Sahel – One Year after in Aménas

Sahel – One Year after in Aménas

On January 16, 2013, the gas plant in In Aménas , Algeria, was attacked by armed Islamists who took control of the plant. Many of the employees were taken hostage. Three days later, Algerian forces stormed the facility, killing 32 hostages and freeing most of the hostages. However, 40 hostages were killed; five of them were Norwegians who worked for Statoil. The attack on In Aménas received a great deal of attention in the international media.

  • Who was behind the attack on In Aménas in 2013? What has happened to them since?
  • What is the situation in Mali and the Sahel a year after the attack on In Aménas?
  • How have living conditions in the Sahel changed in recent years?
  • Which roads lead out of the disability?

The terrorists were a motley group of radical Islamists. They came from Egypt, Niger, Mauritania, Tunisia, Mali, Algeria and even Canada. The leader was Mokthar Belmokthar – originally from Algeria. But the attack on In Aménas was planned and launched from northern Mali. All the hostages were killed, but not Belmokthar, who was not involved in the operation. He is still at large somewhere where the Sahara desert crosses into the Sahel.

According to, the name Sahel comes from the Arabic Sahil which means border or width. The area forms the dry savannah belt that stretches across the African continent from west to east, from Senegal and Mauritania in the west to Ethiopia and Somalia in the east.

2: The story behind In Aménas

Prior to the attack on In Aménas, various Islamist rebel groups had gained control of large parts of northern Mali. The conflict in northern Mali is one of many local conflicts in the Sahel. It has been going on for decades and is linked to the tense relationship between the Malian state and the Tuaregs, who are a minority in the north.

In 2012, the uprising in northern Mali flared up again when Tuaregs returned home from Libya after the fall of the Gaddafi regime and started a new rebel movement – the Movement for National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). They had been soldiers in Gaddafi’s army and returned home well armed and with weapons in hand. The group managed to chase the Malian army on the run, but soon lost control of the MNLA.

That is when a new and more Islamist-oriented Tuareg movement emerged – Ansar ed-Dine – which allied itself with regional Islamist groups. These already existed in this area. Together with Ansar ed-Dine, therefore, the Islamists in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) had control over all of northern Mali for almost a year. They were first chased to flee when they inadvertently moved south of the Niger River and panicked leaders in Mali’s capital Bamako begged the former colonial power France to intervene.

The attack on In Aménas was carried out shortly after the French intervention. Belmokthar claimed that it was carried out by his men in response to the French intervention. This is not correct as the attack on In Aménas had been planned for several months, ie before it became clear that France would interfere in the conflict in Mali.

3: Mali and Sahel after In Aménas

The Islamist insurgents no longer control any of the major cities in northern Mali. The French forces chased them in turn away from Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Now a larger UN force (MINUSMA) is also in place, to which Norway also contributes some crew.

But this does not mean that the Islamists are defeated. With one exception, all the leaders have escaped, as have most of the Islamist fighters. The exception is AQIM leader Abou Zeid, who was killed in heavy fighting with Chadian forces, who supported the French intervention in Mali. Some have remained in northern Mali. Some of them are far out in the desert, while others hide in the locals.

There are several reasons why this is possible. One reason is that the Islamists did not behave quite as badly as is often said. In the chaos that ensued when the MNLA attacked and the Malian army fled, it was the Islamists who restored something resembling order. Yes, it was a strict order, but their strict order was probably for many better than the violent chaos that the MNLA created. The Islamists therefore have some local sympathizers in the area.

There are also other reasons why parts of the local population choose to protect them. It is about securing the future. As long as the French forces are still present with the UN, people can feel relatively confident that the Islamists will not regain control of this area. Nevertheless, the locals know very well that this presence will not last forever. France has long wanted to withdraw most of its troops from Mali. The country has subsequently also become involved in civil war-like conditions in the Central African Republic .

The UN force that was to take over was originally planned to include almost 12,000 soldiers, but almost a year after the mandate was adopted, no more than just over 6,000 have arrived yet. Few believe that MINUSMA will ever reach its planned size, and the Malian army is the few who have particularly great confidence in. Seen through the eyes of the locals, it is therefore not inconceivable that the Islamists can return. Then one must also be prepared for this opportunity and one way to do this is to close the islands so that they are still present.

4: Elections give a mandate, but what about the rights of the minority?

The situation in northern Mali is therefore still unclear and there are sporadic attacks on the UN, the French force and the Malian army. In the rest of the country, the situation has improved . Against all odds, the country managed to hold presidential elections in the summer of 2013. This election, in which Ibrahim Boubacar Keita won an overwhelming election victory in the second and final round of elections, is referred to by most Malaysians as the best organized election in the country’s history. This is good, and the election to a new National Assembly in November and December 2013 also went reasonably well. Keita’s party, together with allied parties, gained a clear majority in the National Assembly and as such he has been given a clear popular mandate. . It is also positive, but it is important to be aware that this is a mandate that not only provides opportunities, it also entails clear limitations.

