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Draft Version of Lead Story

Western Security compromised in Saharan hostage-taking

Since 2002/2003, the Sahara-Sahel region has been subject to so many fabricated terrorist incidents and so much exaggeration and disinformation, initially by the Americans but now increasingly by the Algerians, that Western security interests, both for the region and more widely, are totally compromised. It is now almost impossible to know what is true and what is not. Indeed, as Sahara Focus ' editor was informed by a Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) official, "our policy in the region is based on a myth". That myth was El Para, but has now become `Al Qa'ida in the Sahara'.. As a result of the latest hostage-takings, detailed in the last issue of Sahara Focus (2009:1) both General Mohamed Mediène (aka Tewfik), head of Algeria's intelligence services, and Algeria now have problems. General Mediène's problems are two-fold:

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The first is that the first volume of a 600-page report and analysis on Algeria's role in the fabrication of terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel was published at the beginning of May. The book, entitled The Dark Sahara: America's War on Terror on Africa (Pluto Press, London), by Sahara Focus's editor Jeremy Keenan, provides the evidence of how General Mediène's D épartement du renseignement et de la sécurité (DRS), in collaboration with the BushCheney Administration, orchestrated the kidnapping of 32 European hostages in the Algeria Sahara in 2003 and then used that incident to justify the launch of a new Saharan-Sahelian front in the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Mediène's second problem, which we explain below, is that he has now got himself boxed into a difficult corner while orchestrating an almost identical hostage-taking involving the two Canadian diplomats, Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, and four European tourists.

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(For details of the kidnappings, see Sahara Focus 2009:1). Algeria's problem is how to deal with such a powerful security supremo now that his role in compromising Western security, and Algeria's own international reputation, is being so widely publicised.

Allegations against the DRS

The last issue of Sahara Focus (2009:1), distributed on 23rd March,, carried serious allegations, running to 10,000 words, that Algeria's DRS was involved in the recent spate of Westerners

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reportedly taken hostage by Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), formerly Algeria's Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC), in the Sahara-Sahel. Although General Mediène does not subscribe to Sahara Focus, we are fairly certain that he received, or was notified of the contents of the last issue through two and possibly three channels. He will also know that copies of that issue were distributed through western intelligence circles. General Mediène's response to our well-substantiated allegations, namely that his DRS is orchestrating the current spate of hostage-taking in the same way that it did in 2002-2003, was quicker than we expected. It appeared in Liberté on 1st April. For those not familiar with the Algerian media, Liberté is an Algerian newspaper owned by one of Mediène's close business colleagues and serves, along with the three other papers controlled by Mediène, notably El Khabar, as one of the main vehicles for DRS disinformation. General Mediène is an extraordinarily powerful man. He has been in charge of one of the world's most repressive military intelligence services for over twenty years, which is longer than any counterpart in modern history. His power is not limited to Algeria. That is because he has, at one time or another, done the bidding of most of the West's intelligence services and now stands `to collect'. His two major services for the `West' were:

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in the 1990s when he took a lead role amongst Algeria's `éradicateurs' in trying to rid the country of Islamic extremism; and since 2002 when he authorised the DRS to establish the means for justifying the launch of a Saharan-Sahelian front in the so-called GWOT.

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During the `civil war' in the 1990s some 200,000 Algerians lost their lives. Many of those were at the hands of Algeria's own security services, who, in their attempt to incriminate the Islamists, were responsible for many of the grotesque massacres which characterised the era. Although very few lives have been lost in the DRS' current modus operandi in the Sahara-Sahel, the means by which the US was able to launch its Saharan or `second' front in the GWOT was through the DRS' fabrication of terrorism in the region. The result of Sahara Focus' documentation of the role played by Algeria's intelligence services in the fabrication of terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel is that many Western `intelligence services' regard Sahara Focus as promoting a `conspiracy theory'. This is not surprising because most of these intelligence services, with the notable exception of France's Direction Générale de la S écurité Extérieure (DGSE), have minimal experience and knowledge of the Sahara and glean their information from predominantly American and Algerian sources. They are, in fact, correct in talking of a `conspiracy', in as much as the Sahara-Sahel has indeed been the subject of a major conspiracy over the last seven years. However, it is not a conspiracy by Sahara Focus, but by the very same Algerian and American intelligence services on which other Western intelligence services rely for their information. In short, most of the West's intelligence services, because of their own lack of resources and ideological bent, are reading

