Insight: In Amenas attack brings global jihad home to Algeria

Thu Jan 24, 2013 2:07am EST
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By Myra MacDonald

LONDON (Reuters) - A photo circulating on jihadi online forums says it all: a plane flying into the Eiffel Tower with September 11 written in Arabic in red letters alongside.

The French military intervention in Mali and an Islamist militant attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria in which at least 38 workers died have re-energized international jihad.

These events also closed a loop which many thought had frayed over recent years linking North African insurgents with al Qaeda's central leadership and ideology.

It is those links, spanning regions and times, connected through the shadowy career of Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, which are now coming under fresh scrutiny to assess whether the west underestimated the resilience of global jihad.

Back in 1994, Algerian militants fighting the French-backed government in Algiers hijacked an Air France plane. Though it was successfully stormed by French forces in Marseille, French intelligence believed they planned to fly it into the Eiffel Tower, foreshadowing the September 11 attacks on the United States.

But that Algerian phase of the jihad was overlooked by a focus on post September 11 history, by hopes that Osama bin Laden's death in Pakistan in 2011 had fatally wounded al Qaeda, and, crucially, by a view that Belmokhtar had drifted away into making money from smuggling and seizing hostages.

"There have been a lot of debates over whether Belmokhtar is a criminal or a jihadist, but this overlooks the possibility to be both," said Stephen Tankel, a professor at American University and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment and the author of a forthcoming book on the evolution of jihadist groups since 9/11.


A truck passes by a road sign indicating In Amenas, about 100 km (60 miles) from the Algerian and Libyan border, where Islamist militants were holding foreigners hostage, January 18, 2013. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina