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The In-Amenas Fiasco – Glitch in the Algerian-U.S.-French Security Love Fest : Part Two

January 31, 2013
The Mali Music Festival ... considered `Mali's Woodstock'

The Mali Music Festival … considered `Mali’s Woodstock’

This entry also appears at Foreign Policy In Focus Algeria Watch and Portside

Note: Part One of the Series


“There are two kinds of history – the official kind, full of lies, which is taught in schools – history ad usum delphini; and there is secret history – in which we learn the real causes of events –  a shameful chronicle”

– Balzac. Les Illusions Perdues


1. Mali: New Front of the War On Terrorism

No doubt the attack on the In-Ameras oil and gas facility in the Algerian Sahara is related to the events in Mali, where France has just landed troops in an effort to dislarge the Islamic militants who have taken over Mali’s  northern regions.  What are the pretexts, the deeper logic of the French Malian intervention? One would think that people wouldn’t fall for it yet again: `We’re just sending the troops to protect innocent lives and support democracy’ – humanitarian interventionalism. Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya.

Now add Mali to the list.

But once again, it works like a charm, long enough at least to get French troops on the ground in Mali from whence it will difficult to extract them for some time. It helps to have a weak UN Security Council resolution a la Libya which doesn’t condone sending troops  but is vague enough to give a thin veil of legitimacy – the suggestion of international law at work – to cover war crimes. Combine that with some wacko Salafist radicals, a vital element in the mix, who destroy Sufi shrines and rough up women, forcing them, veiled, back in the kitchen without music on the radio and the combustible mix is complete.

Enter French President Francois Hollande, his popularity sagging at home as the French socio-economic crisis deepens. Lying with a straight face, Hollande told his nation and the world that by sending French troops to Mali with jet fighter cover that “France has no other purpose than to fight terrorism.”  France only wants to help Mali `recover its territorial integrity’ and make sure there are “legitimate authorities and an electoral process.”


It plays well in Paris where the Mali diversion works to make a weak and confused French president look strong and determined. The call for a French-led, secular jihad to counter an exaggerated Islamic jihad gets the French public singing La Marseillaise! in unison. If the United States led the charge in opening the first front on the War on Terrorism, France, where Islamophobia has a long and esteemed history, can provide the shock troops for the second front, the Sahara. French military intervention plays well in Washington too.

The Obama Administration has been unable, until now, to pressure its choice strategic ally, Algeria, to enter the Malian fray. With its eye on an Asian-Pacific military buildup, Washington, itself, is unwilling to send U.S. troops (other than some Special Forces types we have to assume are involved) to Mali. Hollande’s willingness to act as the Sahara’s Netanyahu suits the Obama Administration and its likely new Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel.

2. Hollande’s Song

Missing from Hollande’s `We-only-want-to- help-out-the-poor-Malian-people’ scenario is France’s sorry history in post-colonial history of shamelessly supporting  some of the worst African dictators in exchange for economic access, its complicity in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and its specific historic interest going back to the 1890s to control the Sahara and its extraordinary wealth in oil, natural gas, uranium, gold and other natural resources.

The French even have a term for it `Francafrique’. Some French commentators speak the French military incursion into Mali as the `return of Francafrique’, a bit misleading, as, since the independence wave of the 1960s, France never left Africa. Its neo-colonial relationship with its former colonies is an unbroken chain of cynical economic deals lubricated by massive corruption of its African client elites.

To understand the French intervention in Mali, it helps to take Hollande’s words and rework them a bit to `France is intervening in Mali to protect the extensive French economic interests in the region – oil, natural gas, uranium and gold’. These interests, both those in full operation and those yet to come extend across the Sahara in Chad, Niger, Mali, Algeria and Mauritania. For example. although uranium is not yet mined in Mali, it is mined in nearby northern Niger by Areva, one of the world’s largest uranium mining companies, French owned. The French get most of the profits and benefits thereof. The Sahara locals wind up with little more than polluted water tables and piles of radioactive tailings.

