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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Ammari Saifi Still has an Interpol Arrest Warant Out for Him

In the early months of 2004, a lone convoy of Toyota pickup trucks and SUVs raced eastward across the southern extremities of the Sahara. The convoy, led by a wanted Islamic militant named Ammari Saifi, had just slipped from Mali into northern Niger, where the desert rolls out into an immense, flat pan of gravelly sand. Saifi, who has been called the "bin Laden of the Sahara," was traveling with about 50 jihadists, some from Algeria, the rest from nearby African countries such as Mauritania and Nigeria.

There are virtually no roads in this part of the desert, but the convoy moved rapidly. For nearly half a year Saifi and his men had been the object of an international hunt coordinated by the United States military and conducted primarily by the countries that share the desert. Soldiers from Niger, assisted by American and Algerian special forces, had fought with Saifi twice in the past several weeks. Each time, the convoy escaped. Now it was heading further east, toward a remote mountain range in northern Chad.

At the time, Saifi was by far the most sophisticated and resourceful Islamic militant in North Africa and the Sahel, an expansive swath of territory that runs along the Sahara's southern fringe. In the Sahel, the Sahara's windswept dunes gradually reduce to semi-desert, and then, further south, become arid savanna.

The terrain extends roughly 3,000 miles across Africa—from Senegal through Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and into Sudan. It is awesome in its scale, poverty, and lack of governance. Troubled by restive minorities, environmental degradation, economic collapse, coups, famine, genocide, and geographic isolation, the Sahel has been described by one top U.S. military commander as "a belt of instability." (Last year, the U.N. ranked Niger as having the world's worst living conditions; Mali and Chad were among the five worst.)

The region is also home to some 70 million Muslims, and since 9-11 there have been reports that Islamic radicals from other parts of Africa, as well as from the Middle East and South Asia, are proselytizing there, or seeking refuge from their home countries, or simply attempting to wage jihad.

Saifi seemed to belong to this final, most worrying, category.

  • He had spent much of his adult life trying to unseat the secular Algerian government, and in 2003 he orchestrated a terrorist act of stupendous bravado: taking 32 European adventure travelers hostage in the Algerian Sahara, shuttling half of them hundreds of miles south, into Mali, and after 177 days of captivity, exchanging the tourists for suitcases filled with 5 million euros in ransom—an immense sum of money in the Sahel, by some estimates a quarter of Niger's defense budget.
  • Most of the tourists were German, and the German government, which reportedly paid the ransom, filed an international arrest warrant for Saifi. The United States declared him a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, a classification shared by bin Laden and his senior commanders.
  • The United Nations put his name on a roster known as "The New Consolidated List of Individuals and Entities Belonging to or Associated With the Taliban and Al-Qaida."
    The hostage taking was not just brazen, it had strategic implications. Bin Laden's top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, once noted that "a jihadist movement needs an arena that would act like an incubator where its seeds would grow and where it can acquire practical experience in combat, politics, and organizational matters,"
  • it appeared that Saifi, with his loose connections to Al Qaeda, could make the Sahara's wild south just such a place.
  • After releasing the hostages, Saifi remained in the Malian desert for several months, using the ransom to buy "new vehicles, lots of weapons," a U.S. intelligence officer told me.
  • Saifi established an alliance with nomadic tribesmen by marrying the teenage daughter of a sheikh near the Mauritanian border, and soon enough his small militia had gained enough strength to give the Malian army a "bloody nose," a European diplomat in Mali said.
  • For a decade, Saifi's organization, the Algeria-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or GSPC, had killed scores of Algerian officials and soldiers; it was among the deadliest organizations in the world, with operatives in Europe and North America. Saifi appeared to be extending its reach further into Africa.

For the Defense Department, Saifi's activities became the central and most vivid justification for expanding the U.S. military presence in the Sahel.

  • In 2004, American Special Forces and Marines visited Mauritania, Mali, Chad, and Niger to train local armies how to bring order to the desert, and that program will grow this year.
  • Meanwhile, covertly, the American military experimented with a new form of battle. Some analysts call it "netwar"—an innovative melding of U.S. intelligence and manpower with local forces. Netwar, according to its proponents, promises to be an effective way to fight terrorists, but it also risks causing political chaos, or worse, lethal military confusion. The hunt for Saifi may be one of its most important modern prototypes.

While senior U.S. military commanders monitored Saifi's growing influence in the Sahel, they pressured the Malian government to take aggressive action. According to a U.N. official, the Malian government was hesitant to attack the convoy because it "feared that the GSPC might retaliate." A former U.S. diplomat in the region said the Defense Department was "unhappy because basically, the Malians haven't gone and kicked butt in the desert."

  • Where Mali's impoverished army was too timid, or unable, to act, the U.S. military stepped in.
  • American Navy P-3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft, dispatched from Italy, tracked Saifi's movements, and U.S. "military experts," according to a local press report, conducted operations on the ground.
  • American military teams in northern Mali helped Algerian and local security forces chase Saifi's militia into Niger, where they engaged in several gunfights.
  • They found that the convoy, though battered, was well equipped for desert warfare. Saifi had fitted the vehicles with GPS navigational devices that enabled his men to locate secret caches of water and supplies in the vast, uninhabited stretches of desert.
  • In truck beds, 12.7mm machine guns and 14.5mm Russian anti-aircraft guns threatened adversaries that approached by land and air.

