The hostage crisis at Ain Amenas gas complex in January placed a spotlight on Algerian foreign policy and security measures. Although unilateral Algerian security tactics frustrated international governments, authorities in many nations still believe Algerian support is necessary for security in North Africa. Yet President Bouteflika and the Algerian government are unlikely to provide extensive cooperation beyond their borders; Algerian policy is isolationist at the core.
The Algerian government has long held a “non-interference” foreign policy strategy. Historically, President Bouteflika has been a vocal opponent of foreign intervention, believing in particular that Western foreign military spending in North Africa allows too much leverage and insight into domestic militaries. The January attacks highlighted the extent to which Algeria is ready to act unilaterally. When Islamic militants took several hostages, including 48 foreign nationals, the Algerian military acted quickly to end the siege. This decision, made without the advice or support of other nations, aggravated world leaders who commonly cooperate in such situations. However, to the Algerians, these dialogs appear time-consuming and intrusive.
Algerian reluctance to invite coalition cooperation within its borders is equally matched by an unwillingness to interfere beyond its borders, as evidenced during the2011 Libyan Revolution. Though the Algerian government did not support the Gaddafi regime, they were reluctant to become involved in NATO-supported operations to remove the dictator. Rather, the Algerian government focused on the potential volatility in Libya, fearing that instability would create pockets of opportunity for increased weapons trafficking and radicalised groups to take hold. The Algerian government fortified its borders, shutting down crossings between the two nations. Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci stated, “We can only say that the relationship between us will improve with the return of stability to Libya.” Further, the Algerian government believes that those who aided in the overthrow of Gaddafi, particularly NATO, are responsible not only for the resulting instability, but are beholden to guide Libya’s new government through course-correction as it makes its way into democratic polity.
The nature of this “fortress-like” philosophy dates back to Algerian independence from France in 1962, when the Algerian government became determined to become a pillar of sovereignty. Decades later, in 1992, Algeria suffered a coup d’etat which led to a decade long civil war between the Algerian military and two Islamic parties; the Islamic Salvation Front, and the considerably more radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The GIA carried out a series of massacres, and Algeria found itself alone in struggling with militant Islamic insurgencies, relatively unaided by Western forces. By the end of the war, insurgencies cost the lives of almost 200,000 people, yet the terrorist threat in the Middle East was not fully acknowledged by Western forces until the attacks in the US on September 11, 2001. As a result, Algeria’s experiences have reinforced the government’s conviction to remain solidly independent in dealing with domestic security issues, and non-intrusive in events beyond its borders.
Complicating matters for Algeria, however, are contentious neighbours along those borders. Algeria is the largest country in Africa (five times the size of France) and has a 2,500 mile land border. Six hundred of those miles are shared with a still-unstable Libya, and a further nine hundred of those miles are shared with Mali, where Islamist militants have taken over the northern region of the country, threatening to impact security along Algerian borders. Still more troublesome, a large section of the nation borders fall deep within the Sahara. In that vast, secluded space, many militant groups have taken residence in the areas bordering Algeria, particularly in northern Mali.
In April 2012, an offshoot group of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) kidnapped seven people from an Algerian consulate in northern Mali. The militants executed one hostage and released three in the summer. The three remaining are reportedly still in captivity. Despite these affronts, the Algerian government has been loath to cooperate in actions against militants in Mali, acutely aware of their direct impact on security within Algerian borders. Algerian officials fear that military involvement might push the radicals further north into domestic territory. Further still, Algerian actions may cause radicalisation of the nomadic Taureg Bedouins, whose territory resides on the borders of Algeria, Mali, and Niger.
While the Algerian government is adamant that they will not send troops to Mali, it has granted permission for French fighters to use Algerian airspace, and has reinforced military presence along the Malian border. The attackers at Ain Amenas gas complex claimed that the siege was a direct result of Algerian cooperation. Attacking Algeria’s gas complex is a significant step for militant Islamists; the assault was more sophisticated than bombings in public places, and sources confirm that the attack has been planned for some time, with the help of individuals working inside the complex. AQIM and other radicalised groups have historically profited from ransoming hostages, and a complex with foreign nationals would possibly provide income to spend on achieving goals in northern Mali. In addition, the attack sends a message. Sonatrach, Algeria’s nationalized oil and gas company, is the tenth largest in the world. The hydrocarbon industry provides the bulk of the nation’s wealth. An attack within such an infrastructure signals an attempt to cripple the Algerian economy.
However, a large percentage of Algerian revenue supports its defence spending. Algeria has the 16th largest defence budget in the world (primarily purchasing weaponry from Russia), and a highly proficient military, adept after years of experience, at securing its borders and ensuring safety to its hydrocarbon profit sectors. Algeria will continue to secure and reinforce its borders from within, but are unlikely to provide more than airspace permissions in affairs beyond its borders.
Unidentified sources told Verdens Gang (VG), a Norwegian newspaper, that the Islamist militants had placed inside knowledge of the Ain Amenas gas plant, and were able to place weapons inside the complex ahead of their 16 January attack. Hostage witness accounts also state that the attackers knew exactly where to find foreign workers inside the complex. An Algerian security official confirmed on Wednesday that one of the assailants had been employed as a chauffeur at the site up until last year.
