As the hostage crisis at the Ain Amenas gas plant in eastern Algeria came to a bloody end yesterday, there were more questions than answers. The death count was estimated in the dozens, with an unknown number of foreign nationals among the victims. Perhaps the only certainty is that all of the Maghreb and the Sahel, not just Algeria, now recognise a shared threat.
The assault on the Algerian gas plant immediately cast doubt, in western media circles at least, on the French campaign in Mali to the south. The kidnappers, led by an inveterate Algerian jihadist, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, claimed that the attack was meant to avenge France’s Mali mission. That can’t be the whole story. The sophisticated tactics of the strike would have taken weeks to plan, and in any event Belmokhtar has a decades-long record of hostage-taking for ransom and terrorist attacks inside Algeria.
The immediate media response to the attack was reminiscent of that which followed the attack on the Benghazi consulate in September, which killed the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. At first, officials linked the attack to a US-made Islamophobic film that sparked protests; in fact, Libya’s Ansar Al Shariah must have been planning the attack long before the film cause a furore.
There is another link to Libya as well. The weapons and soldiers of the Qaddafi regime moved across borders after its fall, feeding the rebellion in Mali that has since been taken over by Al Qaeda-related groups.
Algeria has been criticised for its heavy-handed response to the siege after helicopter gunships strafed a convoy of militants and hostages on Thursday. But for all of its authoritarian rigidity, Algiers knows better than any the resilient threat that Islamist extremists pose – indeed, the civil war after elections in 1992 forced militants outside of its borders, and contributed to the Islamist threat that Mali faces today.
These extremists long ago made this struggle transnational, and Belmokhtar speaks in the language of Al Qaeda’s “global struggle”. If West African nations are to effectively combat this threat, the response must also span borders. After the Malian coup in March, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) at first took the strongest public stance, pushing for a semblance of civilian rule in Bamako. Only after months of waffling did the French intervene militarily.
French troops will be reinforced by an estimated 3,200 West African soldiers, some of who are now being trained. That is hardly sufficient. Only robust security cooperation, particularly a shared intelligence effort, will enable African states to combat the skein of extremism that stretches across the region. No one can do it for them.