The combination of France's armed intervention against Islamist forces in Mali and the insurgent assault on the In Amenas gas-processing plant in Algeria has focused global attention on regional conflicts that have long been relatively neglected. But the nature of these respective incidents, and the possible relationship between them, remain to be clarified.
The early indications were that the French action (which began on 12 January 2013, and was immediately supported by other western states) would spark some form of wider escalation. The previous column in this series suggested: “After months of uncertainty and varying fortunes among the combatants, this new phase of the war will have far-reaching consequences that could extend way beyond Mali's borders“ (see "Mali, dynamic of war”, 15 January 2013 ). Just a day later, on 16 January, a well-armed paramilitary group attacked the gas facility on the border between Algeria and Libya, took over much of it and seized dozens of the multinational workforce. The Algerian army's operations to regain control lasted four days, with at the end of the process a heavy human toll. An estimated forty-eight hostages died and many more were injured; thirty-two of the assailants were killed, and seven captured; 792 personnel from the plant (including 107 foreign workers) escaped and were unharmed.
It would be misleading, however, to see the sudden attack on the In Amenas site as confirming the prediction that the war in Mali would have spillover effects. Rather, the incident has more to do with internal Algerian politics: in particular, the desire of the organising group to demonstrate its capabilities in the context of ongoing competition with rival Islamist paramilitaries.
At the same time, the raiders' ambition was larger than just kidnapping a few foreigners for ransom, displaying their bravado and raising their profile. The scale of the operation and the certainty that it would invite a very tough response from the Algerian authorities mean that the attackers knew they were likely to be killed. This itself reveals the strength of their motivation, and hints at a strong religious component. Here, there is at least some evidence of a connection with Mali.
This is reinforced by the insistence of Algerian sources that the insurgents were intent on moving at least some of the hostage away from In Amenas - and probably across southern Algeria and into Mali. Once in the ungoverned space of northern Mali, where fellow Islamists exert powerful influence, the hostages could have been used as a potent bargaining-tool to demand both a French withdrawal from southern Mali and the release of Islamist prisoners in Algeria.
Thus, the immediate circumstances of the In Amenas crisis (insofar as they are known at present) do to some extent exemplify the argument that an overall Islamist paramilitary revival across northern Africa is underway. The evidence includes the role of disparate militias remaining in control of parts of Libya, and the assassination of the American ambassador there, Christopher Stevens, in Benghazi on 11 September 2012. The wider context of less secure governance in the region following the Arab awakening and the overthrow of rigid autocracies can further bolster the case that the al-Qaida vision has acquired a renewed potency (see "Al-Qaida, idea in motion", 4 January 2013).
The Malian prospect
Mali and Algeria, though, are distinct, in ways that some thoughtful journalists are pinpointing (see, for example, Roula Khalaf, "Algeria shows we need a new approach to terrorism" [Financial Times, 18 January 2013]; Patrick Cockburn, "'War on terror' is a tempting defence, but it isn't that simple" [Independent on Sunday, 20 January 2013] ; and Peter Beaumont, "Terrorism is just one of many scourges that have beset the people of Mali for decades" [Observer, 20 January 2013]). The current driving-force of the rebellion against the Bamako government may be Islamist, but it is also rooted in the context of years of opposition by many Tuareg in northern Mali to their relative marginalisation. The particular circumstances of the events of mid-January 2013 in the two states thus mean that an analysis has to take account of their differences as well as overlapping features.
In Mali, this means addressing the consequences of the French military action. The continuing intervention involves French forces (now towards 2,500) moving rapidly into the country, both from metropolitan France and bases elsewhere in west Africa. Their equipment includes armoured fighting vehicles, personnel-carriers, and Milan anti-armour missiles; these supplement the helicopter-gunships and strike-aircraft that have been used from the start, whose identification of targets is aided by special forces that have moved well inside paramilitary territory.
The size of this effort, and the diffiulty it is encountering, make the Paris government's talk of a deployment lasting a few weeks unrealistic. It will take the best part of a year to train the Malian army, not least because of corruption among senior officers; while the troops promised by other Ecowas states will also require substantial logistic support and intensive training to be capable of long-range expeditionary operations. That, too, will take months.
It is likely, then, that the heavily armed French troops will make early advances before finding themselves too few and overstretched to take (or keep) control of the vast territory at issue. After apparent initial success, a drawn-out conflict could offer many Tuareg new grounds for aligning themselves with the more Islamist elements within the rebellion.
The welcome enemy
The stance of some western governments, notably in France and Britain, will have an important influence on how the conflicts in Mali, Algeria and the wider region develop. Both see what is happening across north Africa in terms of the “war on terror” moving almost to their doorstep. British prime minister David Cameron describes the situation following In Amenas as “a global threat [that] will require a global response… a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months”.
This response is understood, as so often before, in military terms. Islamists present a threat to western security interests and peoples, and the priority is to suppress them by force. For Cameron and similar politicians, the urgency of the current situation is that Mali and Algeria are far closer to the European heartlands than Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Such an approach will, again as so often before, be welcomed by Islamist propagandists throughout the region and beyond - for their worldview is a mirror-image of the west's. They see the situation as one where it is Islam that has been under attack for decades, by western agents motivated by a venal crusader mentality. They can easily justify this version of history, and the need for an extreme version of the faith as the only way to resist the threat, by highlighting yet more strike-aircraft bombing Muslim towns and killing civilians.
The events of January 2013 will have entrenched these positions. Within a ten-day period, French aircraft and helicopters have been bombing and killing Muslims, while across the border an Islamist group has proved capable of overrunning a huge energy installation. There may be little connection between the two incidents, yet they illustrate a similarity in the understanding of threats and responses on each side. David Cameron's warning of a decades-long conflict will be used assiduously by Islamists to burnish their own outlook. For an eschatological movement that looks far ahead and well beyond this earthly life, the promise of a long-term conflict is itself a sort of victory.