The battle south of Algiers

The In Amenas gas installation in Algeria. Photo: BP

By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate for Transnational Threats

Until it permitted the French air force to fly through its airspace into Mali this weekend, Algeria had been protesting for months that it would not welcome any outside military intervention to quell the rebellion in its southern neighbour. The hostage crisis unfolding in the Algerian desert, following an attack by militants on the In Amenas gas plant, one of the country’s largest, has starkly demonstrated the risks of reprisal.

So one of the most interesting questions is what accounted for Algeria’s change of heart. This is difficult to answer because decision-making in Algiers is famously opaque, and the country often takes an ambiguous stance on regional security issues.

Algeria is North Africa’s largest military power. With a long history of combating Islamist violence, first during the brutal civil war of the 1990s and then in the form of an al-Qaeda-linked insurgency, it likes to see itself as a regional leader in counter-terrorism. After the most vicious rebel group from the civil-war era, the Groupe Salafiste pour La Predication et Le Combat (GSPC), rebranded itself in 2007 as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Algeria’s militaristic approach was quite successful in curtailing the group. AQIM was forced southwards into Niger, Mali and Mauritania where it specialised in kidnap-for-ransom and smuggling to fund its activities.

In 2009, Algiers tried to mount a regional response to cross-border terrorism to insulate itself from growing militancy in in the Sahel. Under the Tamanrasset Plan with its three southern neighbours, a joint military operations centre was established in 2010 in Tamanrasset, southern Algeria, and a joint intelligence cell brought together in Algiers. But cooperation was often difficult, with Mali in particular holding Algeria ultimately responsible for the insurgency that grew in its northern areas (see France in Mali: rapid reaction). Bamako was frustrated with Algeria’s failure to pursue AQIM members across the Algerian border into Mali. Algiers, for its part, took a dim view of Bamako’s willingness to consider ransoms for the release of hostages.

Contemporary Algeria is repeatedly described as proud, self-sufficient and suspicious of outsiders. ‘Algeria dislikes initiatives that aren’t its own,’ one Algerian Ministry of Finance official told Slate Afrique last year. Another expert told the Associated Press yesterday that Algeria’s rejection of outside assistance in the In Amenas gas field crisis was normal. ‘They never accept any military help,’ said Mathieu Guidere of the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail. ‘They want to do it their way.’

Algeria has long used the threat of terrorism to justify heavy-handed security measures among its own citizens. Add to this a ruling elite who are ageing, divided and preoccupied with trying to prevent a recurrence of any Arab-Spring-like demonstrations before 2014 presidential elections, and it becomes easier to explain actions that often seem incoherent to outsiders.

When Tuareg tribesmen and then Islamist groups overran northern Mali (a region that Tuaregs call Azawad) in early 2012, Algeria’s first move was a cautious one, perhaps as a result of the kidnap of seven Algerian diplomats by an AQIM splinter group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which took place just as Islamist rebels took the northern Malian town of Gao in April. (Several diplomats remain in MUJAO’s custody.) Having negotiated peaceful ends to earlier Tuareg uprisings in northern Mali in 1995 and 2009, Algeria and then Burkina Faso mediated talks between Bamako and rebel groups Ansar el-Dine and the National Movement Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Despite an agreement signed in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in December to respect Mali’s national unity, the talks clearly achieved little, since the rebels began to move further south this month.

One of the difficulties in persuading Algeria to support a military intervention in Mali by ECOWAS (the grouping of West African states) has been that Algeria is not a member of ECOWAS. Nevertheless, foreign dignitaries have flown to Algiers to try to persuade President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to back the ECOWAS plan. US Africa Command chief General Carter F. Ham met the president in September 2012, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed him in October to back such an intervention.

On a visit in December, French President Francois Hollande attempted to launch a new era of bilateral relations by recognising Algerian suffering during the French colonial period.

Algeria has more proven natural-gas reserves than Iraq and about the same amount of oil as Angola. However, with 97% of its exports and about 60% of its GDP coming from energy, it also knows that it is over-reliant on the industry. The IMF has warned it to diversify and to ease high unemployment among its growing youth population. At the same time, some Western commentators feel that too much bureaucracy and the aggressive behaviour of Sonatrach, the state-run oil company that is a partner in most ventures, have taken the sheen off the Algerian oil industry.

Therefore, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Bouteflika, in granting France over-flight rights to Mali, was trying to respond to French overtures and open Algeria up to global economic opportunities. But as politicians and families in the UK, Norway, Japan, the US and Kenya awaited further news of loved ones after the 17 January bloody military raid to free the hostages, oil companies were beginning to withdraw non-essential workers from Algeria.

Who were the attackers and how did they succeed?
Attacks on energy infrastructure were rare during the 1991-2002 civil war in Algeria, and were generally confined to minor pipeline bombings. This makes the 16 January assault all the more shocking. Questions will be asked about the security arrangements that allowed a group of heavily armed gunmen to enter the plant’s housing compound and take dozens of foreign workers hostage

Algeria announced the closure on Monday of its nearly 1,000-kilometre (600-mile) border with Mali. The Algerian foreign minister has since said that the rebels who attacked In Amenas travelled in three vehicles across the Libyan border, 60km away. Some of the attackers were reported to have Libyan accents.

The plant is operated by British oil giant BP, Norway’s Statoil and Algerian Sonatrach and serviced by Japanese engineering firm JGC Corporation. The rebels launched an attack on a bus taking employees to work before entering In Amenas’s living quarters.

The man claiming responsibility, and now widely held accountable for the attack, is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, He is also known as ‘Mr Marlboro’ for his successful cigarette-smuggling business and the ‘Uncatchable’ for obvious reasons. An Algerian national and a former AQIM leader, Belmokhtar left AQIM in 2012 to set up his own group known variously as ‘Katibat Moulathamine’, ‘The Masked Brigade’ or ‘Those Who Sign in Blood’. Of the several groups that have emerged as AQIM offshoots, Belmokhtar’s is believed to be one of the most experienced and certainly the most familiar with desert routes extensively used for weapons, fuel and drugs smuggling. The group consists of Tuareg and Arabs.

Although AQIM as a group has few, if any, links to al-Qaeda central, Belmokhtar trained in Afghanistan in his late teens. He then returned to Algeria in the early 1990s to join the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) and later the GSPC – AQIM’s predecessor. He is one of the top figures on the Sahel extremist scene, a well-known fixer, smuggler, skilled negotiator and arm suppliers; in the 2000s he became infamous for kidnapping and making ransom demands for Western hostages.

However, Belmokhtar was passed over for leadership. His reported removal as the AQIM commander in northern Mali in October, where he had strengthened his personal links with Ansar el-Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, prompted him to set up his own group. There is speculation over the real reasons behind the split but it is likely to be the result of disagreement over the sharing of ransoms. In addition, unlike other AQIM leaders Belmokhtar is known to prefer to negotiate over hostages, rather than killing them. In 2003, he was responsible for capturing 32 European tourists, all of whom were released alive. Unfortunately, some of the hostages taken on 16 January were not so lucky.


2 Comments on “The battle south of Algiers”

  1. [...] a few foreigners for ransom, displaying their bravado and raising their profile. The scale of the operation and the certainty that it would invite a very tough response from the Algerian authorities mean [...]

  2. [...] a few foreigners for ransom, displaying their bravado and raising their profile. The scale of the operation and the certainty that it would invite a very tough response from the Algerian authorities mean [...]

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