January 23, 2013

Algeria Offers No Apologies For Its Tactics During Hostage Crisis


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And as we just heard, Algeria is among the hot spots in North Africa. At least 70 people, including 37 foreign hostages, were killed last week after Algerian special forces stormed a natural gas facility that have been seized by Islamist militants. Among the dead were three Americans.

Since the raid, a debate has raged about Algeria's response. Its tactics were seen as harsh. But some analysts say Algeria probably couldn't have done much more to prevent the bloodshed, as NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In the opening stage of the hostage drama, Algeria says it did what most other governments in the world would do. It tried to negotiate with the captors. But then the heavily armed militants started to make demands. They wanted Islamists held in Algerian prisons released. At that point, the Algerian government cut off negotiations prematurely, according to John Nagl, a research professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and an expert in counterinsurgency.

DR. JOHN NAGL: I think the United States and many of our allies around the globe would have preferred that they would have held off a while longer, perhaps brought some experienced hostage negotiators in. You could have had surveillance of it for some time to determine the patterns, the habits of the kidnappers.

NORTHAM: The U.S., the U.K., France and other nations urged Algeria to be cautious and strongly encouraged it to make the safety of the hostages its top priority. But Algeria appeared not to heed those appeals, says George Joffe, a professor of international studies at Cambridge University.

He says Algeria has had plenty of experience with these types of situations, especially during its brutal civil war in the 1990s, and that it doesn't need or like outsiders interfering in its business. Joffe says he wasn't surprised Algerian security forces responded with maximum force when kidnappers first tried to flee the natural gas facility with hostages as human shields.

DR. GEORGE JOFFE: The Algerians responded very violently. They stopped any move. They shot up a series of vehicles that have tried to make the breakthrough and in the process killed not any hijackers but also some hostages.

NORTHAM: Algerian security forces launched another assault on Saturday, killing the last of the kidnappers and more hostages. Earlier this week, Algeria's Prime Minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, held a press conference to give the government's side of the story.


NORTHAM: Sellal said the militants came from many places - Mali, Niger, Canada - and that they attacked not only the natural gas facility but also the stability of Algeria itself. Sellal made no apologies for his government's handling of the crisis, that's because Prime Minister Sellal believes he achieved his goal, says Montana State Senator Ryan Zinke, himself a former U.S. Navy SEAL.

STATE SENATOR RYAN ZINKE: I think the Algerians, while they've been, you know, criticized, they definitely had made a statement. And now, it seems their statement is if you take one of our facilities, we are coming after you immediately.

NORTHAM: Zinke says comparing Algeria's approach to the crisis to the US approach is like comparing a sledgehammer to a surgeon's scalpel. But Zinke says any hostage situation is challenging, this Algerian one, particularly so.

ZINKE: From a former SEAL's perspective, any time you have hostages that are taken in a desert scenario like that, it's very difficult problem to respond to in a military fashion because you - the element of surprise is very difficult.

NORTHAM: Zinke says it's difficult to tell if Algeria's violent response to the hostage situation will deter terrorists in the future. Cambridge University's Joffe doubts it.

JOFFE: We're talking about a group of people dedicated to a particular ideology who've made it quite clear that they have no problem about the idea of sacrificing their hostages.

NORTHAM: And, Joffe says, in those circumstances, Algeria would argue its approach is the best way to deal with hostage taking. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.