Looking for al-Qaeda in Algeria

January 22, 2013

A 2005 photo shows the In Amenis gas field where Islamist militants took hostages before clashing with the Algerian military. (Kjetil Alsvik, Statoil via NTB scanpix/AP)

Perhaps the most significant question surrounding last week's hostage crisis in Algeria, reportedly masterminded by a 40-year-old Islamist militant named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has to do with the role of al-Qaeda in that attack and in the region more broadly.

It's a particularly tough question to answer for a number of reasons.

One of those reasons is the difficulty in distinguishing the ideological links between al-Qaeda and Belmokhtar: does Belmokhtar really believe his rhetoric about waging bin Laden-style global jihad or is he more interested in re-fighting the same internal battles that have plagued Algeria for years? The organizational links can also be tricky to untangle: is Belmokhtar's group taking orders from the regional al-Qaeda affiliate, coordinating with them, or simply coexisting? Even if you can definitively determine those ideological and organizational links, you've got to figure out which is more important.

It's also difficult because Mokhtar's group appears to be two levels removed from the al-Qaeda "central" mothership, by way of regional affiliate al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). So in order to understand the links between Mokhtar's group and al-Qaeda's senior leaders, we've got to look at two distinct relationships: the one between Mokhtar's group and AQIM, then the relationship between AQIM and al-Qaeda central.

And, by the way, it's possible that Mokhtar's group has a separate, direct relationship with al-Qaeda central. Terrorism analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross wrote at the Globe and Mail, "Those close to Mr. Belmokhtar have explained that his split with AQIM did not interrupt his loyalty to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership." If this is accurate, then there are three different relationships to examine in considering al-Qaeda's place in the Algeria attack.

Yet another reason that it's difficult to fully understand the al-Qaeda connection is because Algeria's Islamist or jihadist movement has its own particular history, one rooted in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. In that war and the years after, Islamist groups committed a number of terrorist attacks within Algeria – and against the Algerian government's most important ally, France – that seemed to be more about Algerian issues than al-Qaeda's global jihad. All of the datapoint-collecting is, in some ways, about trying to look into Belmokhtar's heart and know which cause drives him more. That's not an easy thing; especially because there are a parallel set of questions about what drives AQIM's leaders.

And here's the really fun part: There are a number of apparently conflicting datapoints. For example, in October, AQIM announced it had "suspended" Belmokhtar from command; up until then, he had been an officer in the al-Qaeda affiliate. He started a new group, which an associate of his characterized as a "split" from AQIM. And yet AQIM claimed responsibility (co-responsibility?) for the hostage crisis in Algeria; militants at the gas complex identified themselves as members of Belmokhtar's group as well as al-Qaeda. So is Belmokhtar split from AQIM or not?

In other words, answering the question "what does the Algeria hostage crisis tell us about al-Qaeda?" means negotiating a dense web of overlapping and sometimes contradictory questions, mysteries  and datapoints about both Belmokhtar and AQIM. The complexity of trying to understand al-Qaeda's connection to the Algeria attack, of course, doesn't mean that there is no connection, but it does make it difficult to evaluate.

To give you a sense of how some North Africa analysts are approaching the al-Qaeda question, consider a recent, insightful post from Senegal-based Andrew Lebovich. (He is also quoted in The Washington Post's Sunday story on this issue.) Lebovich dedicates about 1,200 words – a lot – just to examining the implications of the name that Belmokhtar chose for his new group after leaving AQIM. That name is al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima, Arabic for “Those Who Sign with Blood.” Lebovich points out that a group of Islamist rebels used the same name in the 1990s Algerian civil war. That earlier Mouwakoune is most famous for a failed attempt to hijack an Air France flight, an effort to punish France for supporting Algeria's military government.

Here's Lebovich exploring some of the parallels between Belmokhtar's attack last week and the 1994 Air France incident:

In both the Air France attack and last week’s assault, hostage taking may have been an ancillary instead of a primary goal. In the Air France hijacking, the attackers quickly killed three hostages to prove their seriousness before demanding the release of the aforementioned prisoners, but it later emerged that their true goal was always to detonate the plane over Paris, possibly in order to destroy the Eiffel Tower. Similarly, though the group that assaulted the In Amenas plant also demanded the end of French attacks in Mali and the release of more than 100 prisoners from Algerian jails as well as jihadi causes-célèbres Aafia Siddiqui and Omar Abd al-Rahman, they reportedly killed a number of hostages outright, forced some hostages to wear explosives and mined the plant. Algerian authorities have said the group’s goal was to destroy the facility, though they may have also hoped to escape with at least some hostages.

So what does that mean? Lebovich is careful not to draw sweeping conclusions about what this says about Belmokhtar's group, about AQIM, or about the potential changes in al-Qaeda's role in Algeria and North Africa, but he does have some concluding thoughts:

For the moment, only Mokhtar Belmokhtar knows why he decided to make reference to the [Algerian civil war-era] Mouwakoune in adopting the same name for his new group. Perhaps he was making reference to his renewed desire to attack Algeria, after years of operations in other Sahelian countries. Perhaps he could have been trying to subtly include Algeria and Algeria-focused jihadist groups as part of the global jihad, after years in which AQIM was derided for its focus on the removal of the Algerian government. But what is clear is that the influence of the Algerian civil war, one of the least-studied and least-understood periods in the history of modern jihadist groups, continues to resonate to this day.

Lebovich does indicate two possible readings. The first is that the group name suggests that Belmokhtar is focusing more on internal Algerian disputes, which would seem to be one datapoint pointing away from last week's hostage crisis as a sign of Algeria becoming a greater center of al-Qaeda-style global jihad. The second reading would seem to suggest that Belmokhtar is actually trying to incorporate Algerian issues into al-Qaeda's global mission, which would support concerns that Algeria's hostage crisis is part of a growing al-Qaeda-style global jihadist movement there.

Neither of those two readings, even if we could choose one with total certainty, would on its own definitively prove or disprove al-Qaeda's role in Algeria, of course. But it seems noteworthy that at least one well-respected analyst is reading just the name of Belmokhtar's group as a datapoint that could either support of contradict the thesis that al-Qaeda is using Algeria as a center of global jihad. In other words, it's complicated.

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Max Fisher · January 22, 2013