Algeria's Prime Minister is alleging that a Canadian militant played a key role in the Sahara hostage-taking, by acting as a negotiator for the terrorists and dying with the last group of holdouts.
This man is said to have been one of two Canadians among more than 30 Islamist guerrillas who took dozens of workers hostage at a natural-gas complex.
Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal made these assertions during a Monday news conference in Algiers at which he gave the first official account of the mass kidnapping and its bloody aftermath.
The standoff ended when Algerian special forces stormed the gas facility. The raid, the Prime Minister said, resulted in the deaths of 29 of the hostage-takers and at least 37 of the captives, whose ranks included victims from Japan, Great Britain and the United States. Other estimates have put the body counts higher.
Mr. Sellal was short on details backing up his remarks. In fact, he revealed only one clear biographic detail about the lead Canadian militant – his name, which has been transcribed from Arabic as either Chadad or Chedad.
The remarks build on the terror group's assertions last week that they had Canadian members.
Ottawa officials are scrambling to investigate these claims, amid ongoing worries that any perceptions of Canada being a haven for al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists could lead to added scrutiny – and ultimately might curb the flow of goods and people across the U.S. border.
Federal officials stress that the Algerian allegations remain unconfirmed, and they are dispatching agents to Algeria to seek basic answers to basic questions – including the names of the alleged Canadian terrorists and whether this could be a case of mistaken identity. In the past, some publicized claims about Canadian citizens perpetrating dramatic attacks abroad have proven overblown or unfounded.
Yet it is beyond dispute that Canada produces its share of violent fanatics. The director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service last year told Parliament that between 45 and 60 Canadian citizens had recently "travelled or attempted to travel from Canada to Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to join al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations."
At the time, CSIS director Richard Fadden made no mention of Canadians joining al-Qaeda franchises based in West Africa.
In recent years, al-Qaeda's adherents in the Sahel region of Africa appear to have been less interested in recruiting Westerners than other affiliates of the terror group. Experts say this may be changing – especially now that jihadists are threatening to rally against France's intervention to prevent Islamists from overrunning Mali.
Mr. Sellal stated that "Chadad" was a crucial player who "was co-ordinating the attack" against the In Amenas gas complex near Libyan border. This militant is said to have been handling negotiations between the terrorists' base and the Algerian military.
No specific details were released about the role played by the other alleged Canadian attacker.
The ranks of the attackers are said to have included11 Tunisians and others from Algeria, Egypt, Mali, Niger and Mauritania. The hostage operation may have been an inside job – one of the attackers is said to have worked at the gas-plant complex as a driver.
The faction was armed with assault rifles, grenade launchers and explosives, and had arrived in Algeria in a convoy that left the northern part of Mali two months ago, the Algerian Prime Minister said.
He claimed they arrived via the lawless desert borderlands between Mali, Niger, Libya and Algeria.
Details about the alleged Canadians are sketchy, but there is some corroboration. Reuters quoted an Algerian security source as saying that two bodies were found with documents identifying them as Canadians. A Mauritanian news agency quoted a spokesman for the hostage takers stating, last Friday, that their ranks included Canadians.
Agence France-Press reported that one of the hostage takers was a North American who took part in the killing of numerous Japanese workers. An Algerian eyewitness told AFP the hostage takers arrived at the site and shot three Japanese who were in a bus, then went straight to the rooms occupied by the Japanese.
The Norwegian daily Aftenposten, quoting an Algerian military source, reported that one of the kidnappers was tall, blond with blue or green eyes, and spoke English.