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The Unspectacular, Unsophisticated Algerian Hostage Crisis – Stratfor

The  Unspectacular, Unsophisticated Algerian Hostage Crisis is republished with  permission of Stratfor.”

Read more:  The Unspectacular, Unsophisticated Algerian Hostage Crisis | Stratfor

By Scott Stewart Vice  President of Analysis, Stratfor

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.

Offering Perspective

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.

Botched Missions

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.) Moreover, on the  second day helicopter gunships thwarted the escape efforts of some militants,  who had used foreign hostages as human shields.

Some reports indicate that the attackers set explosive charges around the  plant and attempted to destroy it Jan. 19, an action that apparently triggered  the final assault to neutralize the militants at the facility. We have not seen  photos of any demolition charges or any other indication that the attackers  employed any sort of sophisticated improvised explosive devices in the  operation. If the attackers went to the trouble to bring large quantities of  explosives with them on the raid, they likely did so intending to use the  explosives to damage the plant or to facilitate a drawn-out hostage drama — or  both. The militants wouldn’t need large quantities of explosives to seize  hostages, and they would not have spent the money to buy them or the effort to  transport them unless they are critical to their mission.

But tactically, both missions — stopping a vehicle to kidnap foreigners and  storming a facility — are within the demonstrated capabilities of Sahel-based  jihadist militants. In addition to numerous vehicular ambushes al Qaeda in the  Islamic Maghreb has conducted to steal cargo or grab hostages, it has also  raided hotels, homes and clinics to seize hostages. Perhaps the attack most  similar to Tigantourine was the September 2010 raid on the Areva uranium mining  facility near Arlit, Niger. The facility was more than 320 kilometers from the  Malian border and more than 160 kilometers from the border with Algeria. The  militants demonstrated their ability to operate hundreds of kilometers from  their bases in northern Mali, successfully storm a facility and return to  northern Mali with Western hostages. These militant groups have also staged  large-scale raids on military bases across the Sahel.

Several indicators suggest the Tigantourine operation was intended to seize  hostages, not kill hostages. According to a June 2007 classified cable released  by Wikileaks, the U.S. Embassy in Algiers said that Belmokhtar had criticized al  Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s suicide operations that mean to kill civilians.  Moreover, the attackers did not immediately begin to shoot foreigners as they  did during the November 2008 Mumbai  attack and the June  2004 attack against foreign energy workers in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. They  failed to hold these hostages for any period of time, and by all accounts they  failed to take Western hostages back to northern Mali. This amounts to a  significant loss for Belmokhtar.

Avoiding Complacency at Energy Sites

Despite a long history of militant activity in Algeria, energy facilities had  largely escaped unscathed — until last week. When al Qaeda in the Islamic  Maghreb began to conduct  large vehicle bombings in Algiers and roadside bombing attacks against buses  carrying foreign energy workers in or near the capital, energy companies  countered the threat by flying workers directly into airports near energy  facilities like the one in In Amenas.

This lack of attacks led to some complacency on the part of Algerian  officials and security forces at Tigantourine. But in the wake of the recent  attack, security at such facilities will be increased, and any sense of  complacency will disappear — at least for a while. And because militants prefer  to hit softer targets, we are unlikely to see follow-on attacks at similar  facilities in the region in the immediate future. It may also take Belmokhtar  some time to replace the leaders and materiel unexpectedly lost in the  attack.

However, with targets in the region becoming scarcer and harder to attack,  these groups will likely continue to extend their range of operations for new  kidnapping victims. Doing so would not only replace the resources they lost in  the attack but would also circumvent the French and African military offensive  in Mali, where their traditional smuggling activities will be disrupted.

Another lingering concern is the presence of large  quantities of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles in the region. If  Belmokhtar or other militants decide to attack Westerners working at energy  facilities in the region instead of merely kidnapping them, and if increased  security prevents them from other direct assaults, like Tigantourine, these  militants could attack aircraft used to ferry Westerners to airports near these  remote sites.

As Mali becomes a more difficult environment in which to operate, these  groups likely will retreat, at least initially, to Mali’s  Kidal region and possibly Niger’s Air region. Once those areas face the  French-backed African intervention forces, a retreat farther back into southern  Libya is likely, due to the vacuum of authority there and the close links they  have with Libyan militants.

Contrary to what has been widely discussed, the Tigantourine attack fit well  within the range and capability of Sahel-based jihadist militants like those of  Belmokhtar’s group. Thus the attack was more of a reminder of the region’s  chronic problems and less a startling new threat. Militancy and banditry were  fixtures in the Sahel well before the jihadist ideology entered the region. This  history — combined with the vacuum of authority in the region brought on by the  Malian coup and the overthrow  of Gadhafi, the prospect of millions of dollars in ransom and the large  quantities of available weapons — means we will see more kidnappings and other  attacks in the years to come.

Editor’s Note: A comprehensive assessment on al Qaeda in  the Islamic Maghreb can be found here.

Read more:  The Unspectacular, Unsophisticated Algerian Hostage Crisis | Stratfor

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Avoiding the Wars That Never End

Republished from Stratfor.

Avoiding the  Wars That Never End is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

Read more:  Avoiding the Wars That Never End | Stratfor

By George Friedman Founder  and Chief Executive Officer, Stratfor.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the United States would  transfer the primary responsibility for combat operations in Afghanistan to the  Afghan military in the coming months, a major step toward the withdrawal of U.S.  forces. Also last week, France began an  intervention in Mali designed to block jihadists from taking control of the  country and creating a base of operations in France’s former African  colonies.

The two events are linked in a way that transcends the issue of Islamist  insurgency and points to a larger geopolitical shift. The United States is not  just drawing down its combat commitments; it is moving  away from the view that it has the primary responsibility for trying to  manage the world on behalf of itself, the Europeans and its other allies.  Instead, that burden is shifting to those who have immediate interests  involved.

Insecurity in 9/11’s Wake

It is interesting to recall how the United States involved itself in  Afghanistan. After 9/11, the United States was in shock and lacked clear  intelligence on al Qaeda. It did not know what additional capabilities al Qaeda  had or what the group’s intentions were. Lacking intelligence, a political  leader has the obligation to act on worst-case scenarios after the enemy has  demonstrated hostile intentions and capabilities. The possible scenarios ranged  from additional sleeper cells operating and awaiting orders in the United States  to al Qaeda having obtained nuclear weapons to destroy cities. When you don’t  know, it is both prudent and psychologically inevitable to plan for the  worst.

The United States had sufficient information to act in Afghanistan. It knew  that al Qaeda was operating in Afghanistan and that disrupting the main cell was  a useful step in taking some action against the threat. However, the United  States did not immediately invade Afghanistan. It bombed the country extensively  and inserted limited forces on the ground, but the primary burden of fighting  the Taliban government was in the hands of anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan  that had been resisting the Taliban and in the hands of other forces that could  be induced to act against the Taliban. The Taliban gave up the cities and  prepared for a long war. Al Qaeda’s command cell left Afghanistan and shifted to  Pakistan.

The United States achieved its primary goal early on. That goal was not to  deny al Qaeda the ability to operate in Afghanistan, an objective that would  achieve nothing. Rather, the goal was to engage al Qaeda and disrupt its  command-and-control structure as a way to degrade the group’s ability to plan  and execute additional attacks. The move  to Pakistan at the very least bought time, and given continued pressure on  the main cell, allowed the United States to gather more intelligence about al  Qaeda assets around the world.

This second mission — to identify al Qaeda assets around the world —  required a second effort. The primary means of identifying them was through  their electronic communications, and the United States proceeded to create a  vast technological mechanism designed to detect communications and use that  detection to identify and capture or kill al Qaeda operatives. The problem with  this technique — really the only one available — was that it was impossible to  monitor al Qaeda’s communications without monitoring everyone’s. If there was a  needle in the haystack, the entire haystack had to be examined. This was a  radical shift in the government’s relationship to the private communications of  citizens. The justification was that at a time of war, in which the threat to  the United States was uncertain and possibly massive, these measures were  necessary.

This action was not unique in American history. Abraham Lincoln violated the  Constitution in several ways during the Civil War, from suspending the right to  habeas corpus to blocking the Maryland Legislature from voting on a secession  measure. Franklin Roosevelt allowed the FBI to open citizens’ mail and put  Japanese-Americans into internment camps. The idea that civil liberties must be  protected in time of war is not historically how the United States, or most  countries, operate. In that sense there was nothing unique in the decision to  monitor communications in order to find al Qaeda and stop attacks. How else  could the needle be found in the haystack? Likewise, detention without trial was  not unique. Lincoln and Roosevelt both resorted to it.

