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The recent conflict in Mali had its origins in imperialist interference, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh reviewing Jeremy Keenan’s writing on US imperialism in the Sahara

Jeremy Keenan, The Dying Sahara: US Imperialism and Terror in Africa (Pluto Press 2013), xxv, 326pp.

In January 2012, the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) began a rebellion against the government of Mali, with the aim of establishing an independent state for the Tuareg people in the north of the country. It was initially successful: by March, after the Malian government had been overthrown by a military coup, the MNLA had managed to capture the towns of Gao and Timbuktu, and on 6th April they declared independence for Azawad. By July, however, the MNLA had lost control of much of their territory to Islamist groups, including Ansar al-Din and Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

By January 2013, as these groups began to threaten southern Mali and the Western media were full of stories of refugees fleeing the harsh imposition of shari’a law, France (the former colonial power) backed by the EU, intervened with air strikes and ground troops. The Islamists were beaten back and a new government was elected in August 2013 in what the EU foreign policy chief called a ‘calm and serene’ election. For the French government, as for the EU, this was both an example of a successful humanitarian military intervention and a strike against global terrorism; as French President François Hollande told crowds in Independence Place in the capital, Bamako, in February ‘You’re celebrating a new kind of independence, not from colonialism but from terrorism’. The French troops received a rapturous reception from people delighted to be released from Islamist rule, and Hollande himself was greeted in Bamako by crowds chanting ‘Vive la France’.

In reality, Mali’s new independence is marked by the continuing presence of French troops. Although the size of the contingent has been reduced from 5,000 at the height of the war to 2,000 at the end of 2013, there is clearly an expectation that this force will stay in the country for some time. A Le Monde journalist reported in November 2013 a French officer following the line that ‘we’re not going to stay here 15 years’, while being firmly convinced to the contrary. As Keenan’s analysis makes clear, this is less an unintended consequence than an entirely predictable result of how the entire Sahel region has been used for more than a decade in the global war on terror.

Keenan has been an expert on the Sahara-Sahel, the desert region spanning parts of Mali, Algeria, Niger, Libya and Chad, and its people since the 1960s. The Dying Sahara is the latest in a long line of his works on the area and the follow up to The Dark Sahara, America’s War on Terror in Africa (Pluto Press 2009). The list of Keenan’s academic publications might lead one to expect his works on the ‘War on Terror’ to look at it from a position within the anthropological mainstream, but nothing could be further from the polemical approach taken here, of a scholar deeply angry at the position in which the people of the Sahara-Sahel have been placed. This is, as Keenan says at the beginning of The Dark Sahara, ‘not the anthropology of exotica, but the anthropology of bearing witness’ (Dark Sahara, p.xi).

Keenan’s long involvement in the region has also made him rather more involved than the traditional image of the anthropologist who merely observes from a distance: as he recounts in The Dying Sahara, he advised the Austrian government when ten of its citizens were kidnapped in the Sahel in 2003 and in 2008. He then acted as a go-between between the Austrian government and the kidnappers to try to get two subsequent Austrian hostages released (pp.115-19).

Keenan is in fact a controversial figure, whose work does not find ready acceptance in mainstream academia. In The Dark Sahara, he noted that he could not thank any research councils or universities for supporting or funding his research, commenting that:

‘at a time when our universities are taking on an increasingly mercenary hue and social scientists coming under growing pressure to politicise their research and so ease the passage of ‘the lie’, it is a regrettable indictment of academe, but perhaps not surprising, that my acknowledgments are so brief’ (Dark Sahara, p.x).

By the time The Dying Sahara was published the position was a little better, as he found an academic home at SOAS in 2008, but he still noted that he did not have any research funding.

The controversy is not limited to academia. An internet search for Jeremy Keenan reveals a number of commentators on north and west Africa keen to condemn him as a conspiracy theorist, obsessed with the idea that nefarious, secret service plots are behind everything that happens in the Sahara-Sahel. The verdict is summed up neatly by one blogger: ‘Keenan used to be a scholar of some note’, it goes, ‘… but over the last decade or two his writing has descended into screed.’

The argument against Keenan seems to be that he sees the influence of the US as being behind everything that happens in the Sahel, with the effect of reducing the people of the region themselves as passive; ahistorical, classless tribesmen who are not able to do anything to affect and shape their own lives. This would indeed be a serious error of judgment, especially from someone who knows the Sahel and the Tuareg as well as Keenan does, but neither The Dark Sahara nor The Dying Sahara support this criticism.

