There seems no end to the violence ripping across the Middle East. Syrian turmoil threatens to spill over to neighboring countries, and last week’s jihadist mayhem at a natural-gas complex in the Sahara Desert underscores the chaos and unruliness. Thanks in part, ironically, to the Arab Spring removal of autocrats, a jihadist menace is growing and threatening the fledgling democracies trying uncertainly to replace those ousted dictatorships.
Ending on Saturday in a climax of executions and carnage, the seizing by Al Qaeda-linked militant Islamists of a sprawling natural gas plant run jointly by BP and the Norwegian company Statoil starkly demonstrated how jihadists have regrouped and used to their advantage the fall of the dictators by exploiting the security vacuum left in their wake.
Jihadists are able now to cross the region’s borders more freely, are largely unmonitored because of the collapse of the dictators’ intelligence services and can rely sometimes even on the ambivalence of Islamist fellow travelers in new governments.
Last week’s attack on the In Amenas compound, leaving scores of hostages dead, Americans among them, may have come in one of the few countries where the government shrugged off the Arab Spring. But many of the assailants came from Algeria’s turmoil-filled neighbors where autocrats were toppled.
Algerian officials have identified many of the three dozen or so militants as Egyptians, Tunisians, and Libyans. The “terrorists are multinational,” says Algerian Communications Minister Mohand Said Oubelaid. Traumatized hostages, who narrowly escaped the clutches of the militants, or survived the series of all-guns-blazing rescue missions mounted by Algerian security forces, say the attackers were mostly about 30 years old and spoke with a variety of Arabic accents, although one was a Frenchman, confirm Algerian officials.
The militants loyal to the one-eyed jihadist veteran, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, entered Algeria undetected by taking a circuitous route through Libya from their terrorist camps in Africa’s arid Sahel, mostly likely transiting the Salvador Pass on Libya’s border with Algeria and Niger, U.S. and Libyan security sources tell The Daily Beast.
And they came heavily armed not only with automatic weapons, RPG 7 rocket launchers and explosives but possibly also with mobile antiaircraft missiles. Much of the weaponry was plundered from Libyan arsenals in the weeks and months following the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi—although some came also from Mali soldiers, trained by the U.S., who defected to jihadists, says Shasahnk Joshi, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Last November, Belmokhtar himself bragged to a Mauritanian news website that Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) secured Libyan weapons during the eight-month-long NATO-backed uprising from Gaddafi’s formidable arsenals. It is a boast that infuriates the emergencies director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, Peter Bouckaert, who raised the alarm about weapons proliferation, pleading with NATO officials and major rebel militia leaders to secure Gaddafi’s arsenals before it was too late.
To highlight his concerns Bouckaert, along with American journalist James Foley, who was abducted in northern Syria in November possibly by a jihadist group, filmed just one unsecured arsenal 60 miles south of the coastal town of Sirte to illustrate the huge scale of the proliferation problem, posting their findings subsequently on YouTube to throw a spotlight on the spillover danger posed by the weapons.
The unguarded arsenal visited by HRW alone consisted of 70 warehouses stocked with weapons including mobile surface-to-air missiles (from Russia’s most advanced SA-24s to SA-7s) automatic-caliber weapons, tank shells and landmines useful in the making of car bombs, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. In short, this one facility had all you would need for a small war. By studying discarded crates, Bouckaert and his colleagues estimated that nearly 700 SA-7s had already gone missing.
Says Bouckaert now: “The proliferation of weapons from the Libya conflict was of a scale much greater than any other modern conflict. We already see the impact of these weapons in places like the Sinai, Gaza, and Mali, and we’ll still be talking about the consequences of this a decade from now.” He blames the West partly, for failing to stop the looting.
Those weapons are now turning up further west in Syria and the Sinai, a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Last autumn, Sheik Shadi Jebara, a Salafi leader in the Lebanon city of Tripoli explained to The Daily Beast that Lebanese Sunnis were “providing every kind of support we can to the Syrian rebels,” adding “we supply any arms we can get for the Syrian rebels, mainly AK-47s and RPGs but we have managed to buy some Grad rockets on the black market.” He confirmed the weaponry was originally from Libya.
