January 17, 2013

Hostages Become Easy Prey In Mali's Intervention

Tuesday's raid on an Algerian oil facility highlights the simplistic chaos of unconventional warfare. Known by many names - terrorism, guerrilla warfare, insurgency, rebellion, revolution - unconventional warfare encompasses all terms on the asymmetric side of warcraft, and has bedeviled countless sources of authority throughout human civilization. Even the predictable cannot be fully predicted and the unexpected happens enough to become expected.

Beyond the numerous strategic implications of the attack on Tigantourine, the raid is remarkable for two factors: the straightforward nature of the attack and its location. Despite the high alert of those European and African capitals contributing to Mali's intervention, none could anticipate where the Islamists eventually struck or how quickly they reacted to France's overflights through Algeria. Their "surprise" attack was also delivered exactly as promised. In early December Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), announced the creation of his El Moulethemine katibat ("Brigade of the Veiled Ones"), a unit dedicated to kidnapping foreigners in the Sahel region. Afterward followed an introductory video for the "Signers in Blood," a purported suicide squad.

The Algerian government, international media, and Belmokhtar's own men have attributed the attack to his second creation rather than the first, but both are loosely aligned with AQIM's strategic view. While Belmokhtar has splintered away from the core to be his own boss, he is particularly eager to assist his former deputy in Mali and has been regularly spotted in Gao since the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) encamped in July 2012. Oumar Hamaha, a local Tuareg, doubles as a spokesman for Ansar Dine and a senior military official in MUJAO, and he would confirm Belmokhtar's cooperation with the two groups.

Accordingly, Hamaha was selected to inform The Associated Press of Belmokhtar's actions and the motivation behind them, namely Algeria's overflights and France's killing of Muslims. 

"We have a struck a blow to the heart (of the international community),"he declared ominously. "It's the United Nations that gave the green light to this intervention and all Western countries are now going to pay a price. We are now globalizing our conflict."

What is startling is the depth of Belmokhtar's raid, allegedly conducted by 20 men in three "heavily-armed" vehicles deep inside Algerian territory - a distance that exceeds the space between Mali's capital and the Islamists' northern bases. One immediately wonders how they traveled so far in open terrain, over multiple days, without being discovered by any government. It's certainly possible that the attackers traveled discreetly and acquired their vehicles near the strike point, or entered directly from Libya, but their range is equally impressive.

Hundreds of Algerians were initially taken hostage before being released or escaping. At least 41 people (including Americans, French, British, Irish, Norwegian and Japanese) are believed to have been captured, several more killed, and recent accounts of AQIM's kidnappers have described how quickly and quietly the Islamists move their bargaining chips. They will likely be taken into the cave network constructed along the southeast end of the Algerian-Malian border, where underground bases have been built dozens of miles apart. If the attackers can escape into Libyan territory, that is. 

Algerian forces have approached the complex where the hostages are being held (Westerns are reportedly being held in a separate wing) and reportedly fired shots in the area. Reached by telephone, one of the assailants was quoted as saying, "We will kill all the hostages if the Algerian army try to storm the area."

Even if the Algerian military cuts off their exits, NATO as a whole must factor the risk-reward of a major hostage situation into its plans as French troops mobilize for battle in Diablay, taken by the Islamists shortly after the French began landing en masse. They may need a week or two just to carefully dislodge the Islamists occupying the town - which, contrary to French claims of an offensive on the capital, appears to represent no more than a diversion tactic. Paris has repeatedly measured its ground campaign in weeks rather than months, but unless Special Forces and intelligence agencies can recover the new hostages, they will apply an immediate source of friction against NATO's campaign and further extend Mali's long war.

Another raid in Somalia recently failed to go as planned.

As for strategic planning in the international front, the pressing question is whether Algeria responds militarily on Mali's northern border or continues to take a passive-aggressive role in the conflict. Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila told the official news agency APS, "The Algerian authorities will not respond to the demands of the terrorists and will not negotiate," suggesting that Belmokhtar has crossed a line that cannot be forgiven. The need for Algerian forces appeared inevitable from the start of Mali's insurgency, given that a hardened force must smash into the Islamists' mountain fortress and from multiple directions. Except Algeria's intelligence is also suspected of collaborating with elements of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in order to enhance the government's regional influence, whether that means interfering with Tuareg separatists or securing Western favors without strings.

A vocal Algiers backed Ansar Dine's superficial dialogue with international mediators over the last five months, now termed a "miscalculation" but a suspicious one at that.

For its part the Algerian government hasn't looked forward to any uncontrollable disturbance, either from France and NATO or the Islamists and Tuaregs. Algiers prefers manageable instability and seeks to avoid entanglement on Mali's ground. Abdallah Baali, the country's ambassador to Washington, warned NATO less than two months ago, "You cannot really fight a conventional war there. Your enemy will vanish in the desert before your eyes."

Obviously Algeria would not fight conventionally inside or outside its territory; assault helicopters and Special Forces would coordinate with local intelligence to beat the Islamists at their own games - mobility and disguise. However the 1,000 mile Algerian-Malian border gives perspective to the enormity of the task at hand inside Mali, and the introduction of Algeria's hegemonic agenda creates yet another dimension to a rapidly evolving conflict.

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