of the criticism by human rights groups. (NY Times, 10th Dec. 2002). Washington also stated publicly that no approval of the sale of lethal weapon systems to Algeria had been given.

[xxi] By 2000, average monthly killings had fallen to around 200, a marked drop from the 1990s, when an estimated 100,000 people were slaughtered. By 2002, Algeria appeared to have reduced and  largely contained terrorist activities to the more remote and mountainous parts of northern Algeria. This more secure situation was reflected in a doubling of tourists visiting the Algerian Sahara in both 2001 and 2002, following a complete absence of tourism from 1991 to 1999.

[xxii]An analysis of statements made by US officials on arms sales to Algeria around the end of 2002, although seemingly positive on the subject of military collaboration, reflects America’s caution on the sale of lethal weapon systems. One US spokesman, when pushed, said: “…down the road we might consider it. We will consider requests if we believe they contribute to the counter terrorism effort”.(NY Times op cit.). It was also noticeable that William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, made no reference to lethal weapon systems when he said that “We are putting the finishing touches to an agreement to sell Algeria equipment to fight terrorism” (Guardian 10th Dec 2002).

[xxiii] Hassan Khattab, erstwhile leader of the GSPC, split from the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé)  to form the GSPC in September 1998.

[xxiv] Le Quotidien d’Oran, 20th July, 2003; Middle East Newsline and World Tribune 22nd July 2003.

[xxv] In October, the US added the name of Mokhtar Belmokhtar to the list of persons suspected of having financed world terrorist organisations. Whatever assets he may have had in the US are now frozen! (World Tribune 27 Oct. 2003)

[xxvi] One of these hostages died before reaching Mali, apparently of heat-stroke.


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