The disaster in Algeria this week began when militants seized a remote, multinational gas complex in the desert and ended when the Algerian military staged a guns-blazing "rescue" attempt. Dozens of hostages were killed. But Algeria's underlying crisis of militancy and extremism, much like the national security concerns it is prompting in the United States, has been going on for years. It's that larger crisis that really matters, and the unanswered questions about its nature and threat to the United States often boil down to one very complicated question: What is the role of al-Qaeda?
The link between the international terrorist organization and the gas complex hostage-takers appears, based on current information, sketchy. The suspected mastermind behind the attack is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former officer with an al-Qaeda affiliate based mostly in Algeria called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. Maghreb is Arabic for "the West," a name with its origins in the Umayyad Caliphate's seventh-century conquest of northwest Africa. Whatever AQIM's connection to the Algeria attack, the incident has raised its profile in the larger jihadist community dramatically, The Post's Joby Warrick reports. It's also raised concern in the United States about the group's capabilities and intentions.
AQIM's current links to the "central" al-Qaeda organization, the one based in Pakistan and better known to Americans for former leader Osama bin Laden, are unclear. So is its commitment to pursuing al-Qaeda's professed "global" mission; AQIM has in the past appeared, much like the Taliban in its takeover of Afghanistan, to focus its efforts locally, and has often favored lucrative criminal enterprises over spectacular terrorist attacks.
There is one important source of information on the link between AQIM and the senior leaders in far-away Afghanistan and Pakistan. When U.S. Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011, they found a cache of documents that are sometimes called "the Abbottabad papers." Terrorism analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, in an article, goes through what these papers said about AQIM.
Bin Laden, according to Gartenstein-Ross's reading of the tiny fraction of the Abbottabad papers that have been made public, personally maintained communication with AQIM's leaders right into 2011. In his letters to far-away North Africa, bin Laden offered advice (or commands; it's not clear which) to the group's leaders.
Some suggestions were small or general -- “planting trees helps al mujahedin [fighters] and gives them cover” from satellites and drones -- but others are quite specific. In spring of 2010, bin Laden asked AQIM to shelter a jihadist named Younis al-Mauritani and to provide him with 200,000 euros. A few months later, Western intelligence agencies discovered a terrorism plot to launch major, simultaneous attacks in several European cities. They named Mauritani as the suspected organizer. He was arrested in Pakistan a year later.
In April 2011, as the Western military intervention in Libya accelerated, bin Laden offered AQIM a point-by-point plan for how the group should handle some French hostages it had taken. He was worried that killing them would inflame Arab public opinion, at that moment grateful for France's intervention, against al-Qaeda. The AQIM leadership largely followed his advice.
Gartenstein-Ross is careful not to draw big conclusions about the links between AQIM and al-Qaeda's far-away leadership, either before or after bin Laden's death. He quotes another terrorism analyst, Leah Farrall, in pointing to al-Qaeda's "devolved network hierarchy," in which the command structure was vague and personality politics often shaped the organization. (I've had the privilege of editing Gartstein-Ross and Farrall, both of whom taught me a great deal about the wide gulf between how al-Qaeda is perceived and how it actually functions.)
Still, AQIM's history clearly sets it apart from other branches or offshoots of al-Qaeda, such as Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which have more eagerly pursued bin Laden's global terrorist mission. The movement behind AQIM followed a long ideological journey to 2006, when it took on the al-Qaeda name. The Islamist militant groups of Algeria began as partisans in the country's 1990s civil war -- ironically, as champions of the democratically elected Islamic Salvation Front, a political party, and opponents of the military, which had canceled the election in a coup and rounded up party officials.
But the militants have since changed in three important ways. First, they gradually picked up criminal enterprises, such as the smuggling and ransom-taking for which Belmokhtar, the suspected mastermind of the recent hostage crisis, had earned the nickname "Marlboro Man." Second, they pushed into parts of the somewhat-lawless Sahel region, a lightly populated geographic region that includes, among a few other countries, southern Algeria, where the gas complex is, and northern Mali, where Islamist extremists have seized control in a rebellion.
The third change still has many analysts guessing, including about the hostage crisis. In 2006, one of the militant groups, running low on recruits and struggling to find a way forward, officially joined with al-Qaeda. The Algeria-based band of about 1,000 men had previously fought under a name that would probably make most Americans chuckle rather than cower: the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. In 2004, they initiated lengthy, high-level negotiations with the al-Qaeda leadership, which was bunkered in Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan. After two years, they became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
What exactly that name change means -- what it means for Algeria, for the region, for the group's potential threat to the United States -- is difficult to know.
Belmokhtar is no longer a member of AQIM, which he left to start his own group. Some analysts believe he fell out with other leaders, though others suspect the split may have been planned. AQIM announced in October that he had been "suspended," though there are signs that the two may still be cooperating closely. It's worth noting that his new group is named after rebel group from Algeria's civil war, a throwback to an era when Islamists there focused more locally than they do now. The decision to seize the gas complex and its staff, assuming it was really Belmokhtar's, may have been for ideological causes, for money, for better standing among fellow Islamists, or some combination of the three. But it was a reminder that, even if the attack had nothing to do with AQIM, the region is deeply susceptible.
Just a few days before the hostage crisis in Algeria, militants fighting under the AQIM banner seized several towns in neighboring Mali, where the group has joined a rebellion so successful that France is sending more than 2,000 troops to halt their progress. Civilians who have escaped from northern Mali describe the rebels' beatings, amputations, executions, use of child soldiers and extreme restrictions on women.
The extremists have even destroyed some of Mali's ancient cultural sites. So far, their record in Mali makes them sound less like al-Qaeda than like its once-close ally, the Taliban. But that is just their record so far. As to their ambition for the future, only time can tell.