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from the same script. The result of this `conspiracy' is that Western intelligence services have been happy to let General Mediène pull the wool over their eyes. In fact, we would argue that it is not so much a question of having the wool pulled over their eyes, but that the fundamental weaknesses of the intelligence services have left them as little more than puppets at the end of Mediène's strings. We therefore hope that they will study Mediène's latest response and actions carefully, because we believe that they reflect his fear that the fabrication upon which the Saharan-Sahelian front has been managed for the past seven years may be about to collapse. Mediène knows that Sahara Focus' allegations are extremely serious and could pose a direct threat to his pre-eminent position as Algeria's `strong man'. He will be especially sensitive to them now that the first of a two-volume study (some 200,000 words) of Algeria's role in the GWOT has been published. The GWOT and associated counter-terrorism activity in the Sahara-Sahel since 2003 has been based almost entirely on a continuous stream of factually incorrect reports (i.e. disinformation) from Algeria's DRS. Many of these border on the incredible. The latest, which we believe is a direct attempt to rebut the allegations made in the previous (March) issue of Sahara Focus, is as follows:

Mediène's incredible reply to Sahara Focus

Mediène's reply to Sahara Focus was posted in Liberté, an Algerian daily newspaper owned by one of Mediène's close business partners, which often carries disinformation on behalf of the DRS. In its 1st April issue, Liberté carried a totally incredible story. It was as follows: On Monday 30th March, Algeria's security forces, comprising the army and gendarmerie, supported by army assault helicopters, set up an ambush to attack Mokhtar ben Mokhtar (MBM a.k.a. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Amar Laouar, Abou El-Abbès Khaled Belmokhtar) and other AQIM emirs as they travelled back from Libya to meet with a Nigerien arms trafficker by the name of El Hadj of the El M'Hamid tribe in the Oued Righ region. (Oued Righ extends to the north and south of Touggourt in the extreme north of Ouargla wilaya). According to the report in Liberté, and other Algerian newspapers which ran it (notably Ennahar and L'Expression), Algeria's military intelligence services (i.e. the DRS) received the tip-off from an African arms trafficker who operates in the border zone between Algeria, Libya, and Niger. The ambush took place in the `Ghil' region on the Algerian-Libyan border in the south of the Ouargla wilaya. According to what Liberté referred to as "well informed sources", Mokhtar ben Mokhtar was accompanied by the two other most famous AQIM leaders in the Sahara-Sahel region:

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Yahia Abou Amar (a.k.a. Yahia Djouadi, Abou Amar Etiarti and possibly Yakoub Abou Omar, alias Douiem Berhoum), Abdel Hamid Zaïd Essoufi (aka Abdelhamid abou Zaïd, Abdelhamid Essoufi).

In short, the three AQIM terrorist leaders whom AQIM has claimed, and the DRS reported, as

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holding the six latest Europeans to be taken hostage in the region (namely the two UN Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay and four European tourists) were all travelling together from Libya to Algeria. The ambush began at nightfall with the army encircling the convoy of 4WDs containing the emirs and their some 40 foot-soldiers. However, the terrorists realised they were being ambushed and began firing back with modern weapons in all directions. In spite of assault helicopters and an aerial bombardment, the terrorists escaped. One terrorist was reportedly killed, although his body was apparently too badly mutilated to be identified. According to the report in L'Expression, the terrorists were chased as far as Hassi Lefhel (30 kms north of Hassi R'Mel) in Ghardaia wilaya, where they finally managed to escape. The main thrust of Liberté's article was that this engagement demonstrated two things:

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First: that Mokhtar ben Mokhtar, Yahia (Djouadi) Abou Amar and Abdel Hamid Zaïd Essoufi (aka Abdelhamid abou Zaïd), are all terrorists and leading emirs of the AQIM. Second: that this incident is definitive proof that the story published widely last year in the Algerian media, notably in those papers owned by Mediène himself, that MBM was negotiating his surrender to the Algerian military authorities, was incorrect. This incident shows that MBM had clearly not surrendered to the Algerian authorities (as Mediène's papers had reported) but was still a leading AQIM terrorist. Liberté effectively published an admission that Algeria's military intelligence services (the DRS) had had the wool pulled over their eyes and got the whole story of MBM's surrender wrong (as Sahara Focus reported correctly at the time!).

