New fears about al Qaeda after Algerian bloodbath

Trapped: terror groups have targeted multinational companies in the remote Algerian Sahara © Getty Images

The battle against North African al Qaeda splinter groups could take decades, warned David Cameron yesterday. Is the world’s most feared terrorist organisation making a comeback?

Trapped in an industrial compound in the middle of a barren desert, the hostages’ lives rested in the hostile hands of the heavily-armed men who surrounded them. Their legs were bound, their mouths gagged and strings of explosives were strapped around their necks. The situation could hardly have been more terrifying.

Some tried to escape, and though a few succeeded, others were brutally killed. The rest simply awaited the final onslaught from Algerian troops. When it came, it was bloody: 32 of the terrorists were killed, along with at least 23 of their foreign captives at the time of writing.

The hostages were foreign workers at the In Amenas gas field in eastern Algeria; their captors were members of al Qaeda. More than a year after US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta declared the US ‘within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda’, the terrorist organisation has returned with one of its most co-ordinated operations in years.

This was a rigorously planned, carefully timed attack by a group of well-trained and well-armed terrorists. What is more, it specifically targeted foreigners: of the roughly 600 workers who were originally captured, the only ones who the militants retained were American, European or Japanese.

The militant cell who carried out this attack are known as ‘al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ (AQIM) – a name that has become ominously familiar in recent weeks. Armed with weapons looted from the chaos of Libya’s recent civil war, AQIM have become a dominant force in Mali, which shares a border with Algeria, and now threaten to throw the country into chaos and violence.

Two weeks ago, France sent 550 troops and Mirage aeroplanes into Mali in an attempt to hold back the rebel advance. Other countries, including Britain, sent transport and equipment, and the United Nations is even discussing full intervention. The hostage attack in Algeria was thought to be partly a response to this invasion.

Is al Qaeda rising again? And if so, how worried should we be?

Splintered cells

Winston Churchill once described North Africa as the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe. That is still true today, say some: if any organisation with the ideology and objectives of al Qaeda gain a new foothold there, Europe should be worried.

That is what the terrorists would like us to think, respond others – but the truth is different. The modern al Qaeda is a loose, fractured organisation with many different cells that are linked by little more than names and slogans. The militants in Mali and Algeria might talk about global revolution; but really their horizons barely stretch beyond their own country’s borders. We should still be worried, of course – just not on our own accounts.

You Decide

  1. How afraid should we be of al Qaeda and terrorism?
  2. Al Qaeda has proved difficult to destroy because it has become a broad organisation with many loosely-connected branches. Does this kind of structure make an organisation more or less effective?


  1. Imagine you are in a crisis summit. Terrorists have kidnapped a group of hostages and are demanding money for their return. Stage a debate between two people who disagree on whether or not the ransom should be paid.
  2. Research the history of al Qaeda and make a timeline showing key events in its rise.

Some People Say...

“Terrorism is this era’s greatest evil.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So should I be scared of al Qaeda or not?
You are 12,571 times more likely to die of cancer than in a terrorist attack, twelve times more likely to accidentally suffocate yourself in bed and four times more likely to be struck by lightning.
But isn’t that partly because we have fought it so hard since 2001?
Only partly. Take America for instance: if every terrorist attack targeting the country since 2001 had succeeded, the odds of being killed in one would still be a miniscule one in 1.7 million.
So no worries then?
You shouldn’t fear too much for your immediate safety. But the actions of al Qaeda can be hugely destabilising in other ways. In North Africa it is both a brutally repressive and a hugely destabilising force, while in the West terrorists have caused broad uncertainty and mistrust.

Word Watch

Algeria’s campaign for independence from French rule in the 1950s and ‘60s produced the most bitter struggle against colonial rule on the entire continent, with over a million deaths, and since then the country has continued to be troubled by violence. A recent period of greater peace is now being seriously threatened by the actions of militant Islamic fundamentalists.
Al Qaeda
Al Qaeda was formed by Osama bin Laden as a resistance movement during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1988. Under his leadership it grew into a global militant movement, using suicide bombings and coordinated attacks to terrorise those they see as the enemies of Islam. Today, the core of al Qaeda is led by an Egyptian doctor named Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operate in the ‘Maghreb’ region of Northwest Africa, including Algeria and Mali. They are one of several major branches operating under the al Qaeda banner that have recently risen in influence. Others include al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and al Shabaab in Somalia.
After a coup last April, Malian rebels and separatists from the Tuareg tribe have seized control of Mali and instituted a repressive version of Islamic law. Recently they have attempted to push south, leading France and other countries to intervene.


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