The Algerian government’s determined use of force, including helicopter gunships, at the gas plant at Tigantourine near In Amenas in the eastern part of the country has achieved the recapture of the plant from a group calling itself Those Who Sign in Blood, a splinter group of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), at the cost of 23 hostages’ lives. The group attacked a bus taking foreign workers of several nationalities from Tigantourine to In Amenas airport early on the morning of January 16; when repulsed by a police escort, the attackers turned on the plant itself, which is part-run by British Petroleum, the Norwegian firm Statoil and Algeria’s Sonatrach, and serviced by JGC Corp of Japan; hundreds were taken hostage. Local reports state that the attackers freed some 600 Algerian and 41 foreign staff unharmed within a day. At the time of writing, 32 of the 40 terrorists who had taken them hostage had also been killed. The group leader, Abdel Rahman al-Nigeri, was among them, but the fear is that AQIM may escalate its activities in the region.
The motivation for the attack is far from clear. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian who belongs to al-Qaeda and is said to fund his group through cigarette smuggling and ransoms for the release of kidnapped foreigners, may have been behind the attack, which his aides claim was a reaction to the French military intervention in Mali against combined Tuareg and extreme Islamist forces. Tigantourine, however, is on the other side of Algeria, 1,100 km from the Algeria-Mali border. Significantly, released hostages say the attackers knew their way around the plant; that they started by targeting the bus carrying foreign workers also suggests inside knowledge and advance planning. Whatever Belmokhtar’s motivations, the episode has thrown several countries into confusion. The attack, the first on an Algerian hydrocarbon plant, has clear implications for Europe, which seeks access to Sahelian fossil fuels in view of uncertainties over supplies from elsewhere in the world. More importantly, it confirms the theory that the threat from al-Qaeda has become more complex and “de-territorialised” than ever before. While the Algerians cannot be faulted for taking on the hostage-takers, the threat posed by terror networks that are at once global, local and highly mobile requires careful handling. At the domestic level, governments must ensure that terrorists do not succeed in provoking the curtailment of civil liberties and freedoms. And at the international level, the highest degree of cooperation at the intelligence and tactical level is essential between law enforcement agencies in the West, the Maghreb region, West Asia and South Asia.