Al Qaeda-linked extremists carried out a deadly attack against the Algerian Amenas gas field on January 16. Reportedly, the strike was conducted in retaliation for the military intervention France has initiated in its former colony Mali. French planes had used Algerian airspace for carrying out the strikes. The event has demonstrated the acute risks faced by the energy facilities located throughout the region, including the Gulf States. More importantly, the attack has triggered a renewed phase of European intervention in northern Africa that will have consequences far beyond the region.
Evolution of Target Selection
AQ linked extremists routinely carry out retaliatory attacks around the globe. Over time, the types of targets selected have evolved. Obviously, the target selection is based on the strategic intent and the message the extremists want to convey. Additionally, it’s also a reflection of their capability and the vulnerability of a target.
For example, in revenge for Pakistan’s cooperation with NATO forces in Afghanistan, in 2012 a number of sensitive military installations have been targeted. This includes air bases in Kamra, Peshawar, and a naval facility located in Karachi. In a high-profile attack in Benghazi last year, the US embassy was targeted, leading to the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Last Friday, another US embassy was struck, this time in Ankara.
In the Middle East, Saudi national oil company Aramco came under a serious cyber attack in August of last year that damaged more than 30,000 computers. Reportedly, the attempt was to dent the Saudi oil and gas production. The targeting of an Amenas gas field in Algeria had a similar ambition. It supplies about 25% of the gas for Western Europe and the country is the fourth largest producer of gas in Africa. This poses a grave worry for the Europeans, as there appears to be concerted efforts by the AQ-linked extremists to disrupt the energy supplies.
Europeans Return to Africa
Despite the economic pressures and the emergence of more strategic threats in the Pacific, events related to the Arab Spring and extremism have pulled western attention back to the core Islamic regions.
As the US winds down its military campaign in Afghanistan, it has been reluctant to get involved in the developing North African theater of operation, where its interests are less clear. Like in the case of Libya, US is resorting to providing more logistical support, while the French and the British are taking the lead. At the same time, there is growing discussion about a new business model through which the US can lend its awesome logistical capabilities, acquired over decades of large investments in defense research and development, to the Europeans.
The challenge is not all European members of NATO are on the same page on how to deal with future threats. The dynamics that may evolve in Europe may not be much different from what occurred earlier in the last century and in the seventeen and eighteen hundred. During this timeframe, the major European powers were constantly at each other and these tussles were transferred to their respective colonies. Preventing any single power from dominating Europe caused almost constant shuffling of alliances.
As is the case now, even then the challenge was how to pay for the constant wars: the question of raising taxes and competition over trade and market access. The NATO alliance is already grappling with these tough questions. Over time, the present European stagnation is likely to play out in a manner similar to the past.
In this respect, the French military intervention in Mali might be the initiation of bigger fissures within Europe. For now, the British have announced that they will be sending about 360 troops to support the French in Mali. In PoliTact’s forecast for 2012, it was noted that the decline of European Union, the rise of Germany, and the resurgence of Russia, were fundamentally altering the balance of power in Europe. Moreover, the Germans and the Russians have also been moving closer. This transformation makes the French and the British especially uneasy and causes them to look towards the US to counter. However, the US, for the first time, does not want to play a leading role.
Furthermore, PoliTact had also pointed out: “These European tensions are already playing out in other regions of the world, especially in South Asia, Middle East, and North Africa. In the chaos that has resulted from the Arab spring, the European powers appear to be establishing their zones of influence.”
The Spheres of Influence
The spheres of influence conceptualization make further sense as the writ of the states in these regions is fast evaporating. These fears were aggravated this week when protests in Egypt flared up once more causing Defense Minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi to warn on Jan 29th about the potential collapse of the state. His statement was reinforced by a similar message by Israeli Air Force Chief Major General Amir Eshel a few hours later, presenting grave concerns about Syria and Egypt. On the Jan 30th, Israel conducted an air strike near Damascus, reportedly to prevent the proliferation of chemical weapons and getting into the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
If the disturbance in Pakistan continues unabated, the events of the Middle East and North Africa may provide a model for what can be the case. This further raises the importance of SCO alliance and escalates the significance of the news that Pakistan has decided to hand over the operation of Gwadar port to a Chinese firm. Even more startling was the statement that came from the Turkish foreign ministry, whose spokesman stated on Jan 31st that Ankara, like Pakistan and India, also desires to attain an observer status on the SCO.
It’s becoming clearer by the day that the existing order has become unsustainable, and attempts to resist the rapid transformation will prove to be ineffective. The key is not only to adapt but also be in a position to shape and influence what is emerging. While the emerging order is not clear yet, the lessons of history should not be taken lightly.