France was mighty pleased with itself when its drastic military intervention halted the Islamist rebel advance in Mali. Now the conflict’s gone another direction, and dozens of people have been killed deep in the Algeria desert. This war just got a whole lot bigger and uglier. By SIMON ALLISON.
Well that didn’t take long. France’s sudden intervention in Mali was always going to have repercussions, but no one expected them to be quite so sudden or dramatic. And yet, here we are, dealing with the deaths of dozens of hostages in the middle of the Algerian desert.
Just to recap: about 41 workers, both Algerian and foreign, were taken hostage at a gas field in Algeria on Wednesday. The Algerian military, in typically gung-ho fashion, immediately attempted to resolve the situation by force. This failed. On Thursday night, the military tried again, and failed again, only this time the failure was fatal: no one’s sure exactly how many hostages died in the helicopter assault, but some reports suggest that the number could be as high as 34. In addition, 15 kidnappers were killed. A few hostages were freed, but not all of them: at least seven are still alive and in captivity, according to the kidnappers.
As hostage rescues go, this can only be described as a catastrophic failure: despite all the lives lost, the standoff continues, and Algeria – along with concerned countries like Britain, France and the US, all of whom have nationals involved – must look for a better solution, one that protects the hostages without giving in to the hostage-takers demands.
Only two problems with this: first, we don’t know what their demands are. It is thought they want to negotiate safe passage out of the area, the release of a large number of political prisoners from jail in Algeria, and an immediate end to France’s intervention in Mali. This has been the message delivered by unnamed spokesmen for the group, but given that Algeria point-blank refuses to negotiate it’s difficult to confirm.
Second, we’re not sure exactly who the hostage-takers are. There has been one claim of responsibility from a group calling itself “Those who signed in blood”.
This claim came via a telephone call to the Nouakchott Information Agency in neighbouring Mauritania. According to the caller, this group was established to target countries who are participating in the Mali intervention, and it is aligned with the Katibat Moulathamine (the “masked brigade”), which is a newly-created Islamist militia led by the infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Belmokhtar is a storied character,variously described as the One-Eyed (he’s only got one eye), the Uncatchable (France and Algeria have been trying for years), Mr Marlboro (for his role in the lucrative cigarette smuggling trade) and “Al-Qaeda’s strongman in the Sahel” (because he was until recently very senior in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). It’s unlikely that he was personally involved in the kidnapping, and it’s unclear (although probable) if he even knew it was happening – the Signed in Blood Brigade is supposedly just an affiliate of the Masked Brigade.
The details are still hazy and it’s very hard at this point to conclude anything other than that the Algerian kidnappings are a direct response to the situation in Mali – even though that’s exactly what western countries, on the defensive now, are trying to do. British foreign minister William Hague said his government would be “cautious” to view the attack as related to the French intervention in Mali. “That is a convenient excuse for people to quote but usually operations like this take longer to plan than last week’s events in Mali,” he said.
But Hague misses the point: whether or not this attack was planned before or after the French intervention, it was inevitable that there would be some blowback from the situation in Mali, which has always been about more than just Mali.
There are a number of wars being fought in Mali – so many that it’s hard to keep track of them all. There’s the war between the government and the rebels, who happen to be Islamist. This has deep roots in Mali’s colonial history and its demographics.
There’s the war between the various factions of the government and national army in the south, all jostling for power, and the war between the various rebel and Islamist groupsin the north doing exactly the same thing.
Then there’s the war between Algeria and its Islamist militant opposition, which has been fought for two decades all over the Sahel region (let us not forget that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has made its base in Mali, was born from the ashes of an anti-government Algerian militia. The al-Qaeda name, with all its ominous overtones, was a very effective branding exercise, and there is limited communication between al-Qaeda proper and its North African franchise).
Finally, there’s the global war on terror being fought between western powers and the spectre of al-Qaeda, which is lending increased urgency to the situation; it’s telling that although there have been roughly analogous political and military crises in Mali and the Central African Republic this year, France sent only a handful of troops to CAR to protect its own citizens.
It’s hardly a surprise, therefore, that the fighting it Mali would spill over its borders, which are notoriously porous anyway. It’s not surprising either that Algeria should be targeted first, given the long and bitter relationship between the Algerian government and many of the fighters causing so much trouble in Mali. And it’s even less surprising that foreigners were also targeted; this is war, and it is understandable that the hostage-takers feel that Americans, French and Britons are fair game (this does not apply to the poor Japanese and Norwegians, who were probably just collateral damage).
The question now is how Algeria and the foreign powers with the biggest stake in the Sahel – particularly France and America – are going to handle this. Obviously, the military response didn’t work. The botched rescue is the second such operation that’s gone awry in just a week; France and America are both still smarting from the attempt last week to rescue a French hostage in Somalia, during which two French special forces soldiers died and the hostage was subsequently executed. But compromise is also difficult: Algeria won’t want to release political prisoners, and there’s no way that France can allow itself to be threatened into withdrawing from Mali. And America, let’s not forget, has never been in favour of “negotiating with terrorists”.
It’s difficult to see a peaceful resolution to the standoff at this point. And as hope for compromise dwindles, so do French hopes – loudly trumpeted in the public relations offensive which accompanied the deployment of troops to Mali – that their military intervention would be swift and successful. Quite the opposite, in fact; chances are good that the tragedy in the desert in Algeria is just the precursor to a much longer and bloodier war than anyone anticipated. DM
Photo: Statoils director of foreign operations Lars Christian Bacher (R), CEO Helge Lund (C), and leader of secretariat Bjoen Otto Sverdrup speak to the media about a hostage situation in Algeria, during a news conference in Stavanger January 17, 2013. REUTERS/Kent Skibstad/NTB Scanpix
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