Algeria Intervenes in Hostage Crisis as Mali’s War Spreads Regional Chaos

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KJETIL ALSVIK / HANDOUT

An undated handout photo provided by Norwegian oil company Statoil showing the gas facility in In Amenas, Algeria.

One day after Islamic militants invaded an Algerian gas field and seized dozens of Western workers, there are fears that several of the foreign hostages might be dead—potentially escalating the military intervention in neighboring Mali into a full-scale regional conflict. For months, a parade of Western diplomats and politicians, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and French President François Hollande, have visited Mali’s big, richer neighbor—Algeria—to try to persuade the government to deploy its crack military forces against al-Qaeda fighters in control of northern Mali. For months Algeria rebuffed their pleas, despite its long military and intelligence ties with the U.S., reluctant to be dragged into a Western-led fight and risk igniting a bloody conflict at home.

(MORE: Westerners Kidnapped in North Africa — but Is France the Real Target?)

But the fight has come to Algeria. Reports suggest that at least 24 foreign hostages were killed when Algerian soldiers mounted a raid on the natural-gas compound in the south-east of the country to free them Thursday; the Algerian state news agency says some 600 hostages have been freed by the operation. As news filters in from the massive, remote facility, fears now grow that the week-old French military intervention in northern Mali is spinning into a broader war, drawing in one of the world’s biggest oil and gas producers—precisely the situation Algeria was determined to avoid. “No matter which way Algeria deals with this, this will have a heavy consequence,” says Jean-Pierre Filiu, a specialist on the country at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, who accompanied President Hollande last month to the capital Algiers where the French leader met President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Even then, the assumption was that despite jihadi networks in control across its southern border, Algeria would likely remain relatively secure. “Never, ever, did the jihadis touch the oil and gas facilities of Algeria,” Filiu says. “This is totally unprecedented.”

Unprecedented, but apparently simple. Before dawn on Wednesday, about 20 armed militants invaded the living quarters at the Ain Anemas natural-gas field, about 1,000 miles from Algiers, and seized 41 foreign hostages, among them seven Americans, as well as Britons, Japanese, French, Norwegian and Irish citizens. An unknown number of Algerian workers were also kidnapped. The militant group, calling itself the “Masked Brigade,” is led by an Algerian-born jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who is believed to have masterminded several kidnappings, and to have ties to the region’s main terror franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Filiu believes the group had probably driven from northern Mali, hundreds of miles across the Sahara—a sign of their stunning ability to operate in the remote desert. “They have a tremendous asset with the extreme mobility of their commandos,” he says. “They move at night with no headlights, at high speeds, totally undetected.”

(MORE: War in Mali: France Can Bomb Militants, but Not Arms Routes)

Keeping those commandos away from its oil and gas wealth is critical for Algeria, since that comprises some 60% of its revenues and more than 95% of its exports. Ain Anemas, run jointly with BP and Norway’s Statoil, pumps about one-sixth of the natural gas produced by Algeria, which is Europe’s third-biggest gas supplier, and a key supplier to the U.S. Algeria also has about 12.2 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, the third biggest reserves in Africa after Libya and Nigeria, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The well-armed Algerian forces had surrounded the compound since Wednesday’s attack, firing sporadically, while the government attempts to defuse the crisis politically, conferring with Tuareg tribesmen who have links to al-Qaeda groups, and consulting U.S. and French officials through Wednesday night, according to the Associated Press, citing an unnamed Algerian security official. From inside the compound, hostages described a terrifying ordeal, saying captors fitted some of them with explosives. “The situation is deteriorating,” an Irish hostage told Al Jazeera by phone. “We are worried because of the continuation of the firing.”

The crisis is deeply worrying for Algeria, too. As darkness fell on Thursday night, there were confused reports about the state of the hostages, with one stating that only a handful of them were alive.

With 4,500 miles of borders with Niger, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Mali, the country is huge, about the size of Western Europe, and straddles about half of the Sahara Desert, where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has built up an impressive arsenal, using a war chest of tens of millions of euros amassed in part from hostage-ransom payments by European governments. Alarmed at the jihadist groups’ growing wealth, Algerian diplomats led an effort in 2010 to get the U.N. to ban governments from paying ransoms, which they claimed were thwarting counter-terrorist efforts. At that time, the Algerian president’s advisor, Kamel Rezag Bara, told me,  “If you think about the fact that you can buy anyone in this region—anyone—for €5,000, you can see the problem.”

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The problem for Algeria and its neighbors has worsened since then, partly thanks to the mountain of weaponry that poured out of Libya after Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall in October, 2011. Since then, Algerian officials have sidestepped confrontation with jihadists, instead opting to push them deeper into the southern Sahara areas, away from the country’s critical energy infrastructure, and across its borders. At the same time, Algeria maintained contact with Ansar Dine, one of the more prominent Islamist groups running roughshod over northern Mali, and Algeria’s critics say it has too readily tried to avoid conflict with some of the more criminal militias in the region.

