Echoes in Algeria

Print edition : February 22, 2013

Algerian firemen carry the coffin of a person killed during the hostage crisis on January 21. Photo: Anis Belghoul/AP

In Amenas natural gas field in Algeria. Photo: AP

Coffins of Japanese nationals who were killed in the hostage crisis in Algeria being transported from a government aircraft at Haneda airport in Tokyo on January 25. Photo: Toru Hanai/REUTERS

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and his counterparts Hamadi Jebali of Tunisia and Abdelmalek Sellal of Algeria in Ghadames, Libya, to discuss security along their borders. Photo: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP

Staff at the Norwegian Foreign Department handling the hostage situation in Algeria at the Norwegian Foreign Department in Oslo on January 17. Photo: Stian Lysberg Solum/AFP

As Al Qaeda-aligned terrorists storm a gas refinery in Algeria using weapons supplied by France and Britain, the government retaliates with a military strike that leaves several dead.

IT was Algeria that experienced an immediate blowback from the latest French military intervention in Mali. The two African countries share a long border. An Islamist militant outfit aligned to Al Qaeda, calling itself the “Signers in Blood”, crossed over from Libya and attacked a gas plant in Algeria, In Amenas, jointly owned by British Petroleum, Norway’s Statol and Algeria’s Sonatrach. The facility is situated inside Algeria, just 30 km from the border with Libya. The desert area is frequented by the Tuaregs, who have been fighting for an independent homeland. In Amenas means “mountain top” in Tamashek, the language of the Tuaregs. The armed group, which also goes by the name “Masked Brigade”, issued a statement criticising Algeria’s support for the French invasion of Mali. It said: “Algeria’s participation in the war on the side of France betrays the blood of Algerian martyrs who fell in the fight against the French occupation.”

In fact, the Algerian government had cautioned against precipitate foreign military intervention in Mali. Algiers had also warned France and the West against starting a war in Libya and overthrowing the government there. A 40-year-old pact between Algeria and Libya had kept calm the desert region which is sparsely populated by the Tuaregs and tribal groups. It was only after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi that the various militant groups that were comparatively dormant until then became active. As the events in Algeria indicate, Mali could be just the first country in the region to be destabilised after the intervention of forces led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in Libya. According to reports, the weapons and transport used in the attack on the Algerian gas refinery had come from Libya. Algerian sources said the weapons were supplied to Libyan rebels in their fight against Qaddafi by France and Britain.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had visited Algiers in October to persuade the government to send its troops to Mali as part of an African peacekeeping force. Algeria has refused so far to intervene militarily in the affairs of its neighbour but has since sent thousands of troops to the south to secure its borders with Mali. The head of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), Gen. Carter F. Ham, recently said that there cannot be a satisfactory solution to Mali’s problems “without Algeria’s participation”. Ham has visited Algeria four times in the last two years.

Algeria has selectively cooperated with the West previously in the so-called global war against terror. Algeria is a member of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, which is funded by the U.S. The Algerian army is the strongest in the region and its intelligence gathering network is invaluable to the West. Many of the Al Qaeda-linked groups roaming the region are led by Algerians who had earlier fought against the government in their homeland. Algerian officials were engaged in behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity to defuse the volatile situation in neighbouring Mali. But when France suddenly decided to intervene militarily, Algeria was asked for over-flight facilities for French warplanes. The eleventh hour request was granted by the Algerian authorities. For those opposed to the Algerian government, this was proof enough of their government’s support for the French invasion of Mali.

The siege of the gas facility on January 16 resulted in the death of more than 80 people, most of them nationals from Western countries. It was one of the most serious terrorist incidents since 9/11. Ten Japanese nationals were also among those killed when Algerian security forces launched a rescue effort that lasted three days. Those who attacked the gas plant had first embarked on a killing spree, targeting foreigners from developing countries such as the Philippines. The calculation was that they were not worth much as hostages in comparison to Western hostages. The militants had taken Westerners as hostages also in the hope of negotiating the release of fellow jehadists incarcerated in Algerian jails. Many hostages were killed when Algerian counterterrorism forces attacked the speeding cars that were taking them to Libya.

