This week’s headlines have been dominated by a hostage crisis at an Algerian gas plant, initiated by militant Islamists last Wednesday, which was brought to an end by Algerian security forces on Saturday. The incident claimed at least 81 victims, among them 37 foreigners of eight nationalities and one Algerian worker as well as 37 militant gunmen.
The multinational group of Islamist kidnappers are part of an al-Qaeda splinter group who call themselves ‘Those Who Sign in Blood.’ They allegedly crossed into the country from neighbouring Mali claiming to act in reprisal for France’s military intervention there. However, Algerian officials maintained that the attacks had been planned in advance and had supposedly been coordinated by a Canadian named Chedad who is among the militants that were killed by Algerian Special Forces in the final confrontation at the site on Saturday.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the overall commander of the militant group, who was not present during the attack himself, claimed responsibility on behalf of al-Qaeda for the raid he called a “blessed operation” in a video disseminated online.
In response to the Algerian hostage crisis, Western governments such as Britain’s stepped up their anti-terrorist rhetoric with Prime Minister Cameron calling jihadists and Islamist militants an ‘existential’ threat. British Foreign Minister Hague compared the situation in Mali to Somalia, a ‘failed state’, which has been a haven for terrorist Islamist groups such as al-Shabaab, an offspring of al-Qaeda, over the past few years.
For an overview of the events of the hostage crisis click here.
Following failed UN plans of a process of national reconciliation and an African-led military intervention in Mali last autumn, France launched a military campaign on the 10th of January in support of the Malian government fighting Islamists with alleged links to al-Qaeda and ethnic Tuareg rebels. The aim of the French ground invasion and air strikes is to prevent the ‘creation of a terrorist state’ threatening Europe and to defeat the militant Islamists who have been in control of the Northern part of the country since 2012.
Supported by several European states and the US financially and logistically, the French are, however, alone in having sent in ground troops as the Malian army’s weakness in face of the rebels’ attempted advance into Southern Mali has become increasingly apparent in January. On Sunday a contingent of African soldiers drawn from several West African countries concerned about the Islamist threat started to deploy troops in support of the French campaign. However, of the 6,000 African soldiers only about 150 have been deployed so far due to cash and logistical constraints that are also responsible for the failed deployment of an ECOWAS force last autumn.
Today French and Malian troops advancing North successfully took the key central Malian towns of Diabaly and Doutenza, which have been controlled by of al-Qaeda-linked rebels for weeks. Despite the current progress on the ground, some fear that France may become embroiled in a protracted and complex conflict in Mali, similar to the one in Afghanistan.
For an overview of the conflict and the geographical situation, click here.
The wider significance of the French intervention in Mali, the Algerian hostage crisis and governments’ fears concerning the Islamist terrorist threat converge on the issue of the ungoverned state of the Sahel zone. Countries such as Libya after the fall of Mubarak in October 2011 have allowed militant Islamists, most importantly al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and dissident Tuareg militias to seize stockpiles of arms in the absence of adequate international efforts to secure them. This has led to the destabilisation of countries such as Mali as these militias pose an existential threat to their weak military and civil structures.
Afghanistan has been the scene of two attacks on government targets in Kabul this week. The first attack on 16th of January during which six suicide bombers and one security guard were killed targeted the National Directorate of Security.
The second attack, an eight-hour assault on the headquarters of the Kabul traffic police by suicide bombers and gunmen on the 21st of January, killed several people and wounded eight civilians. Spokesmen of the Afghan government and ISAF representatives lauded the Afghan National Security Forces for their quick and efficient response to the attacks for which the Taliban have claimed responsibility.
Following attacks by an al-Qaeda-linked group called the Islamic State of Iraq killing 88 people across Iraq last week, today a series of attacks around Baghdad killed at least 17 and left many more wounded. Although sectarian violence in Iraq has eased slightly and the influence of Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups has waned since 2006-2007, Sunni Islamist insurgents still launch frequent attacks to reignite confrontation between the Shi’ite majority, Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds.
by ICSR research intern Hannah Ellerman