The decision by Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar to target the BP plant and attack Algeria’s strategic interests seems to be a reaction to France’s intervention in Mali, but in fact it stems from an ongoing fragmentation process among jihadi groups that are probably going to take the initiative with new attacks and kidnappings. The ensuing dynamic among terrorists in the Sahel and the governments fighting them will mark the beginning of a new phase in the “war on terror”, with the proliferation of insurgent groups and regional Bin Laden-like figures. Western countries, in turn, will need to learn new ways to cooperate with local governments also in situations where they would not fully trust them, somehow replicating the current US-Pakistan relation in a different context.
Formerly with the Salafist Group for Predication and Combat and then affiliated to Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Bel Mokhtar had been recently sidelined inside the organization, as he was not always following the orders of the mastermind of the network, Abdel Malek Drukdel. By creating his new group “Those who sign with blood” and by launching the attack shortly afterwards, Bel Mokthar has sent a clear message to other rival terrorists as much as to Algeria and Western countries: he is the cornerstone of the jihadi camp in the region, hence he is legitimized to take the lead in terror and trafficking operations. Moreover, other groups and states wishing to support armed jihad internationally should choose him among local leaders in the region.
This pattern of “splinter-and-escalate” is not new in the area. The Movement for Unicity and Jihad in Western Africa (MUJWA), that kidnapped two Spanish and one Italian NGO worker in a Sahrawi camp in Algeria in October 2011, is itself a splinter group of AQIM and used the kidnapping to make itself known. Since then it has gained considerable weight and visibility and has attained a fully autonomous position alongside AQIM. The same goes for Ansar el Din (“The Partisans of Religion”) of Eyad Ag Aly, a Malian Touareg who over the last two decades has intermittently cooperated with the government and fought it, trafficking in narcotics, people and weapons along the way. In the end he has chosen to join the jihadi camp and occupy Kidal in the north of Mali, interrupting talks for a truce with the government (although there is still hope to buy him off).
The reason behind the multiplication of groups is that, contrarily to conventional wisdom, AQMI is experiencing problems in finding new recruits, so it is trying to create new kathibat (brigades) in order to tune in to the needs and desires of local foot soldiers. Even this, however, is not enough to keep young volunteers from the jihadi galaxy in its ranks. According to some accounts, the bulk of those fighting with the MUJWA, Ansar el Din and AQMI are young opportunists ready to switch sides depending on the prospective pay and the relative power of the various groups. By the terrorists’ standards, power and status are defined by the amount of harm that a specific group can cause and the foreign enemies it can provoke; in this context, Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar, who has simultaneously attacked the interests of Algeria, Britain, France, Ireland, Norway, the US and even Japan, has certainly attained an increased status among his competitors. The other leaders are therefore faced with a choice: either recognize the new leadership or challenge it, possibly with a further escalation in violence. The more radicalized elements in the established groups may also decide to start operations on their own if they feel that current leaders lack enough initiative or do not offer them enough autonomy to fight back.
If this interpretation is correct, we are going to see more brazen attacks in the near future and a multiplication of terrorist groups in the Sahel and beyond. Libya, of course, is the easiest target for geographical and political reasons. Reports from Nigeria already point to the presence of a new splinter group coming out of Boko Haram – known as Ansaru – while fragmentation among the Shabaab in Somalia may surface as the advance of AMISOM forces pushes them towards a choice between surrender and escalation, especially in Kenya and Tanzania. Eritrea may also become a training camp for Yemeni extremists, offering a rear-base to Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). The immediate outlook is that we will soon be faced with a series of regional Bin Ladens, from Africa to the Gulf, fighting for visibility and attention and trying to consolidate their relative positions with simultaneous attacks on external enemies.
All of this, however, accounts only for half of the new scenario of the “war on terror”. The other half has to do with how regional and international governments are going to deal with it. Here, too, there is a problem of coordination. The UK was highly irritated that Algeria launched a raid on the In Amenas plant on its own, without prior information to the British government. However, the UK acted similarly in Nigeria in March 2012 during an Anglo-Nigerian attempt to rescue one Italian and one Briton held by a terror group: the UK did not inform Italy in advance and the hostages were eventually killed by their captors. In addition, in the latest episode the truth is that Algeria could not afford, for political reasons, to act on advice or with help from another country: seeing itself as the pivot of the area and having itself championed the “no negotiation” policy for years – also advocated by the UK and the US, incidentally – it had to act on its own. It is hard to deny that the presence of foreign forces on Algerian soil would have played in the hands of the terrorists’ propaganda.
As attacks increase, other countries in the area will be faced with the same threats as Algeria and the odds are that they will replicate its calculations, too. In this context, relations between Western countries and local governments will resemble more and more the current trend between the US and Pakistan, with contrasting views on the ways to fight terrorism depending on the immediate concerns and issues at stake. Terrorist groups will certainly try to test that rift in order to break alliances or make them more costly.
What should be done to avert this evolution or at least contain the damage? First, all governments involved should agree on increased intelligence cooperation: those states with higher capabilities, like the US through its drones and other means, should help shape a common approach to the challenge. Special forces from Western and regional governments should also become more integrated and able to intervene in joint operations. Most of all, the key will be how to develop a fruitful, pre-emptive anti-terror cooperation with the new Islamist regimes in Africa without giving the impression that they are puppets of the West (which would be the major blow the terrorists could achieve). Hence the challenge will be to couple Western-style instruments with the need for new Muslim governments to avoid criticism by their internal opposition.
Beside – and in parallel with – fighting terrorists with armed interventions, however, the US and the EU should focus on the root causes of the problem. Unfortunately, that requires a vision that Europe, despite the broad support for France’s intervention in Mali, seems to lack. The first aim should be to eliminate the sources of terrorists’ financing, starting with the traffic of drugs and human beings. This could be achieved only through a grand strategy between the US, Europe and Latin America on the one hand and a serious EU immigration policy on the other. As long as such a strategy is missing, however, traffickers are likely to prosper and later turn into extremists to make their presence endemic.