Islamist militants’ mass hostage-taking at a natural gas facility in southern Algeria remains murky, as do the Algerian military’s efforts Thursday to free the captives, but one result of the violence is already clear: The episode expands the scope of the battle with Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist extremists in North Africa.
The hostage crisis drags Algeria, a major oil and gas producer with a bloody history of fighting home-grown Islamist militants, onto center stage in the regional battle – a place it has tried to avoid in recent months.
And in part because of the large number of nationalities among the hostages, the international community is now involved in North Africa’s anti-Islamist fight in a way that France’s intervention last week in Algeria’s neighbor Mali – an intervention designed to head off Mali’s fall to radical Islamists – had not immediately provoked.
With reports Thursday afternoon that at least two of perhaps seven American hostages had escaped their captors and were on their way home, the United States was involved in the crisis both on the ground and diplomatically. Pentagon officials confirmed that the US had deployed unmanned drones to monitor and report on the fast-moving crisis, while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has kept informed through phone conversations Wednesday and Thursday with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal.
Secretary Clinton said the US wanted to be “helpful” and discussed what assistance the US was prepared to provide, according to State Department officials. The US offered to dispatch specially trained hostage-rescue teams, according to some Pentagon officials, but Algeria reportedly declined.
Algeria dispatched helicopter gunships on Thursday to thwart the militants’ attempt to flee the gas complex with a number of hostages. By Thursday evening Algerian officials claimed that several hundred hostages had been freed – while acknowledging that a number of hostages and their captors had died.
Algeria’s communications minister, Mohand Said Oublaid, said in a radio address that Algeria’s military operation resulted in the “neutralization” of a large number of “terrorists” and the freeing of a “considerable number” of hostages, though he gave no specific numbers. He also said the operation was ongoing as he spoke Thursday evening.
But other Algerian officials told local reporters that as many as 30 hostages died in the helicopter assault. That number was closer to what militants associated with the hostage takers reported. Islamist militants associated with Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), Al Qaeda’s principle affiliate in the region, claimed that 35 hostages had died in the Algerian helicopter assault.
American involvement in the effort to resolve the hostage crisis was not surprising, some regional analysts say, given the presence of American citizens at the gas facility – and the broader US interest in seeing radical Islam’s spread in the region reversed.
But any sustained US role, for example in Mali, is likely to follow the pattern set by President Obama in the 2011 Libya intervention, some experts add. In that case, the powers with the greatest interests at stake – France and Britain – were expected to take the lead.
“We’ll probably see much of the Libya model as this [Mali] intervention moves forward,” says Stephanie Pezard, an expert in West Africa and terrorism at the RAND corp. in Arlington, Va. “Just as in Libya, where it was the countries most concerned that were expected to take the lead, in this case there’s an understanding that France is the most concerned.”
But she says she expects the US “won’t be so far behind,” and that the intelligence resources the US is talking about providing “will be particularly useful when it comes to taking back the north” of Mali from the Islamists and pursuing militant fighters in the rugged Saharan terrain.
What Ms. Pezard does not expect to see is a significantly larger US involvement as a result of the Algerian hostage crisis. “I don’t think this crisis changes radically what the US already intended to do to support France” in Mali, she says.
The crisis does focus more international attention on the spread of Islamist militancy in North Africa, she adds. But she says that Americans and Westerners in general already knew that working and traveling in the area involved considerable risk.
Groups like AQIM – which is largely an Algerian organization and has operated for years there – have amassed the funds they’ve used to arm themselves through years of hostage-taking.
Pezard says Algeria has discouraged foreign intervention in the region’s increasingly chaotic and dangerous affairs for two key reasons: First, because it hoped to be a regional diplomatic kingpin, but also because it feared the impact that outside intervention – particularly by France, Algeria’s (and Mali’s) former colonial ruler – could have on restive local populations in the south.
“They’re afraid of seeing conflict spread to local populations, like the Touaregs,” who could end up demanding a southern state, she says.
What Algeria’s hostage crisis may indicate most clearly is that the sources of the region’s instability aren’t likely to dry up anytime soon.