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.
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.
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.