Taking Terror Fight to N. Africa Leads U.S. to Unlikely Alliances

Taking Terror Fight to N. Africa Leads U.S. to Unlikely Alliances

By Craig Whitlock, Washington Post Foreign Service, October 28, 2006

ALGIERS — Locked in a prison here, for now, is a desert bandit dubbed the « Bin Laden of the Sahara, » whose capture was secretly orchestrated by U.S. forces after a long chase across some of the most forbidding terrain on Earth.

Amari Saifi, 37, a former Algerian army paratrooper, was caught in 2004 after he and a band of rebel fighters kidnapped 32 European tourists in the Algerian Sahara and ransomed them for about $6 million.

Since then, the U.S. government has cited his case as a model for terrorist-hunting operations and a justification for expanding U.S. military, diplomatic and intelligence programs in North Africa.

A close examination of how Saifi was apprehended, however, highlights the quandaries facing the United States as it extends its fight against Islamic terrorism to remote parts of the globe. In its search for allies in an unstable region, the U.S. government reached out to Libya — then still officially designated a state sponsor of terrorism — and to other countries it has condemned for abusing human rights.

Some security analysts and European counterterrorism officials question the U.S. strategy. They contend the Pentagon may be inflating the importance of Saifi and the terrorist threat in both the Sahara and an equally large and desolate region to the south known as the Sahel.

By sending troops and partnering with repressive governments, U.S. tactics could backfire, said Hugh Roberts, North Africa project director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

« The idea that you could have major jihadi units holing up there always struck me as implausible, » Roberts said. « The quickest way to generate a jihadi movement is to send some U.S. soldiers in there to swagger around. The more visible the U.S. military presence, the bigger the target. »

The hunt for Saifi lasted more than a year and nearly unraveled at the end, despite a joint operation among the U.S. military and seven countries, according to counterterrorism officials in North Africa and Europe. He was caught by happenstance, by a ragtag rebel army in Chad, as he fled his pursuers across the desert.

Although Saifi was finally transferred to Algerian custody, there are signs that he may not be in prison much longer. After giving him a life sentence last year, the Algerian government said this spring it might release him under an amnesty program, reflecting doubts as to how big a threat he posed in the first place.

Regardless of Saifi’s fate, U.S. officials say they consider North Africa an increasingly strategic front. With weak governments and poorly patrolled borders, the region has already attracted Islamic radicals looking for a place to set up training camps and spread their ideology, officials say.

Together, the Defense and State departments are devoting $500 million to new counterterrorism programs in the region. Last year, the Pentagon sponsored Operation Flintlock, the largest U.S. joint military exercise in North Africa since World War II. About 700 U.S. Special Forces personnel trained troops from nine African nations, leading a war game that mirrored the effort to hunt down Saifi a year earlier.

« The threat is evolving, » said Rear Adm. Richard K. Gallagher, a top commander at the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, which is responsible for most of Africa. « Africa, for a lot of reasons, is a place that we’ve got to care hugely about. We ignore Africa at our peril. »

The Kidnappings

In February 2003, a band of Islamic extremists began scouring the desert expanse of southern Algeria for kidnap victims. The sparsely populated region’s colored sand dunes and craggy mountains were a magnet for European tourists.

Soon, foreigners began to vanish, two or three at a time. Within a month, 32 Europeans — mostly Germans, but also Austrian, Swedish, Swiss and Dutch citizens — had been rounded up.

The kidnappers belonged to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a movement dedicated to overthrowing the Algerian government. Despite its local origins, the group has recently reached out to al-Qaeda and other networks in an attempt to broaden its scope.

The leader of the cell, Saifi, was a tall, bearded man who dressed in shabby robes and worn-out sneakers; often he wore black eye makeup to ward off the sun’s glare. Known as Abderrazak al-Para, or « the paratrooper, » he had deserted from the Algerian army in 1991.

« In the beginning, the entire group was very convinced of the plan: ‘Europeans — that’ll bring us money and weapons,’  » said Rainer Bracht, a German construction worker who was among the hostages. « In the beginning, they always told us, ‘You will be free soon, it’ll be just a couple of weeks.’ But then it took longer and longer. »

On May 13, 2003, Algerian troops surrounded some of the fighters on a mountain range. After a gun battle, 17 hostages were rescued and nine kidnappers were killed, according to the Algerian government. But the soldiers were unable to capture Saifi, who escaped with half of his men and 15 tourists.

As the group trekked south, they hid under rock formations to avoid detection from the skies. The trip was arduous, with temperatures climbing to 110 degrees. One German died of heat exhaustion, but Saifi otherwise took care to keep his captives alive.

« His men held him in high esteem and showed respect, » recalled Martin Hainz, a Bavarian painter who was taken hostage. « He emanated a lot of authority, but his behavior was not authoritarian. He did not give orders; he listened and made remarks. »

In July 2003, Saifi and his crew crossed into Mali, an impoverished and landlocked country. Hiding among desert nomads, the kidnappers negotiated through intermediaries with the German and Libyan governments, seeking cash. A month later, the rest of the hostages were released near the Algeria-Mali border. Although Germany and Libya have denied paying a ransom, other European officials said the two countries provided funds.

Flush with money, Saifi bought protection from local tribes, European counterterrorism officials said. He shopped on the black market for automatic rifles, missile launchers and 4×4 trucks. He expanded his militia to include fresh recruits from Mali, Chad and Niger.

