‘We are seeing a major transformation across North Africa in response to the US’s “war on terror”. These changes are a reaction to the war in Iraq and confirm the many warnings that the invasion would transform Islamist organisations.
In 2002 the US was claiming that there was a flow of “terrorists” out of Afghanistan, across the Horn of Africa, through the Sahel region south of the Sahara desert, into the Maghreb and on to Europe. This was what they wanted the world to believe – even though there was no real evidence at the time.
The Algerian government knew that the White House was thinking along these lines. So they fixed the kidnapping of European tourists in the Sahara in 2003, claiming they were taken by the terrorists.
The US went along with this story because it gave credence to the idea that “terror was moving into the wide open spaces” and legitimised US plans for the militarisation of Africa.
Yet all this so called terrorism was fabricated in a murky deal between the US and Algeria that involved the sale of weapon systems.
Between 2003 and 2005, even though there was little terrorism in Algeria – the government had concluded a peace deal with the Islamic opposition – the US continued to exaggerate the threat.
Things changed dramatically at the end of last year. Many of the so called jihadists from North Africa who had travelled to Iraq to support the insurgency began returning home.
The experience of fighting in Iraq had transformed their ideology. Up until the invasion of Iraq the Islamist struggle across North Africa was primarily directed against Arab regimes. These struggles were born out of the desire to overthrow governments that were repressive and authoritarian.
In contrast, the philosophy of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida was that the struggle had to be directed against the US, which is the “common enemy”. The experience these jihadists brought back from Iraq confirmed this.
What Bin Laden had been arguing for many years – without much success – has, in their thinking, now been proved right. So these fighters are now returning home saying the struggle isn’t against their governments, but against US interests.
And they are returning home much more sophisticated in terms of how to fight and in the technology of bomb making – how to set timers and so on.
The problem is that they cannot turn directly against the US, which is across the Atlantic ocean and well defended.
So they target US interests instead, or the governments that are defending US interests. They may be hitting the same targets that they were attacking in the past – but now the ideology behind their actions is changing.
For example, in Egypt they attack tourists, not because they are tourists, but because tourism in the main industry. If they damage the tourism industry they force the US to refinance the Egyptian economy, therefore hitting US interests.
This is the beginning of the thinking. What is happening in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria over the last three or four months are all small signs in a pronounced change in the nature of this struggle across North Africa.
In January an Algerian group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat – a small group heavily infiltrated by the Algerian security forces and limited to the national struggle – changed its name to Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
It was difficult to assess how serious these changes were. Many analysts concluded this was the dying gasp of a small organisation. But it now looks like a much more serious development.
Locally directed attacks against national targets have been transformed into coordinated attacks against US interests and its allies.
I was in contact with the Algerian security forces shortly after a bomb attack on a government building in April this year.
They told me they were expecting AQIM to target US interests such as oil companies and were totally surprised to discover that the Algerian government is now considered the same as “US interests”. This pattern fits similar developments in Tunisia and Morocco.
In 2002 the US and Algerians were crying wolf over Islamic terrorism. But the invasion of Iraq has turned their claims into reality.’
Jeremy Keenan is a professor at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. His book on the “war on terror” in the Sahara will be published by Pluto Press later this year