Sunday, January 20, 2013

Expert: Islamists' Algeria raid could inspire copycat attacks

This satellite image provide by DigitalGlobe from Oct. 8, 2012 shows the In Amenas gas field in Algeria, which is jointly operated by BP, Norway's Statoil and Algeria's Sonatrach.
The audacious assault by Islamist militants on a gas plant in Algeria that led to the capture of scores of hostages could spark copycat attacks, a terrorism expert warned Friday.
Terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann, an NBC News contributor who has worked for the FBI, said that other groups would almost certainly be watching closely as the militant fighters led by Mokhtar bel Mokhtar seized the giant facility near In Amenas — and might be inspired.

"(Militant groups) are all vying for attention — for fighters, for financing. They see this, they see the attention it gets," said Kohlmann, who has written about the enigmatic bel Mokhtar in the past.

Bel Mokhtar has been called "The Uncatchable" by French intelligence, along with "Mr. Marlboro" due to his reputed cigarette-smuggling empire, and "a jihadist straight out of central casting" by the British press.

"This group has carried out similar attacks to this in the past. They've certainly taken hostages. They've launched attacks against gas fields and mines,"  Kohlmann said.

'Nightmarish scenario'

But what made the In Amenas raid different was the size of the plant and the number of hostages.

"It's the scale here that we're talking about that's astounding. Taking a group like this all at once… It's really… It's a nightmarish scenario, to be honest," Kohlmann said.

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A number of hostages have reportedly managed to escape from the natural gas facility in Algeria where hostages from 10 countries have now been held for three days, while some were killed and injured during a raid by the Algerian military and still more remain unaccounted for. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

"Within the past year, he's given several different interviews and video recordings in which he's been very clear that one of the primary targets for his group are those who are coming to Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and are 'stealing our resources.'"

Kohlmann said an attack on a French uranium mine in Niger in 2010 has been linked to bel Mokhtar’s group. In that case, workers were also kidnapped and four are still being held to this day.

Thursday, the operators of that and another Niger uranium mine, Areva, said they were tightening security after tons of its contaminated metal used in the extraction of uranium were found in a public junkyard.

Bel Mokhtar is a veteran of the Afghanistan war against the Soviets, a conflict in which he reportedly lost his eye, and he was also once in charge of al-Qaida’s Saharan arm.

Algerian TV via Reuters TV
Hostages freed from a gas facility in Algeria, where Islamist militants were holding them, are seen embracing in pictures broadcast by Algerian TV.

But he now runs his own gang, analysts say, and there are suspicions that he is now more interested in money than jihad.

"He fought in Afghanistan. He fought with al-Qaida in Algeria for years. This guy has been fighting in Algeria since 1991. Yet at the same time he's much more of a desert mafioso than anything else," Kohlmann said.

"He espouses jihadi aims. But he's very well-known for smuggling weapons, cigarettes, narcotics and of course these hostage-taking incidents where he's taken a lot of flak, including from within the jihadi community itself," he added.

"Some of them have said, ‘look, you talk about taking people hostage in order to get our prisoners released from jails, but then all you do is take ransom money and you let these people go.' … So, some of them have distanced themselves from him because of his attention and profit-seeking behavior, really," Kohlmann added.

He said he suspected bel Mokhtar was trying "to ingratiate himself to some of these other new jihadi movements in West Africa."

"And what greater way than to do something like this where not only does he get a lot of media attention, but potentially he makes millions of dollars on ransom payments? And that's what these guys are really motivated by — money," Kohlman said.

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