A leading expert in Sahara militants has questioned whether the Algerian hostage crisis could have been a planned 'inside job', approved by the Algerian intelligence services, which ultimately went awry.
Professor Jeremy Keenan of the School of Oriental And African Studies told The Huffington Post UK that Mokhtar Belmokhtar's “Signed In Blood Battalion" has very close links to Algeria's secret intelligence services, despite Belmokhtar being officially "sentenced to death" in absentia in the country.
Professor Keenan said it would have been "almost impossible" for militants to have cross 1,000 miles of desert undetected, if they had not been given tacit approval to proceed.
Militant militia leader Moktar Belmokhtar, taken from a video grab
"The desert is riddled with military security checks. It would be almost impossible to get across. And the In Amenas gas field will be one of the most heavily guarded in Algeria.
"But these guys seem to have wandered in and helped themselves. That has to be explained."
Professor Keenan suggested there is wide speculation that Algerian intelligence services were planning a small-scale terror attack in Algeria, to warn the West about the repercussions of military action in Mali.
But Belmokhtar's group has turned on them because the government allowed the French military to use Algerian airspace to bomb Mail.
"I am certain that the security services were planning a very small, false-flag terror attack in Algeria so they could turn around to the rest of the world and say ‘We told you so, if you attack Mali they'll be terror attacks across the region. We are right, we control this region’. They have allowed attacks like that for 20 years.
"It's a very nasty regime, and that would be absolutely typical of them. I think this group were possibly being allowed to get across the country, because the Algerian security services thought they could do something minor, shoot up a bus, or a police station or something.
"That could explain why they had free access across the country. But I think the worm turned, I think they decided to turn against the Algerian Security Services and hit the country hard.
Professor Keenan believes the group is almost certainly led by Belmokhtar, who has the nickname '”the one-eyed prince”.
Belmokhtar was said to have been killed last year by rebel groups in northern Mali, but he has apparently claimed responsibility for the attack in a video message.
In Amenas Gas Field in Algeria, which is extremely isolated
Experts believe the raid on the gas field must have been planned for many months before the French offensive in Mali began.
Professor Keenan told HuffPost UK: "We know that Mokhtar Belmokhtar left Mali two or three weeks ago so it is certainly likely to be him leading this. It fits his style, his means, his experience, he know the area inside out. I'm sure he's not there himself but it's his men.
"Algerians believe their government has been absolutely treacherous, giving France the right to use their airspace to go to Mali. This group were incensed; I've been speaking to contacts within Algeria, who are off this planet with rage.
"The Algerians actually didn't have much choice; they couldn't turn round and say 'no' to France. But there's a lot of government anti-Western propaganda on TV, it keeps the rank and file happy. But the government are doing very different things behind closed doors, the people are realising this.
"Now, I suspect there will be a monumental reaction from the man on the street. They will be immediately suspicious about this incident, they will either believe it is an inside job or they will feel the intelligence service have failed to stop terrorist coming into their country, damaging our country."
An Algerian military truck drives past a road sign indicating the city of In Amenas
Professor Keenan believes the attack will have a monumental long-term effect on the politics of the region, long after the last rescued captives have departed from the country.
"The Algerian response seems to have been extraordinary, arrogant, bullish. They have gone in, boots and all, because they were really caught by this. They had to hit back hard.
"There will be massive repercussions behind closed doors, especially for the intelligence services. This is the most serious thing that has happened in Algeria for a very, very long time.
"They have always guaranteed the safety of foreigners, there's never been an attack on an oil installation. This is unprecedented and they don't know how to react."