3. Pre-empting The Spectre of Chinese Influence

Under the surface, beneath the French song about promoting liberte, egalite and fraternite in Mali with  French Special Forces troops and Mirage jet fighters, one notices  `un certain nervosite’. Yep, the French power circles are getting the shakes over the instability in MaliThe fear, like most paranoia, is vague, and while not totally imaginary, it is grossly exaggerated.

No, it is not the Algerian trained (by the DRS) Saharan Islamicists that strike fear into the heart of the French elite, …small potatoes. It’s China! Of course. Uncertainty of how the situation might play out throughout the Sahara region  is at the source of French concern. Political changes in the region could jeopardize France’s sizeable uranium, petro-chemical and other strategic raw material access. For a country in which 70% of electrical power comes from nuclear power, and most of the uranium to run it comes from the Sahara, this is serious.

If this part of the scenario is accurate then there is another way to consider French military actions in Mali: little more than a pre-emptive, defensive military maneuver meant to keep China out of Mali (and Niger and Chad among other places) and for France to retain its access to the Saharan wealth on which it depends.

While uranium has not been mined yet in Mali (or in Chad) , surveys done by the French in the 1950s located significant potential sources of the stuff there. Geologists also claim there could be yet more Saharan oil and natural gas throughout the Sahara region from Mauritania to the Sudan, much of which – including Mauretania, Mali, Niger and Chad – has yet to be unearthed. 

But  for the people of the Sahara, the French-created Saharan national boundaries mean little. Where Mali ends and Niger begins is not found on the Tuareg mental map of the region they have lived in for several thousand years. The French fear that the instability in Mali could spill over into Niger, where France has several major uranium mine, with another one about to open for business. Perhaps this gives some insights as to why France has concentrated virtually all of its African military bases in Africa, either in, or within striking distance of the Sahara. One should expect that one outcome of the current French military campaign in Mali is another permanent base somewhere, perhaps between Timbuctou and Gao, north of the Niger River.

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

4. Some historical considerations

Hollande’s `solidarity’ with Mali his eagerness to send French troops there is merely the latest episode in France’s 125 year effort to gain control the Sahara belt countries from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, an effort in which they were only partially successful. 

French conquest of the Sahara began badly. The first mission, the so-called Flatters Mission, taken in 1881 from Algeria, was entirely wiped out by Tuareg bands. Others would proceed only with difficulty. It would take the French nearly twenty years to recover and reconvene its Sahara thrust eastward. The French march to the Red Sea was again stopped at Fashoda in 1898 where the French offensive ran into British troops which it wisely decided not to confront militarily. 

The decisive military confrontation that gave France control of the rest of the Sahara took place shortly after, in 1902;  a French military contingent under Lieutenant Cottenest wiped out a band of 300 Tuareg fighters in the Ahaggar region (in the Sahara by the current Algerian-Libyan border) .

There were other setbacks. Early 20th century attempts to dominate the Fezzan (Western Libya) were checked first by the Italians and later after World War II by combined U.S. and British pressure which expelled their military missions from Libya. France had hoped to annex this region to Algeria. Shortly thereafter, in the early 1950s, oil was discovered there. 

French military activity in Mali, as part of a larger plan to dominate the region and its resources, is nothing new. Twice in the 20th century, France considered creating something of an independent Saharan political unit, under French control of course first during World War One, and later, a more serious attempt in the 1950s.

The first campaign to create a `French Sahara’ was led by a French priest, one Father Charles de Foucauld, assassinated in Tamanrasset (in the Algerian Sahara)  in December, 1916. Foucauld’s vision, which had some support in French circles of power, was to create an ethnic state, what he referred to as a `pan-Tuareg’ political entity in the Sahara that would cut the Algerian Sahara off from the northern part of the country, isolating the Arab North from sub-Saharan Black Africa.

