Islamist Raid on Gas Facility in Algeria Spillover from Regional Instability?

Long-time jihadist kingpin could be behind attack


Yesterday, Al-Qaeda linked Islamist militants seized BP's In Amenas gas facility in Algeria, about 20 miles from the Libyan border, in retaliation for the ongoing French-led military intervention in Mali. Initial reports indicated at least 40 hostages taken. The Algerian government attempted a rescue for which details are murky: Algeria claimed it freed 600 hostages in a rescue attempt while the Islamists claimed 35 hostages were killed. The United States, meanwhile, provided support  with surveillance from a drone deployed to the area.

Earlier this month, on the eve of the long-awaited intervention in Mali, a French "anti-terrorism" judge warned that it could lead to terrorist attacks on the homeland. One of France's stated goals in the intervention was to push back against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM), the regional affiliate. The U.S. shares the view, seeing the fight against Islamists in Mali as crucial to stop AQIM from gaining "traction." Islamists have a foothold in Algeria, though, where a fierce civil war between the government and Islamist rebels lasted from 1991 to 2002. And in Libya, Al-Qaeda affiliates and other Islamist groups have been able to gain a foothold as well since the Western-backed collapse of the Qaddafi regime. While the dictator Moammar Qaddafi initially blamed Al Qaeda and acid on the uprising against his unpopular rule, in the fallout from the 9/11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Lt. Colonel Anthony Wood stated at a congressional hearing that Al Qaeda's presence in Libya was "certainly more established than we are." Qaddafi's Tuareg fighters, meanwhile, helped fuel the unrest in Mali, a country considered "one of the most enlightened democracies in Africa" by the U.S. government until the March coup, the invasion by Islamist fighters and now the French intervention, which has brought out the worse of the Sahara. Reuters relays reports of the jihadist "kingpin" believed to be behind the capture ofthe oil field in Algeria:

A Mauritanian news agency, ANI, said the raiders were commanded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Saharan jihadist and smuggling kingpin. Here are some facts about Belmokhtar:

Linked to a string of kidnappings of foreigners in North Africa in the last decade, Algerian-born Belmokhtar has earned a reputation as one of the most daring and elusive Islamic jihadist leaders operating in one of the remotest corners of the globe—the vast Sahara desert. 

"He's one of the best known warlords of the Sahara," said Stephen Ellis, an expert on organised crime and professor at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands. He said Belmokhtar had also gained notoriety as a Saharan smuggler, especially of cigarettes.

French intelligence dubbed Belmokhtar "the uncatchable" in 2002.

800 more French troops, meanwhile, joined the fighting in Mali today.