Algeria Amenas Gas Plant
Algeria Amenas Gas Plant Reuters

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a terrorist group which is financed through its criminal activities of smuggling, drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom, carried out two separate bombings on 11 April 2007 in the Algerian capital, Algiers. Active members vary between 300 and 800 for this Salafist group which formally changed its name from Group for Call (that is Preaching) and Combat (GSPC in its French form) only in January 2007. Itself a splinter organisation with a history of leadership changes and on-off alliances and aims, AQIM's declared enemy targets at the time of the name change were France and the United States.

Hence, one assumes, the perfectly logical attacks on that Spring day of 2007 against the offices of Algeria's Prime Minister at the time, Abdelaziz Belkhadem who was unharmed by the blast and described the bombings as "criminal and cowardly". The second bombing was on a police station in the eastern Algiers suburb of Bab Ezzouar, a fast-growing area of hotels, shopping malls and other commercial enterprises and the University of Science and Technology. The explosion targeting the Prime Minister killed 12 people and injured 118 others and the one against the police station killed 11 and injured 44.

Anyone remember this human tragedy outside the circle of victims and their families? No! The sad fact is that there have been others since, in a country with a violent past stretching over much of the near-60 years since the fight for independence from France. Worth a mention on the News channels of close neighbours and Western Europe no doubt, but no more, as no named foreigners were victims. Yet this incident highlights a repeating occurrence of a modern, ruthless enemy bent on committing well-planned atrocities against soft, easy targets. Invariably small, nimble terrorist organisations with a relatively loose structure and hard to penetrate, often made up of bodies of men from a number of countries including converts from the West, united by a leader and cause for-the-moment, frequently bonded together just by an extreme interpretation of Islam and the willingness to kill - and sometimes, if necessary, to fight to the death. As we are seeing in other parts of the world, fellow Muslims are just as likely to be the intended target.

Algeria will be only too aware that small numbers need be no detriment to ultimate victory for, on the eve of their revolt against the French in 1954, the political winners - if not the military victors - were the fighters of the National Liberation Front (FLN) who went on to form the government in 1962. At the start of their push for independence, the FLN numbered less than a thousand. Today the FLN is still in power and a fighter serving in the Army of National Liberation, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is currently serving his third term as the country's President.

On 16 January 2013 a well armed terrorist group of between 30 and 36 men calling itself the Signed-in-Blood Battalion whose leader is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, nicknamed "Mr Marlboro" after the cigarettes that he is best renowned for smuggling, attacked the remote In Amenas gas plant some 800 miles from Algiers. The plant is run by a consortium of Britain's BP, Norway's Statoil and the Algerian state oil/gas company Sonatrach and supplies about 10 per cent of Algeria's natural gas.

The terrorists are believed to have entered Algeria from Libya, only some 30 miles distant and Reuters quoted an Algerian Government source on 28 January stating that the militants had smuggled their weapons across the border from Libya. Approaching the gas plant in Toyota Land Cruisers, so one must assume that along with a significant arms cache there must also be significant fuel dumps in the near to medium distance across the border, the militants first attacked two buses taking plant workers to the nearby airport. They then moved on to the plant's living quarters which normally houses most of the 800+ workers staying at any one time on site. A number of hostages were killed on the buses and upon the initial attack of the quarters. Along with the possible destruction of the plant, eye-witness accounts make it very clear that the attackers wanted the capture of nationals of three countries in particular: France, the UK and the United States.

There appears to have been some disagreement amongst the militants on this last point because the single biggest loss of life by nationality amongst the hostages were the 10 Japanese who were killed. This might possibly be due to the fact that although, with inside help, the attackers knew which quarters belonged to foreign nationals, many of whom they dragged out of hiding places, they might have been frustrated at not finding the numbers that they either had wanted or expected. Thanks to the help and courage of numerous Algerian plant workers, many foreign workers were hidden and not located or given uniforms to wear by their Algerian colleagues so that they would not be identified as being foreigners.

The final totals of the number of attackers, their victims, the dead and injured will have to wait until all ongoing investigations are complete. The Voice of Russia on 21 January put the number of terrorists at 40 and the number of dead hostages at 82. More importantly, the Russians quoted their Algerian source as the AlSharouk newspaper saying that Algerian Government investigators were looking at the complicity of plant staff in the terror attack. In particular, four BP security officers, five from Sonatrach and two canteen workers to which the state security services have registered calls to Mali and Libya. The investigators are also checking "three satellite communication devices" used by the terrorists and found by the Army.

Algerian state security believe the attack was planned two months beforehand.

The Algerian Army initially surrounded the plant on 17 January and went in to end the crisis on 19 January freeing some 107 foreign hostages and 685 Algerian hostages and capturing alive, six of the terrorists. Even although he was certainly under pressure from foreign governments, Algerian Oil Minister Youcef Yousfi insisted that in any future similar crisis, foreign forces would not be allowed to take part. Deflecting this criticism levelled at the Algerian Government, really due to the hostage death toll, and although along with others grumbling about "not being consulted" with regards to the Army's assault, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, quite rightly placed the blame where it truly belonged when on 20 January he said:

"Now of course people will ask questions about the Algerian response to these events, but I would just say that the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched this vicious and cowardly attack.

"We should recognise all that the Algerians have done to work with us and to help and coordinate with us. I'd like to thank them for that. We should also recognise that the Algerians too have seen lives lost among their soldiers." (I've seen a figure of eight but don't know whether this is final or whether it includes Algerian plant workers).

Possibly more of a surprise to many, France's President Francois Hollande gave Algeria his full backing:

"When you have people taken hostage in such large numbers with such cold determination and ready to kill those hostages - as they did - Algeria has an approach which to me, as I see it, is the most appropriate because there could be no negotiation."

In report after report, whether local to Algeria or further afield, the role of Libya in enhancing the capability of al Qadeda and like terrorist groups is startling - especially Libya's eastern regions and Benghazi. Reuter correspondents Lamine Chikhi and Abdelaziz Boumzar reporting in recent days from Algiers sum it up thus:

"The most powerful Islamist groups operating in the Sahara were severely weakened by Algeria's secularist military in the civil war in the 1990s. But in the past two years the regional wing of al Qaeda gained fighters and arms as a result of the civil war in Libya, when arsenals were looted from Muammar Gaddafi's army."

Doesn't look as if Messrs Cameron, Hollande and Obama saw that one coming!!

One final cause for thought. In a report by Abdelkader Abderrahmane in the Mail and Guardian (South) Africa's Best Read on 09 July 2012 in an article on Mali, AA writes:

"...Adding to the complexity of the Sahel crisis, there remain concerns about an obscure terrorist group that goes by the name of Unity Movement for Jihad in West Africa (or Mujao, by its French acronym).

"...According to the French secret services, AQIM, Mujao and Ansar Dine have in recent months received financial support from Qatar..."

Well, who would have believed!! And I thought they were meant to be on our side!