From the standpoint of effective terrorism in relation to assets lost, the attack on the Algerian gas plant was unsuccessful. The aim of a terrorist attack is to effect a result that creates fear in the target. In this case the target was both the international gas consortium and the Algerian government. In neither way did the terrorist act succeed.
Key components, such as the generators, were shut down by the employees before they could be destroyed. Granted that morally the loss of life — whether it’s terrorists or innocents — is not of much consequence to terrorists. The death of 29 of the attackers resulting from the Algerian Army counterattack was disproportionate in relation to the approximately fifty fighters in the original terrorist force. Of the hundreds of workers trapped in the vast complex, most of their casualties came from the Algerian Army teams that did not discriminate in their offensive against the encircled terrorists. The terrorist fighters never expected such a violent reaction. They apparently planned to take a few key hostages and destroy the operational ability of the complex. They failed in all respects.
From the standpoint of political impact, the suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara was far more effective. The lone terrorist died along with a Turkish security guard and two visiting local journalists in the waiting area were wounded. But the political/psychological effect on the American embassy personnel, to say nothing of the embarrassment of Turkish officialdom, satisfied the terrorist objective.
The problem in running a terror campaign — and Osama bin Laden understood this extremely well — is the need to instill in the target not only an immediate post-operational fear of the act occurring again shortly afterward, but a longer term reaction that inhibits the target from continuing its normal activity. Importantly this must be accomplished with a limited loss of terrorist assets. The idea that terrorists are all considered expendable by their leaders mistakes the concept of commitment to the specific cause and the value of the trained operator. As an example, it could be argued that the extensive loss of life and property on Sept. 11, 2001 justified the high loss of specially trained al Qaeda terrorists.
The original al Qaeda training program tended to use an initial tough regimen to determine the more physically fit, but not necessarily mentally tough. As time has gone on there has come to be an awareness that special technical talents trumped both physical strength and endurance. Depending on the target area, urban or rural, physical and mental qualifications may differ. Actions requiring strong commitment, however, do not necessarily require higher level intellect. In any case, the ability to move among various levels of society will make a candidate valuable as a covert and integral member of a given community.
The operation against the Algerian gas facility at Tiguentourine was carried out by independent militant forces located 30 miles away in Libya. These fighters are an outgrowth of para-military groups that have evolved since the fall of Gaddafi’s established government. Some of the participants worked as the Libyan leader’s mercenaries and now are organized to serve terrorist-linked organizations, some with a distant connection to al Qaeda through multiple cut-outs. The wave of Islamic revanchism sweeping North Africa has provided a rallying point for former mercenaries and partisan political and tribal belligerents.
Modern economic symbols such as the large gas plant become attractive targets. If the attackers had been well trained, they would have destroyed key elements of the installation. They would have killed whatever number of workers that got in their way and then quickly sped off to security in the desert. Instead they were fixated on the destruction of complicated machinery that gave Algerian special forces time to encircle and annihilate them before they were able carry out the planned devastation.
The first rule in unconventional warfare is to avoid being trapped by your own ambition to send a message — in this case the capture of an industrial facility and attempt to hold the objective rather than simply strike, exploit, and withdraw. The aggressiveness and commitment that marks terrorist activity also tends to lead the participants, when acting as a group, to be excessive in their actions. Most often the same political and psychological points can be made with far less extravagance. Having less highly trained and intellectually capable operators in the cases of the shoe and underwear bombers may have contributed to the failure of their devices to detonate properly, but the political/psychological aim was at least partially accomplished. Terrorism does not have to succeed completely if the objective is to instill fear in the target.
It doesn’t take very intelligent or highly trained people to perform terrorist acts. It does take these types of people, however, to be successful over the long run in destabilizing law and order in established governments. This is the real danger that the vestiges of al Qaeda present, if only as the inspiration and guides for terror-motivated individuals and groups. Al Qaeda remains a powerful and destabilizing force not only in the Middle East but worldwide for this reason even when its physical assistance is not involved. Benghazi, the Algerian gas facility, and the bombing of the U.S. Embassy guard post in Ankara will happen again in some form, somewhere. The concept of terrorist attack is now rampant everywhere among self-perceived disadvantaged groups.