Q. When is an “expert” not an expert? A. At the In Amenas inquest.
The inquest into the deaths of six British nationals and one UK resident killed in the terrorist attack on the In Amenas (Tiguentourine) gas plant in the Algerian Sahara in January 2013 opened in London’s Royal Courts of Justice on 15 September, 20 months after the tragedy in which some 40 expatriates, 29 terrorists and 9 Algerians were killed.
The inquest had been scheduled to start on 8 September, but Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) had sought a postponement, possibly for as long as five months. However, the intervention by the legal representative of the family of one of the deceased, in the form of a complaint to the Lord Chief Justice, put an end to such tactics and reduced the postponement to only a week.
At a pre-inquest hearing in January (2014), the coroner, Ms. Penelope Schofield, assured the deceased’s families that she was widening the scope of the inquest to look at all of the events leading up to and including the attack. The families understood this to mean that no stone would be left unturned in trying to find out all the circumstances that led to the attack – That is, who carried out the attack and why.
Three months before that meeting, in October 2013, I had published an article, entitled “The In Amenas ‘cover up’”, in which I said that In Amenas was the subject of a cover up and that the attack would never be subject to a full and proper enquiry.
My reason for saying that was because I believed the attack was a “false-flag” operation, initiated by Algeria’s secret police, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), that went wrong. My evidence, which could be supported with eye-witness statements, was that the leader of the attack, Mohamed Lamine Bouchneb, was a DRS operator, while the alleged organiser of the attack, Mokhtar ben Mokhtar, was also a DRS “associate”. The eye-witness, whom I shall refer to as witness “A”, could testify to having seen several meetings between these two terrorist leaders and top DRS Generals.
In my ISCI “cover up” article, I explained why the UK and US are so intent on preventing any evidence of Algeria’s possible involvement in the In Amenas attack coming to light. One of the reasons is because the intelligence services of the US, UK and Algeria have been working closely together since the US launched a new front on the global war on terror (GWOT) in the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa in 2002-2003. However, I believe a more important reason, which I explained in the ISCI article, is that the meetings between the top DRS Generals and the two terrorist leaders deemed responsible for the In Amenas attack were observed by a witness (whom I shall call witness “A”) while he was a recruit in a terrorist training camp at a place called Tamouret (pseudonym) deep in the Algerian Sahara. Although Tamouret was ostensibly an Al Qaeda training camp, it was actually run and provisioned by Algeria’s DRS.
Although the majority of the terrorist recruits at Tamouret were Algerians, many came from across the Arab-Muslim world: Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and even Central Asia. The evidence that Witness “A” could give, and which could be corroborated by at least three other sources, is that hundreds, possibly thousands, of people were murdered in the camp in the course of training the terrorist recruits in “killing techniques”, notably throat-slitting (égorgement). Witness “A” believes that the people whom he saw brought to the camp by the Algerian army for execution were prisoners taken from Algeria’s prisons, as well as Algerian army officers. It therefore seems that the camp also served as a means of disciplining the army. “Unreliable” Algerian army officers were simply taken to the camp, with their families presumably being told they were killed on active duty, and killed.
Evidence now reveals that Tamouret operated for about six years, from around 2003 to around 2009. At any one time, it seems that some 250-300 trainees were in the camp. As recruits arrived at the camp, their identities, including photographic recognition and, it is believed, DNA, were recorded by DRS officers. This data was dispatched to Algiers where it was almost certainly shared with US and British intelligence agencies, both of whom had close working relations with the DRS.
Through the West’s counter-terrorist relations with Algeria’s DRS, the Tamouret operation would appear to have provided the West with the identities of hundreds, possibly thousands, of Al Qaeda terrorists. This may explain why so many terrorist 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 a monstrous crime: the cold-bloodied murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent victims.
It is hard to imagine how the American and British intelligence agencies, who were working hand in glove with the DRS during these years, could not have known what was going on at Tamouret.
It was therefore imperative that my evidence, and more especially that of Witness “A”, was not given at the inquest. If Witness “A” were called to the witness stand, it is inconceivable that he could have described the meetings between the terrorist leaders and the DRS Generals without at least one of the many lawyers representing the interested parties at the inquest enquiring as to where and under what circumstances the meetings took place. Tamouret’s beans would inevitably have been spilled.
Witness “A” has been in London throughout the duration of the inquest. However, for reasons that I shall explain after the inquest verdict has been given (probably early 2015), HMG has decided that he cannot give evidence, as it does not consider him to be a “credible” witness.
