The full extent of the carnage at the remote Algerian Ein Amenas gas complex could not be determined Thursday night, June 17, in the confusion surrounding the just ended Algerian military operation, joined by at least one US drone, against the North African al Qaeda wing (AQIM) force holding 41 foreign hostages from dawn Wednesday. But certain conclusions may be drawn already from this appalling act of terror, AQIM’s most ambitious to date, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counterterrorism sources report:
1. The scale and savagery of the AQIM attack on the Algerian gas field near the Libyan border rivals the worst Islamist terrorist outrages of recent decades. It also threatens to throw global energy markets into a fresh tailspin – whether or not this was the intention of Abu Bara and notorious one-eyed Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leaders of a splinter group of AQIM who reportedly executed the gas field raid.
A former AQIM commander, Belmokhtar fell out with its leaders last year and formed a splinter group, which still answers to al Qaeda’s senior leadership.
2. President Barack Obama will find to his dismay that oil prices can go wild even without an Iranian blockade of the Strait of Hormuz. The consequences in Mali and Algeria of Nato’s 2011 operation against Muammar Qaddafi are about to play hell with world energy prices.
3. Presidents Barack and Francois Hollande of France made a grave tactical error in their global war on al Qaeda by carrying out on the same day, Saturday, Jan. 12, twin Western assaults on al Qaeda in Africa.
One was the failed attempt to rescue the long-held French Secret Service agent Denis Allex whom al Qaeda-linked Somali al-Shabaab kidnapped in 2009.
In the middle of the Algerian crisis, al Shabaab reported he had been executed.
The other was the French fighter jet assault on al Qaeda in Mali coupled with hundreds of French troop landings in the Mali capital of Bamako. American logistical aid was extended in both operations.
Staging them on the same day had the effect of conjoining dangerous al Qaeda wings, AQIM, the Somali Al Shabaab and its patron, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), backed by allied regional separatist rebel movements, for a unified major terror offensive.
The French expected their Mali operation to be short and sharp
Before anyone had dreamed of the coming disaster in Algeria, the US and France should have understood that neither had the right troops, adequate financial resources – or even a compelling rationale – for fighting a war in the most forbidding deserts: the Sahara, 9.4 square kilometers, which is bigger than United States and China put together, and the Sahel, a barren band, 1,000-kilometers wide, which spans the African continent from the Atlantic in the west to the Red Sea in the east.
All the same, France won a nod from Washington before going into action Saturday, Jan. 12 – on the face of it, in response to an appeal to save Interim Mali President Dioncounda Traore and his fractured army from the oncoming surge of Islamists and rebels from the north.
But that was only one pretext for undertaking this perilous undertaking. The French President Francois Holland would not have sent hundreds of troops and fighter jets to the former French colony without first getting from President Barack Obama an assurance of coordinated command support. It appears that both leaders were powerfully motivated, among other things, by the opportunity opening up for deepening their influence in this part of the continent and gaining access to its rich natural resources including oil. But there was a lot more to it on both sides.
Washington still hopes to avoid getting sucked in
The French initiative found the Obama administration deeply reluctant to get involved in another African war and one that tied in closely with the Libyan campaign’s messy ending in August 2011. At the same time, it was hard for Washington to stand aside when a key partner in counterterrorism was ready to go on the offensive against al Qaeda.
Then, too, President Obama’s swearing-in for his second term was coming up on Jan. 21. It was important to keep the ceremony clear of such jarring strains as the fall of Mali’s capital into al Qaeda hands, on top of the lingering trauma of the unresolved Al Qaeda’s September 10, 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi and the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The connection would then be undeniably drawn between Al Qaeda in Mali and its Libyan allies’ control over Benghazi and the Libyan Mediterranean cities of Tobruk and Derna, just part of the burning jihadi line drawn across Africa since Muammar Qaddafi’s fall.
To deal with the fast-developing situation around Mali DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington report that President Obama summoned his new diplomatic and security team into an urgent weekend conference. Taking part were the incoming Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, and CIA Director John Brennan. There was no time left for decisions on the scope of US intelligence and logistic aid to be made available to France and, most of all, the limits of America’s involvement in a war which caught them unprepared.
Hollande needed the image boost of war leader
The upshot was disclosed in the Tuesday, Jan. 16, briefing by the State Department’s Victoria Nuland: "They've [the French] asked for information-sharing, they've asked for support with airlift, they've asked for support with aerial refueling [for longer, more sustained combat missions]. We are already providing information and we are looking hard today at the airlift question, helping them transport forces from France and from the area into the theater."
Nuland said the United States had offered pre-deployment training to West African troops, equipment and help in lifting them to Mali.
