A rare and sophisticated attack on a natural gas processing facility took place in Algeria on Wednesday, only six days after France began a military intervention in neighboring Mali. The attack has heightened fears that Algerian energy infrastructure will become a popular target for local jihadists looking to undermine the developing regional offensive against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. However, few militant groups are capable of pulling off an attack on this scale. A closer look at the presumed brain behind the group that carried out this operation allows us to better assess the threat to the Algerian energy market.
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Before daybreak, militants en route to a nearby airport attacked a bus transporting foreign nationals from an energy facility in Tigantourine, 50 miles from the Libyan border. We can assume that the militants attempted to take control of the bus, but security forces escorting the workers were able to repel the militants before they could take any of the passengers hostage. Then, the energy facility itself and an adjoining housing complex came under attack. The militants successfully took hostages there and tried to transport the hostages from the site of the attack, but they were soon surrounded by Algerian security forces. Roughly 20 members of the Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade — a group affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and led by Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar — are currently holding between 20 and 40 foreign hostages, including seven Americans. Publicly, the group is demanding an end to the war in Mali and the release of militants in exchange for a hostage release. It has cited Algeria's giving France permission to use its airspace for military overflights to Mali as the reason for the operation.
A sizable group of militants has captured and so far held a large number of foreign hostages and occupied a strategic energy facility in a region that accounts for 10 percent of Algerian natural gas production. Though the timing of the attack is certainly notable (French forces are less than a week into the Mali intervention), this is not an operation that was planned at the last minute. An action of this scale requires extensive pre-operational surveillance and planning as well as a strong assembly of forces. It may be that this attack was planned ahead of time, and the Mali intervention provided a useful political cover.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar is one of the few figures in Algeria's militant landscape that has a reputation for attacks of this scale — and he is no ordinary jihadist leader. Born in Algeria, Belmokhtar became a jihadist when he traveled to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahideen in 1991, returning to Algeria in 1993 to fight with local jihadist militant groups during the Algerian civil war. He then embarked on military operations for various jihadist groups and in early 2000 supported the formation of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which later spawned the splinter group al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
As a member of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, Belmokhtar started developing his skills as a key financier and weapons supplier through various criminal activities, including kidnappings for ransom, drug smuggling and extorting other traffickers in the region. He left the group after a few years and began cooperating with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which he left recently. He continued to build his reputation in the region as a prominent financier and weapons supplier for a variety of jihadist and criminal militant groups, including al Qaeda core, Tuareg communities, Ansar Dine and several other militant groups across the Sahel and Sahara. As time wore on, his interests in personal gain seemed to outweigh his commitment to religious jihad.
Belmokhtar developed a highly lucrative career facilitating negotiations over kidnapped hostages. In 2003, he oversaw the negotiated release of 32 kidnapped European tourists, an operation that bears many similarities to the current hostage situation. The 2003 kidnappings occurred in the same general area — along the largely uninhabited and lawless border between Libya and Algeria — as Wednesday's hostage situation. After several months and rounds of ransom negotiations, all hostages, aside from one who died of a heart attack, were freed in exchange for a payoff of around $6 million dollars. Belmokhtar has procured substantial ransoms in several kidnapping cases since then. Unlike other jihadist negotiators known for extremely abusive treatment of hostages, Belmokhtar has a reputation for treating his hostages more humanely and prioritizing ransom payments over a political agenda.
In short, Belmokhtar is a highly opportunistic militant leader. Over the years, he has built up networks through illicit trade that have made him valuable to a number of different parties, from local jihadist groups and Tuaregs to local intelligence agencies. A Western and Algerian strategy to deal with a militant leader driven by financial and criminal interests will diverge from a strategy that deals with a diehard jihadist. The jihadist will be willing to make bigger sacrifices for the sake of a political statement, whereas the crime boss will sacrifice less if his end game is to pocket a large ransom. The Western and Algerian intelligence and security officials planning the hostage rescue mission must therefore determine whether they are preventing a suicide mission or engaging in a business deal. The details that come out in the next few hours will reveal which scenario Algiers is facing and will likely shed more light on the intensity and nuances of the jihadist threat to Algerian energy.