Paul Sullivan, an analyst at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, notes that breakdown of security in the region has empowered jihadist groups by making it far easier for them to find safe havens—and to carry out activities such as smuggling that they have traditionally used to fund themselves. (Belmokhtar is a notorious cigarette smuggler, earning the nickname “Mr. Marlboro” for his trafficking.) “Weapons movements, smuggling of many sorts of varieties to pay for extremist activities are a lot easier now—and less costly,” Sullivan says. “AQIM and others like them find moving about the deserts and in cities a lot easier than when the dictators slammed on just about everyone.”
International energy companies—and the fragile governments of the Arab Spring—are bracing now for copycat attacks on oil and gas facilities, anticipating other jihadist leaders will want to emulate last week’s attack, one that highlighted the vulnerability of energy installations in the region. They had thought the installations were relatively secure.
Historically, jihadi groups hadn’t used the tactic of attacking oil fields or natural gas plants. But now jihadist websites are abuzz with discussion of the benefits of mounting such assaults, and the arguments contained in a 2005 fatwa by Abd Allah b. Nasir al-Rashid, currently in jail in Saudi Arabia, and another by Abu Bakr Naji figure prominently. Among the benefits: the harming the “infidels’ economies” by raising prices and the weakening of “apostate Arab countries” by forcing them to dedicate more resources to defending the facilities, leaving them more prey to jihadist incursions.
While the security collapse in Libya saw a surge in weapons flowing across its borders, for Mali, the most dangerous Libyan export may have been the militiamen. Hardened Tuareg mercenaries who fought for Gaddafi and jihadist fighters who helped to overthrow him made common cause and pushed into Mali to carve out their own territory, an Afghanistan in the heart of the sub-Sahara, a safe haven to launch operations north into the Maghreb and across the Middle East or into neighboring African states.
At first, the two groups teamed up to sow chaos in the country’s far-flung north, helping to spark a coup last spring that shattered the Malian government’s tenuous hold on the vast area. But the jihadists, gaining strength, eventually turned on those Tuaregs who wouldn’t fall into line with them, expelling them from towns and cities, imposing sharia and consolidating their hold. With their threat mounting on the south of Mali, and the 1.8 million people of Bamako, Mali’s capital, fearful that the militants would take the city, France’s president François Hollande decided to act, prompted finally to do so when it became clear that the jihadists were on the verge of seizing strategically important sites, including a militarily vital airfield in the town of Sevare.
But the heavily armed Islamists have proved formidable adversaries even for France’s legendary tough Legionnaires. “We’re talking about hundreds and maybe thousands of different kinds of militia fighters who ended up in Mali,” says David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The weapons, people and general anarchy spilling out of Libya really created this firestorm.”
In Algeria, the example and support of jihadists in Mali to the southwest and in Libya to the east have spurred the country’s own militant Islamists in their long-running battle against the state. Algeria’s authoritarian government is “fanatically anti-jihadist,” as Pollock puts it—an attitude on full display with its no-holds-barred response to last week’s hostage crisis that provoked the criticism of several foreign governments, although it gained the endorsement of France’s president.
The Algerian government won a civil war in the 1990s by repressing brutally its Islamist opponents, and it has kept a tight grip on security ever since and is no mood to rethink strategy. Says the country’s communications minister, Mohand Said Oubelaid: “We say that in the face of terrorism, yesterday as today as tomorrow, there will be no negotiation, no blackmail, no respite in the struggle against terrorism.”
With weapons and fighters flowing freely from its neighbors, Algeria was losing ground to the jihadists even before the French launched their intervention in Mali. Though the jihadists who stormed the In Amenas natural gas compound claimed to be acting in retaliation for the French incursion into Mali, terrorism experts believe the attack was planned well before the French intervened. “This operation would have taken months in the planning,” says Andrew Black, who has studied for the Washington D.C.-based think tank, the Jamestown Foundation.
For all of the governments in the region, the challenges aren’t only of a military and intelligence nature. All face some of the very same factors that fueled the Arab Spring uprisings in the first place—the lack of economic opportunity for the young and a rising joblessness that assists jihadists to recruit. Insecurity and constant upheaval are helping to keep the economies stagnant.
In Libya, where the influence of Salafists has spread rapidly since the ouster of Gaddafi, tribal leaders have for months been complaining about the risks, warning that young rebels have become disillusioned since the revolution and have no jobs. “Radical Islam channels their frustrations and grievances,” says a tribal leader in Libya’s western desert.