Hostage crisis highlights the ongoing 'dirty war' in Algeria

Many questions remain unanswered about the attack on Ain Amenas.

When I first heard of the terrorist attack on the gas plant in Ain Amenas, I had a flashback to the time I spent in Al Ghar, a stone's throw from Ain Amenas and about seven kilometres away from the Algerian-Libyan border. It was 1980, and I was working as a translator for the US gas company Fluor Texas, which operated the facility at Al Ghar.

This remote part of the Algerian desert was, and still is, famous for its oil and gas fields, but three decades ago it was also known as a destination for meditation retreats. Back then, Algerians and expatriates felt so secure that it was not uncommon to see them trekking the barren, rocky plateaus in the company of the affable indigenous Tuareg.

Those are bygone days, however, long before the emergence of the narco-jihadists who have infected these lands.

Although many governments are still counting the human toll of the Ain Amenas attack, in which at least 37 hostages were killed, information about the operation that began and ended in atrocious mayhem is still sketchy.

The hostage-takers managed to trap 790 workers, 134 of whom were expatriates from 26 different countries. They said the attack was in reprisal for France's intervention against Islamist militants in Mali, although that remains to be seen - the evidence suggests the attack was planned before the French action, and the attackers may have had an accomplice inside the facility.

Either way, it was a startling sign of the extremists' capabilities. Even during the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, combatants were not able to launch an attack of this magnitude against the oil and gas industry.

During the initial stage of the assault, combatants freed the Algerian hostages; the only Algerian casualty was a security guard who was at the main gate. Although he was held at gunpoint, he still managed to sound the emergency alarm.

Algerian authorities rejected negotiations and made no attempt to consult with other countries or reach out for assistance. It is reported that they declined a British offer to assist in the final stages of the crisis. Yet Algeria's special forces' assault to retake the gas plant was ruthless. All but three of the 32 hostage-takers were killed, and many hostages were caught in a bungled attack by helicopter gunships.

The hostage-taking was staged by Al Mulathameen (Masked) Brigade, led by the Algerian-born Islamist militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The assault force included 32 militants from eight different countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Canada and Algeria).

Belmokhtar has been convicted in absentia of terrorism by Algerian courts, blamed for kidnappings and killings of both Algerians and foreigners in Algeria and Mali in recent years. As a veteran of the war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, he returned to Algeria in 1993 and joined the Islamic Armed Groups that, in the beginning, fought the regime after the democratic process was brought to an end in the 1992 coup. Belmokhtar's return coincided with Algeria's "dirty war" (1991-2002), which many analysts believe is still going on in a low-intensity mode in light of continued targeted assassinations and assaults.

The army has committed itself to the eradication of the Islamist groups. After many military defeats, these groups have been pushed towards the Sahara, and ultimately out of Algeria. In turn, the Algerian fighters joined transnational terrorist groups; Belmokhtar joined the militant Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which changed its name in 2007 to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and associated itself with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

To a certain extent, the Malian crisis is the spin-off of this forced relocation. Belmokhtar, now a notorious criminal figure owing to kidnappings and the smuggling of cocaine, sub-Saharan refugees and cigarettes (hence his nickname, "Mr Marlboro"), has since had a spat with AQIM leaders, and launched the Al Mulathameen Brigade.

The Algerian government has pursued a double game, agreeing to close its southern border and opening its airspace to French warplanes, while formally opposing the intervention in Mali. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his regime appear to hold Algerian public opinion in contempt - the cooperation with the French brings back painful memories of the colonial occupation and Algeria's bloody war of independence, a war in which both of my parents fought.

France's overflights have been criticised by the Algerian press, too. Many observers consider the decision as a mark of humiliation at the hands of the country's former colonial power. It does not marry with Mr Bouteflika's image as an anti-colonialist, who on the 1999 campaign trail promised to restore "Algeria's dignity". He has made it a point of honour that France must apologise for colonial crimes in Algeria, but has remained silent on the overflight issue.

The kicker is that during the Algerian Revolution, Mr Bouteflika was sent to Mali as a disciplinary measure, where he opted for the alias "Abdelkader El Mali". Many observers cannot understand the reasoning behind his decision to enable French jets to attack his former sanctuary.

But what broke the camel's back was the attack on Ain Amenas. Security analysts are already questioning how heavily armed militants were able to take hundreds of hostages in a facility with so many layers of security. And why did the militants move the hostages in a convoy when they knew that the special forces were surrounding the site? Last but not least, the Algerian regime says that it does not negotiate with militants, but it is an open secret that Algiers has been negotiating for the freedom of its diplomats who have been taken by another extremist group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.

The damage has been done to a regime that prides itself on its military and intelligence capabilities.

Dr Abdelkader Cheref is a visiting professor at The State University of New York at Potsdam