The Civil War and World War II were different from the current conflict,  however, because their conclusions were clear and decisive. The wars would end,  one way or another, and so would the suspension of rights. Unlike those wars,  the war in Afghanistan was extended indefinitely by the shift in strategy from  disrupting al Qaeda’s command cell to fighting  the Taliban to building a democratic society in Afghanistan. With the second  step, the U.S. military mission changed its focus and increased its presence  massively, and with the third, the terminal date of the war became very far  away.

But there was a broader issue. The war in Afghanistan was not the main war.  Afghanistan happened to be the place where al Qaeda was headquartered on Sept.  11, 2001. The country was not essential to al Qaeda, and creating a democratic  society there — if it were even possible — would not necessarily weaken al  Qaeda. Even destroying al Qaeda would not prevent new  Islamist organizations or individuals from rising up.

A New Kind of War

The main war was not against one specific terrorist group, but rather against  an idea: the radical tendency in Islamism. Most Muslims are not radicals, but  any religion with 1 billion adherents will have its share of extremists. The  tendency is there, and it is deeply rooted. If the goal of the war were the  destruction of this radical tendency, then it was not going to happen. While the  risk of attacks could be reduced — and indeed there were no further 9/11s  despite repeated attempts in the United States — there was no way to eliminate  the threat. No matter how many divisions were deployed, no matter how many  systems for electronic detection were created, they could only mitigate the  threat, not eliminate it. Therefore, what some  called the Long War really became permanent war.

The means by which the war was pursued could not result in victory. They  could, however, completely unbalance U.S. strategy by committing massive  resources to missions not clearly connected with preventing Islamist terrorism.  It also created a situation where emergency intrusions on critical portions of  the Bill of Rights — such as the need to obtain a warrant for certain actions  — became a permanent feature. Permanent war makes for permanent temporary  measures.

The break point came, in my opinion, in about 2004. Around that time, al  Qaeda was unable to mount attacks on the United States despite multiple efforts.  The war in Afghanistan had dislodged al Qaeda and created the Karzai government.  The invasion of Iraq — whatever the rationale might have been — clearly  produced a level of resistance that the United States could not contain or could  contain only by making agreements with its enemies in Iraq. At that point, a  radical rethinking of the war had to take place. It did not.

The radical rethinking had to do not with Iraq or Afghanistan, but rather  with what to do about a permanent threat to the United States, and indeed to  many other countries, posed by the global networks of radical Islamists prepared  to carry out terrorist attacks. The threat would not go away, and it could not  be eliminated. At the same time, it did  not threaten the existence of the republic. The 9/11 attacks were atrocious,  but they did not threaten the survival of the United States in spite of the  human cost. Combating the threat required a degree of proportionality so the  fight could be maintained on an ongoing basis, without becoming the only goal of  U.S. foreign policy or domestic life. Mitigation was the only possibility; the  threat would have to be endured.

Washington found a way to achieve this balance in the past, albeit against  very different sorts of threats. The United States emerged as a great power in  the early 20th century. During that time, it fought three wars: World War I,  World War II and the Cold War, which included Korea, Vietnam and other, smaller  engagements. In World War I and World War II, the United States waited for  events to unfold, and in Europe in particular it waited until the European  powers reached a point where they could not deal with the threat of German  hegemony without American intervention. In both instances, it intervened heavily  only late in the war, at the point where the Germans had been exhausted by other  European powers. It should be remembered that the main American push in World  War II did not take place until the summer of 1944. The American strategy was to  wait and see whether the Europeans could stabilize the situation themselves,  using distance to mobilize as late as possible and intervene decisively only at  the critical moment.

The critics of this approach, particularly prior to World War II, called it  isolationism. But the United States was not isolationist; it was involved in  Asia throughout this period. Rather, it saw itself as being the actor of last  resort, capable of acting at the decisive moment with overwhelming force because  geography had given the United States the option of time and resources.

