On January 16, 2013, a group of men under the leadership of Mokhtar Belmokhtar attacked the Tigantourine Gas Facility at In Amenas, Algeria, and took more than 100 expatriate personnel hostage. More than two years later, the motives for the attack on this remote facility remain in question, despite post-mortems from one of the joint venture partners Statoil, the British government, and even one allegedly produced by the group to which Belmokhtar belonged.

At the time, Belmokhtar claimed that his group had attacked the facility in retaliation for Algeria having allowed France to use its airspace during military operations against disparate Islamist groups that had taken control of a large portion of northern Mali. Evidence discovered later, showing that Belmokhtar’s group had begun planning the attack several months before France invaded Mali, makes it impossible for this explanation to be the sole cause.

While anger at France’s participation in the Mali campaign may have helped encourage planning, there must have been other motives. Hostage-taking has a long history among terrorist organizations and serves multiple purposes. Hostages can be ransomed for funds. They can be swapped for sympathizers or supporters held by the enemy. They can also be used as a form of outbidding to raise a group’s profile among its competitors.

The last option seems to have been at least one of Belmokhtar’s goals at Tigantourine.

Outbidding Among Violent Organizations

Violent organizations that occupy the same space and adhere to similar ideologies or pursue similar political goals often compete with one another for finite constituencies. As a consequence, they resort to different means to assert dominance and claim primacy. For groups that have already embraced violence as a means of advancing their causes, escalating the level of violent behavior can serve this purpose, in what has become known as “outbidding.”[1]

One prominent example is Fatah’s embrace of suicide bombing, something which it had historically avoided. Thrust into competition with Hamas and other aggressive non-state actors in Israel and the Palestinian territories that shared some of Fatah’s political objectives, Fatah may have felt compelled to adopt some of the same tactics that had generated populist support for Hamas, in particular, suicide bombing.

In January 2002, Fatah did just that and carried out its first such attack.[2] Support for Fatah rose considerably after this decision and while it did not vanquish Hamas as a result, Fatah’s embrace of suicide bombing demonstrated how outbidding narrowed the growing gap between the two organizations, even though it undermined Fatah’s ability to engage in a negotiated solution to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.[3]

The Army of Islamic Salvation vs. The Armed Islamic Group

Outbidding can especially apply to violent organizations that fracture and then are compelled to compete for support from a common constituency.

In 1994, two years into Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990s, an upstart militant Islamist organization, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), was jockeying for primacy and power with the original Islamist group fighting the Algerian government, the Army of Islamic Salvation (AIS). In an unprecedented move calculated to upstage the AIS, the GIA hijacked an Air France flight from Algiers to Paris.[4]

The hijacking unfolded over several days, with French Special Forces eventually killing the hijackers in Marseilles, where the plane had stopped to refuel. By 1995, the GIA had become the preeminent militant Islamist organization in Algeria and the AIS had been relegated to irrelevancy.

Belmokhtar had a ringside seat at this struggle for jihadi primacy from within the GIA. By this stage, he already had plenty of experience, allegedly dating back to the anti-Soviet fight in Afghanistan during the 1980s. He eventually quit the GIA, having become frustrated with its indiscriminate violence.[5]

Belmokhtar subsequently joined the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which then evolved into al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Significantly, the GIA battalion, or katîba, that executed the 1994 Air France hijacking was called Mouaqioun bi-Dimma, the same name as the group that conducted the In Amenas attack.

Jahbat al-Nusra vs. The Islamic State

The same dynamics are visible in a more recent episode of competition between terrorist organizations. Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State have competed for legitimacy, supporters, fighters, and funds in Syria over the past few years.

As with the competition between the AIS and the GIA, hostage-taking proved instrumental in the Islamic State’s surpassing and, in some instances, displacing Jabhat al-Nusra as the primary jihadi group operating in Syria.

The Islamic State’s differences with al-Qa`ida’s leadership and its eventual schism with al-Qa`ida are well known. However, it continued to operate in Syria where Jabhat al-Nusra, which remained allied with al-Qa`ida, also operated.

Although the two organizations differed in their ultimate goals—overthrow of the al-Assad government versus the establishment of a caliphate—they did share the common purpose of combating the government of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and of promoting a particular interpretation of Islam. As a result, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State found themselves vying for many of the same recruits and some of the same financial supporters.

One of the decisive events that appear to have clinched the Islamic State’s position as the dominant jihadi group in Syria and Iraq was its kidnapping and eventual murder in 2014 of James Foley after 22 months of captivity. This act was followed two weeks later by the murder of another hostage, Steven Sotloff.

The killings of Foley and Sotloff brought unprecedented attention to the Islamic State. During the decade before the Islamic State declared the establishment of the caliphate (i.e., from June 30, 2004 through June 29, 2014), the combined Arabic and English media mentions of the Islamic State or predecessor organizations totaled 7,865.

