“We, Al Qaeda, announce this sacred operation”. These were the words of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Algerian Djihadist leader who allegedly masterminded the tragic attack on the BP gas plant of In Amenas in south-eastern Algeria. “We are ready to negotiate with the Westerners and the Algerian government on one condition: they need to stop bombing Muslims in Mali”, he added. The dreadful hostage crisis, which ended on Saturday January 19 after four tense days, resulted in a dramatic death toll of at least 37 hostages (of 8 different nationalities, including one Algerian) and the killing of 32 terrorists, according to the Algerian Prime Minister M. Sellal.
Many questions have been raised in the last few days regarding this hostage crisis in Algeria, many of which stem from the information vacuum and the lack of communications from the Algerian authorities.
Who are these terrorist groups? Some reports told us that they are called Katibat El Moulathamine (“The Brigade of the Masked Ones”) or “Those who sign in blood”. They could be just different names for the same group, or one (the latter) is simply the affiliate of the former. It seems that this/these groups are offshoots of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Where did the attackers come from? We’ve been informed by confusing reports that these terrorists came from Mali, maybe via Libya and even from Niger according to the Mauritanian news agency, ANI. The Algerian Interior Minister Ould Kablia strikingly declared that they were locals from the region, but according to the official account of Prime Minister M. Sellal, the attackers (Tunisians, Nigeriens, Mauritanians, Malians, Egyptian, and one Canadian) travelled from Mali through Niger and then Libya.
What was the reason for the attack? Some suggested it was retaliation for the French neo-colonial intervention in Mali and to punish Algeria for opening its air space to French planes, although the attack might have been planned a few months ago. The Mauritanian news agency reported that the motive of the attack was to demand the cessation of French operations in Mali. There was also the question of a hostage exchange, as the attackers demanded the release of Omar Abd el-Rahman (the blind leader of the Egyptian jihadi group al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya, jailed in the United States) and of Aafia Siddiqi, a Pakistani woman unjustly sentenced to 86 years in prison in the US. Some other Algerian commentators went further and argued that the reason behind it was to internationalise the conflict and draw Algeria into the military operations in Mali.
The other question that raised some concern from certain western capitals and sharp criticism from western mainstream media was whether Algeria took all the steps necessary to avert a bloody outcome? This debate around managing such suicidal hostage-taking episodes reflects the extreme difficulties and hard choices one needs to make to avoid a catastrophe in this kind of situation. The Algerian authorities however defended the deadly assault and said it saved many lives. It is one thing to say that the Algerian military’s uncompromising stance on terrorism was the result of a traumatising civil war in the 1990s (that followed the nullification of elections won by the Islamists), and it is another to indulge in certain orientalist representations of the “bloody” and “savage” history of Algerians. Natalya Vince argued in a recent article that if these commentators might eschew essentialism, they nevertheless reproduce a most unhistorical determinism, seeing Algeria as locked into a series of violent episodes, with each one engendering the next.
Beyond ‘clash of civilisations’- speke
The threat of international terrorism is real and is endangering “Western interests” and the stability of the countries affected, but beyond all these first questions and beyond the preposterous discourse of the “clash of civilisations” upheld again by the British prime minister when he claimed that the country faced an "existential" and "global threat" to "our interests and way of life" - lie more fundamental questions about the causes and origins of these reactionary groups, who are certainly “crazy for god” (Fou de dieu). Tackling these questions is paramount to any endeavour to seriously address this phenomenon.
Where do these violent Islamic fundamentalist forces come from? These forces have been erected and supported by the west (the United States particularly) since the inception of Saudi Arabia, the most fundamentalist state on earth and the exporter of a reactionary obscurantist ideology: Wahhabism. Let’s not forget that the US, which appears to preach democracy and human rights was (and still is) the primary protector of Saudi Arabia and was the ally of these Islamist movements in its fight against secular nationalism and “godless communism”. This support took dramatic proportions after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when these groups were mobilised, funded and armed. Al-Qaeda, the global terrorist organisation that was created by Bin Laden (a Saudi citizen) emerged out of this war. We can deduct from this that political Islam has been always an invaluable ally for western imperialism.