But, meanwhile a meeting in Bamako that day of the regional chiefs of staff committed to detailing 3,300 troops to take over the Mali mission from France, broke up without agreement.. The only African troops consigned to Mali were 800 Nigerians, none of them trained or equipped for counter-terror combat in the desert.
President Hollande had to swallow his assurance on the first day of France’s intervention that it would be over in a few days and French troops soon be home and announced the French force of around 750 would be trebled.
Hollande’s response to the call for help from Bamako provided him with a much-needed boost to his image.
Popularly dubbed “Flanby” – French for a wobbly jelly dessert, his nickname changed to “metal” Saturday, moments after the first French Air Force Mirages went into action in Mali. This unexpected military challenge had touched something in the French psyche which requires its elected leaders to be able to choose the right moment for promoting their country as a proud world power.
By sending the French army into action at that specific moment, he felt he had vindicated his residence in the Elysée Palace. That consideration overshadowed the claims by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius that the operation’s main purpose was to pre-empt Mali’s transformation into a terrorist base against Europe.
In any case, given the distance of 4,126 kilometers (2,564 miles) between Bamako and Paris, Mali was not seen as the obvious jumping-off point for MUJAO-Jihad cells of al Qaeda in Mali to mount attacks on Europe, or its hub of interaction with Al Qaeda sleepers in France.
The Touareg: Hidden link between the Libyan and Mali debacles
For Obama, it was essential to keep the aftermath of the Libyan episode safely buried – especially the case of the 1,500-strong unit of Touareg tribal commandoes and Mali military forces trained by the United States for spearheading the counterterrorism campaign against al Qaeda.
This was a major US incentive for helping the French succeed in averting the fall of the Mali capital, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counterterrorism sources.
In the summer of 2011, after the fall of Tripoli, this Touareg unit, once Qaddafi’s elite mercenary fighting strength, departed Libya in the military convoys his sons organized for their and the top regime officials’ escape to Mali by way of southern Libya and Niger. The Touareg took with them top-quality military equipment from Qaddafi’s arsenals.
Once in Mali, the tribal warriors and their officers turned coat and formed autonomous units to fight for Touareg independence. At some point, they received special operations instruction from American advisers of the US Africa Command-AFRICOM, who had been training parts of the Malian army for five years in readiness for them to lead the battle against Islamist terrorists.
Both groups deserted, joined the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and declared allegiance to Al Qaeda, ushering in a period of instability which involved Touareg clashes with Islamist factions in North Mali, a divided Malian army, a military coup in Bamako, and more recently, Touareg cooperation with Al Qaeda of the Maghreb (AQIM).
Wednesday, Jan. 16, five days into the French operation in Mali, the Malian army was said to have disintegrated completely.
Malian defections to al Qaeda may be model for Afghanistan
Had this entire episode not been kept quiet, it might have guided the US and France in their next steps:
1. In Afghanistan, for instance: The collapse of the American counterterrorism training project in Mali might have shown the Obama administration the flaws in its plan to rely on US-trained Afghan personnel to take over national security after every last US soldier is pulled out of the country at the end of 2014. After years of American investment in their training, there is no guarantee against the Afghan troops defecting to the Taliban judging from the Mali experience.
2. Nothing has been done to correct the mistakes resulting from the incompetence of the US Africa Command-AFRICOM, which only came to light in the deadly surprise attack by al Qaeda on the US consulate in Benghazi last September. Although it was AFRICOM’s job to lead the US campaign against Islamist terror on the African continent, its commanders were totally in the dark about Al Qaeda’s activities in West and North Africa. Its agents had relied on meager, erroneous intelligence provided by dubious native elements.
3. It is hard not to recall the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s unheeded warnings during the US-British-Italian-French operation for his overthrow, that he was the last remaining barrier against Al Qaeda expansion into North and West Africa. His fall, he said, would bring the US and France face to face with Al Qaeda on Africa’s battlefields.
Why is Mali more pressing than Syria?
4. There is inescapable moral question to answer over the US-backed French military intervention against al Qaeda in Mali, though not in Syria where, neither have stepped in either to terminate Bashar Assad’s monstrous regime or confront al-Qaeda’s offshoot, Jabhat al-Nusrah, fighting with the rebels.
This question is raised increasingly in the Middle East and the Muslim world to the detriment of the standing of both the US and French presidents.
5. Finally, neither the French army, the US military nor the regional forces of Africa seem to recognize that they are seriously short of appropriate fighting strength and military equipment for fighting a protracted desert war against al Qaeda and its native allies in the Sahara and Sahel regions.