Algeria/Mali Crisis – Bleak landscape for a sinister war

The London Evening Standard - 17 January 2013

In terms of battlefields of the war on terror, there can be few more sinister than the blighted deserts of southern Algeria.

For more than a decade they have been a haven for some of the most ruthless Islamist terrorists in modern history.

While British people have focused on their own troops in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, organisations such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have been conducting campaigns in Algeria.

These have involved atrocities from the killing of police and security officials to kidnappings and lethal attacks on civilians. SAS troops on standby to rescue Britons held at the Amenas gas plant will certainly be aware of what a dangerous place it is.

The man thought to be behind the raid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar — a one-eyed militant known as Mr Marlboro and The Uncatchable — is well known to the Algerian authorities. He trained as a terrorist in Afghanistan while still a teenager, then joined the notorious GIA, or Armed Islamic Group. It was at the forefront of attacks on government forces during Algeria’s civil war, which divided the country for over a decade until the early 2000s and saw up to 250,000 Algerians killed.

Remember too that only in 1962 did Algeria’s savage colonial war with France end, with independence after 132 years of subjugation. Up to 1.5 million died in that conflict. Its horrendous legacy still permeates the Algerian consciousness.

When direct rule from Paris ended, successive Algerian governments did their utmost to forge a national identity free from Western influence, meaning that resentment against foreign powers is still strong. Despite this, firms like BP have gained a foothold in the country as they try to turn its vast gas and oil reserves into huge profits. It is these kinds of links with the West that the terrorists are trying to exploit, using Britons and other nationalities in a sinister game of brinkmanship.

Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist and broadcaster.

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