As the Algerian government continues to control a haphazard and inconsistent flow of information from In Aménas, the site of this week’s dramatic hostage-taking by Islamist militants, there continues to be confusion over the number of hostages killed in an assault by Algerian security forces and even the fate of the militants themselves. The remote In Aménas gas field is close to the Libyan border, some 1,600 kilometers from the capital of Algiers, and is operated as a joint venture of BP, Norwegian Statoil and the Algerian government-owned Sonatrach. However, with most of the facility now in the hands of the Algerian military after a bloody intervention, the main questions that must be addressed at this point involve the origin and purpose of the attackers. The answers to these questions may differ significantly from those provided by the militants themselves over the last two days.
“Those Who Sign in Blood”
At the core of the attack is veteran Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar (a.k.a. Khalid Abu al-Abbas), a prominent al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) commander whose differences with the movement’s leadership resulted in Belmokhtar splitting with AQIM in October to set up his own fighting group, “the Brigade of Those Who Sign in Blood.” In early December, Belmokhtar led a column of fighting vehicles and loyalists to the Malian border post of al-Khalil, close to the frontier with Algeria (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, January 10). Al-Khalil is just north of the Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains of Kidal and is a vital border post along a main Saharan highway that brings all types of commerce, licit and illicit, south through the Algerian desert town of Adrar. Algeria announced that its borders had been sealed and secured on January 14, two days before the raid on In Aménas (AFP, January 14).
Belmokhtar’s new militant formation issued a statement of responsibility for the raid on In Aménas on January 16, declaring the attack “a response to the blatant intervention of the Crusader French forces in Mali” and the Algerian “conspiracy with the French to strike the Muslims in Mali” (ansar1.info, January 16). Though the claim of responsibility suggested that the attack was made in response to Algeria’s January 14 decision to allow over-flights by French military aircraft, such an assault would in fact require weeks of planning and organization, even more so if the attack was actually mounted from Mali, as the attackers claim. A spokesman for AQIM’s Katibat Mulathamin confirmed that “the commando” had been prepared for this operation for nearly two months “because we knew in advance that the [Algerian] regime would be a good ally of France in the war against Azawad [i.e. northern Mali] (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, January 17).
Most interesting was a nearly simultaneous claim of responsibility from AQIM’s Katibat al-Mulathamin (“Brigade of the Wearers of the Veil,” a reference to the male Tuareg custom of wearing a veil – Arabic “litham”). This brigade was formerly Belmokhtar’s command before his split with the rest of the AQIM leadership in October. If this was not simply a case of AQIM trying to jump onboard an ongoing operation, it would seem to indicate that Belmokhtar’s split with the rest of the organization was not as severe as some thought or has been subject to some degree of reconciliation in recent weeks.
One of the kidnappers told a French news agency by phone that his group was composed of “members of al-Qaeda” under the command of Mokhtar Belmokhtar and had come “from northern Mali” (AFP, January 16). However, this claim merits some deeper examination. The distance from Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s new base in the Malian border town of al-Khalil to In Aménas is no less than 725 miles as the crow flies. For those not blessed with wings, the actual drive would be significantly longer, using both Algerian highways and desert tracks that would take the attackers around the north side of Algeria’s Hoggar mountains. While it is true that Algeria’s border with Mali is long and difficult to defend, it is difficult to envision the passage of a large convoy of militants through the busy section between al-Khalil and the Algerian border post at Bordj Mokhtar without detection. A sizable convoy would be required to carry out the attack, carrying its own food, water and fuel as well as fighters, weapons and munitions. If the attackers were indeed able to travel in a heavily-armed convoy from one end of Algeria to the other without the least interference or detection from Algerian security forces, this would indicate either Algerian government cooperation or a complete breakdown in Algeria’s security infrastructure, both unpalatable alternatives. A third option, however, is that such claims are intentional misdirection designed to conceal the real point of origin of the attackers – Libya.
Algerian Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia hinted at the unlikelihood that the attackers had come direct from Mali or any other country, saying that the terrorists had come “not from Mali, nor from Libya, nor from any other neighboring country” (Algérie Presse Service, January 16). By the next day, however, Kablia had changed his mind, now claiming that the attackers were from Libya, without elaborating (Echorouk [Algiers], January 17).
