Monday, 2 August 2010

France's military intervention in the Sahel

The incident concerns France's disastrous military intervention into the Sahel last Wednesday night (21st July) and Thursday morning to rescue the French hostage, Michel Germaneau (78), who had been kidnapped in northern Niger (between In Abangerit and Teguidda-n-Tesemt) on 20th April, taken into Mali and handed over to AQIM. According to our generally very reliable sources on these matters, he was being held by Abdelhamid abou Zaïd in the Tigharghar Mountains, just to the East of Tessalit.

Menas Associates first received news of this incident last Thursday (22nd July) just before going to press (see P&S 23.07.10: BREAKING NEWS: French and Algerian forces in failed attack on AQIM).

The first reports of military battles, engagements and suchlike are often the most revealing. That is because they are released, often unwittingly, before the military, politicians and intelligence services can add their spin and create 'alternative truths'.

That is precisely what happened after the events in northern Mali during the night of Wednesday 21st July and the morning of Thursday 22nd July. Since our first report last Thursday, increasingly distorted versions of, and comments on, the incident have cascaded through the media until a point was reached, precisely one week later, when the definitive official version of the event, attributed to a Wikileaks 'Secret Defence' source and published, for example, in Mali's Le Republicain (29.07.10)) reads like a work of fiction. Indeed, anyone reading the Algerian media last week could not be blamed for believing that Algeria was merely a bystander. As is so often the case, the truth is very different.

The first reports

So, what did happen on the night of Wednesday 21st July and the following morning?

The first reports we received, within hours of the assault, said that there had been intense air traffic around the airstrip at Tessalit (NE Mali) during the night and early morning and that Algerians, supported by French Special Forces (Commandement des Opérations Spéciales - COS), had led an assault into the Tigharghar Mountains in an attempt to rescue Germaneau.

Reports from Kidal and elsewhere in the region confirmed that gunfire had been heard.

Within hours of the attack, Spain's El Pais newspaper was quoting diplomatic sources as saying that the French Special Forces had found no sign of the hostage or of the base where he was believed to be held, which they had located with US help.

These first reports (El Pais and Reuters) said that six 'terrorists' were killed and four injured (one of whom subsequently died) and that two vehicles had been destroyed, and a quantity of arms and equipment found.

The first report that we received suspected that Germaneau had been executed by his captors as the assault began.

These initial reports were probably incorrect on two counts:

The statement that 'Algerians led the assault' may not necessarily mean that the assault was carried out by Algerian troops. All subsequent reports state that the assault was undertaken by Mauritanian troops with the support of French COS. The statement, therefore, may refer instead to the fact that Algeria provided the logistics in the form of helicopters.

Although Algeria denies having anything to do with the operation, and not even having been informed of it until two days beforehand, first reports from corroborated Algerian sources stated that Algerian helicopters and military units were in the operational area, although it was not made clear whether the Algerian army played a combat or a supportive logistical role. Their logistical role seems to have been to provide the assault forces with helicopter lift.

Whether Algerian army units were also involved in the combat is not known. While Algerian involvement in the assault would have been quite in order following the permission given to Algeria by Mali in the wake of the 30th June (P&S 02.07.10) Tin Zaouaten 'terrorist' attack on its GGF forces (11 dead) to operate freely in Mali in hunting down the 'terrorists', this has been categorically denied by official Algerian sources.

The credibility of these sources, as we explain below, is very suspect. Moreover, as we explained last week, neither Algeria nor France could ever admit that its military forces had worked together, especially in a combat operation, and even more so in killing fellow-Muslims. Such a revelation would be tantamount to political suicide for the Algerian regime.

Second, there is much doubt as to the time and circumstances of Germaneau's death. The first report that we received, saying that he was executed at the time of the assault (i.e. on Thursday) doesn't quite chime with AQIM's announcement broadcast through Al Jazeera two days later (24th July) that it had beheaded Germaneau as retribution for the death of its six colleagues.

