Last week’s attack on the Algerian gas facility at In Amenas was the most elaborate jihadist assault ever conducted on African soil. It was also the most spectacular action of its kind since November 2008, when Islamic terrorists carried out a series of coordinated shooting and bombing attacks in Bombay (aka “Mumbai”), India’s largest city. The political, economic and security implications of the drama at In Amenas are significant. They need to be scrutinized quickly and clearly at a time when the consequences of the misnamed Arab Spring are transforming not only North Africa but the entire Greater Middle East.
A technical point first: no negotiations and no dialogue with the terrorists is the right approach. The Algerian authorities acted swiftly and decisively. The attackers wanted to capture dozens of foreign hostages and take them to Libya, to be used as lucrative bargaining chips for months and perhaps years to come. Had they been successful, copycat attacks would have followed. As a British member of the European Parliament has noted, Western complaints about the lack of prior consultation are not justified:
Algeria is a sovereign nation, it has the right to take action to enforce the law in its territory, and it may have felt that “consultation” with foreign governments would certainly take time, and would perhaps undermine the decisiveness of its response. And it seems that delay could have allowed the terrorists to disperse into the desert with their hostages, making action against them much more difficult.
More likely impossible. After In Amenas, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its offshoots will think twice before staging a similar raid in Algeria. All of the attackers, including valuable jihadist veterans, are either dead or in jail, and no ransom will be paid as no foreign hostages have been moved. It is unfortunate that 38 of them have died, including three Americans, but over a hundred others are safe. Their survival would have been uncertain had the attackers managed to escape with them, and it is at least as likely that many or all of them would have been killed when the attackers’ demands could not be met. The lives of many other foreign workers at similar installations elsewhere in the country would have been imperiled.
The lesson of In Amenas for dealing with terrorists is clear: terrorize them right back. It is an imperfect, high-risk approach, but the least bad one on offer. The readiness of global cargo ship operators to appease Somali pirates has only aggravated the problem of piracy, which has now spread to West Africa. On the other hand, the Russian authorities’ robust response to the Nord-Ost theater siege in Moscow in 2002 heralded the beginning of the end of Chechen jihadist attacks against targets inside Russia. With all of the attackers dead or captured, the jihadist group behind the assault on In Amenas complained that the government assault was “barbaric.” This is deliciously ironic, and the Algerian security forces need no better compliment.
Osama bin Laden was killed almost two years ago, but In Amenas demonstrates that the menace presented by al-Qaeda and its various local affiliates has become more multifaceted and “de-territorialized” than ever before. Instead of complex hostage-taking operations, jihadist attacks in Algeria are more likely to target vulnerable energy infrastructure. Most oil and gas installations are located in the desert, hundreds of miles from the capital Algiers and other major centers in the north of the country. They are susceptible to hit-and-run attacks by small detachments armed with nothing more than RPGs. Truck convoys and pipelines also provide soft targets. The Algerian government is right to reject armed foreign soldiers or security guards on its territory, but it should demand that foreign operators—such as BP—cover the added cost of security, which should include improved surveillance along the Libyan border. No terrorist convoy laden with weaponry should ever again be allowed to make its way into the country unnoticed.
The chief lesson of In Amenas is that Western support for Islamist-led insurgencies in the Arab world must be stopped. The attackers at In Amenas came from Libya armed with heavy machine guns, assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and explosives, all of them easily available following Gaddafi’s fall. Last June the chief of Britain’s MI5 Jonathan Evans warned that the Arab Spring had created an opening for jihadists to move back into countries where Islamic militancy was born and which now offer a “permissive environment for al Qaeda.” If Bashar al-Assad falls, Syria will become as accommodating to the forces of global jihad as Libya is today—with calamitous consequences for the neighboring Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. The murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi last September has not prompted a rethink of the Syria policy in Washington, Paris and London. In Amenas provides yet another wake-up call. The end-game in Damascus may entail Bashar’s negotiated departure from power, but it must not result in an outright regime change. A victory for the phantom “Syrian National Coalition”—whose fighting forces include the Islamic People’s Brigade, the Islamic Dawn Movement, the Battalions of Islam, the Army of Muhammad Brigade, the Sultan Muhammad Battalion, the Shield of Islam Brigade, the Pearls of the Ummah, etc.—would be a defeat for the civilized world.
Last but not least, it should be noted that the attackers at In Amenas included nationals of several Western countries, including Canada, Britain, and France. The mainstream media call them “Canadians” etc, but that is ridiculous: they are radical Muslims holding those countries’ passports, which should never have been issued to them. Identifying, tracking and stopping them should be a key task for the security services of all Western countries with sizeable Muslim populations. That task demands vigorous domestic surveillance coupled with unabashed profiling today, and a moratorium on Muslim immigration tomorrow.
The “Arab Spring” has always been a misnomer. The common political denominator of most “democracy activists” in North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East has never been a devotion to the model of governance provided by Europe and North America. Their common denominator is Islam. Sensing opportunities not imaginable in decades, the forces of jihad now feel more emboldened than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate after the First World War. Their specific ambitions and geopolitical designs vary, but they are invariably hostile to the American interest. The less President Obama does in the Middle East in his second term, the better for all concerned—not least for the United States. In Amenas is a reminder that we need constructive American disengagement from a dangerous region that matters far less to our security and well-being than we are led to believe.
Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, Foreign Affairs Editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.