An important reason why so many Malians from the black majority population supported Keita and his party is that they are considered the hardest against the Tuaregs and the MNLA in the north. Keita therefore has a clear mandate not to give way in the negotiations with the MNLA, which is slowly underway. He can impossibly meet many of their demands, and here there may well be a seed for new conflict. It is also noticeable that attitudes in Mali towards France and the French intervention are becoming more skeptical .

Towards the end of 2013, there were several anti-French protests. France was then accused both of taking sides with the Tuaregs and the MNLA and of wanting to divide Mali into two parts, a north and a south. This is not the case, but if such attitudes spread, they could also spread to the UN force in the country, and that would be very unfortunate. With the elections in 2013, Mali has therefore taken a small, but important step forward. There is still a long way to go before the country has regained stability and found a secure economic platform.

5: Scattered across the Sahel

The Islamist rebels who fled Mali are today scattered over large parts of the Sahel . Some have laid down their arms and returned home; others will continue to fight and are in Niger, Mauritania, southern Libya and Tunisia. Some now see the conflict in the Central African Republic as a possibility in that this conflict has also had religious overtones.

A situation is developing in which the Muslim minority (15–20 per cent) opposes the Christian majority population. In any case, the Islamists have spread over a huge area. The borders there are largely unguarded, the states are weak and the local conflicts are many. The Islamist insurgents who have fled northern Mali therefore have good opportunities not only to flee, but also to create new alliances and connect to existing local conflicts
elsewhere in the Sahel.

One place they are trying is the Fezzan region in the south of Libya, another place is Niger . In Fezzan, there is reason to believe that AQIM and MUJAO are trying the same integration strategies that they sometimes used with great success in northern Mali. They present themselves as reputable merchants who pay a good price for local goods. They help the poorest with money, food and medicine. They provide young men with cell phones and calling cards. If they take local wives, then they do not marry into the most powerful families, but with girls from poor families.

The Islamists still have good money from previous actions where they have taken hostages to obtain ransom. There is further reason to believe that the Islamists may have been paid as much as 20 million euros when four French hostages were extradited via Niger at the end of October in 2013. AQIM and MUJAO leaders therefore still have a formidable war chest. It is used as much to buy local influence as to acquire weapons and other military equipment.

Also in Niger, there are local conflicts that the Islamists can take advantage of . As in Mali, Tuaregs are also a clear minority there. They look different (they are whiter in complexion), they have different customs, traditions and a different language, and as in Mali, they were the lords of the former desert who kept themselves with black slaves. Niger has therefore experienced similar Tuareg uprisings as Mali. First in the early 1990s and then from 2007 to 2009.

6: In Niger

It is therefore not without reason that Niger experienced the only major Islamist attack after the attack on In Amènas. On May 23, 2013, MUJAO carried out two major attacks in Niger. One was a suicide attack on a military camp in the town of Agadez , while the other was aimed at a uranium mine run by a French company just outside Arlit, a town in the north of the country. More than 20 people were killed, and a statement from MUJAO said Belmokthar had also planned these attacks.

The attack aroused both fear and great interest, but if the intention of attacking an uranium mine in northern Niger was to breathe new life into the conflict between the Tuaregs and the majority population, it has not worked. The peace agreement between the Tuaregs and the Nigerian state continues.

The reason for this is that the government of Niger learned a lesson from the last Tuareg uprising in that country, conclusions that were not drawn in Mali. The government of Niger signed a more popular peace agreement . In addition, it also implemented large parts of the agreement so that most of the Tuaregs in the country could benefit from it and not just a small elite. They pursued a better integration policy and followed up with economic instruments after the unrest started again in Mali in 2012. This is positive for Niger while showing others what actually works.

7: What is the need?

Neither the UN, France nor the Malian army will ever win a final victory over the Islamists out in the desert. They can be overcome temporarily, they can be chased away, but they will return as long as nothing is done about the basic problems: the deterioration of people’s living conditions. The climate and precipitation patterns vary much more than before in an already vulnerable area. This requires more.

Drought has always been here on a regular basis, but now it comes much more frequently and more erratically than before. This means that old routines for dealing with drought no longer work. People and families are thus not allowed to recover from one crisis until the next occurs. The old ways of life are therefore not as useful as they were before, but they have also not been replaced by much else other than waiting for help that may never come.

Given this situation, it may not be surprising that someone is tempted to start smuggling or other illegal activity or join one of the many Islamist-inspired rebel groups in the area. If we really want to help the countries of the Sahel repel the Islamist insurgents, then something more than a military approach is needed. Then a development agenda is needed for the Sahel that is popularly based and that actually helps those who live there in their everyday lives and not as it has often been before – the elite in the big cities and their henchmen.

Sahel - One Year after in Aménas