At stake for Algeria’s government is its ability to keep the country at peace, something on which Bouteflika has staked his presidency. Since independence from France, Algeria has been ruled by the same revolutionary—now authoritarian—political party. Bouteflika came to power at the end of a brutal civil war with Islamist forces, which killed about 150,000 Algerians between 1991 and 1999. And until now, the government’s tactic appeared to work: By avoiding all-out battle against jihadists, the militants avoided attacking Algeria’s energy facilities.

But all that changed when France began bombing northern Mali last Friday. Algeria granted French fighter jets overflight permission. It also sealed its southern border with northern Mali, threatening to starve Northern Mali’s jihadists of fuel—essential in their fight against French and African troops—since most of the area’s gas stations are located in southern Algeria. “These columns of vehicles require a lot of fuel,” says François Heisbourg, an expert on the region, who is chairman of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. “It was perceived as a sign that Algeria would not let these guys do whatever they were going to do.”

48 comments
Ocsicnarf
Ocsicnarf

Ransom payments by European Governments (some people include Spanish Gov') have proven deadly.

YounesB
YounesB

Lots of excuses from Algiers for NOT securing their borders, they didn't care, that's all. Ancient Chinese dynasties built a 13 000 miles wall, thousands of years ago. Algeria's borders are 4 500 miles.They didn't have bulldozers, planes, land mines, infra-red cameras and radars, and the didn't have an Oil rent to pay for it all. If not in early years of independence, what about fifty years later? Why can't they just protect the obvious, glaring targets? I'd think that placing a barrack in proximity of all Oil and Gas plants would be the first thing to do! I hear some ridiculously blaming France for this, actually it's Algeria's fault.

Ocsicnarf
Ocsicnarf

@YounesB The Chinese Wall did not deter conquest by North invaders.

grinolsson
grinolsson

As an American, who supports the destruction of fanaticism and ideologies that propagate violence, if ever I am held hostage, I pray that our American government, just bombs the hell out of the instigators without any reflection on the loss of  my life as a warning to Islamists, that just as you would give up your life to murder infidels or secular government officials or Christians or actually people of any faith except yours, so too do I offer to give up my life knowing that I surely will escort you to hell for trying to prevail with terror, and make it back for a personal blessing from our God. 


I view 9/11 much different than our government, but not any different than any American. In 1941 Japan killed 2400 Americans where we interned Japanese for the duration of the war, even if they were born in the USA. Ultimately, we used atomic bombs. Now, in 9/11/2001 the Muslims declared war on America and murdered 2944 Americans. We interned no Islamists in America and afforded Osama bin Laden's family to leave. In consideration of the attackers being 19 out of 21 murderers, of Saudi Arabian descent, we never used nuclear weapons on Saudi Arabia or Mecca to assure future Islamists and Saudi's respect American values. This is our government's error in not recognizing Ummah Islam as a nation, Islamists who fail to renounce their brotherhood as colonists with a future intent to destroy our nation. - And to be honest, if I were the President when Mr. Bush was so too, would all Islamists be interned, most likely Mecca destroyed and Saudi Arabia would have been bombed where I would have force a mass population transfer out of the region and resettled Saudi Arabia with non-Muslims from around the world. So, think deeply on wanting to continue the fight against America because the people who think the way I do, are next in line to run for the Presidency of the United States of America - and so too, we will play by different rules.

rreese
rreese

@grinolsson Amen Brother! If only "ONLY" we as a nation would rise up against this nonsense and do exactly like you stated, oh  I think it would be such a new day in our not so wonderful country right now, I just pray we can get out of this mess and get that mess out of the white house., before it's to late, and everyday it's getting worst.

HammadBahal
HammadBahal

@LoveLiberty @mshinqiti بل و نقيضة لحكم الله أيضاً قال الله تعالى(إن الحكم إلا لله ) والديمقراطية يكون الحكم لعامةالشعب أو من ينيبون!

Slip-DiffCortina
Slip-DiffCortina

What is the African Union, African Parliament, African leaders doing about terror is Africa. Why must Europe and the West sort it out. Maybe its because our African leaders are week, corrupted and intimidated by the the West. 

Maybe they choose to put human life below their greed for money and power.

Terror is Algeria and other African States must be dealt with swiftly and not be tolerated by ALL African leaders. 

They know that our African leaders are week and corrupt that is why terror will grow in Africa while African leaders choose to look the other way. WHAT A JOKE 

captainjohann
captainjohann

Algerians have shown to all the governments of the world how to deal with terrorists who hold hostages.Kill the hostage takers without any talks.this has killed future hostage taking as the 60 odd terrorists were all killed or captured. Ofcourse some hostaages have died which is better collateral damage than drone killing civilians

xandersun
xandersun

All I can say is IT IS ABOUT TIME! (no pun intended). I wholeheartedly support the Algerian government response. All this wishy-washy handwringing by western governments when their citizens are in danger (who willingly and knowingly go into a region they know is dangerous and poses risks for the sake of high profits) and would rather pay ransoms that can be used to further the extremist terrorist causes, or allow terrorists to escape in exchange for their citizens is just ludicrously hypocritical and short-sighted. This is a war. There is collateral damage. If you're ok with foreign citizens inadvertently killed by drones or full on assaults in Afghanistan and Iraq in the greater war against terrorism, why in God's name doesn't Algeria have the right in its own territory to swiftly, and without negotiation, deal with terrorist enemies with impunity as they see fit? Why should they be so preoccupied with collateral damage in a fight against terrorists who are being fed by the very ransom money provided by mealy mouthed westerners? If you don't want to end up as a dead hostage then DON'T GO TO THE MIDDLE OF AL QAEDA COUNTRY for the sake of [black] gold. I don't need my tax dollars being used to bail your ass out for your own bad judgment. Not for the expense of a military SEAL assault, and DEFINITELY NOT TO PAY OFF A RANSOM TO TERRORISTS. Israel and Algeria don't put up with sh-t, and the world is better for it.

