ALGIERS, Algeria, Jan. 21 (UPI) —
The attack at a major natural gas complex in Algeria has raised concerns that other key energy centers across the Middle East could become targets for militants.
The jihadist seizure last Wednesday of the Ain Amenas facility deep in the Sahara Desert in southeastern Algeria was the first time militants had attacked the country’s all-important energy industry in two decades of war with the military-backed Algerian government.
About 80 people were killed, including 49 foreign hostages and 32 attackers, in a four-day siege of the complex by the Algerian army. The army stormed the jihadists’ last redoubt in the facility Saturday as French forces in neighboring Mali battled jihadists whose northern stronghold is widely seen as a possible launch pad for transnational terrorism.
But the ease with which an estimated 40 jihadists of the multinational group al-Mua’qi’oon Biddam — The Brigade of Those Who Sign with Blood — seized the sprawling complex, swiftly overcoming security personnel and seizing more than 100 foreign hostages, sent tremors of concern across a region whose energy resources are its economic jugular.
The group is commanded by a veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who’s been based for years in the deserts of southern Algeria.
A veteran of the Islamist war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979-89, which eventually led to the creation of al Qaida, Belmokhar lost an eye in the fighting there.
He returned to Algeria to join Islamists who launched a decade-long civil war after the government canceled the 1992 parliamentary election they were set to win.
Despite the Algiers government’s ruthless response under their counterinsurgency policy of no negotiations and no prisoners, "Algeria’s political calculations … have left Algiers open to criticism and raised doubts about the security of its energy sector," the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor observed.
Algeria is the fourth largest crude oil producer in Africa and supplies about 25 percent of Western Europe’s natural gas. But the military’s take-no-prisoners operation may turn out to be a hollow victory.
"Ultimately," Stratfor observed, “Belmokhtar’s group has failed in its attempt to exchange the hostages for a ransom or jailed terrorists or to use them as pawns to negotiate over the intervention in Mali.
"The complicated hostage crisis has, however, tarnished Algeria’s most strategic economic sector at a time when the country needs to encourage even more foreign investment."
The Algerian government, largely controlled by the country’s powerful generals, has been using its hefty oil and gas revenues to buy off political discontent and has succeeded in avoiding the pro-democracy uprising across the Arab world that has toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and threatens the minority regime in Syria.
Had Belmokhtar’s jihadists, who included Canadians, Egyptians and Libyans, succeeded in knocking out the Ain Amenas facility, which produces around 15 percent of Algeria’s gas, it could have hit the government hard at a critical time.
"Almost every country in the region is open to terrorist infiltration," cautioned analyst Nick Butler in the Financial Times. "Energy security is back on the agenda."
But, he noted, "North Africa is nowhere near as important to the world energy market as the Middle East. Even a serious disruption in supply from Algeria would be manageable."
The real risk, he says, is if the jihadists can carry their war into West Africa, now a major source of crude for the United States with the potential for much greater production.
"Nigeria’s already riven by ethnic dissent," Butler noted. The country, Africa’s largest oil producer, is grappling with a growing Islamist insurgency in the north and massive theft of crude in the oil-rich south.
Africa’s witnessing unprecedented growth in the oil and gas industry. International oil companies have been expanding operations in the west and east of the continent and could become vulnerable.
The bloodbath at Ain Amenas was all the more striking because it took place in Algeria, considered one of the stronger states in the region. Throughout the civil war, the jihadists never attacked Algeria’s energy facilities, possibly to avoid triggering foreign intervention.
Now that they’ve broken that taboo amid growing unrest across the region, oil majors like BP and Norway’s Statoil, which operate Ain Amenas with Algeria’s state oil company, plus Total of France and Italy’s Eni which also drill in Algeria, may decide to cut and run.