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The reason for asserting the first point was to counter Sahara Focus' repeated allegation that these three are not AQIM leaders but DRS agents. The reason for emphasising the second point was to try and explain away Sahara Focus' embarrassing assertion that MBM could not be a `terrorist' (holding the Canadian and European hostages) as the Algerian military authorities claimed, as he had surrendered to them last year! How many of Canada's intelligence officers and Europe's counterterrorism experts, who at the time of the report were busying themselves in the Sahara over the release of their citizens, can now believe what Mediène and his DRS officials are telling them (albeit via the security forces and diplomats of neighbouring countries). Their story, which we believe to have been concocted hurriedly, is one of total incredibility. When the story was published on April 1st, we sent this comment (in the form of an email Update) on April 5th to our readers, merely asking them to consider the following points:

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How could Abdelhamid abou Zaïd have been travelling back from Libya to Algeria on 30th March when El Khabar, another of Mediène's newspapers, reported him being arrested in Mauritania on 23rd March? (Sahara Focus, which published that report on the same day (SF 2009:1, p. 2), did warn that it was disinformation). If the six Western hostages were being held by Abdelhamid abou Zaïd, Mokhtar ben Mokhtar

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and Abou Amar (Yahia Djouadi), either jointly or singly, who was guarding them while all three were some 2,000-3,000 kms away in Libya?

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By the same token, if the leaders were away in Libya, who was handling the negotiations for the hostages' release? Is it realistic to believe that all three would be together in Libya, 2,000-3,000 kms away from their alleged stamping grounds, at the same time? Would they really be buying arms or doing similar business in Libya, whose security forces are thick on the ground and violently opposed to the sort of Islamic extremism which AQIM's leaders are alleged to profess? Who was the Nigerien arms trafficker they were allegedly meeting at the Oued Righ? The name given in Liberté is El Hadj. El Hadj is not a name, but the title given to someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. There are thousands of El Hadj's across the Sahara. As for his tribe: after 40 years of ethnographic research in the Sahara-Sahel, we have not come across a tribe called El M'Hamid, and do not believe such a name exists. The nearest we have come to it are the descendents of marriages between noble Tuareg Kel Rela and former slaves in the villages of Ideles and Tazrouk in Ahaggar (Algeria), one of whose ancestors was a certain Chet Mehamed. It is quite conceivable that their descendants travelled to northern Niger, because that is where they kept their camels, and some may have subsequently settled there. However, we are not aware of this name being used in that area. Why would the three leaders of AQIM in the Sahara-Sahel travel to the extreme north of the Sahara (O. Righ) (and why from Libya?), especially when that part of the Sahara is a high security region, to do a deal with a Nigerien arms trafficker when the arms, according to Liberté, were destined for the Sahel? Of course, we do not believe that there was such a deal or meeting arranged. Rather, we believe that the DRS chose the name of the Oued Righ for their story because there actually was an engagement with bandit/terrorist gunmen in or near that region on that same day (30th March). Therefore, if any investigation was to be undertaken, local people might well recall military activity and the sound of gunfire in that region on that same day. Is it credible that MBM's convoy could have been chased by army helicopters through the night, from the Libyan border to Hassi Lefleh ­ the best part of 1,000 kms? The question becomes even more absurd, when we consider that the nature of the intervening terrain one of the world's largest sand seas - would oblige the terrorists to stick to one of two main routes which are well patrolled by the security forces. The DRS might argue that they escaped under the cover of darkness and by driving without lights. That is possible. The traffickers' drivers are chosen partly for their ability to drive at night without lights. Sahara Focus' editor has indeed driven with them under such conditions. However, the speed is necessarily much reduced and it would be impossible to cover that distance in the hours of darkness. (Of course, it is possible that the DRS might claim that they are talking of another location called Hassi Lefleh! ­ although we do not know of one in Algeria) Finally, if the story were true, it would be one of staggering military incompetence, which we know is not becoming of Algeria's highly efficient armed forces.

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Building the MBM mythology

The DRS clearly chose not to answer these questions, presumably because it was impossible for it to do so. Instead, its response was one of `proof by reiteration'. In another extraordinary article, also in Mediène's El Khabar on 21st April, we are informed that the security services (i.e. the DRS) who keep watch over terrorist activities in the Sahara have confirmed that Mokhtar ben Mokhtar has marked his return to terrorist activities in the region after two years absence, following his fall-out with the northern command, by kidnapping the two Canadian diplomats, Robert Fowler and his assistant Louis Guay. The article goes on to tell us that MBM had entered into an undeclared truce at the end of 2006 for two main reasons. One was because of his tendency to take advantage of the various national reconciliation measures to get judicial actions against him annulled. The other was because of the acute conflict which had broken out between him, as the commander of the El Moulathamoune1 group, and Abdelhamid abou Zaïd, the emir of the ninth (i.e. Saharan) region, who was head of Abderrezak El Para's group which comprised the remnants of the Tarek Ibn Ziad terrorist cell. Droukdel, head of the GSPC/AQIM, so we are told, sent the organisation's military adviser, Yahia Djouadi (aka Yahia Abou Amar) to the Sahara in the beginning of 2007 to try and patch up relations between the two parties. MBM apparently took his time thinking about it. According to the DRS, the kidnapping of the two Canadians in Niger was both his message to say that he was returning to terrorism, as well as his guarantee of allegiance to the AQIM command in the North.