Because I knew of the existence of Tamouret and the relationship between the DRS and the terrorist leaders responsible for the In Amenas attack, as well as the close relationship between Algeria’s DRS and the US and UK intelligence agencies, it was self-evident to me that the In Amenas attack would never be the subject of a full, international enquiry, and would be – as I wrote in October 2013 – the subject of a “cover up”.
My suspicion that the inquest would fall within this “cover up” was further confirmed to me by the Metropolitan Police (Met) when they wrote to me saying that the inquest would be limited to the who, where, when and how, but not the “why”. While that is all that is legally required of an inquest, it meant that the families’ belief that “no stone would be left unturned” was being dashed. The inquest would not be attempting to find out “why” the terrorist attack happened, or who was behind it. Moreover, my request to the Met to give evidence was rejected on the grounds that “my views were known”.
My views, namely that Algeria’s DRS, with the complicity of western intelligence agencies, has been responsible for much of the terrorism in the western half of the Sahara since 2003, in the form of “false flag” incidents of one sort or another, have been published in two books, with a third in preparation, as well as several dozen academic, internationally refereed articles. However, agents of HMG, notably the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Met, have told me and other parties on numerous occasions that my views on terrorism in the Sahara, notwithstanding the fact they are based on years of detailed research undertaken within Algeria and the surrounding countries, are a “conspiracist theory”. If we accept that the term “conspiracy theory” now tends to be little more than a pejorative term used by government establishments to decry explanations that do not fit their own preferred explanations, then my views would fall into that category. In other words, my views on terrorism in the Sahara, which are at least based on detailed, first-hand and academically rigorous research, do not fit the UK government’s preferred explanations for terrorism in that region of the world, which, as I have repeatedly made clear, are incorrect.
When the inquest finally started, Ms. Schofield was replaced by a more senior Judge, Nicholas Hilliard QC. It was only then, after the inquest had got under way, that I learned from some of the “interested parties” to the inquest that HMG had included my ISCI “Cover up” article in the bundle of evidence submitted to the court. In other words, it had been submitted to the inquest court by HMG without my knowledge and without my being able to either give evidence to it or be cross-examined on it. This was significant, as much more evidence had come to light in the twelve-month period between the publication of the article and the start of the inquest. This new evidence would therefore not be reveled to the court.
If HMG did not want my views on In Amenas raised at the inquest, why did it submit my “Cover up” article in the bundle of evidence it submitted to the inquest court? HMG’s strategy, as I was soon to find out, was to call its own “expert” witness(es) on Algeria with the intention, so I can only presume, of repudiating my ISCI article, which the FCO and Metropolitan Police have for so long been calling a “conspiracy theory”.
On 20 October, after almost five weeks of largely “technical” evidence designed to establish what had happened at the In Amenas facility during the attack and what weaknesses there may have been in its internal security arrangements, HMG called an “expert witness”, in the personage of Dr. Claire Spencer, head of the Middle East & North Africa Programme at the Chatham House “think tank”, to presumably explain the wider political-security situation in Algeria and perhaps throw some light on why the attack took place.
One expects an expert witness to have actually done first-hand research on the subject, in this case to have got their hands dirty, as it were, in the sands and ethnicity of the Sahara, not rely, as Dr. Spencer told the court, on “open access” sources, which are secondary or tertiary, not primary.
Most unusually, but very significantly, Bridget Dolan, the Counsel to the Inquest who led Dr. Spencer through her evidence, never asked her if she had ever conducted research in Algeria. Nor was the question raised under cross examination by any of the legal representatives of any of the other interested parties, that is the families of the deceased, HMG, the Met and the two oil companies (BP and Statoil).
Indeed, the court, if it had been appraised of the fact, might have gleaned Dr Spencer’s relative lack of knowledge on In Amenas from her written evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in March 2013, in which she said (Para 17) “three British nationals and a UK resident died,” when in fact seven British residents, six of whom were nationals, died.
Spencer began on the right foot by saying that the overall security situation in the Sahara-Sahel had been deteriorating since the overthrow of Libya’s Mouamar Qadhafi in 2011 and the onset of the Mali crisis in 2012.
Few people would disagree with that broad assessment of the Sahara-Sahel region. However, the more Dr. Spencer resorted to citing the report of Dr. Wolfram Lacher, another “expert” who had been asked by HMG to provide written evidence, the more one sensed her unfamiliarity with the details of the questions being raised. Lacher was recently the head of a major security firm’s Algeria desk, with a close working relationship with Algeria’s DRS, a relationship that probably explains the serious omissions that characterize his own work on the region. For example, Lacher’s widely quoted report on “Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region,” fails to make any reference to the role played by Algeria’s DRS in drug trafficking, terrorism and other criminal activities in the region. As such, it presents an entirely spurious picture of organised crime and conflict in the Sahara-Sahel region. Indeed, it was Lacher’s shortcomings on local ethnicity that led Spencer into the minefield of “inter-tribal” relations. Her way out was to tell the court: “we need some good social anthropologists here”. That was a serious faux pas, in that no region of the Sahara-Sahel has been subject to more anthropological research.
