The recent jihadist attack on the Tigantourine natural gas facility near In Amenas, Algeria, and the subsequent hostage situation there have prompted some knee-jerk discussions among media punditry. From these discussions came the belief that the incident was spectacular, sophisticated and above all unprecedented. A closer examination shows quite the opposite.
Indeed, very little of the incident was without precedent. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who orchestrated the attack, has employed similar tactics and a similar scale of force before, and frequently he has deployed forces far from his group’s core territory in northern Mali. Large-scale raids, often meant to take hostages, have been conducted across far expanses of the Sahel. What was unprecedented was the target. Energy and extraction sites have been attacked in the past, but never before was an Algerian natural gas facility selected for such an assault.
A closer look at the operation also reveals Belmokhtar’s true intentions. The objective of the attack was not to kill hostages but to kidnap foreign workers for ransom — an objective in keeping with many of Belmokhtar’s previous forays. But in the end, his operation was a failure. His group killed several hostages but did not destroy the facility or successfully transport hostages away from the site. He lost several men and weapons, and just as important, he appears to have also lost the millions of dollars he could have gained through ransoming his captives.
Until recently, Belmokhtar and his group, the Mulathameen Brigade, or the “Masked Ones,” which donned the name “Those Who Sign in Blood” for the Tigantourine operation, were associated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Prior to their association with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, they were a part of Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which operated in the Sahel. As part of these groups, Belmokhtar led many kidnapping raids and other operations throughout the region, and these past examples offer perspective for examining the Tigantourine operation and for attempting to forecast the groups’ future activities.
In April 2003, Belmokhtar was one of the leaders of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat operation that took 32 European tourists hostage in the Hoggar Mountains near Illizi, Algeria, which is roughly 257 kilometers (160 miles) southwest of the Tigantourine facility. Seventeen hostages were freed after an Algerian military raid, and the rest were released in August 2003 — save for one woman, who died of sunstroke.
Prior to 2006, when the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat essentially became al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, kidnappings and attempted kidnappings occurred roughly once a year. But after 2006, the operational tempo of kidnappings in the Sahel quickened, with about three to five operations conducted per year. According to U.S. Treasury Department Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen, al Qaeda earned approximately $120 million in ransoms from 2004 to 2012. Cohen added that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had become the most proficient kidnapping unit of all al Qaeda’s franchise groups.
Examples of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s proficiency abound. In September 2010, the group took seven hostages from a uranium mine in Arlit, Niger, and kidnapped four European tourists in Mali in January 2009. More recently, it kidnapped three aid workers in Tindouf, Algeria, in October 2011.
Typically the group prefers to kidnap more than one person. Having multiple hostages allows the captors to kill one or more of them to ratchet up pressure for the ransom of the others. Guarding multiple hostages requires more resources, but Belmokhtar has plenty of human resources, and the additional ransom makes guarding them worth the extra effort.
Holding multiple hostages also enables the kidnappers to make political statements — often connected to outrageous demands. In the Tigantourine attack, much attention was paid to the militants’ demands to the U.S. government to release Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as “The Blind Sheikh,” and Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist convicted of terrorism charges. But again, such demands are not unprecedented. Edwin Dyer, one of the four European tourists kidnapped in January 2009, was beheaded in June 2009 after the British government refused al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s demand to release imprisoned jihadist cleric Abu Qatada. The group again demanded the release of Abu Qatada in April 2012 in exchange for British-South African citizen Stephen Malcolm, who was kidnapped in Timbuktu, Mali, in November 2011. Certainly the militants had no realistic expectation that the British would meet their demands; the demands and Dyer’s subsequent execution were meant as political statements, not realistic objectives.
Tactically, how the Tigantourine attack transpired remains unclear. What we do know is that the amount of militants used in the attack is not unprecedented. While serving as a unit leader for the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in 2005, Belmokhtar led a group of 150 militants in a raid on a military outpost in Lemgheiti, Mauritania, that left 15 Mauritanian soldiers dead and another 17 wounded.
According to a Jan. 21 statement made by Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal on Jan. 21, it appears that Belmokhtar’s Tigantourine operation was a two-pronged attack. One team appears to have been tasked with intercepting a bus taking Western employees from the facility to the airport. Militants reportedly used vehicles marked as oil company security or as belonging to the Algerian government. Sellal noted that the objective of the operation was to take a group of the hostages out of the country, presumably transporting them to northern Mali’s Kidal region, where in recent years al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has held its foreign hostages.
Notably, the Tigantourine facility is located only about 32 kilometers from the Libyan border. The attackers probably took advantage of the chaos in Libya to gather weapons and prepare for the attack and then came across the border from Libya to conduct the attack. They could have covered very quickly the distance from the Libyan border to the facility, and this likely provided them an element of tactical surprise.
The second prong of the attack was directed against the facility itself. Heavily armed attackers surprised the security forces at the facility and subdued them by concentrating their forces and using overwhelming firepower. Algerian forces recovered from the assailants a recoilless rifle, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and several medium and light machine guns. We are currently unsure if this group was tasked with taking additional hostages at the facility and fleeing with them, staging a drawn-out hostage drama, as in Beslan, or sabotaging the facility and fleeing. Such an operation may have meant to divert attention from the group of militants that was transporting hostages out of the country. Having a group of hostages in custody outside Algeria could have helped them extract the second team from the facility.
In any case, the first unit apparently failed to achieve its objective, and it does not appear that the militants were able to take hostages from the bus and quickly transport them out of the country. (Currently, not all of the hostages are accounted for, but they are most likely among the unidentified dead. It will take time for forensics teams to identify them.)