Energy interests sector-wide should be prepared for the coming security nightmare that is the Sahel. At a time when even the juniors have become unaccountably brave in frontier regions, the hostage crisis in Algeria demonstrates just how vulnerable the industry is.
It is vulnerable both to the whims of Western military intervention and to Salafi jihadist moves to take advantage of a transnational opening that would have been unheard of with Gaddafi, Mubarak and Assad still in control in Libya, Egypt and Syria.
The hostage crisis at the BP-operated Amenas gas field in the Algerian Sahara was most interesting because it was the result of a militant leadership feud. It was a challenge from one leader to another, and that challenge will have to be met with something equally spectacular. It was also a message to the French about their unexpected intervention in Mali. More attacks on energy installations and Western personnel are likely to come elsewhere in the Sahel, and no amount of high-tech security will prevent them.
In total, we are talking about more than one million square kilometers of ungoverned desert in the Sahel and a French military intervention that will shift them away from Mali and toward other borders to refocus. French interests and citizens will be the primary (and already declared) targets, but Europeans in general will become increasingly profitable kidnapping victims.
Conflict in Mali
The Mali military staged a coup in March 2012--one month before presidential elections. They ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure on the pretext that his administration had failed to deal with the Tuareg, who have been pursuing independence for “Azawad” (Northern Mali) since the 1960s.
The coup leader was Pentagon favorite Amadou Haya Sanogo, who was trained in the US and by AFRICOM and was viewed in Washington as a strong ally in the fight against terrorism and particularly against the solidifying interests of AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). The coup left a security vacuum that allowed the Tuareg room to make a power play.
This came at a good time for the Tuareg, who had lost a major support base with the death of Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi. In March, on the heels of the coup, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA—a secular Tuareg outfit) took over some key government buildings in Gao (in Northern Mali). In April, they announced the creation of independent Azawad. But their victory was elusive and they were soon sidelined by three Islamist groups: Ansar al-Din (an Islamist Tuareg outfit), MUJAW and AQIM, both foreign terrorist groups.
French Special Forces arrived on the scene in March and the UN sanctioned military action. North African nations failed to move on this, leaving any military effort up to the French, while the US monitored the situation from neighboring borders (Burkina Faso and Mauritania).
In June, the MNLA were forced out by MUJAW (whose fighters are almost all former AQIM), and MUJAW took over Gao and imposed an extremely hardline form of Sharia law.
In January 2013, the French sent an initial 1,400 troops into Mali to launch an offensive supported by air strikes. The French were warned that the offensive would push militants into Algeria.
The French intervened when Ansar al-Din seized control of the town of Konna in the second week of January 2013. The French justification was to stop the Islamists from taking control of the rest of Mali. Konna in technically in the north of Mali, but it lies in the central buffer zone between north and south.
This was a flawed justification. Ansar al-Din is interested in taking control of the north, not the south, and its move on Konna was most likely intended only to measure the Mali Army’s response. Ansar al-Din does not have the capability or support (even with the help of the foreign terrorist groups) to take over the south of the country. Nor is that a likely agenda.
These militant Islamist Tuareg are natural enemies of the foreign terrorist groups (AQIM and MUJAW) and their temporary alliance is one only of convenience. Once Ansar al-Din secures its northern territory, it will summarily reject AQIM and MUJAW and likely turn on them.
Ansar al-Din views itself as defending its own territory. They are Tuareg. They are Malians. AQIM and MUJAB are foreigners and they have no territory to defend and will find themselves boxed in in Northern Mali, when traditionally they rely on mobility for their cause. The premature French military action will push AQIM and MUJAW militants to areas of the Sahel/Sahara outside of Mali and thus the crisis will spread.
AQIM, MUJAW and Ansar al-Din cooperated with each other to seize control of northern Mali last year, but since then cooperation has only been sporadic. The only other demonstration of cooperation was on 10 January, when the three launched a joint offensive against the Malian Army. It is important that there is the illusion of a united front—but it will not last. Not only are AQIM and MUJAW struggling with an insurgency leadership question, Ansar al-Din is Tuareg and has an entirely different agenda.
AQIM and Ansar al-Din are at odds over AQIM’s smuggling activities, and these three groups—along with a number of other groups—are also suffering from racial infighting among Black Africans and Arabs. Already, Ansar al-Din is showing signs that it may rescind plans for Sharia law in the north, which is HIGHLY unpopular among the Tuareg.