Ransom business

The jehadi groups operating in the area have also been making a lot of money swapping Western hostages for ransom. These groups, according to Algerian sources, have made millions of dollars from the kidnapping business alone. Besides, they also have a stranglehold over the lucrative smuggling racket involving drugs and cigarettes and human trafficking. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the group that attacked the gas plant, was known in the region as “Mr Marlboro”. Smuggling across the Sahel has significantly contributed to the coffers of the jehadist groups operating in the region.

The Algerian government has been taking a consistent stance on dealing with terrorism. It has refused to negotiate with terrorists holding hostages or accept the policy of paying ransom for kidnapped civilians. Algerian officials have said that the ransom payments made by Western governments have played a big role in strengthening the groups claiming affiliation with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operating in the region. The AQIM itself mainly comprises Algerian Islamic radicals who had refused to sign the 1999 peace accord with the Algerian government that had brought an end to the nine-year-long civil war that had wracked the country. Their affiliation with the Al Qaeda is of comparatively recent vintage.

In matters affecting its internal security, the Algerian government is loath to taking either advice or help from other countries. The Algerian political establishment is aware of the West using the bogey of terrorism in the region to install puppet governments. Since their decade-long war with home-grown terrorists in the 1990s, the Algerian government has followed the policy of not negotiating with them under any circumstances.

Western criticism

The speed with which the Algerian government decided to resolve the hostage crisis came in for criticism from many governments. Tokyo was especially upset as a large number of casualties were Japanese nationals. Washington, London and Tokyo preferred negotiations to free the Western hostages. In case the negotiations failed, the Western governments wanted a joint military action along with Algeria to resolve the hostage situation.

The Japanese and British governments have been openly critical of Algeria’s handling of the situation. French President Francois Hollande was the only Western leader to support openly the Algerian action. “When you have people taken as hostages in such large numbers by terrorists with such cold determination and ready to kill those hostages—as they did—Algeria, has an approach which to me, as I see it, is the most appropriate because there could be no negotiation,” he said. Paris has reasons to keep Algiers in good humour. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has promised the “total reconquest of Mali”. Algeria’s cooperation is needed in this effort.

Although Washington has remained silent, officials there have said that they would have preferred a “precision approach” to a “sledgehammer” approach. American officials have said that Washington was not consulted before the Algerian forces started their assault. The Algerian authorities, according to U.S. State Department officials, allowed an unarmed American military drone to monitor the situation immediately after the hostage crisis erupted. After the bloody denouement to the hostage crisis, Hillary Clinton said that the two countries would “work together to confront and disrupt Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”.

Russia blames the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials have blamed the West and the role it has played in countries like Syria and Libya for the rise in terror attacks in West Asia and North Africa. Putin said that the “tragic toll” in the attack on the Algerian gas plant was a result of this. “The Syrian conflict has been going on for almost two years now. Upheaval in Libya, accompanied by the uncontrolled spread of weapons, contributed to the deterioration of the situation in Mali. The tragic consequences of these events led to a terrorist attack in Algeria which took the lives of civilians, including foreigners,” he said. His Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Russian media that those involved in the fighting against French and African troops in Mali were the same fighters the West had armed in their revolt against Qaddafi. Before the NATO-led intervention in Libya, Qaddafi had prophetically warned that if his government fell, the Al Qaeda hordes would be out of control. Describing them as “beasts with turbans”, he had said in a speech that they considered “all people to be infidels and they know nothing but killing”.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 25, Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci acknowledged that the Algerian government was in the process of assessing its mistakes but stressed that the operation to rescue the hostages was “more of a success”. He defended his government’s decision to immediately resolve the hostage situation.

Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said earlier that week that the militants who carried out the kidnappings intended to kill their captives and that the Algerian army had saved many lives by launching its attack. “The whole world has understood that the reaction was courageous. Algerians are not people who sell themselves out. When the security of country is at stake, there is no possible discussion,” said Sellal. He described the abductions as an “attack on the stability of Algeria”.

The Prime Minister revealed that after the militants failed in their efforts to take the hostages out of the gas plant and negotiate directly with foreign countries, they “wanted to explode the gas compound” along with a “great number of hostages”. The Algerian government said that it really had no choice in the matter, claiming that if no action had been taken, the terrorists would have succeeded in killing all the hostages and blowing up the factory.

Sellal said that among the militants involved in the attack were citizens of the United Kingdom and Canada. Twenty-nine Islamists belonging to eight nationalities were killed by the Algerian forces in the operation to free the hostages.