The hostage kidnapping in Algeria – a first evaluation

The Algerian military operation brings to mind the Russian modus operandi against the Chechens barricaded with hundreds of hostages in the Moscow Dubrovka Theater.

Algerian army guards road to gas plant 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Algerian army guards road to gas plant 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
According to most media outlets, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb brigade, led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is responsible for the hostage taking in the Algerian BP oil facilities in In Amenas. According to the spokesman of Belmokhtar’s brigade quoted by Sahara Media, the kidnapping of the foreigners is in revenge for Algeria’s consent to French use of its airspace for flights headed to Mali.
In the opinion of this author the kidnapping has only indirect connection with the French intervention in Mali, and was planned many weeks or even months before the incident happened.
Rather, the attack is connected with the in-fighting among the various factions of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on the background of the latest developments related to this organization.
It should be recorded that Mokhtar Belmokhtar has been a long-time member of AQIM, as head of the southern Sahara unit or katiba, later named the Katibat Moulathamine, or Masked Brigade.
During the past four-five years he has become more of a local warlord, acting in this huge deserted Sahel region on the borders of Mauritania and northern Mali, engaging in narcotics and cigarette smuggling and the lucrative industry of kidnapping foreign tourists and workers.
He was in conflict with the present emir of AQIM, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud (aka Abelmalek Droukdel), who refused to nominate him as emir. It was reported that Belmokhtar split from AQIM, or was expelled from the organization, in the last months of 2012.
In spite of AQIM’s and its allies’ advances in northern Mali since the military coup there in March 2012, Algerian military forces have been successful in killing and arresting on Algerian territory some 200 militants and leaders since August 2012.
An operation on August 15, 2012, led to the arrest of the chairman of AQIM’s judicial committee, Nacib Tayeb (aka Abderrahmane Abou Ishak Essoufi) as he was headed to a leadership meeting.
In October, Algerian forces killed Bekkai Boualem (aka Khaled el-Mig), the head of external relations for al- Qaida.
On December 16, Salah Gasmi, AQIM’s number two boss and main spokesman was captured near Bouira.
He was responsible for the group’s propaganda, the co-ordination of the various small groups operating in Kabylie and is the suspected mastermind of the 2007 suicide bombings in Algiers.
His arrest weakens Droukdel’s leadership.
Finally, on January 5, 2013, Algerian security forces killed nine terrorists in Keddara, Boumerdes. One of them was identified as Izza Rezki (aka Abou Djaffar), responsible for the finances of the organization.
It is therefore possible that the main goal of Mokhtar Belmokhtar in this major terrorist operation was to enhance his position in the fight for the leadership of AQIM. If successful, the operation could also have brought him an important ransom from some of the governments or companies which had citizens among the foreign hostages, to finance his group’s future activities.
IT IS still too early to evaluate the final results of the military operation to free the hostages in the gas facilities.
From the point of view of the Algerian authorities, the most important issue was to hamper any attempt by the terrorists to blow up this important gas field, as gas and oil exports are the main source of revenue for the government. This could explain the decision to act so quickly; without, perhaps, all the necessary intelligence for a successful operation.
The Algerians wanted also to prevent political pressure from foreign governments worried for the fate of their citizens, like Japan and Norway.
Another factor was the desire to show the Algerian people the determination of the government to fight the Islamist terrorists at any price and not show any sign of political weakness after it “won” the May 2012 legislative election and, contrary to all other Arab regimes, to stop the advance of the Islamist wave.
The Algerian military and security services have led a long, deadly and cruel war against the Islamists since 1992, which has cost the lives of 100,000-150,000 Algerians.
The death of dozens of hostages, even if it could involve serious diplomatic repercussions, is less important than the stability the Algerian regime whose main goal is survival.
The Algerian military operation, in a huge gas complex were more than 600 people were working, many of them taken hostage, brings to mind the Russian modus operandi against the Chechens barricaded with hundreds of hostages in the Moscow Dubrovka Theater (October 2002) or the Beslan school hostage crisis (September 2004).
The writer is a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and The Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya.