Map of gas field at Amenas in Algeria where a BP installation was seized by combatants. An attempt to end the takeover has resulted in the deaths of at least 50 people., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
US offers support in hunt for Algerian attackers
Al-Qaida north African affiliate believed to have masterminded In Amenas terrorist attack despite splinter group's claims
Julian Borger, Kim Willsher in Paris and Felix von Geyer in New York
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 22 January 2013 15.48 EST
The Pentagon said that there were "strong indications" that al-Qaida in the Mahgreb (AQIM) was behind last week's attack on an Algerian gas field, raising the prospects of heightened US involvement in the French-led counter-insurgency in the region.
The Algerian authorities said that five foreign workers at the In Amenas complex were still missing after being taken hostage by a jihadist group. Thirty-seven foreign contractors and an Algerian worker were killed in the attack, which was launched last Wednesday.
The attackers called themselves the "Signers in Blood battalion", which claimed to have split off from AQIM last month, but American officials appear to believe that AQIM exercised ultimate command and control on the operation. Pentagon spokesman, George Little stopped short of saying al-Qaida's North Africa affiliate was to blame and described it as "at the top of the list of suspects."
The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, in a visit to London last Friday, said In Amenas was an al-Qaida attack, and called for pressure on the terrorist network "wherever it seeks to establish a safe haven."
The first two US transport planes arrived in Mali's capital, Bamako, on Tuesday, ferrying French troops and supplies from southern France.
The Pentagon has also offered surveillance and intelligence support. An American surveillance drone was reported to have been flying over the In Amenas siege. However, experts said there were legal and political barriers to the CIA reproducing its drone assassination programme that it has used extensively against al-Qaida targets in Pakistan's tribal areas.
According to the Algerian prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, the "Signers of Blood" jihadists launched their attack on In Amenas two months earlier from northern Mali. The fact that they were able to travel for many days across hundreds of miles of desert through Niger and Libya to reach their target without being stopped, illustrates the severe difficulties facing anyone now seeking to track them down.
Compounding the problems in tracking down the perpetrators is the region's political turmoil. The Algerian news site TSA cited an "Algerian security source" as saying Islamist fighters had entered the country from Libya in "official Libyan vehicles", thought to have been acquired after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Other local media confirmed that the uniforms worn by the hostage-takers as well as their weapons, including a specific model of Kalashnikov, appeared to have also come from Libya.
Algerian claims that a Canadian-Algerian named Chedad helped coordinate the In Amenas operation could not be confirmed . The foreign ministry in Ottawa said it was still waiting for further information from Algiers.
"We are aware of reports that Canadians may have been involved in the hostage-taking in Algeria," said Chrystiane Roy, a spokesperson.
The group's founder, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is a veteran of the Algerian civil conflict and fought in Afghanistan, but he has strong links with Tuareg secessionists in northern Mali. His second wife is said to be a Tuareg. Those connections will give him an extra layer of protection from his hunters, although at the same time there are plenty of sources of friction between the local population and the Salafist ideologues who have attempted to impose a draconian and alien version of Islamic law.
The region, which the Tuareg call Azawad, is beyond the control of the weak Malian government in Bamako. The French and West African troops that have arrived in the past few days to bolster it are struggling to push the jihadists back from the southern capital and are a long way from France's aim of stabilising the north and "destroying" the extremist groups that have made it their home.
Until now, Algiers has been reluctant to intervene in Mali but is likely to be more decisive. AQIM and the Signers in Blood have grown from remnants the Algerian militant movement, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which was largely defeated by a brutal counter-insurgency in the 1990's. The Algerian government was hitherto happy for them to be bottled up in Mali.
"Ironically, the attack probably will also push Algiers off the fence about the war in Mali," Bruce Riedel a former CIA analyst and White House counter-terrorist advisor, wrote in the Daily Beast. "The generals who run Algeria initially were reluctant to push AQIM out of Mali, fearing that the group would only come back north in to Algeria. Now they have no choice. With a GDP of $260 billion, a large Russian-equipped army, and a ruthless intelligence service, it can do more to fight AQIM than any other African country."
Algeria has a 150,000-strong army, and an extensive spy network across the Sahel. It is run by Mohamed Mediene, the head of Algerian intelligence who Riedel said is known as the "God of Algiers", because his power is so pervasive and he seems to answer to no one."
Washington's claims of AQIM responsibility for the In Amenas attack, combined with reports of an American drone in the air at the time of the Algerian army stroming of the gas field on Saturday and the arrival of US planes in Bamako in support of the French counter-insurgency have all raised questions over whether armed drones would be used in the hunt for BelMokhtar and other jihadist leaders.
The drone targeted killing campaign has also spread to Yemen. However, Micah Zenko, an expert on drone warfare at the Council for Foreign Relations said there were many obstacles to the transferring to the Sahel.
"The US doesn't fly drones off aircraft carriers so they would need basing and overflight rights. At the moment, no country in Europe will allow us to launch drones from their territory, and its not clear that countries in the region will allow themselves to be used as aircraft carriers to fly drones from."