Questioning the cause and time of Germaneau's death

Until Germaneau's body is recovered and subject to an autopsy, the nature and time of his death must remain open. In fact, there are three reasons to believe that Germaneau may not have been executed and may, in fact, have died some time before the assault.

The first is that the local Kidal sources who, at least for the moment, appear to be the sole confirmatory witnesses of the execution on 24th July have been involved in previous hostage negotiations and are thoroughly discredited sources.

Secondly, it is quite conceivable that Germaneau may have died several weeks ago as a result of a combination of his old age, frailty and heart illness. He suffered from a heart problem and may well have run out of medicinal drugs.

We believe that his capture, as we reported in Sahara Focus (2010:2), was not planned by AQIM but was the independent action of two locally-known brothers. Their abduction of Germaneau on the same day as the announcement of the opening of the joint military command HQ at Tamanrasset between the four countries of Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania to combat terrorism and drug trafficking in the Sahel region, was an embarrassment to Algeria and its DRS.

During the course of May, we were informed by sources close to Germaneau's driver Abedine Ouaghe (who was also captured, then released but subsequently detained under suspicion of involvement) that AQIM/DRS wanted a quick low-key resolution of Germaneau's capture and were planning to free him in exchange for the release of Ouaghe. However, while Ouaghe was released from detention, there was no news of Germaneau, giving reason to believe that he might have already died.

Thirdly, the very vague nature of the demands that accompanied the 12th July threat to execute Germaneau on 26th July if they were not met, combined with the fact that no negotiators were being mobilised within Mali, as has been the pattern of all previous hostage-takings, and that no evidence of his being alive had been forthcoming since May, led to suspicion by us and, so it seems, the French authorities, as to whether Germaneau was, in fact, still alive.

Implications of the raid for AQIM, Sarkozy and France

The operation was not merely a military failure in that it seemingly failed to locate the terrorists' camp and failed to find, let alone free, Germaneau, but will almost certainly give a major impetus to both AQIM's stature and its as yet low-level jihadist intentions as well as its ability to recruit from a much wider spectrum of angered Muslims and 'Islamists' throughout the region.

The raid has also been a catastrophe for President Nicholas Sarkozy and France. Sarkozy's decision's to opt for such a high risk strategy was clearly designed to counter the damage being done to his political standing in France as a result of the Bettencourt-Woerth affair and other recent political indiscretions and misjudgements. It will leave France with much explaining to do to the countries of the Sahel, as already being fast-tracked through Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's almost immediate visits to Mauritania, Mali and Niger (not Algeria).

The initial silence from France has, therefore, not been surprising. Not only are the Elysée's spin doctors working overtime to minimise the damage by fabricating an entirely new narrative (see below), but we believe that France's intelligence services are in a state of shock and still trying to work out how they could they have miscalculated so badly, and in their own proverbial 'back-yard' (where the DGSE reputedly 'knows everything').

Indeed, if it had not been for a Reuters' stringer and El Pais's correspondent, it is quite conceivable that the 'incident' might never have been reported at all.

Algeria 's redaction of reports

As for Algeria, initial reports in the Algerian media of its involvement were immediately redacted. An Algerian security source immediately stated: "Algeria has not and will not fight terrorism outside its territory. This is a golden principle and we stick to it." It also claimed that it was only given two days notice of the attack. Both statements, we should add, are false.

Algeria gave covert assistance to the US in its war against the Islamic Courts in Somalia in 2007 by providing and flying troop-carrying planes, one of which was brought down, killing six Algerian officers. Since 2006, its DRS has both backed AQIM activity in Niger and Mali (and possibly Mauritania) while also actively supporting Tuareg rebellions in both countries.

Algeria 's assertion that it received only two days' notice of the operation is patently absurd, for at least two reasons:

One is that any such attack would, at least 'officially', be co-ordinated and put into operation through the new Joint Command HQ at Tamanrasset. In fact, that may have been the case, at least in so far as the logistical arrangements were concerned.

