The crisis created by Islamists’ seizure of one of Algeria’s most valuable gas fields and the ruthless response from the army has left its government facing lasting, damaging fallout, analysts say.
The army assault on the gas complex that has left a number of expatriate workers dead and dozens unaccounted for confirmed the Algerian military’s reputation for taking no prisoners in its confrontations with Islamists.
But even if the army ends up slaying every last one of the gunmen, the fact that a group of Libya-based militants was able to enter the country and take over such a heavily-guarded site is a severe blow to the government’s security credentials.
The authoritarian regime in Algiers has long presented itself to the West as a bulwark against ‘terrorism’ in an increasingly unstable region.
And its ability to ensure the safety of foreign businesses and their employees operating in the country is primordial for a government that generates 75 per cent of its revenues from the oil and gas sector, which also accounts for nearly half the country’s economic output and almost all of its exports.
The prospect of any fresh investment from Japan, in particular, do not look good in the short-term given the furious reaction in Tokyo to the speed with which the army resorted to force, having spurned offers of assistance from British and U.S. special forces.
With 10 Japanese nationals still unaccounted for, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday branded the hostage takers “despicable” but Tokyo’s wrath was also focused on the Algerian authorities, whom they accuse of blundering into military action without any consideration of the implications for the lives of the hostages.
Britain, whose oil giant BP partly operates the gas field at the centre of the drama, has also made clear its displeasure at not being consulted on the tactics deployed.
BP is seen as unlikely to give up any of its lucrative Algerian assets, but security concerns will now, inevitably, weigh heavily on future investment decisions.
Only France has refrained from any form of implied criticism, a stance analysts say reflects the permanently fraught nature of relations between Paris and its former colony, and the fact that the French Air Force requires access to Algerian airspace for its bombing campaign in neighbouring Mali.
However it turns out, the hostage taking is a great coup for its alleged mastermind, the one-eyed Islamist leader, Mokhtar BelMokhtar.
Events of the last few days have also stirred up unhappy memories of the civil war among many Algerians that has been reflected in critical press coverage of the government’s handling of the crisis.
Throughout the bloody chaos that engulfed Algeria in the 1990s and left up to 200,000 of its citizens dead, the oil sector was left unscathed — and the fear now is that a hugely important red line has been breached.
Analysts also fear that the attack, which the Islamists have framed as revenge for French bombing in Mali, could exacerbate divisions within the regime over the decision to cooperate with the former colonial power.