The Obama administration says it believes that the militants responsible for the recent terror attack at a BP gas facility in Algeria were working with "elements of Al Qaeda," as they attempt to solidify the bigger link between Algeria, Mali, and the worldwide fight against extremists.
CNN's Barbara Starr reports that "senior U.S. officials" say Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb carried out the offensive "in tandem" with Moktar Belmoktar, the so-called "Mr. Marlboro" who claimed credit for the assault. Belmoktar was reportedly a senior figure in AQIM before breaking away from the group to go it alone, but other sources say he was still very much connected to the jihadist movement. (For more background on Belmoktar's past and his motives, check out this primer by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of The Globe and Mail.)
American intelligence agencies seem to be thinking that Belmoktar and the group may have "reunited" for this assault, but Starr's sources didn't offer a reason as to why — or how exactly they were coordinating. The French military presence in Mali was offered up as a condition of freeing the hostages, but this attack is also being described as "highly sophisticated" and well coordinated, which suggests it was in the works long before France troops arrived in Mali on January 11, four days before the gas-plant attack began. AQIM has been the leading rebel group in Mali, but the Algerian attackers reportedly came out of Libya, on the other side of the map.
The truth is that the picture of Islamist militant groups in Africa is not one of a unified front so much as a loose collection of militant bands. They may share an ideology, but each have their own tactics, structures, and goals. And they rarely work together with such precision. Even AQIM is only tangentially connected to Osama bin Laden's original network.
Whatever is eventually revealed about the attackers and their plans—and Reuters did obtain new images of the attackers, secretly taken by one of the hostages (see above)—there's no changing that fact that Northern Africa is now becoming the largest front in the war on terror. With all the focus on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen over the last decade, Islamists in Africa have found more freedom to carry out operations, raise funds, recruit soliders, and avoid the eye of Western nations. But Algeria has changed the equation now. If the U.S. administration is openly tying this new attack to Al Qaeda, it will almost certainly be to push for an increased presence and influence by the United States in Africa.