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.

Canal Algerie via Associated Press TV/AP
Unidentified rescued hostages pose for the media in Ain Amenas, Algeria, in this image taken from television Friday. Algeria’s state news service says nearly 100 out of 132 foreign hostages have been freed from a gas plant where Islamist militants had held them captive for three days.

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.

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.

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.

But some of the freed Algerians reported that the military assault, which was apparently launched in an effort to prevent the Islamists from fleeing the facility with hostages, resulted in dozens of deaths among the hostages and their captors.

The US has been wary of any international effort to oust the Islamist rebels looking like the West fighting Muslims to take back former colonial lands. The AQIM group that carried out the Algeria hostage taking said it was in retaliation for the French operation in Mali.

But Secretary Clinton’s statement Friday suggests that the US, presented with an international terrorist act and significant loss of life involving many nationalities including at least one American, is shedding some of its reticence.

“It is absolutely essential that we broaden and deepen our counterterror cooperation going forward with Algeria and all counterterror efforts in the region,” Clinton said. Citing her conversations with Algerian officials in recent days, she said, “I made clear that we stand ready to further enhance counterterror support that we have already supplied.”

Clinton also made a point of adding, “We [were] discussing it last year, when I traveled to Algeria in October specifically to discuss counterterror issues.”

That suggestion that the Obama administration was already actively addressing North Africa’s spreading Islamist terrorist challenge is seen by some foreign-policy analysts as a preemptive move against administration critics who might claim that the Algeria terrorist attack echoes September’s deadly attack on a US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Clinton is scheduled for congressional testimony next week on the Benghazi attack, and she is sure to face charges that the State Department failed to take seriously ample warnings of Benghazi’s deteriorating security and growing radical-Islamist presence.

Clinton’s call for more robust international counterterror action in North Africa was echoed in London by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who told Parliament Friday that Britain and its Western allies were on notice to take quick steps and dedicate increased resources to countering North Africa’s rising “terrorist threat.”

Events demonstrate how that threat is spreading in the desert region known as the Sahel that stretches from Somalia in the east to Mauritania in the west, Mr. Cameron said.

“What we know is that the terrorist threat in the Sahel comes from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which aspires to establish Islamic law across the Sahel and northern Africa and to attack Western interests in the region and, frankly, wherever it can,” Cameron said.

He said he discussed with President Obama by phone Thursday how the Al Qaeda threat that Western allies have reduced in Afghanistan and Pakistan “has grown in other parts of the world.” He added, “We need to be equally concerned about that and equally focused on it.”

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