Nouakchott/ Algiers, Asharq Al-Awsat – A Canadian citizen was the coordinator of the terrorist attack on a gas plant in In Amenas (southeast of Algiers), Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal revealed on Monday.
“A Canadian was among the militants. He was coordinating the attack,” Sellal told a news conference in Algiers.
Furthermore, a spokesman for the ‘Signatories in Blood’ group, which has claimed responsibility for the attack, has described the operation as “a success by all standards.”
In a telephone interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Hassan Walid Khalil said that “Algerian fighter jets bombed the buses we were using to transport 36 hostages from the residential compound to the factory. There were no survivors except for two of our brothers and a Japanese hostage, who managed to reach the factory on foot.” Walid Khalil further indicated that the initial attack on the gas plant was carried out by “a group of forty fighters, including some of our Western brothers”.
Meanwhile, the Algerian government said yesterday that the militants killed in the attack were of various nationalities. Algeria’s state news agency APS quoted Mohammed Said, Algeria’s communications minister, as saying that they were “nationals of Arab and African countries and of non-African countries”, without providing further details.
Walid Khalil added that “the militants split into two groups: One took control of the factory, the other took control of the residential compound. The latter was bombarded by the Algerian army while attempting to join up with the first group, because the factory was more defendable.”
Asked whether there was any possibility of peacefully resolving the situation, the group’s spokesman said “we wanted to resolve the issue at the plant, because transferring the hostages and getting them to Ozoad (northern Mali) was impossible, and we did not want to do that.” He added, “An Algerian intelligence general contacted us and we expressed our readiness for dialogue but he refused, opting for the use of force instead.”
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, well known in the Sahel region by the nickname “Mr. Marlboro”, announced the establishment of the “Signatories in Blood” group in December 2012. He stated then that the goal was to punish those participating in or planning a war against the armed Islamist groups of northern Mali. In his announcement of the group’s formation, Belmokhtar directed his speech towards the countries of the region, saying, “We will respond forcefully [to all attackers]; we promise we will follow you to your homes and you will feel pain and we will attack your interests”.
The formation of the ‘Signatories in Blood’ group came after sharp differences emerged between the leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), leading to Belmokhtar splitting from the organization several months ago and converging with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which controls the region of Gao in northern Mali. The targeting of the gas plant in In Amenas was the first operation undertaken by ‘Signatories in Blood’, following France’s decision to launch a military operation against armed Islamic groups that had attempted to seize control of cities in southern Mali on 10 January 2013.
Yesterday, the Mauritanian website ‘Sahara Media’ posted a video recording of Belmokhtar, in which he said: “We in Al-Qaeda announce this blessed operation.” Here he was keen to stress that the In Amenas attack was conducted by the Al-Qaeda ‘mother organization’, rather than AQIM. Belmokhtar also emphasized the differences between him and the AQIM leadership through the initial demands he put forward, including the release of Omar Abdel-Rahman and Aafia Siddiqui, both being detained in the US, in exchange for the release of all US hostages.
Observers believe that the video published by Sahara Media, a website affiliated to the armed groups of the Sahel region, was recorded on Thursday 11 January, coinciding with the beginning of the Algerian army’s assault on the gas plant to secure the release of the Western and Algerian hostages.
In the video Belmokhtar expressed his willingness to negotiate with Western governments and the Algerian regime in order to reach a solution and stop the military operations in Mali against armed Islamic groups.