Algeria’s Hostage Crisis: Did the Jihadists Have Inside Help?

As death toll in Algerian hostage attack grows, security officials examine Europe's exposure to terror by al Qaeda-lined groups vowing revenge against France and the West for military intervention in Mali's jihad.

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Digital Globe / Handout / Reuters

The In Amenas gas gield in Algeria on Oct. 8, 2012

As the death toll from Algeria’s hostage massacre rose to at least 67, security experts in Europe and beyond are examining the six-day drama for clues about the evolving terrorist threat. The initial conclusions, however, may not be as dire as one might expect following the horror of the In Amenas attack. Although 37 foreigners lost their lives after Islamist extremists took hundreds of gas-refinery workers prisoner Jan. 16, the early view from some counterterrorism officials is that In Amenas represents a nightmarish exception to increased but much lower-grade action by jihadi forces in coming weeks.

“This was quite clearly a very well-planned and long-contemplated attack that could not have been mounted in response to the French intervention in Mali as Islamist leaders have claimed,” said a security official from a European nation who asks not to be identified. The official refers to the video by Algerian radical Mokhtar Belmokhtar claiming responsibility for the In Amenas attack as retaliation for France’s Jan. 11 military deployment to battle Islamists holding northern Mali.

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

“This was the kind of attack that — in its way — was intended to raise the bar for terror activity in Africa the way the bombing strikes in London and Madrid became references for successful Islamist plots in Europe,” the European official notes. “As such it will become the standard-setting model some extremists may seek to match or surpass, but not the kind of thing we stand to see repeatedly. Indeed, one consequence of such spectacular terrorism succeeding is that authorities apply lessons learned from them to prevent [others] in the future.”

Other counterterrorism and government officials TIME spoke with largely agree. Most readily acknowledge France’s military assistance to Mali’s effort to reclaim the north of the nation from Islamist militias will inspire extremists in the region and elsewhere to mount terrorism plots against France. The range of potential targets broadens when you factor in U.N. approval for Paris, the logistical aid of some Western allies, and troops deployed by several African nations. Yet given the complexity of the In Amenas assault — and considerably raised guard of Algerian and other African authorities as a result — some security experts suspect that near-term attacks by jihadi militants will be less sophisticated actions against more-accessible targets requiring little planning.

“I think soft targets — expatriates, and tourists in farther-flung areas — will be at higher risk for several months, and we’ll probably see an increase in opportunistic kidnapping of passing tourists as a favorite Islamist weapon in Africa,” says a senior French security official, referring to the kind of abduction that has long been a favored method of political and financial blackmail among African radicals. “I’m not saying Islamist militants won’t plot bigger attacks — including some in Europe itself. But because more complex and spectacular plots take considerable time, consultation and planning to prepare, we’re more likely to see rising jihadi anger vented in faster, direct ways.”

Security authorities have told TIME they suspect the In Amenas attack was conceived in part by Belmokhtar to increase his leadership influence and power among the mix of loosely allied Islamist groups that — like his own — largely operate in the wider Sahel region encompassing northern Mali. In targeting the BP gas facility, they add, Belmokhtar attained the triple achievement of capturing an important symbol of the energy sector dominating Algeria’s economy and political system; defying an Algiers regime infamous for its brutality in dealing with Islamist militants; and claiming scores of foreign lives in defense of jihad in Mali.

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

Belmokhtar also provoked collateral damage. Deadly counterattacks by Algerian forces to end the siege have sparked criticism in some foreign capitals suggesting that Algiers made killing insurgents a bigger priority than saving hostages’ lives. Questions have also arisen about how a supposedly high-security Algerian installation was so easily overrun by about 40 intruders. Many experts suspect Belmokhtar’s brigade had valuable assistance and information from within the plant’s staff to prepare the strike — a detail that, if proved, will be hard to blame on Algerian leaders but will nevertheless increase pressure on foreign energy companies to pull expat employees out of Algeria.

If inside help in the In Amenas attack is confirmed, it’s similar to the local assistance that officials think extremists abroad will rely on to mount strikes in Europe to avenge events in Mali. “The Algerian attack was obviously a broader plot rushed towards execution by a group whose main priority now — like all others in the region — is to defend jihad in Mali against outside aggression,” the French official says, explaining why he believes large-scale terror plotting will now likely unfold elsewhere than Africa. “Apart from possible strikes on soft targets, we’re on guard against extremist leaders in places like Pakistan or Yemen using contacts they’d previously established here to mount strikes in retaliation for Mali. One terrible thing about a jihad being waged one place on earth is that extremists halfway around the planet will use it to justify terrorism in another, entirely different place still.”

Be that as it may, the European official predicts the horror of the Algerian drama — and powerlessness of Western leaders to do anything to protect their citizens once it began — will justify other reaction Belmokhtar and his Sahel peers may not have counted on. “I think you’ll see both the manner and depth of support other countries are willing to give in Mali increase considerably as a result of In Amenas,” he says. “It’s the same logic created in Afghanistan after 9/11. The longer we allow terrorists to freely operate in established havens, the greater the threat of them attacking us grows. Rather than retaliation to France’s intervention in Mali, In Amenas was more likely a consequence of antiextremist action having not been taken in the Sahel sooner.”

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