Global Policy Forum

Africa: Oil, Al-Qaeda and the US Military


By Ritt Goldstein *

Asia Times
March 30, 2004

Africa's Maghreb and Sahel regions recently exploded into world view with allegations that the Madrid bombers were tied to those areas' "al Qaeda" groups. And while United States concerns about terrorism in the region have been increasingly voiced, critics of the administration of President George W Bush say that the ongoing US pursuit of energy resources lies behind them. As early as the fall of 2002, Britain's Economist magazine charged that oil "is the only American interest in Africa".

In a fall 2003 interview with Asia Times Online, noted US security analyst Michael Klare, author of Resource Wars, had warned of America's potential African involvement. When queried as to where the next oil flash point might be after Iraq, Klare replied: "I've been looking at Africa. It's heating up over there." Illustrating the basis for such statements, in 2001 Vice President Dick Cheney's report on a US National Energy Policy declared Africa to be one of America's "fastest-growing sources of oil and gas". By February 1, 2002, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Walter Kansteiner, declared: "This [African oil] has become of national strategic interest to us." And a December 2001 report by the US National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2015, forecast that by 2015 a full quarter of US oil imports would come from Africa.

During this past February, a handful of top US generals visited Africa in separate and far from usual trips. They included the US's European commander, Marine General James L Jones, as well as the European deputy commander, Air Force, General Charles Wald. And excluding the region known as the Horn of Africa, the US European Command oversees the US's African actions. The trips occurred against a widely reported backdrop of increasing pressures from US industry and conservative policy groups to secure energy sources outside the Middle East.

Over the past several months, the US has been in the process of dispatching Special Forces troops to the countries of Africa's Sahel - Mauritania, Chad, Mali and Niger. The effort is part of a program dubbed the Pan Sahel Initiative, designed to provide anti-terrorism training to the region's military. Others have termed it a program to train regional armies. Involved US Special Forces groups are operating out of Germany, where an investigation of the Madrid bombers is also ongoing. And military cooperation with Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia has reportedly been increased as well. But it is the fairly recent and substantial oil discoveries that are said to be fueling this effort, and as the Washington Times declared in a headline on February 26: "US eyes terrorism networks, oil in Africa."

In Colombia, similar US undertakings to train local forces have been previously pursued to secure that country's oil infrastructure, particularly its pipelines. There, the leftist group known by the Spanish acronym FARC has long waged a guerilla campaign, pipeline sabotage being a favored tactic. Similarly, ongoing pipeline sabotage in Iraq is reported as substantial. And in a surprising revelation of US Defense Department candor, a December 2003 report referred to the "open-ended imperial policing" that Iraqi involvement now means.

Casting a new light on the Madrid bombing on March 11, the primary group allegedly behind the attack, Salafia Jihadia, was said to have singled out Spain in the May 16, 2003, Morocco bombings. A private Spanish club, Casa de Espana, was the most severely damaged among the five targets in Morocco. The other targets included: the Israeli Alliance club and a Jewish cemetery, the Belgian consulate (Belgium's business community has been very active in Morocco), and a hotel for business people. The Moroccan economy is in the throes of "structural reforms", and increasing privatization is straining relations within the country. The May bombing followed a summer 2002 standoff between Spain and Morocco over a disputed island, Spanish commandos eventually reclaiming it from Moroccan control. A long-simmering dispute also exists between Spain and Morocco over two remaining Spanish sovereignty enclaves in the country, Ceuta and Melilla. Considerably more Spanish troops are said to garrison these enclaves than were dispatched by Madrid to Iraq. And some speculate that beyond Islamist objectives, the motivation behind Madrid's blasts may have included some very traditional, anti-imperialist sentiment.

In a surprisingly timely commentary on the agenda of Salafia Jihadia, just two days prior to the Madrid attacks, the director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), George Tenet, testified before the Senate Committee on Armed Services. He specifically cited Salafia, saying that it was among "small local groups with limited domestic agendas". He added that these groups "have autonomous leadership, they pick their own targets, they plan their own attacks". Yet according to Agence France-Presse, the Madrid attacks are now said to have been planned at a "rear base" of al-Qaeda, located where Morocco borders Mali, Mauritania and Algeria. An Algerian group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), was also allegedly involved. And as with every other major bombing over the past several months, Jordanian-Palestinian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is alleged to have been the "mastermind", though some experts in the intelligence community have expressed doubts.

