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Wed Apr 16 15:53:55 SAST 2014

THE BIG READ: Terror of the Sahara

Richard Spencer | 23 January, 2013 00:02
Jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar in an undated still image taken from a video released by Sahara Media on January 21. He has claimed responsibility in the name of al-Qaeda for the hostage-taking in Algeria Picture: REUTERS

Is there a moment in the life cycle of a terror group when it overreaches itself? Is that what Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed "Untouchable", the Terror of the Sahara, has just done?

Part of the success of nomad leaders of desert guerrilla groups derives from the romantic allure of the outlaw; Belmokhtar became rich because he not only kidnapped and smuggled, but also ensured that his victims were handed back safely to their countries once ransoms had been paid.

In part, also, the crimes they perpetrate are no more than pinpricks in the sides of those empires that have the capacity to destroy them. Even before last week, the Pentagon, the CIA, MI6 and a host of other Western defence ministries and spy agencies were aware of Belmokhtar and his jihadis.

Such countries have the satellite technology to watch their training camps in the featureless sands. They have the armed drones to destroy them, the helicopters and special forces to stage lightning snatch missions. But they did not care enough to divert the necessary resources, or to spare the time and effort required to square such attempts with nervous host nations.

Even Algeria itself, which fought Islamists with few holds barred for two decades, seemed to believe Belmokhtar was not a strategic threat. That is one of the few available explanations of the ease with which the isolated In Amenas gas field, close to the strife-ridden Libyan border, could be attacked so easily by just 30 of his men.

Another, believed by several French analysts, is that elements of the Algerian army were involved in a dirty game with the Islamists, helping them out so long as their worst activities were limited to neighbours such as Mali, Niger and Mauritania.

All that has now changed. With one action, Belmokhtar's newly established al-Qaeda cell, Witnesses in Blood, has broken just about every rule of the hit-and-run jihadi.

In taking on Algeria's oil and gas industry, the basis of its economy, he has made his defeat a strategic necessity for that country, and in showing such contempt for the lives of his hostages, he has terrified Algerians fearful of the burnings, lootings and beheadings a "dark decade" of civil war brought in its wake. By hitting a symbolic Western interest and taking so many Western lives, it has taken on a foe that in recent years has shown itself as ruthless and personal as any oriental despot in combating its foes.

This might sound odd to many ears, accustomed to hearing only of the unspeakable atrocities of Islamist extremism and the apparently remorseless, universal war waged against them by the US and its allies.

But in fact, the US response is still only partial, and the Islamists themselves think seriously now about the public response to their actions.

There are some who see the attack on the Twin Towers as a strategic, if not a moral error, while many more believe the videoed beheadings by al-Qaeda in Iraq under its spectacularly nasty boss Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi led directly to Shia rule over Iraq's Sunni population. The aim now is to sow chaos without inviting an overwhelming reaction.

Geoff Porter, a security and risk consultant specialising in north Africa, said officials would be trying to work out why Belmokhtar acted as he did.

"A lot is going to depend on how Algerians interpret his intentions," he said.

"Was it a genuine attempt at taking hostages and then fleeing across the border to ransom them? Or was it a death mission, suicide by military, with the intention of putting Belmokhtar's organisation on the map in a way it hadn't been before?"

Given Belmokhtar's statements linking the attack to France's bombing of AQIM in northern Mali, analysts like Porter are questioning their previous assumption that he was less driven by pure Islamist ideology than his rivals.

"If this was a suicide mission it would be testament to his commitment to the cause," he said.

The consequences for Western policy are clear. British Prime Minister David Cameron pulled no punches.

"This is a global threat and it will require a global response. It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months," he said.

"Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in north Africa."

That may have the whiff of instant soundbite - but can it be taken lightly when Cameron is about to oversee the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan after a long, costly war?

Cameron seems to be saying that north Africa, much closer to home, is indeed a new front in the "war on terror".

The Libyan authorities seem to lack the will to act, and the US is too fretful about disturbing a sensitive transition to democracy to interfere.

Algeria, a former Soviet protege only recently close to the US and by no means a wholehearted ally, is different from both Libya and Yemen, and Belmokhtar's fate will be closely tied up with what transpires over the border in Mali in the coming weeks and months.

"An eye for an eye" seems a more powerful injunction at this point than the requirement to turn the other cheek, and Belmokhtar may be pondering his future. - ©The Daily Telegraph

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