Last week’s attack on the workers and the plant, by a bunch of Maghrebis (and, er, Canadians) pledging allegiance to a stateless cause where Salafist beliefs provide the veneer of a crusade (as if one were needed) against western geopolitics, shattered all those illusions. The numbers, around 40 hostages killed alongside 30 kidnappers in nearly five days’ worth of assault and counter-assault, are not as grim as some 90s/00s bombings. Unlike 1998’s East Africa embassy blasts, 9/11, 7/7, the Bali bombings, etc etc, this attack, on a remote plant 1,000 miles from Algiers, was a largely unseen event; in the early hours news editors, especially television editors desperate for images and movement, were forced to make assumptions and perhaps push the story too far on the basis of faintly credible sources. But the fundamentals of the event – a not-quite-successful kidnapping and a ferocious but bungled response – provide for a deeper narrative and strong resonance.
as Phil says, our politicians know no different) and what Cameron has proclaimed as a ‘generational struggle’ (conveniently in a theatre-galaxy far far away). We had the archetypal bad guy, ‘the Uncatchable’ Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Like Bin Laden too wise to actually be there, he was said to be a ruthless veteran of Afghanistan (must have been making the green tea; could have only been about 12) and Algeria’s civil war. We had old players in new situations – not least an Algeria frustrated its Mali peace initiative failed and then reluctantly drawn into it by offering up airspace. We had new motives – not just the broader motive of revenge for French action in Mali, but Belmokhtar’s coming out (!) as leader of a breakaway group. Thus we had new blood curdling names to assign fear to – Katibat al-Mulathameen (Masked Brigade), Those Who Sign in Blood or Signatories in Blood. All this combined with the grisly accounts of survivors.
While the ostensible aim to rush expats out to remote hideouts inevitably twisted into holding a huge industrial complex to ransom – that plant carries way more capital than a few hundred expendable staff – the ‘fluid’ dynamics of the attack resulted in a weird meta-collusion between Algiers and the attackers. A plant producing 10% of its energy and crucial in providing the revenue that keeps Algerians in subsidies and therefore more politically quiescent, gave Algiers little choice in how to deal with it. That made the jihadist raid effectively a suicide attack – attacking a complex like that could only result in a brutal reprisal, despite initial western dismay. Everyone knew the stakes. There was also perhaps an embarrassed realisation that the local security forces’ reaction at the start had been less than the iron fist we’d expected of fortress Algeria. It is worth emphasising here Algiers’ approach to the expat workers who some view as mercenaries working for first-world companies exploiting developing world resources. They were destined to end up as collateral, the ultimate price of a well-paid but highly alienating spell in the desert in the pay of majors such as BP.
those world heritage sites and the region’s beautiful music at threat (Damon Albarn will lead the campaigning here), the west looked on as Mali’s defence structures imploded with a weak coup led by leaders nonplussed at defending the north.
What the geopolitical analysts are talking about now is a cross-Sahel force of Al-Qaida aligned fighters, bringing the pain for diverse reasons: some localised and further afield such as Somalia; others more vaguely for the ‘cause’; still more mere fronts for cocaine, cigarette and people trafficking. Such ‘existential’ crises can be pretty brutal for some. But all in all cause enough to keep the military industrial complex well funded and focused on picking nonsensical fights for decades to come.