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Blood on the Saharan sands

January 23, 2013

FOR those who favour a simple explanation, it’s not hard to interpret the bloody goings-on at an Algerian gas facility deep in the Sahara as Al Qaeda’s response to the French military intervention in neighbouring Mali.

Simplicity often comes at the cost of accuracy, however. The publicly known facts about exactly what occurred at the multinational complex at Tigantourine, near In Amenas in southern Algeria, are mired in murk. So are the precise motivations and origins of the jihadists who undertook the murderous mission.

Among other things, it is unclear whether most of the foreign hostages were executed by their captors or died in an attack by Algerian troops.

Some of the Western nations whose citizens were caught up in the terrorist attack and the siege that followed were initially ambivalent about the Algerian military response, but subsequently endorsed it.

The reported death toll has fluctuated ever since initial reports about the attack emerged a week ago. Monday’s figure for dead foreign employees at the facility stood at 37, but several were reported as missing. There were no estimates, official or otherwise, of the number of Algerians killed. Although more than one survivor has noted that the attackers early on declared their intent to focus on those they described as representatives of the “crusaders”, they slew at least some Algerians, too.

It seems the bulk of foreigners as well as Algerians were able to escape the carnage — which is, of course, most fortunate. One can only wonder whether more lives might have been saved had the authorities in Algiers chosen to negotiate rather than go in with their firearms blazing.

Perhaps not, given not just that the attackers were bloody-minded, but that the demands they made in contacts with foreign powers — including the release, in return for the lives of three American hostages, of Omar Abdel Rahman and Aafia Siddiqui — were hardly likely to be fulfilled.

It’s notable, though, that whereas Western powers that officially decry the concept of negotiating with terrorists are often willing to reconsider it in times of trouble, the Algerian authorities tend to take it literally.

One of the reasons Algeria has been excluded from the so-called Arab Spring is its extended experience of civil war, unleashed in 1992 when the military decided that a remarkable showing by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the independent nation’s first free elections could not be allowed to stand.

The state’s subsequent conflict with the Islamic Armed Group of Algeria (GIA) is believed to have cost 150,000 lives, with both sides relying on a level of brutality that blighted the existence of countless innocents.

A little more than three decades earlier, Algeria had experienced similarly deadly strife during the extended war of liberation against French colonialists, all too many of whom tended to regard the North African country as an extension of France.

Mali, to the southwest of Algeria, was a French colony, too. And although its path to independence was less painful, the claim by France’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian that his nation’s aim is “total reconquest” will cause considerable alarm, and not just among Islamists.

Of course, that may be little more than interventionist hyperbole, given that such an aim is unlikely to be accomplished by the 2,000 French troops deployed in the African nation.

At the same time, several pinches of salt are required to swallow the claim that the atrocity in Algeria was a direct consequence of the military action in Mali.

In this, one does not need to accept the word of Abdelmalek Sellai, the Algerian prime minister, who has claimed that the attack had been planned for at least two months — which is a plausible timescale. A statement by one of the purported leading lights of the perpetrators bears this out.

It does not follow, though, that there is no connection to Mali, northern portions of which are under the jihadist gun, now challenged by French forces and Malian troops.

After all, one of Algeria’s strategies has been to push its troublesome Islamists across the border into Mali, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Algerian terrorist believed to have been behind last week’s attack, is said to have been closely associated with the Mali-based outfit Ansar Dine.

A veteran of the 1980s Afghan jihad, Belmokhtar has also been associated with GIA and the force it morphed into, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but is reported to have fallen out with the AQIM leadership, thereafter forming the Masked Men Brigade and its apparent offshoot, the Signed-in-Blood Battalion.

Known as Mr Marlboro because of his reputation as a cigarette smuggler, Belmokhtar was also said to have been killed in combat in Mali last year.

That claim, at least, appears to have been premature. What’s more intriguing, though, is that not just the victims but also the perpetrators in Algeria are believed to have been multinational, with reports that some of them spoke in North American accents and that Canadian documents were found on at least two of the dead hostage-takers.

Intriguing, perhaps, but not entirely surprising, given that anecdotal evidence of North Africa emerging as a new magnet for would-be jihadists has been emerging for years. “Some have compared the situation [in Mali] to Afghanistan or Somalia,” according to Fernando Reinares, a Spanish terrorism expert quoted by The Guardian, “but I think the proper analogy is with the tribal zones of northern Pakistan”.

The British prime minister, David Cameron, has meanwhile suggested that the West could be engaged for years, if not decades, in the combat against terrorism in North Africa — even though, mind you, no British troops have officially been deployed to the region since they contributed to overthrowing the shaky established order in Libya.

Although weapons from Col Qadhafi’s arsenals have contributed to the destabilisation of North Africa, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, has defensively claimed that the situation would have been much worse had the West not intervened in Libya.

That’s pure conjecture. No one should seriously doubt that the salvation of North Africa will depend to a considerable extent on the domestic trajectories of regional states. And recent events are a reminder that the no-holds-barred Algerian path may not be the ideal option.