« At this point, he starts to become an important threat, » said Louis Caprioli, former director of international counterterrorism for the DST, the French counterintelligence service, which was working with the U.S. military to track Saifi. « And the armies of Niger and Mali couldn’t do anything about him. »

Warnings Heeded

At the time of the kidnappings, the U.S. government was starting a counterterrorism program in North Africa called the Pan-Sahel Initiative.

The program represented a response to worries that remote areas of North Africa could serve as a base for al-Qaeda or other Islamic extremists seeking to relocate after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The initiative, led by the U.S. European Command, was designed to share intelligence and train ill-equipped militaries in the region.

The program had its critics, inside and outside the U.S. government, who questioned whether North African radicals had the potential to pose an external threat. They also wondered whether it made sense for the U.S. military to increase its presence in yet another predominantly Muslim part of the world.

The Sahara hostage-takings, however, gave a boost to military leaders who had been warning about the potential for trouble in North Africa. Since then, Congress has listened, budgeting $500 million over the next six years for an expanded version of the original program called the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative.

Gallagher, of the U.S. European Command, said the military wanted to keep a light footprint in North Africa. « We want to get out in front of these problems and train these nations to deal with it, » he said.

In a visit to Algiers in February to promote the program, Henry A. Crumpton, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, warned leaders from across North Africa that Saifi « underscored the real threat posed to the region. » The Algerian Salafist group, he added, « has become a regional terrorist organization, recruiting and operating in all of your countries — and beyond. »

Coordinated Pursuit

After the last hostages were freed, the U.S. military took effective control of the international hunt for Saifi, according to U.S. and European counterterrorism officials. Saifi had avoided the Algerian army by slipping past unguarded borders and vanishing into the desert. Now U.S. forces began tracking him with spy satellites and reconnaissance aircraft.

Overcoming regional hostilities, the U.S. military persuaded Mali, Niger, Algeria and Chad to cooperate on a plan to corral Saifi. U.S. Special Forces gave crash training to local soldiers. Under pressure, Saifi and his militia moved out of Mali in January 2004, crossed through Niger and entered Chad, covering about 1,000 miles of harsh terrain.

On March 9, 2004, troops from Niger and Chad caught up to Saifi in northwestern Chad. Bolstered by U.S. supplies, they killed 43 of Saifi’s fighters. But once again, the desert bandit escaped.

A week later, Saifi and 16 followers were wandering through the Tibesti Mountains, short of water and food and unaware they had encroached on turf controlled by a Chadian rebel group. The rebels, known as the Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad, were enemies of the Chadian army. But they also didn’t like the looks of the interlopers from Algeria and took them captive.

« We were astonished to see these people, » Ousmane Hissein, a Chadian rebel leader in exile, said in an interview in Paris. « We tried to figure out who they were and where they were coming from. » News reports on shortwave radio eventually revealed Saifi’s identity.

Hissein said the rebels offered to turn Saifi over to Algeria, Germany, France and the United States, but all said no. Each country had been involved in chasing Saifi across the desert but did not want to risk a diplomatic rupture with the government of Chad by dealing with the rebels.

Once again, Libya agreed to serve as an intermediary. Relations between the governments in Tripoli and Washington had warmed since Moammar Gaddafi had ended his program to develop weapons of mass destruction four months earlier. But the alliance was still awkward; Libya had been branded a terrorist sponsor by the State Department since 1979, a label that would persist until June 2006.

The Chadian rebels, however, did not trust Gaddafi. They had accused him of assassinating one of their leaders years before. Negotiations stalled for months.

Losing patience, Gaddafi threatened to send his troops into Chad to attack the rebels, Hissein said. But U.S. diplomats, worried about the risk of a regional war, intervened, persuading Gaddafi to pull back and work a deal. « The Americans played a huge role in all of this, » Hissein added.

Seven months after he was captured by the rebels, Saifi was handed over at a border crossing to Libyan authorities, who extradited him to Algeria. The rebels are vague about whether they received any money in return.

Eligible for Amnesty

In June 2005, Saifi was scheduled to go on trial in Algiers. For unexplained reasons, Algerian security services did not bring him to the courtroom, and he was sentenced in absentia to life in prison. Rumors spread that he was dead.

Not so, according to Abdelhaq Layada, founder of the Armed Islamic Group, which fought the Algerian government during the 1990s in a horrific civil war that killed an estimated 200,000 people. Layada, who was recently released from prison as part of an amnesty for convicted terrorists, said he hoped Saifi would soon win his freedom.

« Yes, he’s still alive, » Layada said during an interview outside Algiers. « He’s a Muslim, and he loves Muhammad our prophet, and he loves Allah. He was doing what he thought was right. »

Algerian justice officials declined requests for an interview. In March, however, Justice Minister Tayeb Belaiz said Saifi would be eligible for consideration under the amnesty. Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni called it « a sensitive case » but wouldn’t rule out his release.

Saifi has been indicted in Germany, but Algeria generally doesn’t extradite its citizens to Europe. He is not wanted on criminal charges in the United States.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said the Bush administration would be unlikely to protest publicly if Saifi is released.

« We would support the Algerians, » the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The Algerian government, the official added, has made « political overtures to leaders and individuals who are willing to lay down their arms. We encourage that. »

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington and special correspondent Silke Lode in Berlin contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company