In January 2013, 32 militants seized control of the Tigentourine gas plant at In Amenas in southern Algeria, beginning a four-day siege that killed dozens of foreign hostages. In agreement with early statements by Algerian officials, investigators from Norway’s national oil company, Statoil, concluded it was “likely that the terrorists benefited from some insider knowledge in their planning of the attack.”[1] The plant—a joint venture among Norway’s Statoil, BP, and the Algerian public hydrocarbons company Sonatrach— was guarded by the Algerian military, and it accounted for 10% of Algeria’s natural gas production, generating revenues of approximately $5 million per day.[2]

Survivors said that while militants lacked crucial technical details,[3] they appeared well-informed about the facility. They knew, for example, the location of the management office, when top management would arrive, that high-level executives would be, unusually, on site,[4] and how to kill the electricity within the first few minutes of the attack.[5] In addition to agreeing that insider knowledge was a key component in the attack, Algerian officials and Statoil investigators also concluded in unison that there was no direct link between a six-month strike at the Tigentourine plant, which had succeeded in shutting down the facility in the lead-up to the attack, and the attack itself.[6]

This article provides an analysis of the In Amenas attack that situates the event within the context of recent momentum-gaining social movements in southern Algeria. These movements are not in and of themselves radical, but reflect a growing disenchantment with the Algerian state’s ability to fulfill the functions expected of it in the south, such as providing employment opportunities and development, and curbing corruption. It is only the coarsest interpretation that views counterterrorism in southern Algeria as a matter of killing militants; mapping terrorism onto the failure of peaceful movements to achieve significant change and reform, on the other hand, may reveal root reasons for radicalization and subsequent policy measures to address them.

Rising Discontent in Southern Algeria
Algeria stands out among Arab and African states for its hard-won competence in counterterrorism, having defeated various terrorist groups between 1993 and 2003 and overseen a transition from civil war to peace since then. Today, the jihadist threat, which during the “black decade” hailed largely from northern Algeria, has changed. Southern, Saharan katibas (battalions), which were formed in Algeria during the 1990s but played a negligible role at that time, launched the careers of a new generation of leaders such as Abu Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar.[7] Both built jihadist support networks on the backs of criminal smuggling networks in the Sahara, and served as key figures in the seizure of northern Mali by a trio of al-Qa`ida-linked groups. Abu Zeid was reported killed by intervention forces in northern Mali in February 2013.[8] Belmokhtar went on to mastermind the attack on the Tigentourine gas facility as well as a fresh round of attacks four months later upon French mining facilities in northern Niger and upon Nigerien security forces.[9] Belmokhtar hails from the southern Algerian city of Ghardaia,[10] which though situated squarely in the Sahara, functions as a gateway between southern and northern Algeria.

The rise of Islamist terrorist attacks in southern Algeria can only be understood within a larger framework. Apart from smuggling, recent radicalization in southern Algeria can be attributed to the social and economic grievances of the marginalized southern population. Since 2011, southern Algeria has witnessed an unprecedented largely peaceful protest movement, centered on demands to address unemployment, fight corruption, and improve development in Ouargla, Laghouat and Ghardaia—the three largest cities that border the gas and oil extraction zones of Hassi Rmmel and Hassi Messoud.[11] In defiance of defamatory claims that its goal was secession and its adherents terrorists, the protest movement has remained mostly peaceful, although at times reaching riotous peaks. Perceived corruption and inequality in the extractive industries, the most high profile economic activity in a zone that suffers from a dearth of economic opportunities, played a key role in animating protests in southern Algeria as well as in numerous other sites in North Africa and the Sahara in the past several years.[12] Aware that being written off in the national press as violent radicals or separatists would prevent them from being taken seriously, protesters sought to fend off criticism by, for example, singing the national anthem and waving flags during a sit-in in front of the mayor’s office in Ouargla.[13]

