Ever since the Al-Qaeda linked Ansar Dine group ousted Taureg rebels from Northern Mali last year, fears of a terrorist “domino effect” across the Sahel region have mounted. Last week’s hostage crisis in Algeria saw those fears heightened, as rumours persisted that the terrorists responsible for the seizure of the In Aménas gas facility recruited and held bases in restless Mali.
At the start of the year, France agreed to send 2,000 troops to fight Ansar Dine in Northern Mali, as part of a cooperative military intervention organised by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). There success in halting the advance of the terrorists has been immediate. Nevertheless, intervention by a European power in one of its former colonies was always likely to be a touchy issue. This seems to have been proven by the motives of Katibat al-Multahemeen (The Masked Brigade), the perpetrators of the Algerian hostage crisis. Terrorist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar demanded an end to French military intervention in Mali as a prerequisite for releasing hostages.
The French intervention in West Africa is now under intense scrutiny. With the desert wastelands of Southern Algeria a perfect location for terrorist training camps and a potential breeding ground for “Jihadists”, the possibility of the War on Terrorism crossing into Algeria looks increasingly likely. This is all the more so given the Ansar Dine control over the Northern Mali border, raising the prospect that they will act as cross-border facilitators of Islamic terrorism.
Should a similar group to Ansar Dine take control of Southern Algeria, what would the French do then? They have seemingly set a precedent by intervening in Mali. Would it not be hypocritical to abstain from an intervention in Algeria should it be required? Of course, historical factors must be considered. Between 1954 and 1962, the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and French troops fought one of the bloodiest wars of independence in history. Horrific atrocities were committed by both sides and, since the French withdrawal in 1962, lasting enmity between the contesting nations has persisted.
Given this recent history, French intervention in Algeria would be at the very least awkward, if not downright suicidal. There are likely to be few welcoming arms amongst the history-conscious Algerian populace. However, these historical considerations must be balanced against contemporary reality. The Sahel region is becoming infected with terrorist influences, with weak governments and impoverished populations providing excellent territorial opportunities and recruiting grounds for terrorists.
The West African region is one of traditional European influence, particularly French and British, and it might be expected that these two nations lead the fight against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and their allies. Whether a French intervention in Algeria is necessary remains to be seen but it could either help eradicate or intensify the terrorist plague infecting the Sahel region. Such are the contradictions of history and the present day.