Friday, January 18, 2013

Islamic Militant Attack in Algeria (Update: Algeria Counterattacks, Seige Over)

In a still highly fluid situation, terrorists linked with al Qaeda remain at an Algerian/Norwegian/British gas plant in the Sahara that they attacked last Wednesday, after Algerian special forces troops counterattacked and gained control of a large portion of the sprawling complex, freeing many workers besieged there and rescuing an unknown number of hostages.  Some hostages remain under the control of the terrorists still holed up in part of the facility, but the numbers and nationalities of the hostages and the rescued remain unclear.

It was reported yesterday that the special forces troops, along with helicopters, had attacked and re-taken the plant at Ain Amenas in eastern central Algeria, about 60 miles from the Libyan border, but that turned out to be only partially true.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, 2009

The terrorist group responsible for the attack calls itself the Katibat Moulathamine (the Masked Brigade) and is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a terrorist of some notoriety and experience in that area.  His precise nationality is in question (the territory surrounding southern Algeria has amorphous and essentially artificial borders) but Algeria claims him to the extent that he has been condemned to death in absentia for murdering 13 of its customs officers in 2008, in addition to a general sentence of 20 years for terrorism in 2004.  Belmoktar is not so much a terrorist as he is a bandit, using Islamic terrorism as a flag of convenience.  He seems to be more tied to the Tuareg tribes of the region as a primary affiliation and has developed a sustainable income through hostage-taking for ransom and cigarette smuggling – the French DGSE intelligence service (according to the French press) has dubbed him L'insaisissable (the elusive or uncatchable), adding to his allure in the media, but his less-glamorous nickname is 'Mr Marlboro'.  Yet he has established his bona fides by fighting the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan in the 1980s where he lost his left eye in a training accident.  This incident could be evidence of an attempt by him to seize some standing within the somewhat still factionalized group.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, 2013

I have reported earlier on the increasing coordination and growth throughout the enormous region of the Sahara between declared al Qaeda affiliates such as the originally Algerian al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al Shabaab in Somalia.  Despite the claims of the Obama administration during the last presidential campaign, al Qaeda is quite alive and well – and growing – in this region in particular (to say nothing of its resurgence in its various forms in Afghanistan as we try to accelerate our withdrawal, and in Iraq as well, competing to some extent with Iranian influence).  This was brought to embarrassing prominence, to the extent that the MSM allowed it, by the debacle of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi by al Qaeda affiliates in Libya, and now we see a takeover of northern Mali (an area the size of Afghanistan, France, or Texas) by Islamic terrorists.  [Some may quibble over my broad use of 'al Qaeda', but I use it in its original form: some other terrorist leaders may not be card-carrying members, but they are affiliated to one degree or another with 'the network'.  Those above have openly declared their allegiance.] 

The French military is now intervening in the Malian situation, which is the purported reason for the terrorist action at Ain Amenas, one of the largest hostage-taking operations in the history of the Terror War.  The size of the terrorist group attacking the facility and the logistical factors alone involved in the extreme isolation of the target suggests that the operation was planned and even begun before the French intervention.

In addition to all else, the details of the Algerian counterattack remain unclear.  Algeria is known for a strong go-it-alone attitude in these situations which include, for example among many others, the Air France hijacking around Christmas of 1994 and the capture and beheading of seven French priests in 1998 by the GIA (Groupe Islamic Armé) and its military arm, the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut or the Islamic Salvation Front), and there have been other atrocities by Algerian terrorist factions in their various forms – all predecessors of AQIM.  Algeria has a ruthless policy for dealing with terrorists, honed by decades of fighting one of the more dedicated terrorist groups in the world that has resulted in some 200,000 deaths in a civil war extending back to 1992 and well beyond.  (I was assigned to the Polisario through a UN peacekeeping mission, in the southwest portion of Algeria around Tindouf in the mid 1990s, and dealt with the Algerian situation at the time.  I was quite aware of the vicious nature of the terrorist attacks.) 

But so far, reports indicate that two Americans had earlier escaped and are en route to London, and an Irish hostage is safe and is returning as well.  At least six hostages are reported to be killed, including British, Filipino and Algerian casualties, and dozens more of the multi-national group still remain unaccounted for, which includes at least one American, Britons, Norwegians, Japanese, French, Romanians, Malaysians and Algerians.

Algerian commando
The Algerians maintain several special forces units, both military (there are no strong distinctions between the Algerian services) and police, and the generic name for such troops is 'Ninjas' for the black balaclava favored by them in action.  Such units include the Saaykaa (Thunder) counter-terrorism (CT) unit, and what may still be the GIS (Groupe d'Intervention Spécial – which suffered the embarrassment of having one of its members assassinate the Algerian President in 1992), as well as several other specialized units.  They have historically favored a direct and violent response to terrorist actions, and neither seek nor typically accept any outside assistance.

The Algerians state, with arguably some degree of accuracy, that they have more experience with terrorism (on both sides of the coin, left unsaid) than any other state.  Countries such as the United States have a firm policy of not negotiating with terrorists, and their objective in these situations is to (1) rescue the hostages and (2) destroy or capture the terrorists.  Algeria takes it further: they basically consider hostages to already be collateral damage, and will wade through however many unfortunates who happen to get in the way in order to annihilate the terrorist threat, so as to convey the long-range goal of convincing their enemies that any action on their part is disastrously futile.

(To use a pop-culture illustration, admittedly ficticious, it struck me during my association with them as the same attitude as Keyser Söze.)

David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, recognizes this unfortunate fact: 
The responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched these vicious and cowardly attacks. 
When you are dealing with a terrorist incident on this scale with up to 30 terrorists it is extremely difficult to respond and get this right in every respect. 
We should recognise all that the Algerians have done to work with us and to help and co-ordinate with us, and I would like to thank them for that.
Update: The siege has officially ended, with Algeria reporting that 23 hostages are dead, including one American, Frederick Buttaccio of Houston, out of the 130 foreigners and several hundred Algerian workers.  Algerian special forces are still sweeping through the huge facility, and casualty estimates "may be revised upward".  Earlier, Mark Cobb, also of Texas, successfully escaped.  All 32 terrorists, apparently including the leader of the strike force, Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, are reported to have been killed.

Three Britons have reported to have been killed, but three more are still listed as missing, as well as a foreign British resident.  Twenty-two British survivors are already back in the UK.

Some twelve bodies lodged in the makeshift morgue at the facility are reported to be Japanese.

Update: In the latest report, the death toll for the hostages is now 38, including three Americans, and the tally for dead terrorists not rests at 29, with the Algerians claiming that three have been captured.  Five workers still remain unaccounted for.

There is no mention whether Belmokhtar is among the dead or captured.  The government confirms, however, that the leader was Amine Benchenab, an Algerian, and is confirmed dead as well.

The makeup of the terrorists is international, with Egyptians, Malians, Nigeri, Mauretanian, Tunisian, and Canadians among them.

Reports still speculate that Belmokhtar and his Masked Brigade are split off from AQIM, but I still consider the plausibility that he and his group are jockeying for power within AQIM, at least to the extent that they are still viable.  I would be surprised if Belmokhtar is among the dead at Ain Amenas, but I await further developments from this revision-a-minute unfolding after-action report.

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