By Scott Stewart
January 24, 2013
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.
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.