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Events at the gas field in Tigantourine, Algeria in the last 24 hours have brought a whole new dimension to the French intervention in Mali. No one ever said it was going to be straightforward, but such a quick reaction by the Islamist groups that the French troops are fighting, with the deaths of at least two individuals and an unconfirmed number of hostages having been taken, appears to confirm both the worst fears of those who warned against intervention, but also the very basis for Hollande’s decision to go into Mali: the effects of the Islamist insurgency in northern Mali were never likely to respect borders.The Islamist networks in which the rebel groups are involved, the Tuareg separatist groups which fronted the initial insurgency, the drug trafficking which provides funds for the weapons fuelling the conflict – all these are regional, not Malian questions. Now the attack on the oil site in southern Algeria, which involves Algerian, American, British, Irish, Norwegian, and Japanese hostages, has turned the situation global.
As my ECFR memo ‘The EU, Algeria and the northern Mali question’ published last month highlighted, the Algerian government, who perhaps understood the groups involved in the insurgency in northern Mali the best, since Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had their roots in Algeria, were always live to the potential for this conflict to quickly escalate. They were always wary that intervention in Mali posed the risk of attacks and increased instability on the Algerian side of the border. Indeed, this was one of the reasons they gave for opposing international intervention in Mali throughout autumn 2012.
Though Algiers gave cautious support to the French intervention at the end of last week, and allowed the French to use their airspace, Bouteflika remained very wary about the implications of Hollande’s decision. The Algerian government released a statement as late as Saturday 12th January, when the French intervention in Mali was already underway, reiterating that their preferred solution remained political dialogue between the parties in Mali.The statements coming from ‘Blood Battalion’ - the group who claim responsibility for the hostage taking in southern Algeria yesterday - are citing the decision to allow France to use Algerian airspace as the reason that they have made an attack on Algerian soil. Some in the Algerian government might feel that if the French government were to respond to the terrorists’ demands and halt the intervention in Mali, this might serve their immediate interests better.
The question now should of course not be whether the Algerian government was right or wrong, but rather, going beyond the immediate action by their army which currently surrounds the joint BP-Statoil - Sonatrach gasfield, will this event draw stronger support from the Algerian government for French efforts in Mali or not? Despite Hollande’s efforts in his meetings with Bouteflika in December to begin to put the painful past behind Algeria and France, the fraught historical relationship between the two would certainly make it an uneasy alliance. Nevertheless, the years of Algerian internal conflict in which Algiers was fighting the forerunners of the Islamist groups who now control northern Mali mean that their intelligence on these groups, and their experience in combat against them, would be invaluable.
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