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Tragic and predictable ending

Algeria, like Mali, demands new methods in the struggle against Islamist terror

The provisional death toll of the Islamist attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria, and the later assault on it by Algerian troops, seems to be 37 hostages and 32 terrorists, but with more bodies yet to be properly identified.

The Islamist attack, for which Al Qaeda claimed responsibility on Sunday, has strained Algeria’s relations with the rest of the world and exposed the vulnerability of multinational resource-extraction operations in the Sahara. Among its more striking consequences, though, is a softening of international criticism of the implacable Algerian action.

Such benevolence, which is explicable in the case of France, by its ties with the former colony and the need to open up Algerian air space for the intervention in Mali, is more meaningful in the case of London, where Prime Minister Cameron’s applause on Sunday was in sharp contrast to his initial reproaches.

The decision by Algeria — the cradle of armed Islamist struggle in North Africa — to intervene with fire and sword was clearly determined by its recent history and is the direct consequence of a 10-year civil war that claimed more than 150,000 dead until 2002. No substantial change in attitude could be expected of a regime that since that time has been dominated by soldiers in an episode that not only represented the first direct threat to Algiers’ vital energy infrastructure, but also a challenge to its patient, determined efforts to eradicate Islamist terrorism.

This tragedy once again raises the specter of Islamist terrorism in Algeria

This was an audacious attack, and too complex to have been mounted as an improvised response to the French air strikes in Mali, as is claimed by its instigator, the Algerian jihadist chief Mokhtar Belmokhtar. It seems unlikely that in four days several dozen gunmen could be mustered and equipped for an operation such as that at Tigantourine.

The specter of terrorism

 This tragedy once again raises the specter of Islamist terrorism in Algeria. But it also reinforces the idea that the center of gravity of jihadism is shifting to various states — some of them utterly failed, others exceedingly weak — in North Africa and the Sahel. This is what makes the phenomenon particularly dangerous for Europe, which has so far remained distant from the spread of militant fanaticism through wide areas of Africa. In this respect, the crises in Mali and Algeria, which are intimately linked, highlight the urgent need for greater determination and coordination among the various governments of the European Union against a form of terrorism that is now more diffuse and unpredictable than it was a decade ago, and adapts quickly and lethally to new settings.

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