Given Algeria’s savage history, it is tragic but hardly surprising that the In Amenas hostage standoff would end in a bloodbath. Army helicopter gunships arrived at the isolated gas field in the south-east of the country within a day of al-Qaida rebels launching their operation. There was no apparent attempt at negotiation – witnesses reported both captors and captives being indiscriminately strafed with machine-gun fire.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed “gangster” said to have planned Wednesday’s initial attack on the BP-run facility, knows the terror game inside out. He will not flinch at the loss of life, even if those who died include loyal lieutenants. Belmokhtar, 41, is the personification of an Algerian narrative that, in living memory, has involved the most destructive colonial conflict in modern history, and a civil war that claimed at least 250,000 lives.
Belmokhtar trained with al-Qaida in Afghanistan while still a teenager. He fought the Russians there, before returning home to pursue jihad against his own country’s military. It was the army that nullified an Islamist victory in the 1992 elections, so starting the civil war that has come to define modern Algeria. Its violent legacy is as powerful as ever, making the country a tragically fitting battleground in the war against terror.
Men like Belmokhtar, one of the best known warlords in the Sahara region between Algeria and west Africa, are products of decades of bitterness and hatred that have now, through the In Amenas attack, exploded into western consciousness. His so-called Signed-in-Blood Battalion is made up of veterans of Algerian militant gangs including the Armed Islamist Group (GIA), and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), both of which were turned into al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The Algerian security forces fought back against the Islamistson Thursday, and Belmokhtar was forced to relocate his operation to Mali. His cross-border terrorist organisation is typical of those that have brought violence and destruction to the Saharan region of both these countries. He is allied to the fundamentalist forces in northern Mali now trying to take hold of the entire country.
These groups’ war has, in recent years, gone largely unnoticed by a west focused on anti-terrorist theatres such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. But President François Hollande’s decision to go to war against Mali’s Islamic terrorists has had a massive impact on Algeria’s precarious domestic situation.
The way Algeria has been co-operating so freely with the west, and especially with France, its old colonial master, in the Mali crisis is certainly intriguing. On Sunday, France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said Algeria had authorised French warplanes to use its airspace for bombing raids in Mali. It was also hoped Algeria would provide further support for the campaign by denying Islamist radicals an escape route from the north of Mali.
This follows gradual attempts by Paris to turn a page in its bleak relations with Algiers. Hollande visited Algeria last month, offering a qualified apology for the harm France did to the country during its 132-year rule, and calling for greater economic co-operation between the two countries. This co-operation was to include an increased emphasis on the kind of deals that allowed multinationals such as Total and BP to tap into Algeria’s oil and gas riches.
Co-operation on Mali is clearly a move by the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to respond to Hollande’s hand of friendship. Despite years of relative isolationism and mistrust, Bouteflika believes his country’s future lies in increased participation in a profit-driven global economy and specifically trade with western neighbours. Limited military co-operation in an onslaught against Islamists in Mali was viewed as a necessary means towards an improved economic future.
But terrorist groups led by Algerians like Belmokhtar are clearly incensed by this development, and will now continue to target western interests with increased ferocity – thus writing further chapters in the sad, violent history of Algeria.
Nabila Ramdani is a Paris-born freelance journalist and academic of Algerian descent.