With the multinational force closing in, and American reconnaissance planes observing from above, Saifi's convoy raced across Niger toward the Chadian border. As the vehicles pushed forward, weapons rattled in their mountings and the roar of engines cut through the desert silence.

Stray rocks and loose sand battered the vehicles' exteriors. Windshields clouded over with sediment. During a recent battle, fire had damaged some gear, and certain electrical devices began to fail. One truck broke down near a forlorn place in Niger known as the Tree of Ténéré, where an ancient and solitary acacia once stood. The truck was abandoned.

Occasionally, if Saifi believed there was time for prayer, he might stop the convoy. At these moments, his men would walk some way from the trucks, lay in a row their small woven rugs over the ocher dust, shriveled scrub, and stones, and bow toward Mecca. Sometimes, as they prayed, fierce winds would blow through the folds of their desert gowns, and the sun would cast their shadows across the sand.

In the desert mountains, Chadian rebels proved more adept than government soldiers.


But on at least one occasion, military strategists in Germany clashed with the State Department over how to deal with an Algerian militant named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, "The One-Eyed."

  • Mokhtar had ties to the GSPC, and for years had run a transnational smuggling and banditry operation from the deserts of northern Mali.
  • The U.S. military believed that after 9-11 Mokhtar was recruiting and arming religious radicals in the area; it wanted to attack his camps.
  • The State Department argued that the intelligence on Mokhtar was not conclusive, and the American embassy in Mali insisted that an air strike on Mokhtar would "radicalize people you don't want to radicalize," according to a U.S. government official in the Sahel.
  • In the end, the attack was called off. Vicki Huddleston, who was then U.S. ambassador to Mali, said that rather than arming terrorists, Mokhtar was supporting the Kunta Arabs, a nomadic group that was fighting other desert tribes.

Huddleston has since retired from government, and declined to discuss her official conversations with European Command, but when asked about the dispute, she said, "If you're correct that we discouraged [the Defense Department], it was a good thing. If we had bombed a bunch of Kuntas, I think the whole place would have gone crazy. They're certainly not terrorists."

Still, the information on Mokhtar's activities was worrying, and taken with other intelligence from the region, it said a great deal about the Sahel's vulnerabilities.

In October 2002 an American counterterrorism team visited Chad, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania to invite those countries into a program called the Pan Sahel Initiative. The program was officially "designed to protect borders, track the movement of people, combat terrorism, and enhance regional cooperation and stability."

  • Small groups of Special Forces and Marines, operating under European Command, would deploy to each state, where they would train select, 150-man companies.
  • They would provide the African troops with equipment, such as night-vision goggles, ammunition, and communications gear.
  • They would facilitate military cooperation by putting the region's top defense chiefs in touch with each other. (Within the Sahel, open channels of communication between militaries barely exist.) They would, essentially, lay the foundation for a network that could stymie the growth of regional terrorism.

The four countries were eager to participate, and the Pan Sahel Initiative was budgeted for roughly $6.5 million for its first year. Initially, it seemed like an abstract, preventative exercise, but as preparations were under way circumstances on the ground changed.

In early 2003, news emerged that Saifi had kidnapped the 32 tourists. Suddenly the initiative's planners had a real target. Wald has called the hostage taking a "blessing in disguise." It provided European Command with not only an important test case, but also the strongest argument for its newfound mission in Africa.


When Saifi's convoy finally crossed from Niger into Chad's rugged Tibesti Mountains, it found itself cornered by a small contingent of Chadian soldiers. The two sides fought an intense battle, one that would last for three days. When the Defense Department learned that the Chadian military had intercepted Saifi and his men, orders were rushed to Ramstein Air Base in Germany to prepare two heavy C-130 Hercules aircraft with roughly 20 tons of aid for the Chadian army. Normally, it takes two days for the Air Force to prepare such a mission. Ramstein had to have the planes in the air immediately. There was danger that Saifi might flee again. The convoy had reportedly backed into a large cave for cover, and the soldiers had taken losses—three killed and 16 injured. The Chadian soldiers were ill equipped, with little food, ammunition, or medical supplies. In contrast, Saifi and his men were well armed, with rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles, ammunition, night-vision goggles, and advanced communications gear. Ramstein had the C-130s airborne in one hour, and 10 hours later, the planes approached an austere military outpost in northern Chad, the Faya-Largeau Airport.

As the pilots prepared to land, the limitations of the Chadian military became evident. Brush and sand encroached on the tarmac. In the 100-degree heat, three dozen Chadian soldiers rushed to help unload the C-130s, but doing the job by hand would be disastrously slow. The crew performed an improvised "offload" and the supplies were rushed to the front. By the battle's end, the soldiers had killed or captured 43 militants. But Saifi and some of his men, once again, slipped away. Hungry, destitute, and uncertain of their precise location, the militants wandered off on foot, only to confront further hardships. In Tibesti's desert mountains—some as high as 10,000 feet—there are virtually no natural sources of food or water. The region is controlled by a secular rebel group known as the Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad, or MDJT, which has been fighting the Chadian government since 1998. It wasn't long before the rebels found Saifi, put him in chains, and announced that the Sahara's most notorious hostage taker had, himself, been taken hostage.

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