In the case of the old anti-communist movement and mind set, all communists were once lumped together, their many groups and factions considered essentially as one led by the Soviet Union. A similar mind set is demonstrated by many in the West regarding today's Islamic militants. Some analysts say this as indeed the case, noting that while those who today are called "al-Qaeda" share a certain commonality, the differences between groups is often great. Notably, there existed such differences between communist groups and nations that they occasionally led to armed confrontation, warfare and splits, as in the case of China vs Vietnam and Sino-Soviet tensions and split. But in mid-March the GSPC reportedly did fight a running battle with forces from Niger and then Chad, with the US reported to have flown food, blankets and medical supplies from Germany to aid Chad's forces. And with the basing of US military efforts in Germany, one explanation for Germany's ongoing terror investigations becomes apparent.

Subsequent to the Niger and Chad GSPC battles, US concerns about the GSPC attempting to topple the governments of Mauritania and Algeria were reported. But, in the recent debate over so-called "intelligence failures", a pattern of wildly "exaggerating" known threats has also been reported. And it is now also widely accepted that such exaggerations provided the basis for the US's military involvement in Iraq. The GSPC has been long fighting to topple the Algerian government and install an Islamic state. But this resistance arose after the Algerian government canceled the 1992 election in order to "keep an Islamic party from coming to power", according to the Toronto Star. And while the pro-US Mauritania government of Maaouyah Ould Sid Ahmed Taya fought off a June 2003 coup attempt, it was believed to have been launched by the country's own military, not the GSPC, as was widely reported.

Taya himself came to power in a 1984 coup and elections in that country are broadly described as "suspect". Mauritania is also widely acknowledged as a country where slavery still exists, and the Washington Times reported in July 2003 that "Mr Taya, like other pro-American leaders in the Arab world, has cracked down on political and religious opposition". Paradoxically, if US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's so-called "democratic wave" were to actually engulf the region, it appears that hardest hit would be the bulk of US allies. But Mauritania and Algeria both have oil.

In a perspective of the oil industry shared by many in the non-governmental organization community, in a January interview with Asia Times Online, Jim Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, observed: "The oil industry is all about super-profits. Since everyone is pursuing this, and the marketplace doesn't effectively regulate it, there's been war, bribery and corruption virtually wherever the oil industry goes."

In 2002, Rice's old firm, Chevron Texaco (she was a director), had said that while it invested US$5 billion in Africa over the previous five years, it would invest $20 billion over the next five. Given such US energy investment, it's no surprise that a 2002 edition of Alexander's Gas & Oil Connections, a highly respected industry newsletter, said in a headline: "US moves to protect interest in African oil." And while several authorities were quoted as emphasizing that Africa's oil supplies were free from any major threats, the piece added that the Bush administration was determined to "ensure that they remain so".

But a steady evolution - and deterioration - of the African security environment has been reported to the media by US officials. Whereas in 2002 the continent offered apparently stable oil field conditions, that assessment was changed almost simultaneously with the level of domestic US pressures to acquire African oil; a substantive al-Qaeda threat materializing proportionate to the need for oil. And some believe that Secretary of State Colin Powell best illustrated a methodology that explained such circumstances last summer. At a July 10 press conference in South Africa, Powell was asked how he would respond to critics who charged that the US's new focus on Africa was really about African oil. Powell replied that "we are not here for any other purpose than to demonstrate our friendship, to demonstrate our commitment, and to see if we can help people in need".

Recent questions have been raised in the US Congress regarding the administration's apparent pursuit of cynical ploys and misleading verbiage in its pronouncements. As regards help for those in need, the tiny West African island-state of Sao Tome has been rumored since 2002 as the site for a potential US naval base. Sao Tome's strategic position in the Gulf of Guinea, where recent deep-water oil finds have been made, led to a meeting between Bush and Sao Tome's then-president Fradique de Menezes in 2002. The US allies in the area have virtually no blue-water navy, and Sao Tome holds jointly with Nigeria an area with a reported potential of 11 billion barrels of oil. Many of the other newly discovered African reserves are located offshore as well. While a July 2003 military coup - which shortly followed Powell's African trip - ousted president de Menezes, within the past two weeks (this March) said "US experts" began training the island's security apparatus, voicing concerns about al-Qaeda operating in the West African region.

As a US Defense Department document this winter by Dr Jeffrey Record said: "The contemporary language on terrorism has become, as Conor Gearty puts it, 'the rhetorical servant of the established order'." It emphasized that almost nothing matters "a jot against the contemporary power of the terrorist label".

About the author: Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist based in Stockholm. His work has appeared in broad sheets such as Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, Spain's El Mundo and Denmark's Politiken, as well as with the Inter Press Service (IPS), a global news agency.

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