Following the racist logic of French colonialism, Foucauld believed that the Tuaregs, an offshot of the Berbers, were racially close to Europeans, superior to the Arabs who represented a kind of second rung of humanity. Black Africans, whom Foucauld considered virtually ineducable, were at the bottom his racial pyramid. According to his thinking Foucauld hoped to create an ethnically pure Tuareg Sahara that would be closely linked to France culturally and economically.

These ideas were clearly expressed in one of Foucauld’s many letters to members of the French parliament:

“How can we civilize our African empire?” he asks, the `burning question’ of the pre-WW I years. “Doubtless it consists of variable elements: Berbers (the Tuareg) capable of rapid progress, Arabs slow to progress. The diverse Black populations, by themselves, cannot achieve civilized status, but all should advance to the degree capable.”(1)

How generous and liberal a spirit!

Although Foucauld’s ideas never materialized into an all-Saharan entity that would ripe off the Algerian Sahara and combine it with French colonized Saharan areas of Chad, Niger and Mali, his program resonated among certain pro-colonial and mining circles in the French Parliament, and like a phoenix these ideas would rise from oblivion in the early 1950s.

At that time the French government proposed what is referred to as “lOrganisation commune des regions sahariennes” (the Common – or Combined -Organization of Sahara Regions), its acronym – OCSR. The OCSR created a series of bureaucracies to research the region’s mineral wealth, to administer the region, to set up a communications network. It was a serious endeavor that went much further than Foucauld’s less practical colonial vision.

France's over-all neo-colonial plan for Africa

France’s over-all neo-colonial plan for Africa

5. The Sahara and the Algerian War for Independence: 1954-1962

Not much has been written about the fact that the French had started secretly negotiating with the Algerian rebels – the FLN (Front de la liberations nationale) – as early as 1956 and that even at this early date, the French offered the Algerians a modicum of independence; but it was a truncated independence that Paris was willing to concede, one which granted independence to Algeria essentially north of the Atlas Mountains with France retaining control of the Algerian Sahara.

What figured large into the French plan was the fact that oil, oil in very large quantities, was discovered in 1956 in the Sahara. France thought of that oil as its own and was unwilling to part with it. The Algerians for their part, were unwilling to accept a truncated independence. One probable reason for the utter ferocity of the independence war both by the French and Algerians was that oil related economic stakes were so high.

France hoped to severe the Algerian Sahara from the north and connect it in a vast industrial, communication network zone that it would control that would be spread out over much of the region which during the colonial period was known as French Sudan. At independence in 1960, that region would become four independent countries – from west to east: Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad. The economic integration of the Sahara itself was a part of a larger plan to link the former French colonies by roads, railway from the Congo Brazzaville further south with metropolitan France. (2)

In the postwar decade from 1945-1955, the region had been heavily surveyed by French geologists and geographers whose reports – still valid today – gave indications and hints of vast as yet untapped mineral and petro-chemical wealth that France was anxious to dominate. While the OCSR would formally recognize the independence of these countries, the program, a classic neo-colonial venture, was based on effective French economic, political and military control of this vast region.

Financial backing for such a large undertaking, considered essential for France’s future energy and economic security were undertaken. There was considerable support for the idea in the French parliament and in the ruling circles in general.  Much organizational infrastructure for the project, the political reorganization of the region, some infrastructural development was already underway even before 1960.

However, Algerian resistance combined with French inability to get all the newly independent political players on board stymied the formal implementation of the plan. The loss of the Algerian Sahara, a key element, made the plan unworkable in the form France had envisioned.
But France has never given up on the idea of a French-controlled Sahara zone. Unable to formally undertake the program, Paris has for the past half century, largely successfully one might add, attempted to implement the OCSR informally and that has worked better. France’s Mali military mission is little more than the latest attempt to follow through, slightly revised, of these earlier efforts to control the Sahara and its resources.