Nevertheless, militants may prey upon the despair that results when peaceful means of struggle are repressed or remain unaddressed. Yacine Zaid, a leader of the southern protest movement, was imprisoned in Ouargla in October 2012. Among more than 100 people sharing a space in jail, he said, were drug dealers, Islamic radicals who had kidnapped the governor of Illizi, arms traffickers, civil society activists, and petty criminals.[14] In the prison, he saw the influence of religious extremists spread among the inmates: “They won’t tell you the terrorists are right, but they won’t tell you they’re wrong…there is a [tacit] approval, that these are men of God who stand up for their ideas. They say, ‘they’re right, it’s not normal what we’re suffering the people of the south,’ so they start to lean towards the bad kind of struggle.”[15]

He added that “youths who see that the peaceful movement will not succeed are tempted by other means. The terrorists are everywhere and nowhere.”[16]

Ali Arhab, a salaried Sonatrach worker and trade union leader at the Hassi Rmmel gas facility, described the difficult conditions at the extractive industry plants in the desert, where 99% of workers are men. “It’s like a barracks, like an open-sky prison—even if you are free, there is nowhere to go,” he explained.[17] Employees belong to different ranks depending on where they are from: expatriates working as mechanics or operators, Arhab said, earn three to four times more than the salaried Algerians—most of whom hail from northern Algeria—who fill the very same roles.[18] One rank lower, Arhab said, are the contractors—in catering, transport, and lodging—who in turn make three to four times less than salaried Algerians.[19] It is in contracting that locals, or Saharans, are most likely to find employment. It is the contractors who were on strike at the Tigentourine facility in the lead-up to the terrorist attack. “[Saharan] contract workers are much more of a risk than [salaried] Sonatrach workers,” Ali said.[20]

Southern youths are motivated to achieve stable, salaried careers within extractive industry installations. The prevalent negative stereotypes of southern youths being “lazy” and only seeking jobs that will allow them to sit all day, as security guards or drivers, are false, according to Leah Bittat, an American who set up a career center in Ouargla with countering violent extremism funding from the U.S. Embassy in Algiers.[21] The students travel from all over the south, including Illizi on the Libyan border and El Oued, to attend the regional university in Ouargla, and tend to have a much higher level of English than northern Algerians as well as a higher level of initiative, she said.[22] Bittat stated there was a high demand for the career center services, which focus on preparing local university students to enter the private sector extractive industry job market. The service ended up registering 10 times more students a month than it planned, and all training sessions were standing room only. The Algerian economy is slowly transitioning toward a more liberal model, and the private sector is making efforts to better prepare southern Algerians for the job market. Anadarko, for example, has agreed to fund and expand the Ouargla university career center after March 2014.[23]

The Risks in Stifling Peaceful Protests
Grievances that first seek redress in the form of peaceful protest may sour and turn radical if handled carelessly or with coercion. Lamine Bencheneb, a man from Illizi in southeastern Algeria, began as a peaceful protester on behalf of the rights of southerners to employment and development, but died last year in the attack on Tigentourine, which he helped mastermind.[24] Belmokhtar’s group, an offshoot of an offshoot of al-Qa`ida, managed to deploy a couple of blond Canadians in the Tigentourine attack, and received a majority of the media attention as a result, yet it was Bencheneb’s group, Sons of the Sahara for Islamic Justice, that connected with local driver contractors working inside the gas complex, who provided insider knowledge used in the attacks.[25]

Another southern Algerian group calling itself Sons of the Sahara began releasing confused jihad-esque YouTube videos replete with Kalashnikov rifles months after the Tigentourine attack, asserting “Saharan” as a nationality, yet denying that its goal is independence.[26] According to the video, the first of the three concrete demands is “justice with regard to the natural resources that come from the Sahara.”[27] Reflecting the ambiguity of the southern population’s status with regard to the state, the speaker said: “We have reached a point where we prefer death to life as Algerians under the domination of your laws!”[28]

The tragic trajectory of Lamine Bencheneb and the appearance of new Sons of the Sahara videos demonstrate that the current challenge for Algerian stability in the south lies within the grey area that separates peaceful protest from radicalized violence. They also reveal the centrality of the extractive industries—as either a symbol or a target—to both ideological frameworks. The Tigentourine attack came as a particular shock, as it was the first time terrorists had targeted an extractive industries installation in Algeria. In this sense, it uniquely reflects how the threat has migrated from the north of the country in the 1990s to the south in the present day.