While the court may not have noticed these “academic” shortcomings, it is unlikely that it would have been reassured by Dr. Spencer’s hesitant language. In response to questions from the Counsel to the Inquest and cross-examining barristers, Dr. Spencer used the expression “I think” on more than 150 occasions. In addition, she resorted to imagination, saying “I imagine” or “I can imagine” on six occasions, with similar expressions of supposition and assumption being made on about the same number of occasions. Such expressions, when used by an expert in such frequency, can give the impression that the expert is not fully conversant with the subject of their supposed expertise.
On the matter of “imagination”, Dr. Spencer even told the court she could not believe the Algerians would allow the In Amenas hostages and their captors a safe passage to Mali, even though that is precisely what they had done in 2003.
On that occasion, members of the Groupe Salafist pour le Prédication et le Combat (GSPC), later to become Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), had kidnapped and taken hostage 32 European tourists in the Algerian Sahara. The incident was a “false-flag” operation conducted by the DRS with the knowledge of US military intelligence agencies. The “terrorist” leader, Saifi Ammari (a.k.a. El Para) was a senior DRS agent. 17 of the hostages were liberated after a pre-arranged attack by the Algerian army in the Gharis massif in southern Algeria, while the remaining 15 were given protected passage to Mali where they were freed after the payment of a ransom. A key negotiator in the Mali part of the operation was Iyad ag Ghali, a local Tuareg leader who had long been close to the DRS.
Unbeknown to the court, the same Iyad might have played a fatal part in Dr. Spencer’s undoing if the legal representatives of the interested parties to the inquest had themselves been better briefed on Algeria and the nature of its terrorism and security situation.
In 2012, Iyad was the leader of one of the three Islamist “terrorist” groups that led the “jihadist” insurgency that took over northern Mali and led to the Mali crisis that Dr. Spencer had already described to the court.
When Dr. Spencer was asked by Counsel to the Inquest to explain Algeria’s reaction to and knowledge of the sudden onset of Mali’s Islamist (“terrorist”) insurgency, Dr. Spencer told the court that the Algerian intelligence service (the DRS) was taken by surprise at how quickly Iyad, whom she described as “their man [i.e. the DRS’s man] in Mali” had changed sides. Dr. Spencer was not asked to explain what sources or research had enabled her to come to this conclusion.
In fact, the reality of the situation is that Iyad never “changed sides”. He remained the DRS’s “man in Mali”. Throughout the duration of the 2012 insurgency he received provisions and support from Algeria, most notably fuel, while in the 20 months since the French military intervention, he has been living in Algeria, in spite of being a highly publicised “wanted terrorist”, under the protection of the DRS.
It is most unlikely that any of the legal representatives in the court had ever heard of Iyad ag Ghali or his role in Mali’s crisis before this moment. Dr. Spencer’s lack of knowledge of the relationship between Iyad ag Ghali and the DRS and the role of the DRS in the Mali insurgency was therefore unchallenged.
Her apparent lack of expertise on the Mali crisis might have become clearer to the court when she was unable to give the precise date of France’s military intervention in Mali: an iconic date for regional “experts”.
Neither was Dr. Spencer in command of the facts when it came to recent hostage-taking and ransom demands from within Algeria itself. When questioned on this subject, she told the court that two European aid workers had been kidnapped from the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria, when the number taken hostage was actually three. Spencer was also uncertain of the date, saying she thought it was 2012, when it was in fact 2011. In fact, that date should be well known to any expert on the subject, as it was the first such terrorist incident by MUJAO, which had only just been formed.
However, the bombshell came most unexpectedly when barrister Katie Gollop, representing one of the families, asked Dr. Spencer if she was aware that General Tartag, dismissed as the DRS’s head of Internal Security after his catastrophic handling of the In Amenas situation, had recently been appointed as the President’s new security advisor. Although Tartag’s extraordinary appointment had been headline news in Algeria and a focal issue in discussions and analyses of Algerian politics for the previous month, Dr. Spencer admitted she had not heard about it.
It was now clear that the court was not listening to an “expert” on Algeria.