Analysts suspect the Algerian government grew complacent in security at oil and gas installations in recent times, and the militants took advantage of the lapse in security. If the attacks were assisted by insiders, or succeeded due to complacency, a similar attack is less likely to be repeated elsewhere, as the conditions which allowed this attack are unlikely to be recreated. However, if the capability of the terrorists is greater than the security precautions in place, likelihood for attacks may increase.
Companies are now trying to determine whether the attacks at Ain Amenas were an isolated incident, or a paradigm shift for security in North Africa. As Militant Islamists are increasingly present and active in the region, it is possible they may now target energy facilities, especially in countries where the security is not as tight as it has been in Algeria.
Libya, which has a well-developed hydrocarbon sector, but a very week security infrastructure, is at particular risk, as well as other extractive industry installations in Mauritania or Niger.
It is unlikely that attacks will occur at similar facilities in the immediate future. Belmokhtar, mastermind of the raid, may take time to replace people and equipment that were lost in last week’s attacks. However, because the region is vast, and targets are increasingly scarce and difficult to attack, it is likely that militant groups will continue to expand their range of operations for new kidnapping victims. Ransoms from these victims would replace the resources lost in the attack.
Further complicating matters, following the Libyan revolution, an abundance of shoulder-fired missiles have become available in the region, adding to the risk that in lieu of kidnapping, militants may choose to conduct surface to air terrorism, such as attacking aircraft used to transport Westerners to extraction installations.
As smuggling operations in Mali become increasingly difficult and insurgents are driven further north, it is possible that the Islamist extremist groups will retreat into Mali’s Kidal region, Niger’s Air region, or as far back as Libya, where relative lawlessness allows operations to be conducted with comparative ease.
Canada, Britain, and several European countries have urged their nationals to leave Benghazi on Thursday, citing “specific and imminent” threats to Westerners days. The warning occurs a week after the attack at Ain Amenas gas complex in neighbouring Algeria, and was made due to a “credible threat” picked up by MI6 that was linked to last week’s raid. The threat was described as “specific” and “imminent”, however details have not been released.
Few Westerners are believed to be in Benghazi, the tumult in the city following the Libyan revolution saw an increase in violence toward diplomats, military, and police, including the September attack on the US Embassy which resulted in four deaths.
The British ambassador in Tripoli called each British national and told them to leave immediately, stating that there are threats of attack on foreign institutions run by foreigners, including schools and hospitals. Experts believe the warnings are likely from groups angered by the French operation in Mali, and inspired by last week’s events.
These warnings have shocked the Libyan government, who have not received formal information regarding the threat, and raised the ire of Deputy Interior Minister Abdullah Massud, who wants an explanation as to the nature of the threats. “If Britain was afraid of threats to its citizens,” he stated, “it could have pulled them out quietly without causing all the commotion and excitement.”
Libya is in the process of rebuilding its nation following the revolution, and warnings of this nature can cause foreign investment to drop at a time when building and strengthening foreign relationships is critical to the Libyan economy.
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The UK Foreign Commonwealth office advise: “We are aware of a specific, imminent threat to Westerners in Benghazi. We advise against all travel to Benghazi and urge any British nationals who are there against our advice to leave immediately.” The FCO further advise against all but essential travel to Tripoli, Zuwara, Az Zawiya, al Khums, Zlitan and Misrata, and the coastal towns from Ras Lanuf to the Egyptian Border, with the exception of Benghazi. Finally, the FCO advise against all travel to all other areas of Libya, including Benghazi. Travellers to the region are warned of high threat from terrorism and kidnapping, as well as retaliatory attacks targeting Western interests in the region following the French intervention in Mali.
Algerian forces are combing the Sahara desert for five foreigners who remain missing from the attacks at Ain Amenas gas complex last week. It is unknown whether they were able to flee the complex and are perhaps lost in the vast desert region. The plant is located deep in the Sahara with few population centres nearby. Evening temperatures in the region can drop as low as 3° Celsius.
The attack last week left 38 workers and 29 militants dead. The al Qaeda-linked group reportedly demanded the release of two well-known, linked jihadists in exchange for American hostages. The two jihadists are Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (a.k.a. the “Blind Sheikh”) and Aafia Siddiqui (a.k.a. “Lady Al Qaeda”). The request for their release, however unlikely, remains a common refrain by Al-Qaeda linked groups.
Of the three militants taken into custody, one stated under interrogation that some Egyptian members of the group were involved in the terrorist attacks at the US Mission in Benghazi. The attacks left four dead, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens, in September of last year. It is not known whether this confession was obtained under duress or should be deemed trustworthy. However, if confirmed, the link underscores the transnational characteristic of the jihadist groups now occupying the Sahara and Sahal regions.