What is AQIM in the Sahara?

This is a complex question. No one who knows Algeria would deny the existence of the GSPC /AQIM. Members of the security services as well as innocent civilians are being killed on a regular basis. But, like the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA) before it, it is infiltrated and manipulated by the DRS. According to the latest reports from Algeria's own security and intelligence forces, as reported in Menas' own Algeria Politics and Security on 24th April, AQIM is a miniscule organisation with no political agenda and no political following. According to information supplied to the intelligence services by former Emirs, the AQIM terrorist movement is being severely weakened by internal divisions within the movement. Moreover, according to one military source, more than 250 terrorists, including 20 Emirs, were killed during the period from November 2007 to January 2009. According to Emirs who have recently been arrested, no more than 300 AQIM rebels remain active. That is a particularly interesting figure, as the same security forces are estimating the strength of AQIM in the Sahara-Sahel as being up to 250. If that is correct, then only 50 remain in the

We are of the belief that the identity `El Moulathamoune', which means `the veiled one', was conjured up by the DRS as part of the fabricated `myth' that has been built up around MBM (also known as the phantom terrorist) over more than a decade. The DRS chose the term in order to try and associate MBM with the Tuareg, whose men wear a veil, known in Tamahaq (the language of the Tuareg) as tagelmoust. The Tuareg are sometimes known as Kel Tagelmoust (people of the veil, or in Arabic: Ahl el litham and El Molathemine).

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North ­ hardly enough to be called a `terrorist organisation', unless, of course, AQIM in the Sahara is a different organisation and we have two AQIMs in Algeria! This seemingly absurd suggestion comes close to the truth. The GSPC/AQIM in the Sahara-Sahel is largely a construct of the DRS. As Sahara Focus has suggested in several previous issues, this probably explains why no oil or gas installations have been attacked nor any Westerners killed in either southern Algeria or the Sahel. Its creation goes back to 2003 when El Para was despatched into the region to organise the kidnap of the 32 European tourists. (Note. An earlier attempt in October 2002 was botched). Its organisation and structure was consolidated around 2005-2006 when the DRS sent a number (dozens not hundreds) of repentis (repented - GSPC fighters who had accepted the government amnesty) into the region, in the words of local people, "to cause trouble". It seems that this `core' of salafists has been organised, along, no doubt, with a few other `criminals' and miscreants, under the leadership and control of the AQIM's DRS-affiliated emirs named above. This form of `infiltration' and `management' of armed Islamic groups was how Algeria's military controlled and organised much of the violence of the 1990s. We thus have a situation in which a number of genuine Salafists - the foot soldiers - mostly former repentis and probably numbering something nearer to a few dozen than the 250 quoted by the security forces, are being managed and organised through DRS-infiltrated emirs, such as Abdelhamid abou Zaid, Yahia Djouaid (Abou Amar) and the phantom himself, Mokhtar ben Mokhtar. From the interviews and debriefings of former hostages, it seems that the `foot soldiers' do not know that they are being manipulated in this way. Rather, they almost certainly believe that their commanders are genuine AQIM emirs. Hence the necessity to ensure that ransom money and arms supplies are seen to be sloshing around the region.

Sahara Focus claims credit for accelerating the hostage release

The two UN Canadian diplomats, Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, along with the two women tourists, Mariane Petzold (German) and Gabriela Greiner (Swiss), who had been captured on January 22, were released in northern Mali on Wednesday 22nd April. We believe that the timing and circumstances of this release had much to do with the allegations that Sahara Focus made and distributed on March 23, namely that the AQIM leaders allegedly holding the hostages are in fact DRS agents or operatives. The publication of those allegations and the subsequent interchange with General Mediène outlined above placed the General in corner. Even though western intelligence services regard him as an ally in the GWOT, they do not want to feel that they have been double-crossed. Indeed, we believe that this pressure on Mediène afforded him no option but to ensure the release of the hostages as soon as possible and before further damage was done to Algeria. Some indication that the hostages were perhaps released earlier than planned, is gleaned from an article written in El Watan on 25 April (`Libération de quatre otages au nord du Mali - Quelle contrepartie a-t-on encore promise au GSPC?') by Salima Tlemçani, who has a long established

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reputation of writing articles on behalf of the DRS. The article raises the question about what sort of deal was done with Abdelhamid abou Zaïd and Mokhtar ben Mokhtar, implying that it is still too early to know such details.

Two hostages remain in captivity. Why?

