While Canadian officials are trying to confirm whether two of their own citizens took part in the bloody hostage-taking at the Algerian gas plant, more details of the transnational nature of the terrorist operation are emerging, alleging links with militants operating in Libya.
Appearing Wednesday before a Senate hearing, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the terrorist arsenal used in the attack – assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank mines – came from neighbouring Libya.
“There is no doubt that the Algerian terrorists had weapons from Libya. There is no doubt that the Malian remnants of AQIM have weapons from Libya,” she said, referring to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the regional affiliate of the al-Qaeda network.
The Algerian daily El Watan reported that 29 of the 32 kidnappers were recruited in Libya while Agence France-Presse quoted “a source very close to extremist groups” in Libya stating that they had provided logistical support to the terrorist raid last week on the In Amenas gas complex.
The New York Times quoted an Algerian official saying that three of the militants captured alive told their interrogators that Egyptian members of their team had also been involved in last September’s attack in Benghazi against the American diplomatic mission in Libya.
The hostage takers had themselves revealed their diverse origin last Friday when a spokesman told the Mauritanian news agency Agence Nouakchott d’Information that their ranks included not just members from Algeria, Mali, Niger or Mauritania but also people from Egypt and Canada.
“Unlike what was happening in other jihadist fronts, jihadism in Algeria had recruited locally, but now we are witnessing not an internationalization, but a transnationalization of this extreme violence,” said Salma Belaala, a scholar of North African Islamic movements at the University of Warwick.
She said Algerian authorities have long worried that toppling Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya would create instability in the region.
“So today we’re now in a gaping security vacuum on the Libyan side.”
During a news conference Monday, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said the guerrillas included 11 Tunisians, Egyptians and two Canadians. Officials in Ottawa have since tried to get more information on those claims and have summoned the Algerian ambassador to demand an official explanation of the claims.
“We have no substantial information at the present time on these particular individuals, but obviously we will continue to work with the government of Algeria to find out more about this particular matter,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters during a public event Wednesday in Cambridge, Ont.
Whether there indeed were Canadian jihadis in Algeria, it is significant that the terrorists wanted it to be known that their ranks included men from beyond the Sahel region, one security expert said.
The terrorists’ mix of nationalities signals global ambitions and a desire to align themselves with al-Qaeda’s original core, said Jean-Paul Rouiller, a former Swiss counterterrorism analyst who is now operational manager of the Geneva Centre for Training and Analysis of Terrorism.
“It’s a very important change ... You rarely had participation of foreigners from Tunisia, Libya and even less so for Canada or Egypt. The message is that the fire that you saw fading in Afghanistan is being relit in Africa,” Mr. Rouiller said, alluding to the Arabic expression for “Mother al-Qaeda,” the original group formed in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Until then, the Jihadi movement in the desert regions between Algeria, Niger and Mali, had used the name Salafist Group for Preaching or Combat (known by the French initials GSPC) until 2007, when it renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The mastermind of the bloody attack on Algeria’s In Amenas natural-gas complex, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is a former Algerian-born AQIM commander who started a splinter group last month, the Al-Mulathamin Brigade, and pledged allegiance directly to al-Qaeda.
In a video message released last Thursday, midway through the hostage taking, Mr. Belmokhtar said he had sent fighters from both foreign and local countries to In Amenas, under the name “the Signatories of Blood.”
Mr. Belmokhtar has financed his operations through smuggling and kidnappings and is well known to Canadian law enforcement after he captured two Canadian diplomats, Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, and held them for four months.
At one point, Mr. Belmokhtar was suspected of co-operating with some factions of the Algerian government, according to U.S. diplomatic cables disclosed by Wikileaks.
In a 2009 cable, U.S. diplomats in Mali described a conversation with a Tuareg leader, Abderahmane ag Ghalla.
“Ag Ghalla said he frequently queried his Algerian colleagues on Algeria’s position toward Mokhtar Belmokhtar, reportedly asking on several occasions: ‘Isn’t he working for you?’ ” the cable said.
“Ag Ghalla professed to be as confused as everyone else regarding the Algerian government’s reticence to go after Belmokhtar’s camps in northern Mali,” the cable continued. “He said he could only conclude that Belmokhtar was receiving support from certain quarters of the Algerian government, and then cited Belmokhtar’s legendary reputation for last-minute escapes and uncanny knack for never being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
<QL>With reports from Kim Mackrael and Reuters