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.
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.
Although there have
since been two political amnesties for participants in the Islamist insurgency,
the eradicateurs still hold key counterterrorism posts in the Algerian
military, some having been brought out of retirement as recently as last year,
and eliminating terrorists is still the only Algerian government's only actionable
policy. There was no question that it would not be deployed at In Amenas.
The heart of all
Algerian policies is the preservation of the Algerian state -- maintaining the
sanctity of its sovereignty, defending the viability of its economy, and
ensuring the safety of its citizens, all with a vision not just to the day-to-day
but to the longer run. By attacking the In Amenas facility, the militants
struck at these core interests, provoking an overwhelming response from the
Algiers not only wanted
to show unequivocally that it has a monopoly on the use of force, it was also
obliged to protect the goose that lays its golden eggs. The hydrocarbon sector
is the backbone of Algeria's economy, accounting for more than 95 percent of
export earnings. Any attack on oil and gas facilities was thus not just an
attack on the energy sector but on the country's basic well-being. Hydrocarbon revenues
pays for subsidies on basic foodstuffs, fuel, and housing -- any reduction in earnings,
therefore, could undermine social stability and political stability.
How Algeria responded
to In Amenas was also not just an answer to the particular crisis, but was a
signal for the future. If this attack was intended as a game changer, if it was
intended to be a harbinger of future attacks, then Algeria had to send a clear
signal that the new tactic that would not succeed.
recognizes that the world will criticize its response, but it will readily
explain that the crisis was a direct result of foreign meddling in North Africa
and the Sahel. The leadership in Algiers will tell their critics that they warned
in 2011 that the NATO intervention in Libya would result in the collapse of the
state, and that the flow of weapons out of Libya and into the hands of violent
non-state actors could destabilize the region. Algiers also cautioned that any military
approach to the instability in northern Mali was likely to only escalate the
conflict and raise the likelihood of Islamist terrorist attacks in Algeria. Consequently,
the international community is indirectly responsible for what transpired and
is in no position to dictate how Algeria should have responded.
government will feel that its previous stances are vindicated by the In Amenas
attack, and as a result it will be harder for France and its allies, including
the United States, to convince Algeria to support the campaign in Mali or
broader French or U.S. strategic objectives in the region. If Washington too
aggressively criticizes the Algerian response, it risks squandering a year's
worth of unprecedented diplomatic outreach to Algiers.
Algeria's response to
the conflicts to its east and south has already been to bunker down, enforcing
the status quo through military force. That has led some to suggest that the
Algerian government is paranoid about the forces of unrest wracking the region.
But as the saying goes and In Amenas proves, "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't
mean they're not out to get me."
EPA/INTELCENTER / HANDOUT