Do Western interventions represent a bulwark against terrorism and do they achieve stability? According to the historical record, the answer is a big no. Instead it shows us the devastation caused by the interventions of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan, the destruction and mayhem caused in Iraq by the US and British invasion; and how Libya became a centre of exporting militants and weapons to the Sahel region after the NATO intervention. The historical record is uncompromising; these colonial expeditions into Muslim lands neither bring stability nor install democratic regimes. They reinforce the terrorist organisations and end up creating an insurgent international network from Pakistan to the Sahel passing through Iraq and Somalia, which are willing to fight the “new crusaders”. The global war on terror is fuelling more violence and facilitating the unification of diverse groups under the banner of Al-Qaeda; and without any doubt, groups such as the Al-Qaeda in the Maghrib (AQIM) wouldn’t have taken such proportions without the intervention in Afghanistan and more recently in Libya. In fact Belmokhtar who was born in 1972, fought alongside the Taliban when he was still under 20. In 1993, this Algerian fundamentalist returned to his country where he joined the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) and quickly rose to the rank of Emir (Commander). Five years later he joined the GSPC (the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), which became AQIM.
What are the real reasons for intervening in Mali? The French bellicose attitude in Libya was explained to us by the legitimate right to defend armed rebel groups against a criminal regime. Now in Mali, the motive is to defend the regime against criminal armed rebel groups, while in Syria, it favours these Islamist groups (some of which are emerging as terrorist organisations) with the active support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Thus, the Islamist terrorist threat has really become an incoherent pretext to intervene militarily. The terrorist groups with their fundamentalist ideology and their criminal activities only bear the immediate responsibility for the intervention in Mali. They acted as a trigger and do not represent the fundamental cause of the French operations. Instead they are one of the consequences of the structural crisis of the Malian state. The focus on them diverts us from the real questions such as: why has the Malian regime collapsed in the first place? Why is its army so fragile and too weak to even overcome 2000/3000 fighters?
The answer to these questions will point the finger at the brutal neoliberal global order and at France’s neo-colonial domination (Françafrique). These are maintaining the status quo, while weakening states and perpetuating poverty, exploitation and plunder. This subordination is maintained by different tools including the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. Supporting corrupt local lackeys and interventions also inscribe themselves in this logic. Therefore when the western powers intervene, they do so solely to safeguard their own interests (oil and uranium resources in this case) and they will always try to ignore, sideline and discredit any other peaceful proposals that will threaten their influence in the region.
The terrorist threat is exploited for this purpose by the French with Goebbels-style cynicism and lies (“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”). We are thus faced with a false choice between an imperialist intervention and Islamist terrorism: but in reality these two poles feed and justify each other. In fact, imperialism entertains the existence of such fundamentalist groups to justify its belligerent enterprises and to maintain its political and economic domination over the damned world’s majority. The only principled position to adopt therefore is the rejection of both, for the self-determination and sovereignty of the peoples. This solution inscribes itself in the long-term vision of building strong democratic states that will engage with the populations’ legitimate grievances (including the Tuareg question in Mali), that are opposed to imperialist meddling, that will be capable of challenging a profoundly unjust global order and launching genuine development projects.
Certainly, the Algerian hostage crisis cannot be well understood without taking into account the disastrous consequences of western interventions, especially the NATO onslaught on Libya two years ago. This episode unfortunately will be used as another justification for more western involvement and a prelude for another calamitous front in the global war against terror in North Africa and the Sahel.
The Algerian people were unanimous and refused any foreign meddling in handling the hostage crisis, hence showing their anti-imperialist sentiments. However it is important to realise that the Algerian regime is the biggest threat to Algerian national sovereignty, be it political or economic. Suffice it to say that it’s the regime that allowed a US drone to monitor the hostage standoff, that opened its airspace to French planes, that is collaborating with the western powers in the most anti-national manner in the global war on terrorism, and that is playing the role of a guardian for fortress Europe. It is they who have developed a dependent bazaar import-import economy that is offering the lion’s share to multinational companies. Sovereignty is at stake: the imperative of democratisation in Algeria imposes itself and can no longer be ignored.