Two overlapping but distinct narratives emerged in the early hours of the Tigentourine attack. On the one hand, Belmokhtar’s group issued classically transnational demands for the withdrawal of Western intervention forces from Mali and the release of Aafia Siddiqui and the “blind shaykh” from prison[29]; on the other hand, the Sons of the Sahara called upon the youth of Algeria “to respond to injustice and aggression” by overthrowing the Algerian regime and installing an Islamic state.[30]

Analysis of the attack on the Tigentourine gas plant that narrowly focuses on the narrative of global jihad, or on how insecurity in Libya may have facilitated the coordination and attack, ignores the underlying local context without which the attack cannot be properly understood. Extractive industries in southern Algeria are a central focus of a well-organized, largely peaceful social movement for justice and livelihoods, the repression and ignoring of which risks further fueling radicalization.

Hannah Armstrong is a Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. She has researched regional politics and security from within the Saharo-Sahel since 2012, and regularly publishes reportage, analysis, and policy papers. She holds an M.A. from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and is fluent in French and conversant in North African dialects and Modern Standard Arabic.

[1] “The In Amenas Attack, Report of the Investigation into the Terrorist Attack on In Amenas,” Statoil, February 2013, available at

[2] Geoff D. Porter, “The New Resource Regionalism in North Africa and the Sahara,” SciencesPo/CERI, July 2013.

[3] The militants reportedly did not know how to restart the flow of gas, which might have enabled them to blow up the plant. See Paul Sonne and Benoit Faucon, “Algeria Probes Possible Role of Local Workers in Attacks,” Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2013.

[4] According to the Wall Street Journal, “Top executives there at the time included Statoil’s country manager in Algeria; a senior London-based executive from BP; the top adviser and former vice president of JGC; and all three senior on-site managers for BP, Statoil and Sonatrach. A number of those executives died.” See ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.; “The In Amenas Attack, Report of the Investigation into the Terrorist Attack on In Amenas.”

[7] For more on this, see Jean-Pierre Filiu, “The Fractured Jihadi Movement in the Sahara,” Hudson Institute, January 8, 2014.

[8] Steven Erlanger, “France Confirms the Death of a Qaeda Leader in Mali,” New York Times, March 23, 2013.

[9] “Mokhtar Belmokhtar ‘Masterminded’ Niger Suicide Bombs,” BBC, May 24, 2013.

[10] “Profile: Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” BBC, June 4, 2013.

[11] For more on this, see “The Protest Movement of the Unemployed in Southern Algeria,” Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies, May 14, 2013.

[12] North Africa scholar Geoff D. Porter shed light on how mining facilities are perceived in underdeveloped desert areas in North Africa and the Sahara. He pointed out that “protests for more employment opportunities, better education, and better infrastructure have focused on the extractive industries because it is often the most high profile economic activity in a region that suffers from a deficit of economic opportunities.” See Porter.

[13] Walid Ait Said, “Les chômeurs du sud ont manifesté dans la sérénité et la vigilance; Une leçon de patriotisme,” L’Expression, March 16, 2013.

[14] Personal interview, Yacine Zaid, Algiers, Algeria, January 2014.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Personal interview, Ali Arhab, Algiers, Algeria, January 2014.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Personal interview, Leah Bittat, Algiers, Algeria, January 2014.

[22] Ibid. One reason is “because French isn’t their second language.”

[23] “Algeria Fact Sheet 2013,” Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, 2013.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Mounir Boudjemaa, “In Amenas, Revélations sur une attaque terroriste,” Liberte, January 19, 2013.

[26] This group is distinct from, but linked to, the Sons of the Sahara for Islamic Justice.

[27] The video is available at

[28] Ibid.

[28] Myra MacDonald, “Insight – In Amenas Attack Brings Global Jihad Home to Algeria,” Reuters, January 24, 2013.

[29] Duncan Gardham, “Terrorist Group Behind Algerian Gas Plant Attack Filmed Training in the Desert,” Telegraph, January 23, 2013.

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