During the Cold War, the United States modified this strategy. It still  depended on allies, but it now saw itself as the first responder. Partly this  could be seen in U.S. nuclear strategy. This could also be seen in Korea and  Vietnam, where allies played subsidiary roles, but the primary effort was  American. The Cold War was fought on a different set of principles than the two  world wars.

The Cold War strategy was applied to the war against radical Islamism, in  which the United States — because of 9/11 but also because of a mindset that  could be seen in other interventions — was the first responder. Other allies  followed the United States’ lead and provided support to the degree to which  they felt comfortable. The allies could withdraw without fundamentally  undermining the war effort. The United States could not.

The approach in the U.S.-jihadist war was a complete reversal from the  approach taken in the two world wars. This was understandable given that it was  triggered by an unexpected and catastrophic event, the reponse to which flowed  from a lack of intelligence. When Japan struck Pearl Harbor, emotions were  at least as intense, but U.S. strategy in the Pacific was measured and cautious.  And the enemy’s capabilities were much better understood.

Stepping Back as Global Policeman

The United States cannot fight a war against radical Islamism and win, and it  certainly cannot be the sole actor in a war waged primarily in the Eastern  Hemisphere. This is why the French  intervention in Mali is particularly interesting. France retains interests  in its former colonial empire in Africa, and Mali is at the geographic center of  these interests. To the north of Mali is Algeria, where France has significant  energy investments; to the east of Mali is Niger, where France has a significant  stake in the mining of mineral resources, particularly uranium; and to the south  of Mali is Ivory Coast, where France plays a major role in cocoa production. The  future of Mali matters to France far more than it matters to the United  States.

What is most interesting is the absence of the United States in the fight,  even if it is providing intelligence and other support, such as mobilizing  ground forces from other African countries. The United States is not acting as  if this is its fight; it is acting as if this is the fight of an ally, whom it  might help in extremis, but not in a time when U.S. assistance is  unnecessary. And if the French can’t mount an effective operation in Mali,  then little help can be given.

This changing approach is also evident in Syria, where the United States has  systematically avoided anything beyond limited  and covert assistance, and Libya, where the United States intervened after  the French and British launched an attack they could not sustain. That was, I  believe, a turning point, given the unsatisfactory outcome there. Rather than  accepting a broad commitment against radical Islamism everywhere, the United  States is allowing the burden to shift to powers that have direct interests in  these areas.

Reversing a strategy is difficult. It is uncomfortable for any power to  acknowledge that it has overreached, which the United States did both in Iraq  and Afghanistan. It is even more difficult to acknowledge that the goals set by  President George W. Bush in Iraq and Obama in Afghanistan lacked coherence. But  clearly the war has run its course, and what is difficult is also obvious. We  are not going to eliminate the threat of radical Islamism. The commitment of  force to an unattainable goal twists national strategy out of shape and changes  the fabric of domestic life. Obviously, overwatch must be in place against the  emergence of an organization like al Qaeda, with global reach, sophisticated  operatives and operational discipline. But this is very different from  responding to jihadists in Mali, where the United States has limited interests  and fewer resources.

Accepting an ongoing  threat is also difficult. Mitigating the threat of an enemy rather than  defeating the enemy outright goes against an impulse. But it is not  something alien to American strategy. The United States is involved in the  world, and it can’t follow the founders’ dictum of staying out of European  struggles. But the United States has the option of following U.S. strategy in  the two world wars. The United States was patient, accepted risks and  shifted the burden to others, and when it acted, it acted out of necessity, with  clearly defined goals matched by capabilities. Waiting until there is no  choice but to go to war is not isolationism. Allowing others to carry the  primary risk is not disengagement. Waging wars that are finite is not  irresponsible.

The greatest danger of war is what it can do to one’s own society, changing  the obligations of citizens and reshaping their rights. The United States has  always done this during wars, but those wars would always end. Fighting a war  that cannot end reshapes domestic life permanently. A strategy that compels  engagement everywhere will exhaust a country. No empire can survive the  imperative of permanent, unwinnable warfare. It is fascinating to watch the  French deal with Mali. It is even more fascinating to watch the United States  wishing them well and mostly staying out of it. It has taken about 10 years, but  here we can see the American system stabilize itself by mitigating the threats  that can’t be eliminated and refusing to be drawn into fights it can let others  handle.

Read more:  Avoiding the Wars That Never End | Stratfor

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