"The US is sending troops to the Sahara desert of west Africa to open what it calls a new front in the war on terror", the Guardian reported three years ago. "The ‘official truth’ about the ‘war on terror’ on the Sahara-Sahel is a ‘lie’", anthropologist Jeremy Keenan writes in Anthropology Today December and argues that in this situation, anthropologists have to act as independent witnesses and have to refuse collaborating with intelligence agencies and government bodies.
Keenan has been - according to himself - the sole ‘external’ or ‘foreign’ witness to a sequence of events associated with the US administration’s ‘global war on terror’ that many Tuareg believe has irreversibly transformed the central Sahara and Sahel, as well as their lives and livelihoods. Keenan has done research in the central Sahara for more then 30 years. He writes:
As a result of more or less continuous and at times microscopically detailed field research, much of which has been undertaken by and in collaboration with local Tuareg in Algeria, Niger, Mali and Libya, and with Toubou in Chad, we now know that all the incidents used to justify the launch of this new front in the ‘war on terror’ were either fiction, in that they simply did not happen, or were manufactured by US and Algerian military intelligence services.
How and why did such a monstrous deception take place? The ‘how’ is simple. First, the Algerian and US military intelligence services channelled a stream of disinformation to an industry of ‘terrorism experts’, conservative ideologues and a compliant media, whose prevailing ‘cut and paste’ culture has made them the perfect mouthpiece for an administration that operates through the Orwellian concept of ‘reality control’ and ‘proof by reiteration’. The result is that several thousand articles have turned the great ‘lie’ into the ‘official truth’.
Second, if a story is to be fabricated, it helps if the location is far away and ‘beyond verification’. The Sahara is the perfect place – larger than the United States and effectively closed to public access.
As we know, the CIA has started sponsering anthropologists to gather sensitive information in their so-called "war on terror".
Here, anthropologists have a key role to play, Keenan writes:
The role of the anthropologist in such situations (as in all his/her work) must be to provide field-based information that can counter the propaganda emanating from the ever growing (and now increasingly privatized) intelligence and other war agencies. At the very least, the anthropologist must be the witness, the recorder, perhaps the interpreter and, where necessary, the author of the ‘truth’.
In the present critical juncture, anthropologists have a key role to play in the ‘war on terror’: to remain located outside the corrupting sphere of intelligence agencies and government bodies and to act as independent witnesses and reporters. This requires considerable courage, not necessarily because of dangers in the field situation, but because access to the field, on which the anthropologist’s professional career often depends, is likely to be terminated.
Even more serious for anthropologists in American universities is that such actions, especially in the prevailing‘McCarthyist’ climate of the Bush-Cheney administration, may increasingly lead to self-censorship as the result of threats to employment prospects.
The risks are not so high in ‘old Europe’. But there is no certainty that similar pressures as those in the USA will not be brought to bear on anthropologists and other academics in the UK. After all, it was only in October that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s offer of £1.3 million to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)45 attempted to inveigle academics, anthropologists in particular, to help it in ‘combating terrorism by countering radicalisation’.
In this duplicitous incident, the Association of Social Anthropologists (ASA) played a key role in getting the project cancelled, at least for the time being. With such potential threats to anthropologists greater now than at any time in the past, it is imperative that our professional associations publicly recommit themselves to the protection of all anthropologists from any such pressures and threats.
The text is not available online (for subscribers only. But Keenan has written on this issue here as well:
Jeremy Keenan: Bush's Imaginary Front in the War on Terror (AlterNet, 28.9.06)
Saharan peoples are falsely accused of terrorist acts (ESRC Science Today, June 2004)
Jason Motlagh: The Trans Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative: U.S. takes terror fight to Africa's 'Wild West' (Global Research, San Francisco Chronicle, 30.12.05)
Anthropology Today editor Gustaaf Houtman comments:
If anthropologists, as a particularly exposed branch of academia, are to have any value at all in the ‘war on terror’, we must, to adopt a Quaker maxim coined in Nazi Germany, ‘talk truth to power’. But talking truth is clearly not enough. We must, first, be wary of ‘spin’ and find new and more appropriate ways to converse with government agencies without compromising our academic independence. And second, we must ensure we are actually heard. So let us engage the world of popular communications to our best ability on issues that matter.