It was not until the latter part of her evidence that Dr. Spencer got on to the subject of “conspiracies theories” about Algeria, by which time her credibility as an “expert” on Algeria and terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel had crumbled. Having told the court there was quite a lot of conspiracy theory-making in and around Algeria, she refrained from naming title or author of one. Whether that was to avoid possible libels or because Counsel to the Inquest, perhaps for the same reason, never asked her to be more specific, remains conjectural. As it was, her references to conspiracy theories were vague, unsubstantiated and little more than “straw men”.
It is not good enough to criticise a person, report or theory as “conspiracist”, unless it is backed up by evidence that contradicts the alleged “conspiracy theory”, something that Dr. Spencer was unable or unwilling to do. One reason for her unwillingness to go further down this road may have been because she knew or suspected that the conspiracies theory or theories being alluded to were, in fact, “the truth”. Indeed, HMG can only have been disappointed when Dr. Spencer finished her two and half hours on the witness stand by saying that “it should be understood that the conspiracy theory-making in and around Algeria, of which there was quite a lot, made sense of situations that don’t make sense through public source material alone.”
On that final point, Dr. Spencer was quite right. However, for reasons that I have explained, making sense of the In Amenas attack is not something that HMG was wanting the inquest to do.
Aside from the quality of Dr. Spencer’s evidence, an ethical question must also hang over the appropriateness of calling an “expert” witness from Chatham House, when three of the four “interested parties” in the inquest, namely BP, Statoil and HMG, are funding “partners” of Chatham House, while Algeria is an “Embassy member”. However, that is a matter for Chatham House and perhaps also some of the interested parties.
It will be interesting to hear what Judge Hilliard makes of this performance when he pronounces his verdict, possibly sometime in January 2015. As for HMG, it would be well advised, if it is going to rely on “experts” to cover up cover ups, to make sure it chooses “experts” who really are expert in what they are talking about.
 The way this front was launched has been explained in detail in my two volumes on the US war on terror in Africa: Jeremy Keenan, The Dark Sahara: America’s war on terror in Africa (London, Pluto 2009) and The Dying Sahara: US imperialism and terror in Africa (London, Pluto 2013).
 In 2001 (after 9/11), Algeria provided the US with a list of 1,350 names of Algerian abroad with alleged links to Osama bin Laden, and a list of alleged Islamist militants inside Algeria. (For more details, see Keenan 2009, op. cit. p. 164).
 See note 1. The third volume, Kafka’s Desert: the Sahara’s years of terror (provisional title), is in preparation.
 Dr. Spencer’s evidence was given through the afternoon of October 20, 2014. The complete transcript of her verbal evidence is accessible at: In Amenas Inquests, Hearing Transcripts, Day 21 (Monday, October 20, 2014), pp. 137-255: http://www.inamenasinquest.org.uk/transcripts/ame201014.pdf
 UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. Written evidence from Dr Claire Spencer, Head, Middle East & North Africa Programme, Chatham House, 1. May 2013 (prepared 20th March 2014), paragraph 17. Accessed at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmfaff/86/86vw04.htm
 Lacher’s report was referred to no less than 10 times during the course of Dr. Spencer’s submission of evidence. I do not know whether Lacher’s failure to give verbal evidence himself was at his own request or because HMG wanted to safeguard him from cross-examination.
 See: Lacher, W. (2012). Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. http://carnegieendowment.org/files/sahel_sahara.pdf
 Court Transcript, p. 226.
 Or a simile such as “I would/wouldn’t think”.
 Details of the operation are recorded in The Dark Sahara (op. cit.)
 Dr. Spencer’s exact words were: “The Algerians pride themselves on having a very thorough and far-reaching intelligence service. I think they were, certainly in the wake of events in Mali, slightly taken aback by the fact that Iyad Ag Ghali, who was a local Tuareg leader, [with whom] they had been in touch and had even supplied [with] weaponry and financial support, as, if you like, their proxy within Mali. The fact that he so quickly defected by creating his own Islamist organisation, Ansar Dine, and join[ed] forces with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and MUJAO probably took them by surprise, because I think they probably thought of him as their man.” (Court Transcript, p. 152). Further on: “I have already mentioned how they [the DRS] were let down by their key interlocutor [Iyad ag Ghali] in Mali over the previous year.” (Court Transcript, p. 173)
 Court Transcript, p. 222-23.
 Three aid workers were kidnapped during the night of 22-23 October 2011. They were Italian Rossella Urru of Rome-based International Committee for the Development of Peoples (CISP) and Spanish NGO workers Enric Gonyalons of the Basque organisation Mundubat and Ainhoa Fernandez de Rincon of the Sahrawi Friendship Association of Extremadura.
 Court Transcript, p. 236-37.
 Court Transcript, p. 181.
 Court Transcript, p. 243.
 The fourth are the families of the deceased.