In the first place, while both books concentrate on the effects of the War on Terror in north Africa, Tuareg voices figure prominently. Much of Keenan’s argument, indeed, involves demolishing the interpretation of events put out by Western governments and promulgated by the Western media by contrasting it with what the local Tuareg know to be true and what they know to be impossible. Keenan is also careful not to allow the reader to imagine the Tuareg as medieval nomads, as for example in this passage on the people he met in a Tuareg camp in Niger in 2004, at the same time as they learned that the US government ‘reserved the right to call in air strikes’ in the Sahara:

‘Even though these people lived in the middle of the Sahara, they were well-informed on world affairs. They listened to the news on their radios and they watched television in the towns. And if they didn’t get to town and watch it themselves, they quickly heard about it from others who did. News travels far and fast in the Sahara. They were well aware of America’s invasion of Iraq, that there were no WMD, that Bush and Cheney were telling lies about the links between Saddam and Al Qaeda, and that the world’s only superpower now presided over a debacle of its own making. America could no longer be trusted or believed. America told lies. And now their own camps and villages were being threatened with American air strikes. Why? It made no sense to them’ (Dark Sahara, p.205).

Secondly, if Keenan’s concentration on the activities of the Western powers and their effect on the Sahara/Sahel is problematic, then this is not an accusation without context. As we have seen most recently in the case of Ukraine, pointing out the role of Western imperialism in a particular crisis is often to invite a chorus of criticism that this is to misunderstand the complexity of the situation and the involvement of other actors. The ‘but it’s complicated’ line maybe on one level true (what international situation is not complicated?) but as an argument it serves to minimise the importance of US and other Western imperialisms. It also casts attempts to point out how Western interests drive supposedly humanitarian interventions as ‘conspiracy theories’, which, it is worth remembering, is what Tony Blair called the notion that the invasion of Iraq had more to do with oil than WMD.

Keenan’s ‘conspiracy theory’ is at base a simple one. He points out that the extension of the War on Terror to north Africa enabled the US to extend its influence in the region, gaining access to oil and other natural resources. However, the terrorist incidents in Africa before and following 9/11 were in the wrong places, along the Mediterranean coast and in East Africa, far away from the oil. So, ‘how does one wage a war against something, in this case terrorism, that isn’t there? The answer was to fabricate it’ (p.11).

This was done, Keenan contends, primarily with the assistance of the Algerian secret service, the DRS, as Algeria was then selling itself to the US as an ideal partner in the War on Terror, with extensive experience of dealing with its own Islamist groups (otherwise known as killing around 200,000 Algerian citizens in the ‘dirty war’ of the 1990s). Algeria was one of the countries which received people who were the subject of extraordinary rendition by the US and provided what proved to be the faulty intelligence, extracted under torture, for the so-called ‘ricin plot’ of 2003, in which a group of asylum seekers from Algeria were arrested in Wood Green, north London for supposedly plotting to poison the Tube. They were of course doing nothing of the kind.

The idea that Algeria’s DRS would engage in false flag operations so that they could accuse Islamic militants (in particular and in general) of terrorist acts is not an incredible one. Keenan makes a plausible case that El Para, an Islamist leader who seems to have been behind the capture of European hostages in the Sahara/Sahel in 2003 was a DRS agent, which would at the very least suggest substantial Algerian involvement in one of the major incidents which established the Sahara/Sahel as a new front in the War on Terror. The existence of Islamist terrorism in the region then justified the involvement of the US, with the establishment of the US Africa Command, AFRICOM, from 2008 proceeding directly from the evidence provided by the DRS.

The argument is not that there are no Islamists in the Sahara/Sahel, nor that the foot soldiers following figures like El Para are aware that they may be doing the bidding of the Algerian and, through them, the US government. Indeed, Keenan points out that a decade of Western intervention, overt and covert, in the region has seen the flourishing of the drug trade and other smuggling, and the growth of Islamist organisations: ‘both the drug trafficking business, which became fully “internationalised” in 2009, and the almost concurrent re-emergence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb as a major player in the Sahel, have, with the assistance of Algeria’s DRS, succeeded in turning the region into the “Terror Zone” that Washington had envisaged in 2003’ (p.108). Keenan’s contention is rather that without an appreciation of Western imperial ambitions in the region, nothing that has happened in the years since 2001 can be understood.

While the Western powers, particularly the US and latterly France, are busy using the troubles of the region as excuses to justify further intervention, the situation for the Tuareg worsens. Behind the Tuareg rebellions of 2004, 2007-2009 and 2012 were a number of grievances, from the activities in the area of oil and uranium mining companies, the effects of climate change and the results of the War on Terror, which has, for example, prevented tourism in the region and cut the Tuareg off from a valuable source of livelihoods. It is small wonder, faced with these issues, that more and more Tuareg have been forced to turn to smuggling as their only means of survival.

Some of what Keenan argues is by its very nature speculative, but it is not necessary to agree with every detail of interpretation of every murky dealing to appreciate how the pursuit of US and other Western imperial interests under the flag of the ‘War on Terror’ has driven the history of the Sahara/Sahel for the last decade and more. It is indeed a complicated story, from which the omission of imperialism would render it not less simplistic, but meaningless.

Tagged under: Imperialism Africa
Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now. 


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