The attack by Islamist militants on Algeria’s In Amenas gas facility on Wednesday highlights Algeria’s precarious position in relation to the French-led intervention on its oil and gas-rich southern flank.

The “Masked Brigade”, a group thought to have ties to al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), claimed responsibility for the attack in a phone call to the official news agency of Mauritania, describing it as retaliation for Algeria’s support for the French intervention. The claim was impossible to confirm. The relatively rare attack coincided with vows of revenge against France and its allies in the Mali operation.

The sprouting of an Islamist mini-state in northern Mali and the subsequent French-led military operation have posed the greatest political and security challenge to Algeria in years. The country’s security forces spent years pushing Islamist militants, including members of AQIM, toward the country’s southern border, and now fear the fighters could return.

For now, Algiers appears to be employing a multifaceted diplomatic strategy, supporting the internationally recognised government in Bamako on the one hand and publicly calling for continued dialogue with the Islamist rebels on the other, while quietly opening its airspace to French overflights.

If the intervention succeeds, Algiers could emerge with a solution to a long-festering problem it has been unable to resolve despite discreet negotiations with Islamists. But if the operation goes awry, it could affect its relations with Bamako, provoke the militants and anger a public already wary of any French military presence in the region.

Many analysts are gloomy about the outcome. “Mali will not benefit from this intervention, and neither will Algeria,” said Ahmed Bin Gedo, head of international relations at the Superior National School for Public Works in Algiers. “Some of the risks are that we enter a stalemate. It might end up being a decades-long war, resources will be lost, lives will be lost, and it could also potentially spill over the border.”

Algeria has been closely monitoring northern Mali, which has served as a magnet for Arab and Algerian Islamist militants. Pushed to the south, they have regrouped in Mali and prepared for possible attacks across north Africa. Three alleged militants were killed on Monday crossing into Algeria from near the Libyan-Niger border.

Algerian authorities have been criticised for failing to prepare for the Islamist threat in Mali, and for not preventing the kidnapping last year of seven officials from their consulate in Gao. Algerian opposition politicians and media have accused the government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of relying too heavily on a halfhearted strategy of backroom negotiations with local players as the primary means for addressing the Mali crisis.

One former North African official alleged that Algeria funnelled weapons and money to Ansar Eddine in hopes that the group would do Algiers’ bidding.

The government has also been pilloried in the lively Algerian press for allowing France back into the region.

“How can Algeria allow the French army to return with its weapons to our airspace after it left it 45 years ago?” said an editorial on Tuesday in the independent newspaper el-Khabar.

Algeria “has a paranoid vision since [the Nato campaign] on Libya, seeing it as a French-Qatari plot”, said Jean-Pierre Filiu, an Algeria specialist at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. “On the other hand, the peace agreement it negotiated in Mali crumbled.”

Algerian officials have insisted that some sort of diplomatic negotiation was the only way to ultimately resolve the crisis, which is rooted as much in ethnic quests for autonomy as Islamist militant ambitions.

“The issue of north Mali will not be resolved militarily,” an Algerian official told the news website Tout sur l’Algeria. “There will be no definitive and lasting solution outside of political dialogue with the representatives of the populations of the north [of Mali]. After the military phase, and once the terrorist threat has been eliminated, the political solution will return with force to the heart of the problem.”

Additional reporting by Leyla Doss in Cairo

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