November Algeria report (4/4)



Falling in the middle of the month and spreading out over several days, the In Amenas siege naturally dominated reporting of security news in January, possibly to the extent of crowding out reporting of other incidents: only seven jihadist attacks and 12 incidents all told were reported in the Algerian media for the entire month (and none at all in the week of Jan. 20-27)[13]. On the other hand, the shock of In Amenas seems to have loosened at least some tongues, with one ex-military source, now in private security in southern Algeria, letting slip that armed clashes on the border with Mali are far more frequent, and damaging, than officially admitted (to the point, the source claimed, that the Algerian military is in urgent need of new field hospitals); this seems to confirm our earlier suspicion (see AMSR #117) that the abrupt decline to close to zero in reports of incidents on the Algeria-Mali border as of June last year was to be attributed to a news blackout rather than an actual decline in the number of incidents.

An unprecedented event in the history of political violence in Algeria, the In Amenas crisis received unprecedented coverage in the international media. To recap the most salient points: early in the morning of Jan. 16, a group of heavily armed jihadists who had crossed the Libyan border around 80km away in three 4WD vehicles, stormed a gas production facility jointly operated by Sonatrch, BP and Statoil at Tinguetourine, located in the desert 40km east of the small town of In Amenas in the wilaya of Illizi.  The jihadists overran the facility with relative ease and held hostage 800 workers, including more than 100 expatriates of various nationalities.  The hostage takers belonged to AQMI’s Katibat al-Mulathamine (Brigade of Masked Men), headed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar[14], and based in northern Mali. In a statement to independent Mauritanian news agency ANI, Katibat al-Mulathamine said the operation was launched “after it became clear that Algeria is taking part in the war against the Muslim people of Azawad, opening its airspace [to French jet fighters] and closing its borders to complete the blockade against them”. According to Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, no more than five of the attackers were Algerian nationals; 11 of them were Tunisians and the rest came from eight other countries, including two Canadian nationals. The Algerian Special Forces rapidly surrounded the facility, and on Jan. 17 launched an assault with helicopter support to retake the living quarters, followed on Jan. 19 by a second assault aimed at retaking the production plant. In all, one Algerian hostage and 39 foreign hostages of various nationalities are reported to have been killed.  PM Sellal put the total number of attackers at 32, of whom 29 were killed and three captured, although there have been suggestions that the group was up to 40 strong, some of whom managed to escape.

The In Amenas attack was the first ever direct attack on oil and gas production facilities in Algeria since the outbreak of violence in 1992. Although a number of expatriates working in the oil and gas industry were assassinated in the 1990s[15] and bombings of pipelines in the north of the country – mainly if not exclusively domestic oil and gas pipelines supplying refineries and power stations, as opposed to export pipelines – were commonplace, in the early years of the islamist insurgency it was the deliberate policy of both the AIS and the GIA, the two main armed groups at that time, not to attack the oil and gas production facilities in the deep south. This was as much a practical question (the Sahara was for a time one of the main routes for gun-running to the armed groups in the north of the country, and it was considered wiser to avoid attracting more attention than was absolutely necessary from the security forces) as a matter of principal (especially in the period up to late 1995, when an islamist victory still seemed a plausible outcome, it was argued that Algeria’s oil and gas was the rightful property of the people and that the industry should be safeguarded so that the coming Islamic state would be able to take it over intact). As the GIA began to fall apart in the mid-90s, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who hails from the southern wilaya of Ghardaia, briefly emerged as the organisation’s regional commander or emir for the deep south, before being squeezed out by the GIA’s northern leadership as of the summer of 1997 – because of his reluctance to adopt their tactic of mass killings, according to statements he made to a local source who managed to meet and interview him in May 1998. By that time, Belmokhtar had come to specialise mainly in cigarette smuggling and the theft of vehicles from oil companies and government agencies, observing informal rules of engagement that had more to do with Bedouin razzias, or raids[16], than with the modus operandi of the armed groups in the north. This remained the case even after Belmokhtar joined forces with the Hassan Hattab’s GSPC (the split-off from the GIA which was soon to emerge as Algeria’s main jihadist group) in 1999, with Belmokhtar keeping a large measure of autonomy and whenever avoiding bloodshed as an unwelcome diversion from the serious business of smuggling. By the mid-2000s, he and his group had for the most part relocated across Algeria’s southern borders, and seemed to have established a relatively peaceful modus vivendi with the Algerian security forces.< /span>

