EDITOR’S NOTE: Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of the forthcoming 'We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain's Suburban Mujahedeen' (Hurst/Columbia University Press).
By Raffaello Pantucci, Special for CNN
At this still inconclusive stage it is difficult to know exactly what the aim of the groups involved in the attack on the gas installation in Algeria was. Did they truly want to ransom the hostages they took or massacre them, and was money or punishment to the Algerian or French government’s the driving motivation? What is clear is that the incident has immediately captured international attention, highlighting again how terrorism continues to be a tool that can be used by groups to bring focus to their causes. The deadly operation itself further highlights the direction that we are likely to see Islamist terrorism continue to go in over the next few years.
What seems clear is that the operation was conducted by a group of jihadist fighters under the command of Moktar Belmokhtar, a longtime fighter-criminal who had recently broken away from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to form a separate unit that was aligned with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Reports seem to suggest that Belmokhtar is likely somewhere in the region of Gao, a city in eastern Mali that has recently been targeted by French forces as they seek to reclaim the country from Islamist extremists.
With a history of targeting foreigners and alignment with hardline North African (and international) groups, the attack on the site in Algeria is in many ways not surprising. Given the scale of the site they were targeting, the number of individuals sent and the tales of captives being told to contact their families and embassies to make demands while they had explosives strung around them, the initial evidence suggests this was an operation that was intended to end in a blaze of explosive publicity. That demands included freeing international political targets like Aifa Siddiqui, a Pakistani female doctor, and Omar Abdel Rahman, the infamous Egyptian ‘blind sheikh’, both high profile convicted terrorists in American custody. That, along with the demand that France withdraw from Mali, suggests wildly ambitious goals that are not expected to be met. Whether this was the intention all along or whether the group was backed into this by events on the ground is uncertain.
What is likely is that this sort of attack is to be the face of the terrorist threat that the west is going to face for the next few years. As security forces in Europe and the United States have become more adept at countering terrorists, plots in Europe and North America have been increasingly disrupted at earlier stages of planning. The days of terrorist networks like al Qaeda operating out of Afghanistan and directing 19 men to conduct the September 11 attacks or 4 young Britons to carry out the July 7 plot seem to have passed. Terrorist networks abroad remain ambitious and when individuals arrive who have the potential to carry out attacks back in the west, they are rapidly trained and sent back if at all possible, but these operations turn out in odd ways. For example, Mohammed Merah, the young Frenchman who killed three off-duty soldiers, a rabbi and three young Jewish children, received some training in Pakistan and was dispatched back with unclear orders. He seems to have gone quiet and then decided to carry out his particularly brutal terrorist plot in a direction of his own choosing.
But most plots in Europe with links to al Qaedaist groups or ideas of late have been disrupted at even earlier stages. In the run-up to the Olympics in London, a number of groups were disrupted seemingly in the early stages of planning. Other cases in the UK that have come to court have been focused mostly around training abroad, possessing ideological material or some connection to the Internet. In Spain a plot was disrupted last year involving a group of men of Chechen extraction who had allegedly trained at Lashkar e Toiba camps in Pakistan. Their plan appeared to involve flying remote control planes loaded with explosives, though its feasibility remains questionable. Under heavy surveillance they were apprehended when they finally moved to obtain explosives. France appears to be dealing with a more live problem, with the firebombing of a newspaper last year as well as a grenade attack on a Jewish supermarket. This second incident resulted in a large clamping down operation in France in which one of the culprits was shot as he resisted arrest.
The point is that Europe has become a difficult environment to conduct large-scale terrorist incidents and America even more so. But at the same time, groups desire to attack western targets both for ideological reasons and to attract attention to their cause has not diminished. The net result is that they will aim to target westerners where they can find and reach them. Consequently, we see foreign diplomatic representations repeatedly targeted in Benghazi by extremist groups and we see incidents like that in Al Amenas. Whether the group was specifically responding to the French decision to send forces to Mali or not, the French action in Mali would have spurred the plotters along in their action. And since a response in Europe would be challenging, a response at a site populated by foreign firms would have been an obvious choice.
What might have surprised the group was the level of attention that this assault brought them. This is something that would likely have been determined by the degree to which they were planning on sticking around in Algeria rather than fleeing back into the desert with their hostages. But were they planning a large-scale incident with the world’s eyes upon them, they have managed to do exactly this in an operation reminiscent of the Beslan school siege of September 2004 or the Mumbai attack of November 2008. In both of those cases, a small cadre of dedicated fighters appears to have riven havoc and drawn the world’s attention. Exactly the sort of conclusion that an international terrorist group seeks.
There are a number of lessons that need to be drawn from this incident, and more will likely come clear as the dust settles in its wake. The Islamist threat and general instability in North Africa that was allowed to fester after the fall of the Gadhafi regime was something that should have been addressed earlier. Additionally, companies and foreign nationals in regions like North Africa need to be alert to the danger of such incidents given the difficulties that groups will encounter in trying to launch attacks back in mainland Europe or North America. And finally, terrorism as a theatrical tactic still has a substantial draw. This final point is one that explains why incidents like this are likely to continue to be a problem for the near-term future.