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Algeria siege shows new actors in North Africa

The attack on a gas field in Algeria has shown how well organized terrorists in North Africa are. Further attacks could drastically transform the social order of the region in the long term.

The terrorists who seized the hostages at In Amenas gas field in eastern Algeria were well-prepared. They weren't just heavily armed; they also had a map of the gas field, and had watched the facility closely, with the help of supporters who worked there. At first, the authorities had wanted to negotiate with the terrorists, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said. But the terrorists' demands, especially the liberation of all their imprisoned companions, could not be met. So the authorities decided to carry out a raid despite the size of the facility, more than four hectares (10 acres). The gas field is ten hectares.

Risky rescue operation

The operation was equally risky. At the end, at least 37 of the plant's workers, held by the terrorists, died. And there are fears that there are more victims. Some bodies are yet to be identified – 32 terrorists were also killed in the operation, while others were captured. Sellal described the operation as a "clear signal."

"Algeria has demonstrated its ability in the fight against terrorism by carrying out such an operation. Countries around the world have recognized (...) Algeria and its handling of the hostage crisis," he said.

A member of the Algerian special forces, also known as the kouksoul, attends training in Biskra, south of Algiers. (Louafi Larbi/REUTERS)

Algeria's military has been battling hardline Islamists since 1992

Algerian security authorities were prepared - they had been expecting attacks for a long time. Terrorism continued after the end of the country's civil war in the 1990s, William Lawrence, a North Africa expert at the International Crisis Group (ICG), told DW. Although Algeria declared its dark period over in 2002, some of the actors from the civil war remained, he said. Only the danger that they posed was reduced.

Retreat into the Sahel

Algeria's long civil war led to a near-victory over terrorism in the northern part of the country, Rachid Ouaissa, a political scientist at the University of Marburg, told DW.

"Instead, the terrorists moved to the south, to the more unstable Sahel, where they continued to be active," he explained.

The region is difficult to control. And it became even more complex in 2011 following the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in neighboring Libya.

Algeria's neighbor to the south has proved to be fertile ground for the terrorists: "Mali has been a decaying state for ten years," Ouaissa said.

A dead cow in the Sahel (dpa)

The arid Sahel region is a hotbed for terrorists

The border between Algeria and Mali provided an ideal area for the terrorists to retreat to, the ICG's William Lawrence said. They are familiar with the Sahara, and they move very quickly in the desert where borders do not play a role, he said. As a result, they took advantage of the complexity of the huge area that is difficult to reach, especially on the Malian side. Lawrence said he believes that they used the weakness of the Malian state to pursue their activities, which include the trafficking of arms, drugs and people, and even kidnapping. The terrorists took advantage of social and political problems to establish themselves and recruit more members.

Plans for revolution in North Africa

But Islamists are not only occupied with criminal activities, Ouaissa said. Terrorism had taken on a new dimension since the September 11, 2001 attacks, which led to a re-evaluation of the balance of power in countries surrounding Europe, a region that was initially considered "third world," he said. At first, the terrorists targeted the Middle East.

"But now, their arm is stretching even further, to the periphery - namely in the direction of Africa," Ouaissa added.

These developments show that the current order, which was established following independence from colonial powers, is now coming to an end.

"A new order is being drawn up, the periphery countries are falling apart," Ouaissa said. "We don't only have to do with the dictator in Mali, but with a whole range of actors," making the political situation more complicated.

New strategies for new challenges

Nigerian soldiers before leaving for Mali (Photo: Katrin Gänsler)

Nigerian troops have been deployed to help fight Islamists in Mali

There are difficult times ahead for countries like Chad, Mali, Niger and probably Mauretania. But these countries are still capable of restructuring, Ouaissa said. As for Algeria, it is looking stronger following its handling of the hostage-taking.

"(Algeria) will be a regional power because it has demonstrated that it is a reliable partner for the West with the show of force in In Almenas," Ouaissa said.

Still, Algeria needs a lot of support. The attack on the gas field revealed striking weaknesses, according to Algerian newspaper "Al Fadjr," which wrote that the incident shows how urgent it is to talk about new strategies to fight terrorism.

"However, the army cannot solve the problem alone. Other establishments, the schools, the religious communities, as well as the government and parliament, have to participate. You can't just defend the country with weapons," the newspaper wrote.

Beyond new economic and social policies, new arguments are needed. That's because it is becoming ever clearer that terrorism isn't just based on social grievances, but also, and perhaps especially, the ideological hardening of those who fight in its name.

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