In spite of all the denials, the reported air activity over Tamanrasset during the preceding day or two could have been associated with the arrival of either or both of the French and Mauritanian contingents prior to their being transported to Tessalit and then lifted into the Tigharghar Mountains.

The second is that it is absolutely inconceivable that France would conduct such a politically high profile and high risk military operation within a stone's throw of Algeria's border without seeking the advice of Algeria's intelligence service, and, almost certainly a 'green light' from the highest levels. That intelligence could only have come from the DRS. The 'green light' would have come from 'higher' official levels within the state and military, certainly the army chief of staff and, most likely, the President (as also the Minister of Defence) and, quite probably, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Interior.

As for the Tamanrasset Joint Command HQ, we said at its inception (P&S 23.07.10) that the idea of such based in Algeria was unlikely to be successful for two reasons. One is that the regional governments concerned are prone to conflicts and rivalries that have in the past derailed such attempts at co-operation. A consequence of this operation is that there are even greater suspicions between Algeria and its Sahelian partners. The second is that Algeria's DRS, unbeknown to the other three countries, and as explained in previous issues of P&S, has already infiltrated AQIM cells in the region and duplicitously controls key al-Qa'ida activity there.

Why was France's intelligence so disastrously wrong?

This brings us back to the question of how France got its intelligence so disastrously wrong over the location of AQIM's base, the number of terrorists in it and the location of Germaneau.

According to particularly well-informed sources, Sarkozy was advised by his entire 'Defence Council' on the merits of the assault on the Monday morning. The Council comprised politicians, military chiefs and the intelligence services.

The first were represented by the Prime Minister and the Ministers of the Interior, Foreign Affairs and Defence (Defence Minister Hervé Morin was absent on Monday, being in Vietnam, but had attended meetings the previous week); the second by the chief of staff and heads of the armed services; the intelligence services by the <em>DGSE, DRM, DCRI and co-ordinator of intelligence or their representatives, as well as the secretary general of the Elysée, Claude Guéant. In other words, the decision to intervene directly had not been taken without full consideration.

It is inconceivable that France's intelligence services, and possibly even certain military officers and politicians, had not been in consultation with the DRS about the proposed raid. US satellite information, as claimed, would have helped locate the AQIM base. But information on its precise location and surrounding approaches, its manning and the location and condition of Germaneau, could only have come from the DRS.

And the DRS has that information. The border area just to the north of Tigharghar is overflown daily by Algerian army helicopters, while at least two Algerian Beechcraft 1900s, equipped with surveillance and communications equipment, overfly the region on a regular basis.

Moreover, and as we have explained frequently in past issues, there is close contact between Abdelhamid abou Zaid's cell and the DRS, with Abdelhamid abou Zaid himself being closely associated, as an agent, with the DRS. Indeed, it is for this reason that AQIM is being referred to increasingly throughout the region as AQIM/DRS.

Moreover, much of this information is common knowledge to local people in the Tessalit, Aguelhoc, Kidal, Boughessa neighbourhoods. Indeed, local people throughout Niger and Mali have become increasingly angry at so-called al-Qa'ida activity in their region as they know that it is orchestrated and instrumentalised by Algeria's DRS.

The last reported words of Colonel Lamana Ould Bou of Mali's State Security service, who was responsible for intelligence in northern Mali before he was assassinated in his brother's house in Timbuktu on 10th June 2009, were: “At the heart of AQIM is the DRS” (Menas' Sahara Focus 2009.4).

If Germaneau was already dead, as has been suggested, the DRS would certainly have known. If he was alive and being held elsewhere, the DRS would certainly have known. If he was alive and being held in the Tigharghar, then we have to ask who warned Abdelhamid abou Zaïd of the imminent military assault, so that he and Germaneau were nowhere to be found?