Two hostages remain in captivity. They are Warens Greiner (Swiss) the husband of Gabriela Greiner and Edwyn or Edwin Dyer (British) who were two of the four tourists seized on 22nd January. Perhaps significantly, the British FCO is refusing to reveal the name of the Briton. His name (with possible misspellings) has been disclosed by his captors. Why have these two hostages not been released? We believe it is because our allegations have put General Mediène and his DRS in a fix. In releasing the two Canadian diplomats and the two women, Mediène has got rid of the most high profile hostages and eased the pressure on him, at least from Canada and the UN. But he has to somehow prove to western, especially European, intelligence services that Sahara Focus's allegations are incorrect and that these kidnappings have been undertaken by `real terrorists'. The retention of two (less high profile) hostages provides him with the means of fabricating a narrative that may satisfy these ends. What actions have Mediène and/or the AQIM/DRS taken since releasing the 2 Canadians and 2 women, and what do we anticipate in the next few days?

Threat to kill hostages

First, AQIM on 26th April threatened to kill the British hostage if Her Majesty's Government (HMG) did not release Abu Qatada, the Islamic extremist of Jordanian nationality imprisoned in the UK, in 20 days: that is by 15th-16th May. This is a shrewd move, for two reasons. Firstly, it is virtually impossible for Britain to comply, thus raising the likelihood that Edwyn/Edwin Dyer will be killed and thus proving that his captors are `real hard-line terrorists'. Secondly, the demand for Abu Qatada's release gives the appearance of moving the stage from the local AQIM/Algerian scene to that of the more globalised Al-Qaeda.

Media attack on Mali

Second, Mediène is trying to present Algeria and its army (as in the 1990s), as a bastion against Islamic extremism and terrorism. It is within this context that we can make sense of the extraordinary media attack that he authorised on Mali and other neighbours whom he has accused of supporting AQIM in its war against Algeria. This attack was predicated on a long two-part interview with Mali's President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) by Salima Tlemcani, published in Algeria's El Watan newspaper on 25th and 26th April. The key point on which Algeria seized was ATT's denial that the GSPC/AQIM was based specifically in Mali, but operated on a fluid basis across the entire Sahel region.

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Algeria's reply, clearly authorised by Mediène, was a vitriolic attack on its neighbour in which Algeria (i.e. Mediène) accused Mali of providing a haven for and supporting the GSPC. ATT's denial that the GSPC was based in his country was immediately disproved, according to the Algerian media (El Watan, 28th April), by the fact that the GSPC undertook an attack on the Malian army within only a few hours of the President's declaration that the GSPC was not based in Mali. Algeria reported that five Malian soldiers were killed. The attack, said Algeria (Mediène), was the GSPC's direct refutation of ATT's remarks and its proof to the world that it was not only based in Mali but could act in the country with impunity. Mali immediately denied the story, saying instead that its army had arrested 5 terrorists and seized a large quantity of arms. We have no verification of the incident, and are even doubtful whether any such incident took place. Given the long history of the DRS' and Algerian government's use if its newspapers to convey almost unparalleled reams of disinformation, especially in regard to `terrorism', we can only say that the Algerian version of events is probably the less likely.

The Devil's alliance against Algeria

The incident, whether true or false is irrelevant, was sufficient for Algeria to assert that the GSPC (AQIM) was well ensconced in Mali. Later in the day (28th April), Algeria's army newspaper Ennahar (effectively controlled by Mediène) came up with a headline and story that raised eyebrows across North Africa, Europe and, it seems, even further afield. In a brazen headline, Algeria (Mediène) stated that the Sahel region, that is Algeria's neighbours, comprised `The Devil's alliance against Algeria' ( http://www.ennaharonline.com/en/news/1048.html - Ennahar 28th April 2009) In a clumsy translation, Ennahar's English version of its accusation read: "Al Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb has revealed the pact maintained by the governments of the African Sahel countries like Mali, Libya and Burkina Faso in their undeclared war against Algeria by providing logistical and financial support to AQIM through intermediaries". The accusation is, of course, complete nonsense as AQIM, as we know, is firmly based in Algeria, with its Saharan-Sahelian operations being run from the DRS's own headquarters. However, this outburst, which will have done absolutely nothing to improve Algeria's already precarious relations with its neighbours, demonstrates the pressure on Mediène to `externalise' his problem and `prove' to his western intelligence allies (whom he is double-crossing) that it is Algeria that is under attack ­ and not the other way around.

