People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 10

March 10, 2013


                                                                                Algeria: Mali Blowback


                                                                                                                                                            Yohannan Chemarapally


ALGERIA, which shares a long border with Mali, was the first country that experienced an immediate blowback from the French military intervention in that country. An Islamist militant outfit aligned to Al Qaeda, calling itself the “Signers in Blood,” crossed over from Libya and attacked an Algerian gas plant, In Amenas, jointly owned by British Petroleum, Norway’s Statol and Algeria’s Sonatrach. The facility is situated just inside Algeria abutting the border with Libya. The desert area is frequented by the Tuaregs, who have been fighting for an independent homeland. In Armenas, means “mountain top” in Tamashek, the language of the Tuaregs. The armed group that seized the gas facility, which also goes by the name “Masked Brigade,” had immediately issued a statement criticising Algeria’s support for the French invasion of Mali. “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,” the statement issued by the group said.




In actual 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 the sparsely populated but Tuareg and tribal dominated desert region calm. It was only after the fall of Gaddafi that the various militant groups, that were comparatively dormant till then, became active. As the events in Algeria indicate, Mali could be just the first country in the region to be destabilised after the NATO led intervention in Libya and the latest French military involvement in Mali. According to reports, the weapons and transport used in the attack on the Algerian gas refinery had come from Libya. According to Algerian sources the weapons used were supplied to Libyan rebels in their fight against Gaddafi by France and Britain.


The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, had visited Algiers in October last year to persuade the government to send its troop to Mali as part of an African peace keeping 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 US Africa Command (AFRICOM), General Carter F Ham, recently said that there could not be a satisfactory solution to Mali’s problems “without Algeria’s participation.” The AFRICOM chief 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 Counter Terrorism Partnership which is funded by the US. 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 neighbouring Mali. But when France suddenly decided to intervene militarily, Algeria was asked for over-flight facilities for the French war planes, and 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 deaths 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 like the Philippines. Their calculation was that they were not worth much as hostages in comparison to western ones. The militants had taken the westerners too as hostages in the hope of negotiating the release of fellow jihadists incarcerated in Algerian jails. Many hostages were killed when Algerian counter-terrorism forces attacked when the speeding cars taking them were heading towards Libya. The In Amenas gas field is only 30 km from the Libyan border.




The jihadi 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 human trafficking. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leader of the group which staged the bloody attack on the Algerian gas plant, was known in the region as “Mr Marlboro.” Smuggling across the Sahel has significantly contributed to coffers of the jihadist groups operating in the region. Troops from Chad, which are helping the French in their military campaign in northern Mali, claimed that Belmokhtar, currently the most wanted man in the region, was killed in fighting with their forces at the end of February. Till early March there was no independent confirmation of their claim.


The Algerian government has been taking a consistent stance on dealing with terrorism. They have refused to countenance negotiating with terrorists holding hostages or with 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 of 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 take either advice or help from other countries. The Algerian political establishment is aware that the West is now using the bogey of terrorism in the region to instal puppet governments. Since their decade long war with home-grown terrorists in the nineties, the Algerian government has followed the policy of not negotiating with them under any circumstances.


The speed with which the Algerian government decided to resolve the hostage crisis had come in for criticism from many governments. The Japanese government was especially upset as their nationals suffered the most casualties. Washington, London and Tokyo would have preferred negotiations to free the western hostages. In the 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. The French President, Francois Hollande, was the only western leader, who was openly supportive of the Algerian action. “When we have people taken as hostages in such large numbers by terrorists with such cold determination and ready to kill the hostages, as they did. Algeria, has an approach, which to me, is the most appropriate, as there could be no negotiations.” Paris has reasons to keep Algiers in good humour. The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has promised the “total reconquest of Mali.” For that goal to be a reality, Algeria’s cooperation is needed.




Though Washington has remained silent, officials there have said that they would have preferred a “precision approach” to a “sledge hammer” one. American officials have said that Washington was not consulted before the Algerian forces started their assault. The Algerian authorities, according to US 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, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said that the two countries will “work together to confront and disrupt al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”


The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and other senior officials have blamed the West for rise in terror attacks in West Asia and North Africa because of the role the West has played in countries like Syria and Libya. 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. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, told the Russian media that those involved in the fighting against the French and African troops in Mali were the same fighters the West had armed for a revolt against Gaddafi. Before the NATO led intervention in Libya, Gaddafi had prophetically warned that if his government fell, the Al Qaeda hordes will be out of control. Describing them as “beasts with turbans,” he had said in a speech that they consider “all people to be infidels and they do nothing but killing.”


The Algerian foreign minister, Mourad Medelci, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 25, acknowledged that the Algerian government was in the process of “assessing our 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. The Algerian prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, speaking earlier that week had said 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 would have been taken the terrorist would have succeeded in killing all the hostages and blowing up the factory. The Algerian prime minister said that the militants involved in the attack included citizens from the UK and Canada; 29 Islamists from eight nationalities were killed by the Algerian forces in the operation to free the hostages.