The French decision to intervene against armed jihadist groups in Mali, which saw combat operations start on Friday 11 January, has seemingly driven a response and backlash from groups across the region. The action remains a principal driver for yesterday’s assault and seizure of foreign workers at a BP, Statoil and Sonatrach facility in Algeria, near the Libyan/Tunisian border. This was orchestrated by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, formerly leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Saharan faction, but since last year leader of an independent group.
Belmohtar has a history of profiting from hostages, but this is also a well-respected tactic amongst jihadists to retaliate against pressure being brought by Western nations. Often the objective is not necessarily to profit, but rather to create delay and uncertainty. The initial assault by the group was against a bus carrying foreign nationals, before they assaulted the compound, seemingly as a fall-back plan. Latest reports suggest that Algerian forces have bungled a rescue attempt, resulting in the deaths of over 30 hostages and 14 kidnappers.
We remain concerned of further actions against French, British and US interests as a result of the intervention in Mali. Although AQIM (along with close affiliates) is the franchise most directly involved, this could extend to Somalia/Kenya, which has also been seeing an increase in violent incidents. French interests have already been targeted in East Africa due to unrelated events, and so this would be a natural extension. Moreover, acts of solidarity are possible across most “theatres of jihad”, especially given the example of the Algerian action.
This event also serves as a reminder of the heightened threat across North Africa that we have often highlighted, enabled in part by the breakdown of order in Libya (indeed, it once would have been comparatively unusual for Belmokhtar’s group to operate effectively so close to this border). In general , Western interventions of this kind can be expected to arouse similar responses, and so should be viewed as important trigger events for continuity planning. A further possibility remains the pursuit of operations by cells/lone wolves inspired to achieve revenge for the military action, particularly in France, although the continued strong capability of the security forces – and a recent sweep of domestic jihadist/extremist groups following last year’s incidents - suggests that emerging threats will find it hard to develop.