During the month following Foley’s murder and including the weeks immediately after the murder of Sotloff (August 20, 2014 to September 20, 2014) there were more than 24,000 mentions. Mentions of the Islamic State in English and Arabic media from August 20, 2014 until May 1, 2015 increased to more than 200,000, with more than half (118,000) occurring in Arabic.[6] Obviously, many of these mentions can be attributed to further attacks and murders, but the 300% increase in media appearances in the month following Foley’s murder is still significant.

Media Mentions As Proxy

Compare that to the media mentions for Jabhat al-Nusra during identical time frames. From its creation until June 29, 2014, the combined Arabic and English total of media mentions for Jabhat al-Nusra was 15,128, with 9,974 mentions in Arabic and 5,154 in English. In the month following Foley’s murder, Jabhat al-Nusra garnered only 958 mentions in English and 2,047 in Arabic. In the ensuing nine months, there were only 16,971 mentions of Jabhat al-Nusra in Arabic and English, mostly in Arabic. [7]

In Amenas As An Instance of Outbidding

The Mouaqioun bi-Dimma’s attack on the Tigantourine Gas Facility fits a similar pattern. Following a dispute with AQIM’s leadership, Belmokhtar broke away and carried out arguably the most spectacular terrorist attack in North African history. The hostage-barricade event resulted in the capture and death of 39 expatriate personnel. After the attack, Belmokhtar’s star shone brightly in the jihadi universe.

A series of letters uncovered by the journalist Rukmini Callimachi in February 2013 confirmed long-suspected tensions between AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdal and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the Moulathimin Brigade, an AQIM brigade operating in the Sahara.[8] The letters show that Belmokhtar, despite having unassailable jihadi credentials, was increasingly marginalized from AQIM leadership decisions.

The rift, according to the letters, reached a head between September and November 2012.[9] Belmokhtar complained that AQIM’s leadership was disconnected from the front and the fight.[10] AQIM’s leadership responded, chastising Belmokhtar for not attending leadership meetings and for failing to contribute to weapons procurement.[11] In their own report documenting the In Amenas attack, Belmokhtar’s supporters indicate that the initial planning coincided with the exchange of increasingly acrimonious letters between Belmokhtar and Droukdal.[12]

The Tigantourine Attack

On January 16, 2013, after two months of planning, 32 men loyal to Belmokhtar launched an attack on the Tigantourine Gas Facility. More than 800 workers were employed at the facility, including 146 expatriate personnel. After breaching the security cordon, the attackers searched housing and the central processing facilities looking for employees. The attackers corralled the foreign personnel in the housing facility’s main courtyard and let the Algerian employees go free.[13]

The attackers not only allowed the foreign hostages to use their mobile and satellite phones to call their employers and the media, but actually encouraged them to do so in order to call more attention to the attack. The attackers also spoke with Algerian security forces, communicating a number of demands, including the halting of France’s military operations in northern Mali, and the release of both convicted terrorists held in U.S. facilities and terrorists held by Algerian authorities.[14]

On the second day, Algerian forces attacked. In the ensuing violence, 39 hostages, an Algerian security guard, and all 29 attackers died. None of the attackers’ demands was considered.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar Raises His Profile

If the In Amenas hostage-taking was at least in part motivated by Belmokhtar’s competition with Droukdal for primacy, then it appears to have worked, at least in generating media attention. Prior to the attack, Belmokhtar was essentially unknown with just 1,121 media mentions in English, French, and Arabic of his name during the decade before the operation.

In the 17 months after the attack, there were six times as many. From January 16, 2013, the day of the attack, until May 1, 2015, there were 6,881 mentions by name and an additional 900 mentions of “Those who Sign in Blood,” the English translation of the name of the brigade that carried out the attack. This is in contrast to fewer than 1,700 media results in Arabic, French, and English for Abdelmalek Droukdal in the decade prior to the Tigantourine attack, and only 1,101 immediately after the attack until May 1, 2015.

What Does Hostage-Taking Achieve?

Hostage-taking as a form of outbidding and asserting dominance in a competitive jihadi landscape is about more than just garnering media attention. It also relates to practical things such as attracting recruits and generating funding, elements that are nonetheless vital in advancing a violent organization’s strategic political objectives. These components, though, are harder to measure. It is hard to gauge beyond rough estimates how many fighters have tried to join the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra following the kidnapping and murders of Foley and Sotloff. It is also, for now at least, impossible to disaggregate funding for either organization. Without access to Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra bookkeeping, it is impossible to know how much either organizations’ finances changed in the wake of the Foley and Sotloff murders.

Analyzing the Tigantourine attack and any likely dispute between Droukdal and Belmokhtar poses similar challenges. Although Belmokhtar’s infamy has now far surpassed that of Droukdal, it is difficult to assess whether the attack resulted in tangible benefits for Belmokhtar.

