It is not often that the head of a Western government and a leading al-Qaeda operative see eye-to-eye on developments in the Middle East. But that is what happened after last week’s unprecedented take-over of In Amenas, a gas facility in Algeria.
British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that North Africa has now become a battleground against Islamist radicals that will last for “at least a decade”. One of al-Qaeda’s leaders in northern Mali, Omar Ould Hamaha, quickly concurred. France “had opened the gates of hell” by intervening military in Mali, he declared, falling “into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia”.
Recent history shows that both are spot on, albeit for different reasons. A decade after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the country is still mired in a cycle of sectarian bloodshed, ranks as the most corrupt country on earth and is a Shia theocracy aligned with Iran. As Nato forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, the consensus is that the only solution to that country’s continuing inter-tribal, and Islamist-inspried, chaos is a peace deal with the Taliban — whose overthrow was the justification given for the initial invasion.
With the fall of Libya, Colonel Gaddafi, the centre of gravity for al-Qaeda’s myriad networks has clearly shifted from Iraq and Afghanistan to North Africa. And that is a nightmare for recession-hit Europe. Algeria, North Africa’s economic powerhouse, is Europe’s third-biggest supplier of gas, and a major supplier, too, of high quality sweet crude oil. Last week, gas prices spiked 4 per cent in the wake of the terror attack. While the In Amenas facility represents 18 per cent of Algerian gas exports, supplies from Russia will make up for a short-term shortfall. However, that will give Russia, at loggerheads with Nato on the Syrian crisis, still more political leverage.
Now there is the risk of copycat attacks in Algeria, and throughout the region. Egyptian pipelines supplying natural gas to Israel have already repeatedly been bombed over the past two years; a pipeline tied to the only liquefied natural gas export facility in Yemen was sabotaged last October; and in 2004 the Abqaiq oil facility in Saudi Arabia, the country’s largest, was attacked by al-Qaeda.
It seems inevitable that more Algerian facilities in particular will be targeted, resulting in a dramatic decline in foreign investment. If that transpires, the Algerian government will be hard pressed to continue providing food subsidies — the principal reason the regime has managed to avoid the Arab Spring upheaval.
Having spent the 1990s putting down a Islamist uprising, a food crisis would make Algeria ripe for a revolution, which could result in the transformation of the last secular, republican regime in the Arab region into an Islamist theocracy right on Europe’s doorstep.
One thing at least seems crystal clear: al-Qaeda has learned that the way to bring the West to its knees is not by launching terror attacks on its home soil, but by taking control of its own region’s oil and gas facilities.