The Guardian reports: The attack on the Algerian gas field has raised fears of the conflict in Mali becoming an international battle bleeding across the porous borders of the Sahel and Sahara region.
It also presents a major challenge to the military-dominated regime in Algiers – still in the shadow of a decade of bloody civil war – which had been accused of having an ambiguous stance towards the Mali crisis.
Algeria will now firmly be dragged into resolving the Mali conflict, while also dealing with the return of major action by Islamist groups on its home turf.
The hostage-taking has spelled out the complexities of the unrest in the Sahel: a tangled mix of communal tensions, economic struggle, desertification, poverty, criminality, kidnapping and smuggling, which shifts seamlessly across borders.
With six days of French airstrikes failing to erode the Islamist gains in Mali, French special forces prepared to launch a land assault on Wednesday around Diabaly, 250 miles (450 km) from the capital.
France’s aim is to secure the vast desert area seized last year by an Islamist alliance, which combines al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – the terrorist network’s north African wing – with Mali’s homegrown Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mojwa) and Ansar Dine rebel groups. But the Algerian hostage drama at the BP oilfield far away to the north at the Algerian-Libyan border marks a turning point and a widening of the game.
Attacks on oil-rich Algeria’s hydrocarbon facilities are very rare, despite the country’s decades of fighting an Islamist insurgency, mostly in the north.
Jon Marks, associate fellow at Chatham House, London’s leading foreign affairs thinktank, said: “The attack is remarkable for a number of reasons.
“If you look at Algeria’s conflict of the 1990s, out of which AQIM sprang, the major oil and gas fields of the deep south, a strategic interest to Europe, were not attacked. Even in Algeria’s bloody history, this is the first time there has been major attack on a hydrocarbon facility.
“It shows the degree to which the events in Mali are an international Sahel and Sahara-wide issue. These groups are international: including Malians, people who came from the Libya conflict, but also from Algeria and Mauritania.”
He said the attack showed how deep-rooted those groups were. “The groups we are now calling AQIM, that the French military are targeting, have roots going back decades in the region. They have been involved in cigarette smuggling, electronic goods smuggling, guns, drugs, a lot of criminality.”
He described it as a potent “interface” where criminality meets politics in an area that is “more and more desperate”. [Continue reading…]