European hostages moved to Niger

Third. At the same time as Mediène was lambasting Mali and Algeria's other neighbours, El Khabar (30th April) (i.e. Mediène) was reporting that the security agents following the activities of AQIM in the Sahel had picked up information that Abdelhamid's group had taken the hostages into Niger to escape the pressure of militias (from tribal names we have never heard of and believe do not exist!) in the traditional AQIM regions of the Adrar-n-Iforas, Tilemsi and the

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Azaouagh valley regions of northern Mali2. According to El Khabar's `well informed sources' (i.e. the DRS), the `Es soufi' group, an alias for Abdelhamid abou Zaïd, along with its two European hostages, namely Edwin/Edwyn Dyer and Warens Greiner, slipped out of Mali a few days ago. The group apparently inched its way via the Azaouagh valley of northern Mali, into Niger and across to the Aïr Mountains and the Agades region, some 400 kms south of the Algerian frontier, where it is now holed up. The report concluded by adding the point that `reliable sources' had indicated that for the last three or four months several thousand Algerian troops had been posted along the main routes leading into Niger and Mali in order to prevent terrorists entering Algeria and to tighten the noose around the movements of terrorist groups. This last comment is interesting in that, like so many Algerian reports on the region, it is not entirely untrue. Algeria does keep large troop contingents based in the region, notably at Tamanrasset and with small contingents in most of the border towns such as Tin Zaouatene, Timiaouine, In Guezzam, etc. and numerous other strategic points. While this may ostensibly be to protect the country from terrorist infiltration, a more significant reason in Algeria's current internal climate is to deter and quell civil unrest. For example, unrest and riots have been widespread throughout much of Algeria recently. Indeed, Algeria's biggest problem is not terrorism but civil unrest. On April 15th, for example, residents of the remote desert border town of Tin Zaouatene clashed with police, with at least six people being arrested. The main reason for this and other potential unrest in the extreme south is the lack of jobs in the region that has resulted from the almost total collapse of the lucrative tourism industry throughout the entire `Tuareg region' of southern Algeria, northern Niger and northern Mali. The cause of this collapse, as most local residents know, was the 2003 hostage-takings, made worse by El Para's subsequent activities and the related circumstances that led to the Tuareg rebellions. Further and potentially serious unrest in the region is very likely. Hence the need for a substantial military presence. For the moment, though, it would appear that the hostages may be in the mountains of Aïr. If that is true, and we have no reason to believe that it is not, it would suggest that Algeria is planning a military assault to `liberate' the hostages. The advantage of conducting such an operation in Aïr is that it is far from prying eyes. Although on Nigerien sovereign territory, the region is effectively in the hands of the rebel Mouvement des Nigériens pour la Justice (MNJ), which has a good relationship with Algeria and especially its DRS. The basis of this agreement is that Algeria is fearful of the rebellion spreading into Algeria. It has therefore provided the MNJ with much logistical assistance, notably

It is interesting to note that the El Khabar report misspells all the key geographical place names it references, along with both tribal names, which, we should add, do not exist ­ at least in anything like their spelt or even phonetic form.'

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the provision of food and fuel and, more importantly, refuge for its civilian population and access to its hospitals (Tamanrasset and Djanet) for its wounded. The MNJ is therefore unlikely to pose any difficulties for the DRS in whatever shenanigans it is planning in the region, either by killing the hostages or liberating them through a military assault. More importantly, the current inaccessibility of the Aïr region, as a result of the two-year MNJ rebellion, renders whatever is done there virtually unverifiable.

Algeria denies access to European intelligence services

Fourth. On the weekend following the above announcement that the hostages and their captors had moved into northern Niger, security officials from Algeria, along with 15 other European, Maghrebian and African countries attended a secret meeting in Marseilles to discuss the coordination of counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel. Although we are not yet sure of the identities of all the countries that attended the meeting, other than Algeria, France, the UK, Italy and Libya, the meeting's `secrecy' was not sufficient for it not to be `reported' in General Mediène's El Khabar. According to that source, Algeria categorically refused European intelligence teams and special forces permission to operate in either its Maghreb or Sahel regions. It appears that this refusal was directed particularly at an Anglo-French request for access to its southern regions. A similar request was blocked by Libya, where we believe that Italy represented the main European interest. The official reason Algeria gave for its refusal was one of `tit-for-tat' in that Europe provided nothing more than information to Arab countries on the activities of Jihadi activities in Europe. Algeria also stated that the intervention of such elements in the region would provide terrorists with a reason to engage them. The real, unstated reason for Algeria's refusal is that it cannot allow foreign intelligence services to see what it is doing in these regions. An identical situation developed during the 2003 hostage-taking when Algeria refused to allow German special forces into the region and more significantly prohibited them from using drones when they were re-locating the hostages. Nor, at any time, were any foreigners allowed to witness Algerian military operations in the search for the hostages. Moreover, Algeria closed its air space during much of March, April and May 2003, when it was allegedly searching for the hostages, to all but Algeria's own aircraft and the US AWACS which were party to the deception. (The details of this operation and deception are published in The Dark Sahara: America's War on Terror on Africa.). As we believe that a similar deception is being played out now, it is imperative for Algeria's DRS that foreign elements are kept at arms length.