1. my translation from Andre Bourgeot. Sahara: espace geostrategique et enjeux politiques (Niger). Autrepart (16) 2000L 21-48. I am indebted to this author for many of the insights cited in this last section of this entry

2. ibid



Walid Ramzi. Algeria Considers Building Border Surveillance System

Immanuel Wallerstein. The Very Risky Bet of Hollande in Mali: The Probable Long Term Disaster.

John Pilger. The Real Invasion of Africa and Other Not-Made-For-Hollywood-Holy-Wars

Abayomi Azikiwe. U.S. Escalates Imperialist War in Mali and Niger

R. Teichman. The War in Mali. What You Should Know: An El Dorado of Uranium, Gold, Petroleum, Strategic Minerals…

Nene Diallo. Uranium From Niger, Energy For France

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Les Canges permalink
    January 31, 2013 12:17 pm

    As always, the most plausible story that you never see anywhere else. Thanks Rob.

  2. kerim permalink
    January 31, 2013 11:24 pm

    Right on the money . It’s France vs (sneaky)China .
    Beautiful insight .

  3. February 2, 2013 8:02 am

    a comment from an old `Peace Corps Tunisia’ friend (1966-68) who lives in Oklahoma (rjp):

    Very interesting. Enjoyed and learned a lot from the reading. Watch the typos. Sever — to cut. Severe – extremely, harsh. Mauritania — correct spelling according to Encarta.

    Now, no country is going to act other than in its own self interests. What is Mali to do? It’s as corrupt and disorganized as any other country around, and I suspect Malian politicians are no more sophisticated or nuanced than any other country, possibly less.

    In the meantime, who suffers? The poor villagers. They’ve always suffered. What’s new? It is what it is.

    Why do we get excited about the motives of France? France would not react if not in its own self interests. Who is different? Not even the UN. Only the powerless NGOs….and even then.

    What is the solution? Is there a solution? And what difference does it make? What is important is to not e duped!

    Cheers — for what it’s worth!

  4. February 2, 2013 8:06 am

    a comment from another old `Peace Corps Tunisia’ friend, 1966-68, who lives on the East Coast. (rjp)

    Rob, a couple points that you touched on but maybe could develop further. You mentioned the Tuareg east-west orientation, and the lack on their part of a sense, or perhaps necessity, of the current borders. This would be especially true with Mali and Niger, although probably extending to Mauritania and maybe Chad. But the north-south divide is the one fraught with potential for much more conflict. The French in their wisdom, put the blacks of those countries in charge and of course the black Nigeriens or Malians never had a lot of use for Tuaregs, or Arabs, with good reason one could argue. But whatever the nastiness of history in that region, with its slave trading and ethnic warfare, the black leadership may have to make some concessions and the French could be the best ones to push for that, not that they will. Maybe not an Azawad, but some kind of autonomy or limited self-governance for Tuaregs in their Saharan bailiwick. That might be a way to keep the AQIM guys at bay.

    I wonder also about the imminence of any Chinese threat to French influence. Surely the Chinese would love to have at the mineral wealth of the region, but they are notoriously risk averse. They have been moving in all across Africa, and sometimes they’ve got burned, or at least had their employees kidnapped and their investments threatened. Not a whole lot, but enough to, I think, keep them from getting ahead of events where there is instability. This is not to say the French might not be paranoid. They might see themselves quieting everything down only to have set the conditions for Chinese entry and underbidding. The Chinese don’t give a shit about good governance or human rights, of course, but they do want calm to do their exploiting. Could the French have a perverse interest in keeping things a little edgy, just to give the Chinese second thoughts?

