Why Algeria doesn't talk to terrorists -- even if that means killing hostages.
It was 2007 when Algeria’s Islamist insurgents changed the rules of a war that had raged, in various forms, for decades. That was the year Algeria witnessed its first suicide bombing — the handiwork of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which had formed the previous year. Over the course of 2007 and 2008, AQIM carried out three sensational suicide bombings, resulting in more than 500 deaths and ushering in a new era of terrorism.
At the time, a Dutch oil company asked how the introduction of suicide bombing changed the security dynamic in Algeria. The town of Hassi Messaoud and other oil- and gas-producing areas are militarized zones: The previous logic had been that any attack against an oil facility would be a suicide operation. The attackers may have been able to reach their target, but they would never have been able to escape — Algeria would launch helicopter gunships and destroy any would-be terrorists fleeing across the desert. But what were the consequences when death was, if not the goal of the mission, then at least an acceptable outcome?
Five years later, we have an answer. A group of unknown origin — possibly Algerian, possibly not — attacked an extensive gas facility at In Amenas, near the border with Libya, with the objective of seizing as many expatriate hostages as possible and then fleeing beyond Algeria’s borders. The group is suspected of links to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Islamist militant leader who had recently distanced himself from AQIM and set up his own organization.
What the attackers hoped would happen next was anybody’s guess — perhaps a ransom payment, or French and Algerian acquiescence to their demands, including the cessation of the French military campaign in Mali and the release of Islamist prisoners. We may never know, as Algerian military forces immediately intervened: They surrounded the gas facility, pinned down the hostage takers, and eventually launched an assault that presumably killed most if not all of the terrorists as well as an as-of-yet unspecified number of the hostages.
But even if it was a suicide mission, it is surprising that terrorists with links to Belmokhtar carried out such an attack. The ensuing Algerian response was entirely in line with expectations — and Belmokhtar, a hardened and wily terrorist, surely knew the reaction his conspirators’ actions would elicit.
Algeria’s experience with Islamist insurgency during the 1990s defines its response to events today. During that conflict, a debate emerged within the Algerian government about how to deal with the violent Islamists. One side favored a negotiated solution. The other, known as the eradicateurs, said killing the Islamists was the only approach. The eradicateurs won — and they still remain in the drivers seat in today’s Algeria.
Although there have since been two political amnesties for participants in the Islamist insurgency, the eradicateurs still hold key counterterrorism posts in the Algerian military, some having been brought out of retirement as recently as last year, and eliminating terrorists is still the only Algerian government’s only actionable policy. There was no question that it would not be deployed at In Amenas.
The heart of all Algerian policies is the preservation of the Algerian state — maintaining the sanctity of its sovereignty, defending the viability of its economy, and ensuring the safety of its citizens, all with a vision not just to the day-to-day but to the longer run. By attacking the In Amenas facility, the militants struck at these core interests, provoking an overwhelming response from the Algerian government.
Algiers not only wanted to show unequivocally that it has a monopoly on the use of force, it was also obliged to protect the goose that lays its golden eggs. The hydrocarbon sector is the backbone of Algeria’s economy, accounting for more than 95 percent of export earnings. Any attack on oil and gas facilities was thus not just an attack on the energy sector but on the country’s basic well-being. Hydrocarbon revenues pays for subsidies on basic foodstuffs, fuel, and housing — any reduction in earnings, therefore, could undermine social stability and political stability.
How Algeria responded to In Amenas was also not just an answer to the particular crisis, but was a signal for the future. If this attack was intended as a game changer, if it was intended to be a harbinger of future attacks, then Algeria had to send a clear signal that the new tactic that would not succeed.
Algeria fully recognizes that the world will criticize its response, but it will readily explain that the crisis was a direct result of foreign meddling in North Africa and the Sahel. The leadership in Algiers will tell their critics that they warned in 2011 that the NATO intervention in Libya would result in the collapse of the state, and that the flow of weapons out of Libya and into the hands of violent non-state actors could destabilize the region. Algiers also cautioned that any military approach to the instability in northern Mali was likely to only escalate the conflict and raise the likelihood of Islamist terrorist attacks in Algeria. Consequently, the international community is indirectly responsible for what transpired and is in no position to dictate how Algeria should have responded.
The Algerian government will feel that its previous stances are vindicated by the In Amenas attack, and as a result it will be harder for France and its allies, including the United States, to convince Algeria to support the campaign in Mali or broader French or U.S. strategic objectives in the region. If Washington too aggressively criticizes the Algerian response, it risks squandering a year’s worth of unprecedented diplomatic outreach to Algiers.
Algeria’s response to the conflicts to its east and south has already been to bunker down, enforcing the status quo through military force. That has led some to suggest that the Algerian government is paranoid about the forces of unrest wracking the region. But as the saying goes and In Amenas proves, "Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me."