Military assault on `The Afghans of the Sahel '

Fifth. On 5th May, the Algerian media, with El Khabar in the lead, announced that the four countries of Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania were preparing to launch a military assault, the biggest of its type, against what El Khabar called "The Afghans of the Sahel". The operation, according to military sources quoted by El Khabar and El Watan, could start within the next month or so (June seems to have been preferred) and is expected to last for some 6 months.

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On the previous day (4th May), an Algerian plane, supplying Mali with military supplies in preparation for the attack, arrived in Bamako. This first consignment was reported as comprising fuel, assault weapons, ammunition, communications equipment, fuel and sleeping bags. Further shipments to Mali, as well as Niger and perhaps even Mauritania, are anticipated. Amidst a surprising amount of publicity for a military operation which might be more effective if given less publicity, Niger's General Moumouni Boureima flew to Algiers on 6th May to discuss plans for the military operation. We believe that the real purpose of his visit might have been to discuss an Algerian military assault in Aïr. It is perhaps significant that the Algerian newspaper Liberté, which is also close to Mediène and the DRS, has been contradicting El Khabar by saying that the two hostages are still being held in northern Mali. So called un-named `security experts' are also quoted as saying that the Algerian-Mali border area is where the hostages are almost certainly being held. Indeed, it is this border region that is the focus of most media articles reporting on the anticipated military operation. Mali was reported as having launched a military drive into this area on May 9th to flush out suspected Al Qaeda militants. Three combat units were reportedly deployed into the AlgerianMali border area from the north-eastern town of Kidal to pursue a convoy of armed men allegedly spotted close to the border region. There have been no further reports of any engagement. Nor is it clear whether this operation was on Mali's own initiative or part of the joint operation between the four countries. At the moment, the former looks the more likely.

Algeria accuses UK of bad faith

Sixth. Algeria has accused the UK of an act of duplicity and bad faith. Considering that the UK has relatively few direct interests in Algeria, it relations with the country are unduly complex. This is for two reasons. Firstly, Algeria is a key ally of the US in both the GWOT and the struggle against Islamic extremism. Britain had nothing to do with the El Para kidnappings of 2003: no British citizens were involved and there were no threats to British commercial interests. It is unlikely that the US would have admitted its conspiracy with Algeria to the UK, although the UK might well have become aware of it through its participation in the deliberations of the Base Alliance (a US-financed, French-led security grouping based in Paris). The UK intelligence community would also have been aware of the allegations being made from 2004 onwards that El Para was a DRS agent. However, we do not believe that the UK had any direct involvement in Algeria's internal `terrorism' situation until 2006 when the US asked the UK to help it in its counter-terrorism (CT) activities in southern Algeria and the Sahel. At the time of this request, Sahara Focus's editor strongly advised the FCO against such involvement, but was told that `the UK's first priority is to help our allies', in this case the US. In spite of such noble sentiments, we believe that British CT involvement in Algeria at that time remained very superficial, with its interests being oriented more towards the Algerian inmates of London's Belmarsh Prison than activities within Algeria itself. Secondly, Algeria is a key exporter of energy to the EU, with BP being one of the largest foreign