In 2006, the GSPC’s national leadership swore allegiance to Osama Ben Laden and rebranded itself as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), adopting Al-Qaida’s language of confrontation with the “Jews and Crusaders” in a global jihad as well as its tactic of suicide bombings. However, locked in a life-or-death struggle with the Algerian regime, the organisation’s conversion to Al-Qaida’s strategy of concentrating on the “far enemy” (i.e. the United States and other Western countries that support both Israel and the oppressive regimes in the Arab and Muslim world) rather than the “near enemy” (i.e. the local regimes themselves) was only partial at best. In mid-2007, AQMI carried out an internal reorganisation which saw the emergence of new leaders (Yahia Djouadi, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid) for the Saharan brigades who appeared to be more in tune with the leadership in the north than Belmokhtar had ever been, and it was after this reorganisation that AQMI units based in northern Mali adopted the tactic of kidnapping European and North American expats, aid workers, diplomats and tourists. Disconnected from the armed struggle against the Algerian regime in Algeria itself, the AQMI’s kidnapping gangs in the Sahara thus in a sense began to engage the “far enemy” – although in many cases the political demands and ultimatums put to Western governments for the release of their nationals have in effect been little more than window dressing for the payment of hefty ransoms. It was ostensibly the southern leaders’ concentration on kidnapping (and other illegal money-making activities such as drug smuggling) at the expense of active participation in the jihad against the “near enemy” that led some of the group’s members to break away and set up MUJAO in mid-2011.

What has really “Al-Qaidised” AQMI’s Saharan branch – and transformed Mokhtar Belmokhtar into the new face of global jihad – is a sequence of events that, initially at least, were not of its own making at all. The uprising against the Qaddafi regime in Libya in February 2011 and the ensuing war opened up a vast new treasure trove of weaponry; the opening of the prisons in Libya and Tunisia, and later political developments in those countries, led to the establishment of like-minded groups keen to build ties with AQMI; and, crucially, the return of thousands of trained and armed Tuareg fighters from Libya to northern Mali made possible a new Tuareg rebellion in early 2012 that seized hold of the northern half of the country extremely quickly, pushing the Malian state to the brink of collapse. This provided AQMI with the opportunity, which together with MUJAO and the newly created Ansar Dine it seized with alacrity, to hijack the Tuareg revolt and establish an embryonic state in northern Mali. Although reports of volunteers flooding to the infant  ‘Islamic emirate’ from across North West Africa appear to be exaggerated, the success of AQMI’s daring coup does appear to have attracted a certain number of fighters from Libya, Tunisia and possibly elsewhere, and some acolytes from even further afield (the improvised Sharia court in Gao, for example, is reported to have been staffed by Pakistani judges). Above all, setting up a breakaway state in northern Mali also brought AQMI into direct conflict with a Western power, France.

The raid on In Amenas, as we have argued above[17], must be seen as a function of that conflict – as must the future attacks Belmokhtar has promised in retaliation for the Algerian military’s assault against his men at the gas plant. In terms of jihadist strategy, this situation is in fact a mirror image of the GIA and the GSPC years: the GIA and the GSPC, insofar as they attacked France and French interests (i.e. the “far enemy”) at all, did so to punish and dissuade perceived support for the Algerian state, the “near” – and main – enemy; in 2013, it is France that has become the main enemy for AQMI’s Saharan brigades, and Belmokhtar’s men have lashed out as never before against Algeria, the near enemy, because of its support for the French war effort. It remains to be seen what role AQMI’s central leadership in the north of Algeria will play in this battle – but a video message issued by the organisation’s national emir Abdelmalek Droudkel in early December condemning French manoeuvring in Mali suggests that it may be inclined to march in step with its southern comrades-in-arms.


