Is the Algeria hostage crisis really al-Qaeda?

January 17, 2013

A 2005 photo shows the In Amenas gas field in Algeria. (AP Photo/Kjetil Alsvik, Statoil via NTB scanpix)

As is often the case with militant groups operating in the Arabic-speaking world, the one that seized a gas field in eastern Algeria appears to have some links to al-Qaeda. But those links, based on the currently available information, appear sketchy. And the group to which they may be linked, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is not the same as the Afghanistan-and-Pakistan-based "central" al-Qaeda that is better known to Americans.

The militant group is led by a guy named Mokhtar Belmokhtar. We looked at him in an earlier post: he's 40 (that's ancient in jihadi terms), has one eye, trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1980s, is called "The Uncatchable" by French intelligence, and runs criminal enterprises that have included taking hostages for ransom. He currently runs his own group but used to be an officer with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, until he reportedly had a falling out with its leaders.

So here's the big question: should we think of Belmokhtar's group as part of al-Qaeda? "Linked" with al-Qaeda? "Associated"? It's tough to say, in part because the closeness of that association is determined in part by ideology and in part by the personality-driven politics of Islamist militancy.

One piece of the puzzle is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, also known as AQIM, which is based primarily in Algeria and operates in some neighboring parts of North Africa. It is often described as a "branch" of the central al-Qaeda made famous by Osama bin Laden. It's tough to know the exact connection between leaders in the Algeria-based AQIM and those in far-away Afghanistan and Pakistan. But AQIM's history suggests that it has been more motivated by local concerns than by the "global jihad" espoused by al-Qaeda central.

The mothership al-Qaeda has its roots in the 1980s Afghan war against Soviet occupation and, later, in bin Laden's mission to reshape the Islamic world into an ultra-conservative caliphate. But AQIM began very differently, as an outgrowth of Algeria's civil war. In 1991, a mainstream Islamist party swept Algeria's first-ever democratic election. The country's military leaders panicked and staged a coup, canceling the election and rounding up large numbers of the Islamists. Members of the Islamist party protested, then rebelled, then the rebellion became a civil war. During the war's eight bloody years, the rebels splintered into different groups, some of which refused to sign the 1999 peace accord. Those groups kept fighting. One of them, which at some point became known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, slid from insurgency into terrorism and criminal enterprises, for example by taking hostages for ransom. One of its officers was Belmokhtar.

In 2006, when al-Qaeda's resistance to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq elevated the group's brand dramatically in Islamist circles, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat made a dramatic move. Depending on which source you read, it either changed its name outright, formed a new group within its group, or merged with people who already used the name, but many of the group's militants now fought under the name al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Despite the name change, though, its fighters appeared to change in tone more than in mission. They still adamantly oppose both the Algerian military government and its most important backer, France. They still run criminal enterprises, including hostage-taking. And they still largely concentrate their energies in and around Algeria.

That doesn't mean, of course, that Belmokhtar is running a purely commercial operation. His group's demands have included, depending on which source you read, either an end to the French intervention in neighboring Mali or that Algeria close its airspace to French air force. And it's entirely possible that AQIM's links to al-Qaeda already are, are becoming, or will become closer to al-Qaeda than we think. But the point is that, if you hear this incident described as an ideologically motivated al-Qaeda hostage takeover, that's not wrong, but it's also a more complicated story than you might think.

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Melissa Bell · January 17, 2013