Viewed through the lens of practical gains, the evidence that Belmokhtar’s In Amenas operation was strategically successful is less clear. His organization did absorb another jihadi group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in August 2013, and formed a new group called the Mourabitoun. The new group, though, has not been very active, apart from a deadly attack in Bamako in March 2015. Moreover, MUJAO recently announced that it was splitting with Belmokhtar and allying itself with the Islamic State.[15] The hostage-taking certainly succeeded in generating media attention and raising the group’s profile, but it is less clear whether the Mourabitoun has been able to convert that higher profile into meaningful sustained support in terms of money and manpower, which are, after all, the ultimate goals of outbidding.

The hostage-barricade situation at Tigantourine is also an unfortunate instance where tragedy accommodates irony. At the heart of Belmokhtar’s dispute with Droukdal was the permissibility of kidnapping and hostage taking. According to Mathieu Guidère, “Belmokhtar did not consider kidnapping and ransom to be part of ‘jihad’ (holy war) since the hostages were generally non-combatants or civilians. Secondly he believed that such practices would attract unwanted attention from Western countries…”

Belmokhtar’s opposition to hostage taking was overruled by Droukdal who argued that “as for the status of hostages, the [AQIM] Legal Committee considers that any Western citizen is an enemy combatant because Western countries have all declared to be engaged in the war on terror and their political and military actions globally target the Islamist and jihadist groups.”[16] Belmokhtar’s dispute with Droukdal regarding kidnapping and hostage-taking comes as a surprise because Belmokhtar was at the forefront of kidnap for ransom in the Sahara for many years and participated in numerous operations that resulted in substantial revenue for AQIM. [17]

In his bid to supplant Droukdal, Belmokhtar may have revisited their dispute in an attempt to beat the AQIM leader on his own ground. If Droukdal considered kidnapping and hostage-taking to be legal, then Belmokhtar was going to do it on an unprecedented scale. Belmokhtar would walk the walk, while Droukdal simply talked. And Belmokhtar would take the mantle of jihadi dominance in North Africa.

Dr. Geoff D. Porter is an assistant professor with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and president of North Africa Risk Consulting. He specializes in political stability, violent non-state actors, and the extractive industries in North Africa.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

[1] Mia Bloom, Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005); Andrew Kydd and Barbara Walter, “The Strategies of Terrorism,” International Security 31:1 (Summer 2006), pp. 49-80.

[2] Jacob N. Shapiro, The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Covert Violent Organizations, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), p. 223.

[3] Robert A. Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2005); Andrew Kydd and Barbara F. Walter, “Sabotaging the Peace: The Politics of Extremist Violence,” International Organization 56 (Spring 2002), pp. 263–296; Mia M. Bloom, “Palestinian Suicide Bombing: Public Support, Market Share, and Outbidding,” Political Science Quarterly 119 (Spring 2004), pp. 61–88.

[4] Mohammed M. Hafez, Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World (London: Lynne Rienner, 2003), p.118.

[5] Andrew Black, “Mokhtar Belmokhtar: The Algerian Jihad’s Southern Emir” Jamestown Terrorism Monitor Vol. 7:12 (2009). Andrew Wojtanik, “Mokhtar Belmokhtar: One-Eyed Firebrand of North Africa and the Sahel,” Jihadi Bios Project, Combating Terrorist Center, West Point, 2014

[6] Statistics regarding press mentions for the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as other organizations mentioned below, are derived from Factiva searches. While clearly not comprehensive, they serve as a functional proxy.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rukmini Callimachi, “In Timbuktu, al-Qaida left behind a manifesto,” Associated Press, February 14, 2013.

[9] Mathieu Guidère, “The Timbuktu Letters: New Insights about AQIM” Res Militaris, 4:1, Winter-Spring (2014).

[10] Ibid., p. 8.

[11] Ibid.

[12] December 18, 2014, “Dirasa tawthiqiya li-`amaliya “al-muwaqiyun bi-al-dima’” al-fida’iyah bi al-jaza’ir.

[13] “In Amenas Inquest” U.K. Coroner’s Office, Day 12, October 7, 2014, p. 23.

[14] “Foreigners seized after deadly Algeria attack” Al Jazeera, January 16, 2013; Bill Roggio, “Belmokhtar claims Algerian raid, slaying hostages for al Qaeda” The Long War Journal (January 2013); “Algeria Hostage Deal: Kidnappers Offer to Swap US Hostages for Jailed Militants,” Reuters, January 18, 2013.

[15] Thomas Joscelyn, “Confusion surrounds West African jihadists’ loyalty to Islamic State” The Long War Journal, May 14, 2015

[16] Ibid.

[17] Geoff D. Porter, “AQIM’s objectives in North Africa,” The CTC Sentinel, 4:2, (2011).


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