Thirty-seven foreigners, including three Americans, were killed after Islamic militants raided an Algerian gas production facility last week. Algeria’s Prime Minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, made the grim announcement Monday after a four-day standoff ended with Algerian special forces storming the compound.
Early Wednesday morning, heavily armed militants raided a bus carrying workers in the In Amenas gas field. After the security escort repelled the militants, the attackers continued to the workers’ residences, approximately 37 miles from the Libyan border, taking foreign and Algerian hostages. In an effort to end the crisis, the Algerian military surrounded the terrorists — who came from Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Mali, and even Canada — and led two separate raids over the course of four days. While Western governments initially complained that Algiers failed to consult them before its military assault, the U.S., France, and Great Britain expressed support for the operation upon its completion. Overall, some 800 workers were freed or escaped the crisis.
Bomb squads scouring a gas plant where Islamist militants took dozens of foreign workers hostage.
According to a spokesman for the al-Mulathameen Brigade, which claimed responsibility for the attack, the operation was punishment for Algeria allowing France to use its airspace in its ongoing military intervention in Mali. However, a captured fighter told the Algerian government the attack took two months to plan, well before the French began operations in Mali. Nevertheless, reports suggest the terrorists deliberately targeted Westerners, shouting, “Algerians and Muslims…have nothing to fear. We’re looking for Christians, who kill our brothers in Mali and Afghanistan.”
The al-Mulathameen Brigade is led by long-time jihadist Moktar Belmoktar. In the 1990s, Belmoktar fought in Afghanistan but then returned home to Algeria and helped lead a local insurgency against the government. Recently he held a leadership position in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but has also acted independently of al-Qaeda. He reportedly spent time in Libya in 2011, securing weapons and exploring opportunities to cooperate with jihadists there.
Terrorist attacks on the Algerian energy sector have been uncommon in recent years, but the balance of force in the region has shifted with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups able to obtain heavy weapons from Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi. With increased access to arms and ever-porous borders, Islamic extremists in the Middle East and Africa may gain new opportunities to launch deadly attacks against Western targets.