Militants linked with al-Qaeda have taken a large number of hostages, including some Americans, at a BP oil facility in Algeria. The New York Times reports:
The Algerian agency said at least at least two people had been killed in the gas-field seizure, including one British national, and that the hostages included American, British, French, Norwegian and Japanese citizens.
The exact number of hostages was still far from certain. A top Algerian government official said that security services had now “encircled the base” so that “no one can leave.” But he added that “the situation is confused for the moment. We don’t have precise figures for now. Maybe 30” hostages in all. . . .
The attack on the gas field is the first known retribution by the Islamists for the French armed intervention in Mali last week and raised the possibility of drawing an increasing number of foreign countries directly into the conflict.
A Japanese official confirmed that Japanese nationals were involved, and the Irish Foreign Ministry said one Irish citizen had been kidnapped. The State Department in Washington could neither confirm or deny the abduction of any Americans.The Sahara Media Agency of Mauritania, quoting what it said was a spokesman for the militants, said they were holding five hostages in a production facility on the site and 36 others in a housing area, and that there were as many as 400 Algerian soldiers surrounding the operation. . . .
Fighters with links to Al Qaeda’s African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility for the attack, according to both Mauritanian and Algerian news agencies. They quoted militants claiming that the kidnappings were a response to the Algerian government’s decision to allow France to use its airspace to conduct strikes against Islamists in Mali.
The Norwegian foreign ministry has said 13 Norwegian nationals are being held, and Secretary of Defense Panetta confirms that Americans have been taken. West and North African Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have a long history of hostage-taking and kidnapping of Westerners, though usually for the purposes of funding their development, rather than as an act of terror. This, obviously, given the number of hostages taken, is an action meant to send a much more aggressive message altogether. In addition, the fact that this attack, supposedly in retaliation for the Western intervention in Mali, occurred in Algeria may be no coincidence, especially since, if you’re going to take Westerners hostage in any country in West Africa, Algeria might be one of the riskier places to do it; its government is widely seen as a security leader in the region. Because of that status, the Algerian government’s consent was seen as crucial to any multilateral intervention in Mali, and efforts by the American government, among others, secured their approval for the December U.N. Security Council authorizing such an intervention. When asked on Saturday whether the Algerian government supported France’s operations in Mali, a foreign-ministry spokesman tacitly approved, saying it was a sovereign decision of Mali’s government (they had previously expressed serious concern about Islamists’ recent gains in Mali).
Lastly, it’s debatable whether this actually can be attributed to last week’s intervention in Mali — the timing is certainly convenient for al-Qaeda, which will no doubt fundraise and recruit on the idea of Western attacks on Muslims in Mali, but it seems like an attack of this scale and difficulty (capturing hostages from an oil facility that surely had significant security, rather than kidnapping at a softer target) would have required planning before France’s intervention at the end of last week.
UPDATE: Regardless of what prompted the attack, the terrorists have now set a ransom: the withdrawal of Western forces from Mali.