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Dubious claims of militant training camps in the Sahara

A Fox News story on 'terrorist' training camps in Mauritania contains factual errors and cites questionable sources

Ever since 2004, when a number of senior US State Department and Pentagon officials linked, without any evidence, the Madrid train bombings of 11 March 2004 to “al-Qaeda groups lurking deep in the Sahara”, stories have appeared intermittently about extremist training camps in the Sahara. The latest, written by Malia Zimmerman and entitled “Terror triumvirate: ISIS, al Qaeda, Boko Haram training together in Mauritania: analysts”, was published by Fox News on 23 March. Within days, the story had gone almost viral, reproduced by hundreds of online news services and bloggers, frequently with dramatic “scare” headlines.

The Fox News story says: “The world’s three most infamous terrorist organizations are working together at al-Qaeda-run training camps in the Sahara Desert in Mauritania, where dozens of recruits from the U.S., Canada and Europe are being indoctrinated into violent jihad and training for attacks that could expand the so-called caliphate across North and West Africa, according to analysts.”

If true, that is very alarming. The analysts cited by Fox are the Florida-based Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC), which tracks international extremism and claims to have had a source on the ground in Mauritania.

Fox quotes TRAC’s editorial director Veryan Khan extensively. And her evidence sounds convincing - at least to anyone who does not know Mauritania and the Sahara. Fox says: “At least 80 trainees, recruits from the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe, including France, are known to be training at the camps, according to a TRAC source who visited the camp and obtained documentation.”

According to Khan, “The situation in Mauritania is a powder keg very few people are talking about … [It] is not a travel destination  … ISIS, Boko Haram and al-Qaeda all have links to two camps in the remote sands of the expansive North African country …  The only reason to be there from a Western country is to train for terrorism.”

Khan describes the two camps as being in Mauritania’s “remote eastern region”. However, the picture Fox inserts in its article is a Google Earth picture of the famous Maatamoulana Mosque, which Khan claims to be one of the two training camps.

Maatamoulana was founded as a centre of Islamic education and Sufi practice in 1958, since when it has been a centre for both local and western pilgrims. Although local people say Maatamoulana has recently had a reputation as a trading place for drugs and military spare parts, it is far from being a “terrorist training camp”. A more scholarly account of the mosque and its activities is given by the anthropologist and Islamic scholar Joseph Hill.

Moreover, Maatamoulana is nowhere near Mauritania’s “remote eastern region”. It is 80 miles from the capital Nouakchott and easily accessible by road - turn right at Boutilimit on the N3 out of Nouakchott and head southwest to Nbak.

As for the second camp, neither Fox nor TRAC make any further reference to its name or location.

Further doubts about the accuracy of the Fox story are revealed in this statement: “Eurasia Review reported in 2011 that Boko Haram leader Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya acknowledged that the terror group’s militants were trained in Mauritania and claimed that Mauritania “exported” Boko Haram to Nigeria.” In fact, neither Eurasia Review nor the author of the original article, Magharebia’s Jemal Oumar (financed by the US Department of Defense), ever made such a statement. That is because Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya was the former president of Mauritania, not the leader of Boko Haram.

To set the record straight, Boko Haram’s founder, Mohamed Yusuf, received training at the Tamouret (see below) training camp in southern Algeria around 2007.

Such errors and inaccuracies would suggest that neither Fox nor TRAC should be taken as anything more than proponents of scare stories dressed up as research, and no doubt designed to embarrass the Obama administration. An examination of TRAC reveals that it is highly selective in its data collection and referencing, academically sloppy and certainly not “one of the world’s most comprehensive terrorism research centres”, as it claims to be. (See Alex Schmid’s review of TRAC in Perspectives on Terrorism).

Aside from the story’s inaccuracies and TRAC’s questionable reputation, it is inconceivable that one, let alone two, such training camps could exist in Mauritania today without the knowledge of the country’s security apparatus. Mauritania’s authoritarian and militaristic regime is a central cog in the West’s new security surveillance and control systems covering this part of the Sahara and Sahel. In addition to Mauritania’s capable intelligence forces, the US and France both have significant military and intelligence assets in Mauritania, including aerial and ground surveillance systems. Today, militant trainings camps as described by Fox and TRAC could simply not remain undetected.

However, having effectively knocked the Fox/TRAC story on the head, there are questions that do need to be answered.

After several years of rumour, firm evidence came to light in 2009 that a major militant training camp, which I have called Tamouret, existed in southern Algeria from around 2004 until its move to northern Mali in 2009.*

Although Tamouret was ostensibly an al-Qaeda training camp, it was established and managed by Algeria’s secret intelligence service, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), with the complicity of its Western allies, notably the US, the UK and France. Evidence from former trainees indicates that there were about 270 trainees at Tamouret at any one time, mostly from Algeria, but also from other North African, Sahelian, Gulf and even central Asian countries. Training consisted mostly of “throat-slitting” (égorgement), with an elite trained as snipers. Training was undertaken on live persons, brought to the camp by the DRS, supposedly from Algeria’s prisons. Witnesses claim to have seen about four or five killed per week, suggesting that as many as 1,000 may have been murdered.

As recruits arrived at the camp, DRS officers recorded their identities, dispatching the data to Algiers where it is believed to have been shared with US, British and possibly also French intelligence services.

The Tamouret operation appears to have provided the West with the identities of hundreds, possibly thousands, of al-Qaeda “terrorists”, possibly explaining why so many attacks were reportedly foiled during these years. If that were the case, Tamouret might be deemed as having been a brilliant counter-terrorism operation. However, its success, if that is what it was, was predicated on the cold-bloodied murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent victims.

However, the fact that Fox and TRAC refer to “two” training camps in Mauritania, but only discuss Maatamoulana, raises the question of whether the “second camp”, to which they give absolutely no location or details, might refer to some sort of effort by the US, France, possibly other western allies, and Mauritania to set up the same sort of operation as at Tamouret. The question of such a possibility is paramount.

* NOTE - The first published reference to Tamouret was in: Jeremy Keenan, The Dying Sahara, 2013, p. 184-5. Further details of corroborative evidence, eyewitness testimonies and photographic evidence can be found in several subsequent publications. See, for example: Jeremy Keenan, “The In Amenas cover-up”, International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), October 2013; “The In Amenas verdict: ‘unlawfully killed’, but why?” ISCI (forthcoming, May 2015). A more detailed analysis of Tamouret will be found in my third volume on terrorism in the Sahara, provisionally entitled, Kafka’s Desert: the Sahara’s years of terror (forthcoming 2016).

Jeremy Keenan is a Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies. He has written many books including The Dark Sahara (2009) and The Dying Sahara (2012). He acts as consultant on the Sahara and the Sahel to numerous international organisations, including the United Nations, the European Commission and many others. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: The Fox News report refers to two training camps in Mauritania, but only specify the location of one (MEE ScreenGrab/Fox News)

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