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[1]     See AMSR #119

[2]     The Guardian (Jan. 25) did, however, point out that the assault was commanded by Gen. Bachir Tartag (appointed head of the DRS’s Directorate of Internal Security in December 2011), whom it presented as  Tewfik’s “deputy”.

[3]     This rumour was also picked up by The Guardian, which claimed in the article quoted above that « the 75-year-old president was absent throughout the crisis, undergoing medical treatment in Geneva. Mediene
and the army, say well-placed sources, kept him out of the picture because they were angry that his agreement to let French planes fly over Algeria to attack Islamist rebels in Mali was leaked from Paris. »

[4]     The President does on occasion stay away from the Presidential palace, according to the source, “but never for more than 24 hours at a stretch”.

[5]     Responsibility for the operation was claimed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, head of Katiba El Moulathimine (the Masked Men Brigade), on behalf of Katiba El Mouakioune Bi Damaa (the ‘Brigade of those who Sign in Blood’), which appears to have been a specially established sub-group. Despite some suggestions in the international media that Belmokhtar somehow ‘broke’ with AQMI at the end of 2012 because of rivalry with Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, the organisation’s principal ’emir’ in northern Mali, there is no indication that this is actually the case, and Belmokhtar explicitly spoke in the name of AQMI in the video message claiming responsibility.

[6]     It could by no means have been ruled out, on the other hand, that what remained of the Malian state might have collapsed under the impact of the islamist offensive, ushering in a period of anarchy in which no faction could claim control of the entire country.

[7]     The first signs of this are already being seen, with a number of roadside bombs and, on Feb. 8, a suicide bomb attack against a Malian army unit in Gao.

[8]     Seemingly in response to this, French weekly magazine Jeune Afrique (Jan. 21) published an article – illustrated with what purported to be a photograph of the presentation of the ‘real’ route to Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian at France’s Air Operations Command – claiming that the French Air Force’s Rafales actually flew a far more circuitous route via Morocco and Mauritania; some Algerian media subsequently claimed that, while Bouteflika may have given permission for the overflights, it was not in the end used by the French. This version – which has all the hallmarks of a spin doctors’ damage limitation exercise – has not been officially confirmed by any of the governments involved.

[9]     Hollande told the European Parliament: “We shall need Algeria in this part of the world … in fighting terrorism, … in encouraging a policy of development, … and for the political dialogue, including with the Tuareg.”

[10]   ‘Some Algeria Attackers Are Placed At Benghazi’, New York Times, 22/01/13

[11]   Several of the fighters who took part in the raid on In Amenas were, according to the unnamed senior Algerian official quoted by the NYT, Egyptians who had also taken part in the Benghazi attack.

[12]   ‘“This is the result of the Arab Spring,” said the official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity because investigations into the hostage crisis were still under way. “I hope the Americans are conscious of this.”

[13]   Nonetheless, armed activity in the north of the country is likely to have seen a real dip due to heavy snow in Kabylia and other mountainous areas of northern Algeria where AQMI’s forces are mainly concentrated. Only two AQMI operations and six incidents all told were reported in the Kabyle wilayas throughout the month.

[14]   Also known as Belaouer in Algerian Arabic or Le Borgne in French (i.e. the One-Eyed Man), or by the nom de guerre Khaled Abou El Abbas.

[15]   A British engineer was shot dead at the Bethioua petrochemicals plant and gas port in NW Algeria in Dec. 1993, and  five foreign technicians employed by Bechtel were killed in Ghardaïa in May 1995.

[16]            Under which the seizure of booty is licit but bloodshed is avoided wherever possible since this enables the opposite party to claim a blood « debt » and can lead to interminable blood feuds.

[17]   See above, Foreign Relations.

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