US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, believes that the Islamist militant takeover of northern Mali had created a haven for terrorists to extend their reach in North Africa. Algerian officials believe the gas complex plot was devised by groups in northern Mali, where Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the group claiming responsibility, is believed to be based. Further reinforcing this notion, US intelligence officials believe that some members of Ansar al-Shariah, the group that carried out the attack in Benghazi, has connections to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Algerian officials say the Ain Amenas attackers travelled through Niger and Libya, whose border is only 30 miles from the plant. It is believed that the arms for the assault were purchased in Tripoli. The hostage takers converged in the southern Libyan town of Ghat, just across the border. Algerian officials believe the nation can expect more terrorist attacks, despite having delivered sharp blows to militants over a period covering nearly 15 years.
Belmokhtar, mastermind of the Ain Amenas attack, may have once worked as an agent for Algeria’s secretive internal security agency (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité or DRS).
A 2009 cable describes a conversation with a prominent Tuareg leader assigned to the Malian consulate, who professed to be “as confused as everyone else regarding the Algerian government’s reticence to go after [Belmokhtar’s] camps in northern Mali”, presuming that Belmokhtar may have been receiving support from certain quarters of the Algerian government.
A senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies stated, “You have a number of jihadi figures who have approached intelligence agencies about serving as double agents, not because they wanted to betray the jihadi cause, but rather because they thought they could play the agencies and get more information about their thinking about the jihadis.”
Algerian Prime Minister Sellal stated today that the terrorists involved in the attacks at Ain Amenas gas complex ranged in nationality from Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Mali and elsewhere in the region, as well as two from Canada. Sellal also revealed that the militants were helped by a former driver who worked at the plant. This detail validates speculations that people known to the complex were involved in the planning of the attacks.
He also confirmed that 38 workers and 29 terrorists died, while another three were taken into custody. Sellal states that five hostages are unaccounted for; other governments claim there are seventeen still missing.
In defence of the actions taken by the Algerian government, Sellal said, “I swear before God that there are few in this world who could achieve” what the Algerian armed forces undertook. Sellal also indicated that Algeria wanted to send a message to terrorists.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the militant group, confirmed that the attack had been prepared for a long time, but the French intervention in Mali provided the opportunity to carry out the plan. Belmokhtar also stated that he had hoped to negotiate and had promised the hostages would not be harmed. The Algerian government believed that the demands were “unacceptable”.
Analysts suggest that the diverse composition of the militants, which included three explosives experts, and the nature of the target may signal a shift toward a more sophisticated approach to conducting attacks. Though Belmokhtar and his group failed in Algeria, he has vowed more attacks in the future.
Algeria has not been economically impacted by the events. The Ain Amenas plant, which produces 10% of the nations’ gas, is set to resume operations in a few days. Gas complexes throughout the nation increased output to maintain normal demand. PT Pertamina, Indonesia’s state-owned oil company, will proceed with a bid to buy stakes in three Algerian oil fields from ConocoPhillips.
On Saturday, Algerian Special Forces stormed a natural gas complex in Ain Amenas, in a “final assault” to put an end to the four-day hostage situation. Seven hostages were summarily killed as Algerian troops tried to free them. Over the course of the crisis, 37 foreign hostages from eight countries, and eleven Algerian workers have been killed in the attacks. Seven victims are yet to be identified; five are still missing.
Sources indicate that the militants conducted a highly organized and well planned assault. Members of the Al-Qaeda linked group, Katiba Moulathamin, attacked the plant Wednesday morning from the Libyan border, 60 miles from the natural gas plant. The militants attacked two buses taking foreign employees to the airport. As the buses’ military escort fired on the attackers, the rebels turned to the gas complex, which is divided between the workers’ living quarters and the refinery itself, and seized hostages. Algerian officials suggest that the attackers may have had inside help from Algerians employed at the site.
Early Saturday, the Algerian military stationed itself in the residential barracks of the plant, while militants, armed with rocket-launchers and machine guns, were located in the industrial section with an undisclosed number of hostages. Shortly before the military assault, the leader of the hostage-takers, Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, said the government had to choose between negotiating with the kidnappers and leaving the hostages to die, also stating that the area had been booby-trapped and swore to blow up the complex if the Algerian army used force. The Algerian military is clearing mines planted by the militants.
A video released by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Katiba Moulathamin’s leader, confirmed his involvement for the first time, stating that the operation was carried out by 40 fighters from six nations, including several Westerners. Algerian officials say Belmokhtar’s group was behind the attack, but he was not present himself. The raid leader, Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, is thought to be among the 32 dead militants.
Nigeri, a fighter from an Arab tribes in Niger, joined the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in early 2005. A year later, the GSPC joined up with al-Qaeda to create al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and has since spread across North Africa, the Sahara, and the Sahel region. Recently, AQIM has been bolstered by millions earned from the kidnapping of Westerners and their ability to move across the borders between Libya, Algeria, Mali and Niger.
It is suspected that this attack was a symptom of disputes between Belmokhtar and Abdelmalek Droukdel, man who was chosen to lead the GSPC following the death of former leader Nabil Sahraoui. Belmokhtar believed himself as a major candidate to replace Sahraoui, however the the position went to Droukdel instead. On the outer level, the crisis in Ain Amenas appeared to be a warning to the Algerian government, but within AQIM, the situation could be perceived as a show of strength by Belmokhtar.