January 21, 2013
Algeria Attack Shows Reach of Militants
By DAVID GAUTHIER-VILLARS in Paris, JULIAN E. BARNES in Washington and LEILA HATOUM in Dubai
The death toll in the desert siege of an energy complex in North Africa rose to 37 foreigners, including three Americans, officials said Monday, as new details demonstrated how al Qaeda-linked militants are increasingly equipped to sow terror across the Sahara region.
Algerian officials described a well-organized, heavily armed group of militants who collected advance intelligence on the sprawling natural-gas complex, including its layout and foreign workforce. The attackers commanded an arsenal of missiles, explosives and guns that weapons experts told The Wall Street Journal appeared to have been pilfered from Libyan stockpiles. They easily took over the plant, seized hostages and held on for four days during a brutal Algerian effort to dislodge them and rescue their captives.
The foreign victims came from across the world, Texas to the Philippines. The nation with the largest death toll so far was Japan, with seven dead, in what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called "a matter of the greatest grief."
The attack signaled an escalated threat of African terrorism against international targets that the U.S. and other governments are struggling to neutralize. With the raid, the al Qaeda franchise displayed new operational breadth and sophistication.
Some U.S. officials advocate a stepped-up counterterrorism campaign in North Africa. Such an effort could see armed U.S. drones, and potentially special-operations forces, moved in from other battlefronts. For the U.S., it would likely feature increased intelligence sharing with local governments.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in London over the weekend, noted the U.S. has run counterterrorism operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, adding: "Now we will do it in North Africa."
Such operations face hurdles including a dearth of reliable data on murky militant networks, and questions about local cooperation. "To move in with equipment before we have solid information is premature," said a senior U.S. official.
The antiterror template is unclear. The U.S. has used different types of operations in each of the countries mentioned by Mr. Panetta, with varied contributions from the military, special operations forces and the Central Intelligence Agency.
The Algerian government has accused radical Islamist Mokhtar Belmokhtar of masterminding the raid on the Algerian gas facility. The Mali-based Algerian fugitive, a longtime al Qaeda operative who is about 40 years old, has claimed responsibility.
The attackers' origins and firepower suggested that Mr. Belmokhtar's group, rooted in Algeria in the 1980s, has succeeded in recruiting widely and is gathering strength.
Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, in his first public comments on the standoff on Monday, said 32 heavily armed militants drove into Algeria from northern Mali with the aim of capturing foreign hostages at the In Amenas site, which is across Algeria, near the Libyan border.
The group was led by an Algerian, Mohammed Bencheneb, and included members from six other African countries and Canada, the prime minister said.
Among their weapons were assault rifles and land mines that Algerian officials and weapons experts said likely came from Libya, where the toppling of Moammar Gadhafi left government arms stockpiles unattended, in a boon to the region's arms traders.
The militants' use of missiles similar to those deployed by Libyan rebels highlighted how the Mali-based Islamist rebellion grew stronger with the end of the conflict in Libya in 2011, Algerian and French military experts said.
The ease with which the terrorists moved into Algeria highlights the porousness of the country's long borders with Libya and Mali.
Days before the attack, the Algerian government had said it would seal its borders after France joined troops in Mali to help the West African country push back the al Qaeda-linked insurgency that controls its northern half.
The militants said their raid was aimed at protesting France's intervention in Mali. Algerian officials said although France's decision to send combat troops to Mali may have influenced the timing of the attack, the operation was being prepared for at least two months.
If expanded intelligence sharing could make Algerian forces more effective at targeting militant groups, U.S. officials say, it might not be necessary to shift as many drones or special operation forces into the region.
"There are a number of different ways to go after militants," said the senior U.S. official.
In Algeria, the use of drones could be challenging. The Algerian government rebuffed offers of assistance in the hostage crisis. Experts have said that because of the legacy of European colonial dominance, Algiers remains reluctant to accept assistance or allow Western militaries to conduct operations.
Some U.S. officials said it may be difficult to get access to Algeria for any kind of counterterrorism operation. Much like the Pakistani public, which chafes at the U.S. drone campaign, Algerians could see counterterrorism operations conducted by Washington as an affront to their sovereignty.
Stepped up intelligence sharing, the senior official noted, could, over time, make the Algerians more open to other cooperation.
During the siege, officials from several foreign governments urged Algeria to push for a peaceful resolution and expressed frustration that they had little information about what was going on.
Algeria's special forces, which surrounded the site, did try initially to negotiate with the militants, Mr. Sellal said.
But when the insurgents spelled out their demands, including the release of Islamist militants held in Algerian prisons, "negotiation became impossible," he said.
"Innocent victims were killed," said Mr. Sellal the Algerian prime minister. "It was an attempt to destabilize Algeria, something we could not accept."
Mr. Sellal said seven of the foreign victims remained unidentified. One Algerian security guard was killed on the first day of the raid. Five workers were reported missing, and could be hiding or possibly escaped without being noticed, he said. Foreign governments gathered DNA samples to help in the identification process.
Mr. Sellal said the group wanted to blow up the complex, which accounts for 12% of the country's gas output. About 790 employees worked at the site, including 136 foreigners.
The Algerian prime minister said "the last words of the terrorist chief" were to kill the hostages. "He gave the order for all the foreigners to be killed, so there was a mass execution, many hostages were killed by a bullet to the head," he said.
--Benoit Faucon, Alistair MacDonald, Sam Schechner, Margaret Coker and Inti Landauro contributed to this article.
Write to David Gauthier-Villars at David.Gauthier-Villars@wsj.com, Leila Hatoum at email@example.com and Julian E. Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org