jjparkerjim121
jjparkerjim121 like.author.displayName 1 Like

This isn't posible Hillary & Obama told us al Qaeda was defeated it's leaders nutralized. I don't believe this Republican Propoganda. Oh wait this is Time I don't believe this leftist misinformation.

meddevguy
meddevguy like.author.displayName 1 Like

Are we tired enough of enemies of civilization who act in the name of the Muslim religion to ask that the religion take action itself? These creeps all over the world don't act in the name of the local country, they don't claim affection for driving BMW's, they are called "Islamists" for a reason. If criminals all over the world called themselves "Onward Christian Soldiers" wouldn't you ask the Vatican to step in "or else"?

But if you're happy getting to a flight three hours early to prevent an "Islamist" from flying it into something, then I'll keep asking every few days when these animals again attack us if you've finally had enough.

million1966
million1966 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Good Job Algeria!  Finally, an Arab country with the balls to stand up to Islamic Extremism!!  Even Obama and his team can learn a thing or two on how to deal with these funks.

IrishRebel1981
IrishRebel1981

@ElSpark he openly claims to be a socialist, slams Depardieu & now this. As I always said the French are hypocrites.

IrishRebel1981
IrishRebel1981

@ElSpark The trend continues Libya, Mali & so on. Nigeria will be next I bet #OilWars

ionotter
ionotter like.author.displayName 1 Like

Sorry, folks, but no more protection.  You are not "engaged in a strategic operation", you are IN AN ARENA.  If you are in these countries and you aren't carrying anything less than an MP4 on your person at all times, then you're an idiot and deserve whatever happens to you.

I am very sorry for the families of the dead, but I have no sympathy for the Roughnecks.  They knew what they were doing.  They were making a truly scary amount of money, BECAUSE it was so incredibly dangerous to work there.

No more hostages.  No more ransoms.  Set up security fences and towers with flame throwers.  Set up a check-point 1000 feet out.  If anyone approaches without clearing the check-point, incinerate them, Road Warrior style.

FredFlintsone
FredFlintsone

When you say regional your mean like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali regional.

elcidharth
elcidharth

Mali: The Next Afghanistan?@elcidharth.com

La France intervient dans la rebellion Mali@elcidharth.com 

Mali Mauled@elcidharth.com 

...and I am Sid Harth@elcidharth.com

MelPol
MelPol

The odor of barbecued swine and liquor has been corrupting nostrils of the holy. Everywhere in Algiers and the Casbah there is that devilish temptation. It is no wonder that Islamic militants have gone a Jihad.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace like.author.displayName 1 Like

Can someone explain this:  "Europe’s third-biggest gas supplier, and a key supplier to the U.S.".   I am not one of the kooky drill in Alaska people, but I do know the US is sitting on a huge amount of untapped gas.  Why do we need Algeria? 

YounesB
YounesB

@notLostInSpace Algeria has both Oil and Gas. The US is byes a lot of Algerian Oil, and US companies extract and sell both Oil and Gas to others.

FredFlintsone
FredFlintsone like.author.displayName 1 Like

@notLostInSpace Just follow the money. Iraq, Afghanistan,Libya, Mali all oil or minerals rich. Sudan, Rwanda none. Bringing democracy and the western way of life to the heathens one way or the other.

MaliaE
MaliaE like.author.displayName 1 Like

@@Fred: Sudan actually has mineral wealth.  It's located in the south, which is one reason why the war waged for so long.

@@NotLostInSpace: We should also reduce our ridiculous over use of oil in general, and put more focus on renewable energy. Whether you're talking about oil in Alaska or oil in Algeria, relying on it too heavily is incredibly short-sighted.  It will run out, so by conserving we could stretch out the length of time we'll have it.  Also, other sources of energy cause far less environmental harm.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

so sorry, lost myself for a moment, forgot MIC was running the world

AlgerianRelief
AlgerianRelief

@TIME @TIMEWorld in amenas 1000 km away from mali border its not easy to monitor . algeria is taking aditional measure to protect its border

AlgerianRelief
AlgerianRelief

@TIME @TIMEWorld you are exaggerating a little bit here spreads chaos where ? AQMI knows Algerian Army is not a laughing matter when teased

FredFlintsone
FredFlintsone

@AlgerianRelief Guess not , they killed 30 hostages to get 11 militants. I wouldn't mess with em unless I needed a bloodbath.

Sofiane
Sofiane

Ain Amenas instead of Ain Anemas ;)