Islamists promise fight across Sahara, but response disjointed

Foreign military intervention in Africa looked impossible - until last week. French launched airstrikes in Mali. Then European and American oil workers got kidnapped in Algeria.

Kjetil Alsvik, Statoil via NTB scanpix/AP/File
This 2005 file photo, shows the In Amenas gas field in Algeria, where Islamist militants raided and took hostages Wednesday.

In Mali, French forces are today fighting their way north up the Niger River to face insurgents. In Algeria, the Army is trying to free hostages at a remote gas plant, using helicopters, and with apparent collateral damage.

Increasingly, such battles are emerging as parts of what sometimes seems a single war against North Africa’s Islamist militants.

For Islamist militant groups across the Sahara and Sahel regions, national borders mean little. Yesterday gunmen seized an Algerian gas field in retaliation for France’s intervention against fellow Islamist militants in Mali.

As violence surges, Islamists are promising a regional fight. It remains a question whether governments and their Western allies will prove up to the challenge.

“There’s not a community of purpose,” says Jon Marks, an expert on North Africa and chairman of Cross-Border Information, a British risk analysis firm. “People have been traumatized by Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. There’s no appetite to intervene.”

In Mali, a planned foreign intervention to dislodge Islamist militants who overran the north last year still looked far-off until last week, with Western countries unwilling to commit troops. Algeria, a key regional power, had given only lukewarm backing.

It took a surprise advance south last week by Islamists to spur France to action. Mali’s former colonizer launched rapid air strikes and sent in hundreds of ground troops, and says it plans to hand off as soon as possible to West African troops as per the original intervention plan.

Islamists warned that Western interests would be targeted for retribution. That threat appeared to come true yesterday, when gunmen calling themselves the "Battalion of Blood" seized a gas plant near In Amenas, in eastern Algeria. They demanded an immediate halt to France’s intervention in Mali.

The plant is jointly run by Algeria’s state oil company, Sonatrach, British Petroleum, and the Norwegian firm Statoil. While details of the attack are hard to verify, three people were reported killed yesterday. The attackers said they had taken 41 foreign hostages.

For governments, the attack came as a stark warning of potentially greater struggles ahead. It’s unclear how much the Islamist groups that roam the deep Sahara work together. But they share ideology and, in some cases, links to the region’s Al Qaeda franchise as well as smuggling networks.

“We have flagrant proof that this problem goes beyond just the north of Mali,” France’s ambassador to Mali, Christian Rouyer, told France Inter radio in remarks cited by Reuters.

For Algerian authorities, meanwhile, the attack most likely came also as a rude awakening, says Mr. Marks. Islamist militants have been active in Algeria since civil war in the 1990’s, but have seldom threatened its desert oil and gas installations.

“If you look back over the decades, the Algerian authorities have felt extremely comfortable. There was clearly a degree of complacency,” says Marks. Now, “the Algerian military is embarrassed and wants to make things right. And I think they want some payback.”

Today Algerian authorities struck back at Islamists at the gas plant with a military operation to free hostages.

Algerian authorities acknowledge that some hostages have been killed and injured during the operation, but continued to reject the notion of negotiating with the kidnappers. Algeria’s state news agency, cited by Reuters, said that up to 600 Algerian workers fled the site.

It remains to be seen how the drama at In Amenas will unfold, and how North African governments and their allies will digest it.

Marks believes the attack could prove a catalyst similar to last week’s Islamist advance in Mali. “After Amenas, I expect people to say, ‘something must be done’,” he says. “And that’s when you get into the great unknown.”

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