It was unlikely to have been the Malians, as they were kept out of the loop (because their security was known to be colluding with both AQIM and the DRS). It almost certainly could not have been the Nigeriens, because the new Niger military junta is trying to clean up the north and is angry with DRS involvement in the region. They were, therefore, also kept out of the loop.

Nor would the Mauritanians want to jeopardise what would have been one of their first international triumphs for a long time. There are certainly many other Algerians who might want to see France falling on its face, but it is very unlikely that they would have had the means to communicate with AQIM other than through the DRS.

There is also the distinct possibility that if Germaneau had already died, then Abdelhamid abou Zaïd might have vacated the region (unpleasant in summer) and be taking a well earned break at the DRS' Mouflon d'Or in Ben Aknoun or in a villa on the Mediterranean coast. If that was the case, then the DRS would have known that the assailants would have found only a minimally-staffed AQIM base.

The DRS has led France into an unmitigated disaster
In short, all the signs are that Algeria's DRS has led President Sarkozy and France into an unmitigated disaster that will have massive and long-term implications for France, Algeria and the Sahel.

While France's standing in the region has been severely damaged, the overall outcome of this episode is to confirm the inability of the Sahelian countries to destroy al-Qa'ida and ensure their own security, while at the same demonstrating that the only military power capable of taking on that role is Algeria. That, after all, has been the fundamental strategy of the DRS since it first established AQIM in the Sahara-Sahel region in 2006.

What is even more galling for France is that its unique relationship with Algeria and the current low-level of Franco-Algerian relations are such that it is hardly in a position to remonstrate. Indeed, if it ever becomes public knowledge, especially in Algeria, that the French and Algerian military were working together, the political consequences could be devastating. For the moment, at least, Algeria has France over a barrel.

And currently, at least, it is in the interest of both France and Algeria to go along with the 'spin' that is being put on the incident. For France, this is to save face; for Algeria, to demonstrate that it had nothing to do with the operation and was not even informed of the operation until 48 hours beforehand.

'Mauritanianising' the operation

The way that the 'disaster' is being spun to the world's media is to 'Mauritanianise' it, in terms of both personnel and geography.

At the outset, it should be explained that there were a number of rationales for using Mauritanian troops in the exercise. One is because neither Niger nor Malian troops, in spite of their US training, are suitable. In addition, in Niger's case, the country's new military rulers are not enamoured with the role Algeria and its DRS are playing in the Sahel region, while in Mali's case, the top levels of the country's security services are too heavily incriminated with AQIM/DRS. And, as already mentioned, for France to fight alongside Algerian troops in a combat role is too dangerous politically.

A second reason was because Mauritania's elite forces have been quite well-trained by the US and France and are familiar with French forces.

A third reason is because Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz , an Army general who led a successful military coup in August 2008, is presenting himself as a 'strong man' in the 'war on terrorism' and is doing everything possible to ingratiate himself and his country with the US and EU countries.

During the course of the last week, a number of quite extraordinary and often absurd statements were proffered to the media, mostly from French and Mauritanian sources, to suggest that the operation was not undertaken near Tessalit but on the other side of Mali, close to the Mauritanian border; that the Mauritanian and some 25-30 French COS were not airlifted but transported in vehicles overnight – a matter of 750 km as the crow flies and over 1,000 km by piste from the Mauritanian frontier to Tessalit; that Algeria was in no way involved, and not even given forewarning until two days before the assault, etc.

One week later, the newly-scripted account of what happened was ready

Attributed to Wikileaks and 'Secret Defence' sources (a blog of Libé, the sanitised version of events was ready. The main thrust of this new version, as published in Le Republicain (Mali), and elsewhere, now reads as follows:

“It began as a Mauritanian army operation onto which a French intervention was grafted. This is because at the beginning of July, Mauritania was advised by Western sources that they had learnt that a group of AQIM was planning an operation against a post in Mauritania at the end of July.

“President AbdelAziz consequently warned Paris that he was preparing a huge operation against AQIM, using the 'cross-border' right of pursuit that had been mutually agreed by Mauritania, Mali and Niger in their fight against terrorism.

“An initial meeting took place in Paris on the evening 13th July when the Mauritanian president was received briefly at the Elysée.

“The Mauritanians, helped by the French, discovered an AQIM camp in the Malian desert about 150 km from the border with Mauritania. This secret camp had never before been identified. It served as a supply point for the Yahia Abdulmanan katibat (cell), which was responsible to Abou Zaid's group.

“Photographs seemed to indicate that the French hostage Michel Germaneau could be held there, although the French services never had proof of it. Paris therefore decided to join the Mauritanian operation.

“France wanted to recover Germaneau. Mauritania's GSI (Groupes spéciaux d¹intervention) wanted to put a stop to the 150 or so men of the AQIM cell by destroying their supply bases.

“The French forces arrived from France and in all likelihood included members of the DGSE who know the Sahel well. They provided intelligence, communications and medicinal support. They also pre-positioned a helicopter in Mauritania to evacuate Germaneau if necessary.

“The departure point was a base near the frontier (with Mali) where the French and Mauritanians had trained together. The raid took the form of a column of all-terrain vehicles, with 20-30 French military accompanying a few dozen Mauritanians. The convoy drove through the night, with the last 10 kms being undertaken on foot so as not to sound the alarm.

“The attack took place at dawn about 150 km from the Mauritanian frontier to the NW of Timbuktu. The French dashed to a tent where a hostage could have been held, while the GSI dealt with the other tends. Fighting was brief.

“Contrary to all that has been written, there were no aerial operations, nor was Tessalit involved, as stated by local sources cited by AFP (and others).

“Six members of AQIM were killed and four took flight. The chief of the cell was not amongst the dead. There were no French casualties. When the French commandoes searched the camp they found no trace of any hostage. On the other hand, AK47s, explosives, mobile phones, various documents and vehicle spare parts, etc., were taken.

“Mistaken over the hostage, the French returned to Mauritania and wrapped up the operation. The Mauritanians, however, continued tracking AQIM until Saturday. (i.e. two days).

"We can confirm that the French authorities had no proof of the presence of Germaneau being with this AQIM cell but merely a raft of presumptions. If he had been there, it would have been good news.

“Moreover, and contrary to what we had written earlier, the Americans did not provide any intelligence enabling the launch of this operation.

“Contrary to what the Spanish press has written, the Spanish authorities were thoroughly 'consulted', not simply 'informed', with disagreement being only over the matter of what strategy to follow in the case of hostages in the Sahel.

“In addition, information circulating on the internet from an Islamist site saying that nine members of the DGSE were killed is completely false and merely propaganda. Equally false is the press report that AQIM has demanded the release of Rachid Ramda, the Algerian sentenced for the Paris bombings in 1995. According to Libération's sources (namely Secret Defence) no clear demand was ever formulated.”

The above account is almost entirely 'fiction', but a fiction that will, no doubt, be embellished upon in the coming weeks and months and ascribed increasingly by the corporate media as the 'official account' of what took place.

Key questions still have to be explained by the French, Mauritanians and Algerians. In particular, if the operation took place only 150 km inside Mali from Mauritania, what was the simultaneous air traffic and fighting around Tessalit, which is 600 km away as the crow flies and over 1,000 km by piste? We are certain it was the same operation, but one which France, in particular, wants to play down and re-locate to a less sensitive geographical part of the Sahel (i.e. in the middle of 'nowhere' – NW of Timbuktu!).

Algeria and its DRS will have other ideas, which we shall see being expressed in the coming weeks and months. Indeed, the immediate outcome of the operation is that there appears to be only one 'winner' – the AQIM/DRS.

For more news and expert analysis about Algeria please see Algeria Focus, Sahara Focus and Algeria Politics & Security.

© 2010 Menas Associates

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