Stakes have risen sharply for the region and for the West
The Algerian hostage crisis unfolded just as the world’s attention was beginning to focus on the complex, murky nexus of Islamist militancy and transnational crime that has developed in the vast deserts of the north African Sahel. Now, with an unprecedented raid deep inside Algerian territory leading to the deaths of a number of hostages, the stakes have risen sharply for the region and for the West.
Never before, even at the height of the civil war that pitted the Algerian military against Islamist forces in the 1990s and 2000s, was an attack such as this mounted against the strategically vital energy installations where foreign firms have based themselves across Algeria’s remote southern desert. Three aid workers were kidnapped in the southwest last October, and an Italian was taken captive in September 2011, but all three were later released.
This week’s escalation will set off tremors within the gas and oil industries that employ huge numbers of local and western staff across the region. Already, the energy giant BP – which runs the In Amenas site alongside Norway’s Statoil and Sontrach of Algeria – said it was withdrawing non-essential personnel from the region.
The crisis poses searching questions for Algerian leaders and will turn the spotlight on to the country’s often fraught relations with Europe, the US and its neighbours. A regional powerhouse whose military-dominated regime has held firm while dictatorships have been toppled in nearby Tunisia and Libya, Algeria is often accused of adopting an ambiguous stance towards problems in the lawless Sahel.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) emerged in 2007 from a ruthless Algerian guerrilla outfit called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, better known by its French initials, GSPC.
A crackdown by the Algerian security forces pushed the militants south, where they have take advantage of porous borders to roam the deserts of Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, under whose command the gas plant siege was reportedly carried out, is an Algerian who fought in Afghanistan and led one of AQIM’s two factions before breaking with the organisation late last year.
Algeria points out that, having only recently emerged from a traumatic civil war, it appreciates as much as any country the threat from insurgents. But Europe and the US have for years been pressing the regime in Algiers to take a more active role in rooting out the Islamist threat in the Sahel.
Paris and Washington tried unsuccessfully to encourage the Algerians to join a regional intervention force that was due to be deployed in Mali later this year. And although there had recently been signs of improving relations – French president François Hollande paid a successful visit to Algiers last month, and the Algerians opened their air space to French jets when Paris launched its surprise intervention in Mali last week – mutual distrust remains.
Huge death toll
Algeria’s position will now come under a sharper spotlight. Given the huge death toll at In Amenas, the Algerians may also find themselves facing difficult questions about their tactics in dealing with the stand-off.
More widely, this week’s incident threatens to further escalate a conflict that had reached a delicate tipping point last week, when France decided to send in its military to stop a southward advance by Islamist rebels who had taken control of northern Mali last year. France is raising its deployment in Mali to 2,500 troops and the conflict looks likely to be drawn out. Already, aid agencies are warning of supply shortages and reporting refugees on the move.