Algeria’s Hostage Crisis: What Was Behind a Shadowy Militant Leader’s Plot?

As the Algerian hostage drama neared day four confusion remained high, information tight, and speculation about multiple motives behind the terror strike emerge

  • Share
  • Read Later
DigitalGlobe / Getty Images

The Amenas Gas Field in Algeria, Oct. 8, 2012.

Editor's Note: An earlier image transmitted by DigitalGlobe, published on, misidentified the town of Amenas, Algeria, as the Amenas Gas Field where hostages are being held.

A day after Algerian forces launched a military raid to end a deadly hostage crisis at a natural gas plant, confusion reigned on Jan. 18 over the fate of the captives and their Islamist captors. Western leaders, some of whose citizens were among the hostages, expressed frustration at having heard little from Algerian officials about the continuing standoff, and some governments signaled alarm over the Jan. 17 operation that Algerian authorities admit resulted in the death of an undisclosed number of hostages. Security officials in Europe indicate that their services too have not obtained or been offered much intelligence on the unfolding crisis.

“The lack of information and secrecy doesn’t surprise me at all when you’re dealing with Algerian authorities used to doing as they please, according to their own interests and without consulting anyone,” says a senior French antiterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “When it comes to Islamist situations, they’re particularly rigid in shooting first and asking questions later. We’ve always considered hostage scenarios a nightmare, because they trap you between maniac extremist kidnappers and trigger-happy Algerian security officials. The margin for people coming out alive in such situations is reduced considerably.”

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

The situation in and around the In Amenas hostage scene was almost as chaotic on the afternoon of Jan. 18 as it was 24 hours earlier after the raid by Algerian forces seeking to end the siege. Algeria’s state-run APS news agency cited unidentified officials as saying that four hostages — two Britons and two Filipinos — died during that operation, while two other plant workers were killed during the initial Islamist raid on Jan. 16. Scores of foreign hostages and perhaps hundreds of Algerian captives reportedly escaped during the government assault on the BP facility, although the number of abductees freed has yet to be revealed by Algerian officials.

“The operation resulted in the neutralizing of a large number of terrorists and liberation of a considerable number of hostages,” Algerian Communications Minister Mohand Saïd Oubelaïd announced after the raid. “Unfortunately, we also deplore the death of some [hostages], and some who were wounded.”

The governments of the U.K., France, Norway, Japan, the U.S. and other countries whose citizens are believed to be among the captives appear to be struggling to gather information on the crisis. On Jan. 18, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls indicated that at least two French citizens feared abducted were safe. British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Jan. 17 that he lacked information to clarify the situation, but he later advised the public it should probably prepare for “bad news” about the outcome of the assault. Though Cameron said Algerian authorities had said the counteroffensive was launched because of fears that extremists were preparing to harm hostages, it was clear that Algiers had provided even that limited information well after the fact.

“The Algerians are aware we would have preferred to have been consulted in advance,” a Cameron spokesperson said while describing the frustration his boss had expressed to Algiers over its handling of the situation.

Cameron wasn’t the only leader caught off guard by Algeria’s rapid, unilateral decision to use deadly force at the hostage site. Japan expressed its objections to the operation and urged Algiers to “put human lives first.” Government officials in Tokyo also reportedly summoned Algeria’s ambassador to Japan to discuss their unhappiness over deaths of Japanese prisoners during the raid. But Algerian officials seemed in no mood to countenance questioning of their handling of the situation.

“Those who think we’ll negotiate with terrorists are delusional,” Oubelaïd warned on Jan. 17.

Algerian extremists are well acquainted with their government’s rigid approach to hostage situations, leading some expert observers to speculate that the In Amenas attack was a de facto suicide mission designed to achieve several objectives. The attack is believed to be the work of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a notorious jihadist who learned his trade fighting in Afghanistan and who has said his al-Mulathameen militia staged the hostage raid — in retaliation, he claims, for France’s intervention in Mali. It is not known whether Belhmokhtar himself is at the site. But the French antiterrorism official is skeptical that the raid was conceived and executed in response to a French action that began just a week ago.

(MORE: The Crisis in Mali: Will French Air Strikes Stop the Islamist Advance?)

“I don’t see how he could have planned an attack of this significance and difficulty in just a few days. It had to have been previously planned and executed opportunistically once the French intervention had been announced,” the official says, noting that a plot targeting an icon of Algeria’s main economic sector, involving scores of foreign hostages and brazenly defying the nation’s political leaders and security forces was heavy with symbolism.

“As someone who has been hunted by authorities for decades, no one knows better than Belmokhtar that there’d be no way Algerian authorities would ever negotiate or let Islamists leave such a situation alive,” the French official continues. Tying what was effectively a suicide mission to events in Mali may have been an attempt to advance Belmokhtar’s own cause in the region’s complex jihadist milieu. Though Belmokhtar reveres Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda organization with which he fought in Afghanistan, the Algerian-born radical split with jihadi militias associated with Africa’s loose regional network al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and formed his own battalion late last year. Though he has directed it in a wide part of the Sahel encompassing northern Mali in harmony with other extremist networks, experts say Belmokhtar has increasingly competed with leaders of other militias for influence and prestige.

There has especially been jockeying between Belmokhtar and AQIM’s nominal chief, Abdelmakel Droukdel — who as head of Algeria’s Islamic Group for Preaching and Combat orchestrated its 2006 alliance with al-Qaeda and name change to AQIM. Belmokhtar has also developed a simmering rivalry with Droukdel’s deputy in the Sahel, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid. Given that factional jousting, the French official theorizes that by justifying a previously planned In Amenas strike as retaliation for France’s offensive in Mali, Belmokhtar may have been looking to increase the respect and sway his organization holds over other jihadi groups in the area.

“It’s the kind of spectacular, horrifying attack that thrills Islamists by attacking an ‘apostate’ Arab government, killing foreigners and sacrificing large numbers of so-called martyr fighters at once,” says Marc Trévidic, France’s leading investigating magistrate on Islamist terrorism and author of the new book Terrorists: Seven Pillars of Madness. “Yes, Belmokhtar loses lots of men, perhaps his own life. But among the many Islamists around the world who will be energized by such acts, in their way of thinking he wins.”

The same may hold true for Belmokhtar’s Sahel network.

“Who’s Droukdel? A guy who forged an alliance with Osama bin Laden — now dead — in a global organization that’s more like a tangle of like-minded extremists rather than a solid jihadi terror tissue,” the first French official adds. “The In Amenas attack could lift Belmokhtar’s status nearly as high as any Islamist commander this side of Pakistan. But more importantly, it will afford him hero status his network will benefit from in its main area of activity — Africa — even if Belmokhtar winds up dead to get it.”

MORE: Mali’s Looming War: Will Military Intervention Drive Out the Islamists?