IF any action was guaranteed to harden the hearts of militant Islamists across Saharan Africa, it was the sight of French troops leading Malian forces into action against al-Qaeda fighters.
By Trevor Royle, Diplomatic Editor/The Herald, Scotland
Here was a former colonial power apparently intervening in the affairs of an independent West African state at the very moment that Western powers are exploiting natural resources and investing heavily in infrastructure projects across the region.
To the uncommitted, it seemed to be sending an unmistakable message: that their interests and religion were under threat from the West. So it came as no surprise when it was discovered that among the militants killed in the Algerian gas plant siege were fighters from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Mali. What began as an isolated incident with Western workers being taken hostage by a shadowy group known as the Signed-in-Blood Battalion – led by Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar – is slowly being transmogrified into a potential terrorist war which knows no frontiers.
There is now a real fear among Western security services that the siege at Almenas in Algeria and the fighting in northern Mali has opened a Pandora's Box.
According to Aaron Zellin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in the US, the two incidents could produce a tipping point by goading the undecided into action.
"A lot of these people are more like online cheerleaders," he said. "But this could lead individuals to put away the keyboard and pick up an AK47 instead."
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – as the franchise is known in northern and western Africa – has been active for the past decade, setting up bases in Mauritania and gaining a foothold in Nigeria, where it operates as Boko Haram with a policy of intimidation, extortion and hostage-taking. That is the reason why France decided to intervene in Mali – to prevent AQIM using it as a base and a gathering point – but that action might only have served to exacerbate the problem.
Not only do the contributing West African forces lack experience in counter-insurgency warfare, but the French military action in Mali has been heavy-handed, leading to collateral damage. French president François Hollande might argue he is not acting in a colonialist way, but that is not how it viewed by the ordinary Malian whose life has been disrupted by the military action. Another result of last week's French military attacks has been to scatter the AQIM groups across the desert areas, where national frontiers are largely meaningless.
These fighters will have taken heart from the action at the Amenas gas plant. Following a bloody civil war in the 1990s, Algeria has developed one of the most efficient security forces in the region and is adept, not to say ruthlessly efficient, at dealing with terrorist threats. The strike against them last week shows that the Signed-in-Blood Battalion is well-versed in the dynamics of terrorist warfare.
Their leader, Belmokhtar, has been written off as a one-eyed smuggler and criminal who is marginal to AQIM, but French security forces have spent the past 10 years pursuing him – without any success. His smuggling activities have created a huge network across Saharan Africa and turned him into a main player in the current unrest. This makes him less a regional nuisance and more a serious terrorist threat.
Regional security experts such as Kwesi Aning at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana warn that not only is little being achieved by the operations in Mali but they could also make matters worse. "France wants to drive out extremists. But to where? Mauritania and Niger could be in trouble. Burkina Faso will face threats."