Back in what is in effect jihadi pre-history, Osama bin Laden, then simply a well-connected and wealthy young Saudi ideologue and veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, sent an emissary to Algeria to offer assistance to the Groupe Islamique Arme (Armed Islamic Group of Algeria), a band of savage extremists engaged in a no-holds barred battle with the Algerian state. The response was an unequivocal rejection, accompanied by some choice expletives. Bin Laden’s emissary was lucky to escape alive.

That was in 1993. Fourteen years later, with 150,000 dead in Algeria in a civil war that ended with the defeat of the militants and bin Laden the best-known Islamic militant in the world, the remaining Algerian extremists announced they were finally becoming part of the network of groups the Saudis had drawn together.

Weakened by years of counter-terrorist activity and a loss of grassroots support, going global was their last option. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was born.

Tenuous link

Yet that does not mean the raiders of the refinery this week were al-Qaeda operatives or even al-Qaeda-linked. Firstly, the ties binding AQIM to the leadership of al-Qaeda far away in south-west Asia have always been tenuous. The difficulties in communication, let alone travel, precluded any tight co-operation.

Nor was al-Qaeda central, which was short of cash, likely to help the relatively wealthy AQIM with funds either.

What it did supply was a tactic hitherto almost unheard of in Algeria — the mass-casualty suicide bombing. A spate of such attacks, in the aftermath of the 2007 alliance, rapidly stripped any residual support the new al-Qaeda affiliate might have had locally.

The grand-sounding AQIM hides a chaotic reality. The group has singularly failed to unite disparate local groups spread along the north African coast. Even in Algeria, militants are split between the north and south — and these two factions are split again, into rival bands.

Finally, Mokhtar BelMokhtar, the man suspected of orchestrating the refinery attack, leads his own breakaway group that does not even pay nominal allegiance to the southern AQIM faction, let alone the group as a whole, and certainly not to al-Qaeda. If they are ‘al-Qaeda-linked’ then the chain is a very long one.

But BelMokhtar has spoken of his admiration for bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He has also expressed classic jihadi views that align him with ‘al-Qaedaism’. He is, therefore, part of the new, fragmented and fast-evolving landscape of Islamic militancy in the region, which, in some aspects, resembles the anarchic days of the early 1990s. This was a period before bin Laden achieved notoriety or succeeded in bringing some temporary, if partial, focus to the myriad strands of violent extremism.

Over the past 18 months, intelligence indicates a series of envoys have been dispatched from the al-Qaeda senior leadership to north Africa and the Sahel. It is unclear what reception they may have received. History sometimes does repeat itself. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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