Algeria Attack Shows Rise of Militants in Sahel

The recent attack on an Algerian oil facility was unprecedented in its scope and sophistication, and shows that militant Islamic extremists are gaining power in the Sahel region, reports Atef Kadadra.

al-monitor Jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar speaks in this undated still image taken from a video released by Sahara Media on Jan. 21, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Sahara Media.

Topics covered

violence, terrorism, salafist, libya, islamists in algeria, islamists, algeria, al-qaeda in the islamic maghreb (aqim), al-qaeda, afghanization

Jan 28, 2013

Never before in the history of terrorist groups in North Africa and the Sahel has an attack been seen like that at Tigantourine in Algeria, which affected many different nationalities and clearly showed the active militant groups' nature. The operation conducted in the province of Ilizi revealed the multinational groups active in the Sahel. The situation in Mali is clearly headed toward a jihadist spring, especially since jihadist leaders are gaining popularity in Arab countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

The Tigantourine attack showed the make-up of jihadist groups in the Sahel region. The large number of nationalities involved in the operation, in addition to the painstaking planning and logistical support, reveal significant changes in northern Mali. Ever since last year’s military attacks against army forces, which ushered in the occupation of the northern region, the situation has seen critical developments. Security officials believe that jihadists were lured to the area during the period of time between when France threatened a military intervention and when France actually intervened.

Militants in terrorist groups from Nigeria, Mali and Niger were previously acting under the auspices of Algerian and Mauritanian commanders. In the past few months, however, leaders have hailed from Tunisia, Egypt, Somalia and Nigeria — which indicates that the center of gravity is shifting towards the Sahara. Moreover, the presence of the French forces strengthens the concept of “global jihad,” making it similar to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is worth noting that the Masked Brigade that orchestrated the Tigantourine attack was only formed last December. Nonetheless, in that time it has been able to recruit at least eight different nationalities into its ranks. It has also cooperated with Abu Bakr al-Masri and Libyan militant groups. Even though the leader of the Masked Brigade, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is not known to be on good terms with the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), he has still spoken in the name of al-Qaeda.

The Sahel region is currently fertile ground for al-Qaeda's "global jihad." A variety of factors work in the organization’s favor: the absence of state control over northern Mali, the abundance of arms in Africa (and especially in Libya, which has the largest weapons arsenal), and above all the presence of the French army and its allies, which al-Qaeda factions have labeled the “crusader aggressor.”

Favorable conditions aren't limited to this province. The terrorist groups benefit from instability in the neighboring countries of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso, and they have been able to infiltrate them. Although they are less favorable, the Arab spring countries of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt — currently deeply involved in tackling the effects of internal political and security turmoil — may also serve as attractive breeding grounds for the groups.

The terrorist groups in northern Mali are making good financial use of trafficking networks in the region. Matt Levitt, a former US counterterrorism official, told the London Sunday Telegraph that AQIM and its allied terrorist groups are making millions of dollars a year by providing armed escorts for traffickers smuggling cocaine across the Sahara.

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