The leader of Ansar al-Din—Iyad ag Ghali--is under a great deal of pressure from his own tribe, the Ifoghas, to cut all ties with AQIM and MUJAW. This pressure has risen exponentially since the imposition of Sharia law in some areas of Northern Mali. Ghali is also be courted heavily by the secular MNLA, of which he is a former member, as well as Algerian intelligence officials and meditators from Burkina Faso.
The Algerian Hostage Crisis
On 15 January, a group of militants (about 40-strong) entered the Algerian Sahara via Libya and attacked a BP-operated gas field (Amenas) some 100 kilometers from the Libyan border, in a very remote stretch of desert. They took some 700 hostages. On 15-16 January, some 600 hostages were freed, but many of those were believed to have been freed by the militants themselves shortly before a raid by the Algerian Special Forces. On 16 January, Algerian Special Forces launched a three-day rescue operation. At least 60 hostages were killed in the helicopter, including at least 7 Western nationals. A total of 6 militants were captured alive.
This spectacular attack was not about Algeria, and only secondarily about the French intervention in Mali. It was first and foremost about making a power play to resolve a simmering leadership dispute among the Salafi jihadists over the Sahel.
No ransoms were sought, no hostages were executed, nor were the BP-operated Amenas gas facilities wantonly destroyed or sabotaged. It was an extremely high-profile publicity stunt designed to send this message: Mokhtar Belmokhtar is the unquestionable leader of the Salafi jihadist movement. He has managed to launch a surprise attack on a high-security Western gas field and take hundreds of hostages on the territory of Algeria—which is, significantly, the stomping ground of his key leadership rival. The secondary message—which was also necessary for the overall, incontrovertibly united goals of the Salafi jihadists in the Sahel—was a warning to the French over their intervention in Mali.
It is this leadership struggle that will best help us to predict where the next attack might take place, and how these parallel objectives will affect security across the Sahel and beyond—to Egypt and Syria.
The media has tended to attribute the hostage incident to AQIM, as this is something the Western public is familiar with and it suits further “war on terror” ambitions. However, the attack was not conducted by AQIM, rather by MUJAW, a relatively new creation comprised of former AQIM fighters and a mix of Black African Islamists. More specifically still, the attack was led by Belmokhtar, the historical leader of AQIM who split from the group only in October 2012 over a leadership dispute.
What concerns us most urgently is that Belmokhtar’s leadership rival, Abdelmakbel Droukdel, must rise to the challenge and respond with an equally spectacular attack that is still in line with the message to the French.
Beware—Libya, Niger and Mauritania
While most attention is presently on the security situation in Algeria, this may be misplaced. Algeria is the most secure of all the Sahel countries and its security forces have significantly greater capabilities. We would be more inclined to expect another terrorist attack outside of Algeria—for instance, in Libya, Niger, or Mauritania.
Libya will be the most affected, and that is fitting as this is where it all began. Unilateral French intervention led to a NATO-level conflict that effectively destabilized the entire Sahel and opened up windows of opportunity for Islamic militant groups—opportunities that have never existed before.
Libya remains a security nightmare, awash with roving militias, some of them understood to be “friendly”, working for, but not controlled by the government, others waiting for another opportunity to regroup, such as the chaos in Mali may provide. Those “friendly” Islamic militias also comprised the security team protecting the US consulate in Benghazi when it came under attack on 11 September 2012.
The violence in Mali has already sparked off a string of threats in Libya, with security forces claiming to have intercepted vehicle-borne explosive devices at the Benghazi airport before they could be detonated. Militant threats in retaliation for the French intervention in Mali have specifically listed hotels catering to foreigners across the country, but to a higher degree in Benghazi. Western diplomats remain a specific target. The Italian consul in Benghazi narrowly survived a drive-by shooting on 12 January.
After Libya, Niger is the most vulnerable to what will now be a spread of Salafi jihadist activity and kidnapping across the Sahel. It is most vulnerable because it is the poorest and its government lacks structure. Corruption among the security forces is extremely high, and there is evidence of individual security force collusion in kidnappings of foreigners.
This is also another likely theater for direct intervention by France because of French uranium interests here. Niger provides a significant amount of the uranium France uses in its nuclear reactors, and these uranium facilities should be on high alert.
Particularly in Niger, the kidnapping networks are dangerous and kidnappings are often conducted by third parties interested only in selling foreigners to AQIM or MUJAW—the two key terrorist groups in the region. This makes the kidnapping network immediately larger, and recruitment irrelevant. There is no ideological requirement. Locals looking to profit from this business will note the renewed momentum of the Salafi jihadist movements due to events in Mali and Algeria, and they will be seeking to take advantage of that momentum.