international analysis and commentary

Beyond the terrorist attack of Ain Amenas

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What lessons can be learned from the terrorist attack against the Tiguentourine gas site of Ain Amenas, located in the southeastern part of Algeria? First, as the Obama administration (among others) has openly recognized, armed groups with various links to al Qaeda are well-settled in the Sahel region – but this is not a new development. It should be recalled that the last decade has seen the kidnapping of Western tourists in the Algerian desert (2003), and of British and French nationals in Niger and Mali. The Arab revolts of 2011 may have reinforced this trend, as especially the fall of Gheddafi in Libya has provided terrorist groups with parts of the former regime’s arsenal. Yet, the problem had emerged much earlier.

The second lesson from the January events is that jihadist militants are using the Sahel as a military and logistical base for planning attacks not only against Western interests but also against Algeria. This state is considered the most stable country in the region and an ally of the West in the war against terrorism. It is no accident that among the 32 militants involved in the Ain Amenas attack, there were only three Algerians; the others were Tunisians, Egyptians, Malians, Nigerians, Mauritanians, Libyans and one Canadian citizen.

Algerians are keenly aware of this, on the basis of their own tragic experience with the multitude of groups and acronyms that have brought death and instability to the country for a long time. In fact, a genuine “foreign legion” is active in the whole region, which reminds us of the international dimension of jihadist terrorism.

The third lesson is even more complex and worrisome: the threat is growing and spreading. Attacking a gas plant in Algeria is a message to the entire international community: the strategically important energy flows are no longer safe, even at sites jointly managed by Western and local companies – in this case British Petroleum, Statoil and Sonatrach. Widespread assumptions about the technical and organizational skills of terrorist groups, as well as their level of ambition, should now be reassessed. The possibility that the Islamist commando probably had accomplices inside the base is a dire warning about the existing safety measures taken at energy plants across the region. Clearly, the loss of control over the southern borders is a serious problem that Algeria shares with other neighboring countries and one which largely explains the contagion effect with the current situation in Mali.

A final lesson has to do with the specific role of Algeria in the changing regional context. The conflict in Mali has certainly broadened the security challenges facing Algeria, and may have encouraged the government to take a tough stand against the terrorist commando despite the inevitable risks of a blitz. While locally many considered the operation a success, some Western governments initially criticized Algiers due to the number of deaths. Those voices quickly faded as Algeria’s vulnerable and exposed position in the region took center stage. This new wave of jihadism is indeed a side effect of the Arab Spring, and the spotlight is now on the country’s need for support and cooperation – and in what form it will come.