A terrorist attack of this type was somewhat unexpected, at least based on previous experience. Even at the height of clashes between Algeria’s Islamist militants and government forces in the 1990s, the Islamists never attempted to penetrate a heavy security cordon placed around Algeria’s vital oil and gas infrastructure in the southern desert region. Fighting from well-concealed bases in the heavily-wooded Kabylie Mountains of northern Algeria was always preferable to mounting operations in difficult desert terrain where no cover was available from air surveillance or attack. In this sense, it seems that proximity to Libya may have been the deciding factor in the selection of In Aménas as a target. Libya is still struggling to consolidate control of its desert interior and the distance from the Libyan border to In Aménas could be easily covered at night, allowing the attackers to emerge undetected with the rising of the sun. The nearby Algerian military camp entrusted with protecting the gas installation did not go into action until the terrorists has already seized the facility.
The Purpose of the Attack
Belmokhtar’s new group is one of a host of new Islamist formations to suddenly emerge in northern Mali. According to a spokesman from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), these new groups are intended to “fight the neighboring countries, especially Algeria” (Le Temps d’Algerie, January 16).
The raiders were reported to have demanded the release of 100 Islamists from Algerian prisons in exchange for the hostages, which seems to have been the real purpose of the hostage-taking (AFP, January 16). Unusual for a Belmokhtar kidnapping, there was no mention of a cash ransom, though it is possible that not all the details regarding demands have become available. The assailants claimed to be equipped with mortars and anti-aircraft missiles, saying “We hold the Algerian government and the French government and the countries of the hostages fully responsible if our demands are not met. It is up to them to stop the brutal aggression against our people in Mali” (Ansar1.info, January 16).
According to Algerian government sources, the raid began at 5 AM when three vehicles carrying heavily armed terrorists attacked a bus carrying foreign workers to the local airstrip, overpowering its security escort and killing at least one foreign worker (Algérie Presse Service, January 16; L’Expression [Algiers], January 16). Algeria’s Interior Minister, Dahou Ould Kablia, was clear from the outset; there would be no negotiations with the terrorists.
Algerian helicopters opened fire on the terrorists when they tried to flee the gas plant in vehicles using hostages as protection. Among those killed in the first Algerian attack was Abu al-Bara, an Algerian associate of Belmokhtar and the apparent leader of the raid (al-Akhbar, January 17). Others killed in the Algerian assault include veteran jihadist Lamine Boucheneb (a.k.a. Amir Tahir), leader of the Fils du Sahara pour la justice islamique and Mauritanian Abdallahi Ould Humeida. According to a source within the “Signatories in Blood,” the raiders were a diverse group that included jihadis from Canada, Algeria, Mali, Egypt, Niger and Mauritania (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, January 17).
The hostage-taking was somewhat unusual in that both kidnappers and abductees remained in touch with the outside world by telephone. One of the hostages told France 24 TV that the prisoners had been forced to wear explosive belts by the raiders, who promised to blow up the gas plant if attacked by Algerian forces (France 24, January 16). Another hostage reported that the attackers had mined the entire plant and were well armed with rocket-propelled grenades (Le Figaro [Paris], January 16). As the Algerian military made its final assault on the complex, a spokesman for the hostage-takers was on the phone with a Mauritanian news agency, threatening to kill the hostages against a background of loud explosions before the line went dead (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, January 17).
After the Algerian military had retaken control of the gas facility, an AQIM spokesman promised more operations would be mounted against the Algerian regime, warning Algerians to “keep away from the locations of foreign companies, as we will strike where nobody would expect” (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, January 17).
The raid suggests that Belmokhtar continues to work closely with AQIM elements despite the differences that led the veteran jihadist to assemble his own formation in early December. However, there is a strong possibility that Belmokhtar’s raid on In Aménas will have the inevitable result of dragging a so-far reluctant Algeria into the conflict in northern Mali. Mauritania, another hold-out despite a history of intervening in northern Mali against al-Qaeda elements, has now reversed its position and agreed to deploy combat troops in northern Mali (Jeune Afrique, January 16). Chad has also decided to send a so-far indeterminate number of its highly capable desert fighters to Mali, thus furnishing, together with Algeria and Mauritania, the missing elements of an African intervention force that was far too reliant on West African troops with little knowledge of Saharan-style desert warfare. If Algiers does commit to the military destruction of the Islamist forces in northern Mali, Belmokhtar’s ill-timed raid on In Aménas may be remembered as the beginning of the end for the Mali-based Islamists.
Though unsuccessful in the short-term, the raid will have a long-term impact on the Algerian energy industry as expat workers are recalled or leave on their own accord and Algerian military resources are diverted to protect isolated desert installations. There is a strong possibility of further strikes in Algeria to relieve pressure on embattled AQIM units in northern Algeria, where recent and effective counterterrorist operations have put the movement on its heels. Most important, however, is the realization that it is Libya, rather than northern Mali, that has become a base for terrorist operations in the Sahara/Sahel region.