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investors in Algeria. Although the current UK ambassador has shown a little more spine than some of his predecessors, the UK's policy towards Algeria consequently veers towards obsequious expediency. As both the US' key ally in its invasion of Iraq and GWOT and a major investor in Algeria's oil and gas sector, the seizure of a British hostage is therefore sensitive and potentially embarrassing for the UK. Not only is this the first time that HMG and British CT officials have become directly involved in AQIM's activities, but any allegation by HMG of DRS involvement in the hostagetakings could threaten British investments and energy supplies. With Sahara Focus suggesting that the UK is being double-crossed by General Mediène, and with UK CT officials no doubt harbouring concerns as to whether the current hostage-taking is a repetition of the DRS-US complicity of 2003, the UK is in an invidious position. HMG obviously cannot comply with the request to release Abu Qatada. Nor can it afford to raise doubts publicly about the integrity of Algeria's intelligence and security services: Algeria, after all, is America's key ally in the GWOT. Ironically, the result of six years of US duplicity in the region is that the death of the British hostage is an outcome that the West's compromised intelligence agencies might almost prefer. Such an outcome would at least provides Mediène, the West's key intelligence ally in the region, with the face-saving `proof' that the hostages' captors were not DRS agents, but `real' Al Qa'ida terrorists. It is within this strange, almost surreal context, that Algeria vociferously attacked the UK (through El Khabar) on 9th May, accusing Britain of trying to do a deal directly with Al Qa'ida and calling on Britain to break off all contact with he terrorist organisation. Algeria claimed that its security apparatus had discovered that Britain, through MI6, had been in contact with the hostage-takers and had been trying to get the AQIM command to free the British hostage. This action, which Algeria's political authorities called `inadmissible' and `without legality' angered Algiers so much that it was now refusing to delay any longer the military campaign, as the British and Swiss had requested until the hostage crisis had been resolved, and was ordering the start of the operation against Al Qa'ida in northern Mali. Algeria claims that Britain had made contact with one of AQIM's leaders through an intermediary in the form of a Salafist activist based in France. There is, we believe, a grain of truth in that. In addition to the UK sending its CT specialists to both Mali and Algiers, we are fairly certain that UK intelligence officials sought the assistance, as would be both natural and logical, from their DGSE counterparts in Paris. We believe that Paris, whose intelligence services, notably the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, (DGSE) or Directorate-General for External Security, have close relations with the DRS, would most likely have confirmed Sahara Focus's allegations regarding the relationship between the DRS and AQIM. It might also have put pressure directly on Algiers, or set in motion the sort of contacts to which Algeria is claiming to take exception.

What can we anticipate for the hostages?

At the time of writing and distributing this opinion on 11th May, we are only 4 days from the

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deadline ostensibly given by the AQIM. What will the AQIM/DRS do? Firstly, we believe that in the light of what Sahara Focus has written and distributed, and also possibly through pressure from Paris, the hostages, will not be killed, in spite of the perverse benefits that their deaths might bring. We believe that the hostages will be released through one of, or a combination of, the following situations: Firstly, through a fabricated military assault by the Algerian army, similar to the one on 13th May 2003. On that occasion 17 of the 32 European hostages were liberated from a hideout in the Gharis region of the Immidir (Mouydir) mountains of southern Algeria. On that occasion, however, Algeria was never able to get its story quite right. Initial reports gave the impression that all the hostage-takers had been killed, although the army stated that 9 (later reduced to 7) had been killed with the rest being hunted down by army trackers. Unfortunately for the DRS's mediacontrol apparatus, the hostage-takers were not killed or tracked down by Algeria's army, but picked up a short while later by El Para as he took the remaining hostages south to Mali! (The details of this operation have been published in The Dark Sahara). Almost any location along the southern Algerian border regions would be suitable for staging such an assault, although Aïr, where El Khabar has reported the hostages as now being held, would be very convenient and almost certainly unverifiable. Secondly, and increasingly likely, through a vague and drawn-out amnesty process, as has been offered in the context of President Bouteflika's `re-election' and is now being widely mooted in Algeria's public domain. Hassan Khatab, the founder of the GSPC (now AQIM), who many have suspected of being a DRS infiltrator has long been advocating that militants should lay down their arms. Significantly, El Para, the DRS's most infamous GSPC emir, was reported in the Algerian press on 9th May as following in Hassan Hattab's footsteps and favouring national reconciliation. In the letter which he allegedly wrote from his `place of detention', he said that he now regrets what he did. The names of Mokhtar ben Mokhtar, Yahia Djouadi and Abdelhamid abou Zaïd are all being bandied about in the mix. Algeria and Mediène are in a corner. They know that the `game of Al Qa'ida' in the Sahara-Sahel is up. Their reputations and credibility are now too far compromised. Both of the above strategies enable Algeria's army and intelligence services to come out with something of a `victory'. Indeed, a combination of highly publicised and coordinated military activity, even if it is minimal in practice (it can't be verified!), along the southern border regions, along with a ratcheting up talk of an `amnesty' and `national reconciliation', as promised by Bouteflika, will provide the political climate in which the DRS can reel in its AQIM emirs and so release the hostages.

The latest news (11 th May 2009)

The latest news on the hostage situation, published today (11th May) in El Khabar, is that a

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European capital, and we presume that to be Paris, has assured Algeria that the hostages will be freed soon and by July at the latest if negotiations continue as they are progressing, and without a ransom being paid. Accordingly, the Sahelian countries are putting a temporary stop on their military offensive against Al Qa'ida, although troops are being kept in position and army patrols and reconnaissance mission will continue. The impression given by El Khabar is that the negotiations are between Yahia Djouadi (Abou Amar), the Malian intermediaries and Salafists in Europe. However, over the course of the last six years, very little that has been written in the Algerian media about terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel has transpired to have been true. Nothing has changed. The journal articles cited here, especially those from El Khabar, do convey messages, but ones that need to be interpreted.

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