  5. February 2, 2013 8:14 am

    These are interesting comments…quick response (to be elaborated upon later)

    1. Concerning the Tuaregs, I hope to write more about their situation and the ethnic mix in Mali later, but of course you are right…until the situation of the Tuaregs is seriously addressed one can, without much danger of being wrong, predict continued instability. Even the French have been mouthing platitudes about the need to address their situation. Wallerstein has a very good piece on the internal situation in Mali at Common Dreams. Here is the link:

    The Very Risky Bet of Holland in Mali: The Probable Long-Term Disaster

    2. The `Chinese threat’ to French interests in the Sahara. You are right on target – there hardly is a threat, China is not moving on French interests there and has not plans to for the moment. This is the insanity though of the neocon approach to foreign policy which tries to `pre-empt’ future threats long before they materialize. It is dumb, destabilizing and at its heart, paranoid. France does it on a small scale in Africa compared to what the United States does globally.

    • kerim permalink
      February 2, 2013 11:29 pm

      The article talked about the abundance of natural resources in these Sahel & Sahara-countries, especially Gold and Uranium, which are worth fighting for and China was definitely lurking to sneak in, but was aware that France has got the advantage of its colonial past in the region whereby french is still spoken as an official language .

  6. February 13, 2013 2:59 pm

    I constantly emailed this website post page to all my friends, for the reason that if like to read it next my contacts
    will too.

  7. guy permalink
    February 17, 2013 6:39 pm

    I am against the exploitation of any country by France or any other superpower, however, It is better to be “exploited a little” by somone who has some kind of humanity and human rights and already had enough not to want even more, than allow the chinese that are going to suck africa to the bone. They have no regard for human rights, their own citizens work like slaves. And they don’t give a damn about the environment.

  8. Ahmed Abu Abdul Elah permalink
    April 4, 2013 4:53 pm

    By the name of God the Merciful

    Perhaps many of the world’s free people who reject the injustice haters of dictatorship, do not know the truth of what is really happening on the Algeria’s land, Behind the Iron wall imposed by the last military system on the earth, where the absence of the fair media channels and the fair neutral reporters who deliver the truth to the audience, as experienced by the tortured people in Algeria.

    Yes, it is the bitter truth, Algerian people today is the only people who did not get their rights of honest media, and the Media Diversity prevailing in all countries of the world, this oppressed people is the only people who do not have the right of flow higher Internet, to communicate with the rest of the peoples to achieve the purpose of the human being existence, that is, socializing as he says: (O you people, I have created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes so that the sight of God) ….

    Also, this people is the only one in the world who don’t permit for his sond to establish a media channel against ruling system unless it is outside the borders of Algeria.

    and Algerian journalist is the only one in the world today, who can’t tell the truth, cause he will not be safe at the same night in his house and not being tortured from the regime secret service’s people, as Algeria is the only country in the world who its people don’t breeze the freedom,

    Except in n the mountains and jungles or outside the borders of Algeria, the only country that you know the results before the elections

    And changing the law and the Constitution with every governor, the only country which you can’t sue the president, the minister and the officer

    So the result was the assassination of the people behind the wall of silence and poverty,

    With the complicity of the major capitals that haunt young thieves, and opens its banks and economy for big thieves and as a result was a corruption in the country. .

    Perhaps a lot of observers are wondering about the secret of the delay of the revolution in Algeria, and the fact that unknown to many of them that the uprising of the people on the injustice of the government did not stop one day, as referred to daily strikes in all sectors, but her voice remained muted behind a wall of the monopoly of the media, which prevents the sound or the image to be transferred to express the boiling of the people’s feelings outside the walls of Algeria.

    In front of the insistence of the military regime in Algeria to prevent the entry of the third generation of the Internet for service and preventing media pluralism we call upon all the free world to lift this injustice for this oppressed people and support their right to inform the qualitative and multi-along the lines of the peoples of the region and the world by pushing on the Algerian regime criminal who collect on people crime against wealth and a crime against the minds of children by depriving them of the advantages of modern technology and openness to the peoples of the world .


  1. The In-Amenas Fiasco – Glitch in the Algerian-U.S.-French Security Love Fest ; Part One of a series « Rob Prince's Blog
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