Algeria prisoner swap shows how Al Qaeda won't leave US alone
As Al Qaeda-affiliated group proposed exchanging two US hostages in Algeria for two Islamist extremists jailed in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged stepped-up US support for counterterror efforts in North Africa.
The United States has proceeded cautiously – and behind the scenes – toward France’s Mali intervention, hoping to deny radical Islamists the West-versus-Islam recruiting message that an overt American role in the effort to oust militant Islamists from northern Mali would offer.Skip to next paragraph
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But reports Friday that the Al Qaeda-affiliated group that carried out the Algeria hostage taking wants to exchange two American hostages for two Islamist extremists and convicted terrorists jailed in the US suggests that America can’t help but be at the center of the global battle with Al Qaeda and associated Islamist radicals.
Commenting Friday on the still-unfolding Algeria hostage crisis, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pledged stepped-up US support for counterterror efforts in North Africa.
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The proposed exchange from the “Signers of Blood,” an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was relayed through a Mauritanian news service and underscores how radical Islamist groups have learned a cardinal lesson of Al Qaeda’s masterminds: that it serves the organization’s purposes to provoke the US and make it part of the anti-Western fight.
The group proposed exchanging its American hostages for the release of Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, serving a sentence in North Carolina for plotting to bomb New York landmarks; and Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving a life sentence in federal prison for attempted murder of US soldiers in Afghanistan.
The US was quick to affirm Friday that it would not pursue any kind of deal with the hostage-takers. “The United States does not negotiate with terrorists,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
But this position would not be news to the Algerian hostage-takers of AQIM, regional analysts point out. That means that the goal of those publicly proposing such a deal, they add, was really aimed at something else.
“It reminds me of Saddam Hussein saying he’d be happy to leave Kuwait [which he occupied in 1990] as soon as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was settled and the Palestinians had a state,” says Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Not gonna happen, and you know it. But that’s not the point.”
There was still little clarity Friday afternoon about how many hostages remain in the hands of the Islamist militants, and how many of them are Americans. At least one American was killed in the assault, according to the Associated Press. Late Friday, the State Department confirmed the death of US citizen Frederick Buttaccio, according to a statement from Ms. Nuland.
The Algerian state news agency reported Friday that about 100 of more than 130 foreign hostages had been freed, while it claimed that more than 570 Algerians were also freed in the Algerian military’s assault, which began Thursday on the Ain Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria. Other reports claimed that more than 60 hostages remain in the assailants’ control.