By Giles Elgood
LONDON Jan 23 Algeria's swift use of lethal
force against Islamist fighters who seized one of its main gas
fields raised concerns in the West but came as no surprise at
home and showed clearly how the government would respond to
future jihadist attacks.
By the time special forces had cleared the In Amenas complex
at the weekend, nearly 70 hostages and militants lay dead. Some
Western leaders seemed unaware of what was happening on the
ground, complaining that they had not been consulted about the
decision to go in with foreign hostages' lives at stake.
For the Algerian leadership, the decision to attack with
helicopters, snipers and special forces to tackle insurgents who
had threatened to blow up the plant was apparently an easy one
and the operation was seen as a success that has boosted the
prestige of the armed forces.
"We are proud of our army's special forces and the whole
world has understood that this reaction was the only possible
response," Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said. "When the
security of the country is at risk, you have to be firm."
That reaction was clearly conditioned by the turbulent
recent history of a country that jealously guards its
sovereignty and sees those it regards as Islamist "terrorists"
as a threat that must be snuffed out. And with a war in progress
in neighbouring Mali, it is a threat that looms larger now.
Algeria fought a bitter war of independence against France
in the 1950s and an even bloodier civil war against Islamist
insurgents in the 1990s that cost 200,000 lives. Its leadership
is secretive, authoritarian and determined to preserve the state
in the face of Islamist unrest.
Oil and gas account for the bulk of Algeria's export
earnings and the funds enable the government to subsidise food
and fuel prices and cushion the effect of unemployment,
particularly among the young.
Hydrocarbon wealth enabled Algeria to dodge the upheavals of
the Arab Spring and experts believe that any further Islamist
attacks on its oil and gas industry will be met with force by a
security establishment determined to maintain the status quo.
More Islamist attacks are likely, but they are expected to
be smaller, with foreign workers at risk from shootings and
bombings. The security forces will deal with them firmly, said
Richard Jackson, Deputy Director of Violent Risk Forecasting at
the Exclusive Analysis consultancy.
"They are likely to respond in a forceful and rapid way to
any future events," he said.
Prime Minister Sellal has been at pains to stress that the
problem his country faces is not related to Islam, but to
terrorism and banditry.
"I particularly call on Arab countries, in order to tell
them that we are not facing an Islamic issue, but terrorists and
mercenaries," he said.
"We must protect our religion, our civilisation, which
terrorists are destroying. How can we imagine that such an acts
are perpetrated on behalf of Islam. These crimes will not be
allowed in Algeria."
The leader of the group behind the In Amenas attack, Mokhtar
Belmokhtar, is known to be active in cigarette smuggling and
kidnap and ransom, which many see as undermining any claim to
purely religious motivation.
Some in Algeria suggest, however, that the military response
to religious radicalism may not be effective on its own. A
repositioning of religious values away from those espoused by
foreign teachers may be necessary.
"Military combat against Salafi jihadists is needed, but it
is not enough. We must also combat their ideology by returning
to our values, our religious references," said Mohamed Mouloudi,
an independent analyst on Islamic issues.
"Algeria doesn't need Saudi muftis to tell its citizens what
is permitted and what is not, as is the case now. We must reform
our education system, we must reform the way the government
handles religion. If not, we will very soon become an annexe of
Although the In Amenas attack was plotted in Mali and
involved foreign jihadists, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb can
be found in Algeria.
Algerian libraries today contain religious texts originating
mainly in Saudi Arabia, written by scholars who endorse the
hard-line Wahhabi ideology, Mouloudi said.
"I am not saying they are all terrorists, but I am saying
the ideas they promote clash with our values and our culture,"
In the meantime, however, one beneficiary of the In Amenas
operation may be the Algerian military, whose political
influence could be boosted as the country approaches an election
in which it is unclear whether Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power
since 1999, will stand.
"The successful military assault has boosted the Algerian
army's popularity among the people, which is an important factor
15 months ahead of a presidential election in which the military
could play a major role in promoting a candidate," said an
Algerian analyst, who asked not to be named because of the
sensitivity of the issue.