It was 2007 when Algeria's Islamist insurgents changed the rules of a war that had raged, in various forms, for decades. That was the year Algeria witnessed its first suicide bombing -- the handiwork of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which had formed the previous year. Over the course of 2007 and 2008, AQIM carried out three sensational suicide bombings, resulting in more than 500 deaths and ushering in a new era of terrorism.
At the time, a Dutch oil company asked how the introduction of suicide bombing changed the security dynamic in Algeria. The town of Hassi Messaoud and other oil- and gas-producing areas are militarized zones: The previous logic had been that any attack against an oil facility would be a suicide operation. The attackers may have been able to reach their target, but they would never have been able to escape -- Algeria would launch helicopter gunships and destroy any would-be terrorists fleeing across the desert. But what were the consequences when death was, if not the goal of the mission, then at least an acceptable outcome?
Five years later, we have an answer. A group of unknown origin -- possibly Algerian, possibly not -- attacked an extensive gas facility at In Amenas, near the border with Libya, with the objective of seizing as many expatriate hostages as possible and then fleeing beyond Algeria's borders. The group is suspected of links to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Islamist militant leader who had recently distanced himself from AQIM and set up his own organization.
What the attackers hoped would happen next was anybody's guess -- perhaps a ransom payment, or French and Algerian acquiescence to their demands, including the cessation of the French military campaign in Mali and the release of Islamist prisoners. We may never know, as Algerian military forces immediately intervened: They surrounded the gas facility, pinned down the hostage takers, and eventually launched an assault that presumably killed most if not all of the terrorists as well as an as-of-yet unspecified number of the hostages.
But even if it was a suicide mission, it is surprising that terrorists with links to Belmokhtar carried out such an attack. The ensuing Algerian response was entirely in line with expectations -- and Belmokhtar, a hardened and wily terrorist, surely knew the reaction his conspirators' actions would elicit.
Algeria's experience with Islamist insurgency during the 1990s defines its response to events today. During that conflict, a debate emerged within the Algerian government about how to deal with the violent Islamists. One side favored a negotiated solution. The other, known as the eradicateurs, said killing the Islamists was the only approach. The eradicateurs won -- and they still remain in the drivers seat in today's Algeria.