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.”