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Fears of Mali Blowback Realized? Algerian Militants Attack Gas Field, Seize Western Hostages
Experts had warned that intervention in Mali would not be clear and simple
Islamic militants—citing anger over French military forces in neighboring Mali— have seized control of an area near a natural gas field in the west African nation of Algeria and taken dozens of hostages, including many westerners and some Americans.
“Algeria’s participation in the war on the side of France betrays the blood of the Algerian martyrs who fell in the fight against the French occupation,” a spokesman for the Masked Brigade, an alleged arm of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, told Mauritania’s Nouakchott News Agency.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland later confirmed claims made by the group that it was holding seven American hostages.
“The best information we have at this time is that U.S. citizens are among the hostages,” Nuland said. “In order to protect their safety, I’m not going to get into numbers. I’m not going to get into names.”
As Reuters reports:
An al Qaeda affiliated group said the raid had been carried out because of Algeria's decision to allow France to use its air space for attacks against Islamists in Mali, where French forces have been in action against al Qaeda-linked militants since last week.
The attack in southern Algeria also raised fears that the French action in Mali could prompt further Islamist revenge attacks on Western targets in Africa, where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operates across borders in the Sahara desert, and in Europe.
AQIM said it had carried out Wednesday's raid on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria, Mauritania's ANI news agency reported.
The Algerian interior ministry said: "A terrorist group, heavily armed and using three vehicles, launched an attack this Wednesday at 5 a.m. against a Sonatrach base in Tigantourine, near In Amenas, about 100 km (60 miles) from the Algerian and Libyan border."
The gas field is operated by a joint venture including BP, Norwegian oil firm Statoil and Algerian state company Sonatrach.
BP said armed men were still occupying facilities at the gas field.
"The site was attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people at about 0500 UK time. Contact with the site is extremely difficult, but we understand that armed individuals are still occupying the In Amenas operations site," it said.
As noted, the event sparks fear among experts that France's military invention in neighboring Mali could have unintended but destablizing repercussions throughout the Sahel region.
As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross wrote at the Globe and Mail—just hours before the attack in Algeria was reported:
There are concerns not only about Operation Serval, as the [French military intervention in Mali] is known, causing ... other kinds of chaos to cross neighboring states’ borders, but also fears of international retaliation – perhaps in the form of a terrorist attack, or an assault on foreign diplomatic targets.
In fact, it is just such concerns about a spillover that led Mali’s neighbors to be hesitant toward supporting an intervention.
And, as expert on the region Andrew Lebovich said, referring to the exact group now holding hostages in Algeria: “I’d be very concerned about instability if [this group is] pushed out of Mali.”
As French bombs fell on Mali beginning over the weekend, other critics of intervention warned that just as NATO and US intervention in Libya helped destabilize Mali, the intervention in Mali was now likely to domino into crises in other neighboring countries in the fragile Sahel region of Africa.
Owen Jones, writing at The Independent on Monday, warned:
It is conceivable that [intervention in Mali] could – for a time – achieve its goals of pushing back the Islamist militias, and shore up Mali’s government. But the Libyan war was seen as a success, too; and here we are now engaging with its catastrophic blowback. In Afghanistan, Western forces remain engaged in a never-ending war which has already helped destabilised Pakistan, leading to drone attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians and unleashed further chaos. The price of Western interventions may often be ignored by our media, but it is still paid nonetheless.
Western intervention led by France, supported by Britain and with possible US drone attacks on the way will undoubtedly fuel the narrative of radical Islamist groups. As Professor Rogers puts it to me, it will be portrayed as “one more example of an assault on Islam”. With the speed and reach of modern forms of communication, radical groups in Western Africa and beyond will use this escalating war as evidence of another front opened against Muslims.
And The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald added:
Over and over, western intervention ends up - whether by ineptitude or design - sowing the seeds of further intervention. Given the massive instability still plaguing Libya as well as enduring anger over the Benghazi attack, how long will it be before we hear that bombing and invasions in that country are - once again - necessary to combat the empowered "Islamist" forces there: forces empowered as a result of the Nato overthrow of that country's government?
If developing events in Algeria are any indication, it appears that once again the lesson of blowback will be taught, though it remains dubious to suppose that the lesson will be learned anytime soon by western powers.