After Islamist militants linked with al-Qaeda took at least 41 foreigners (though according to Reuters, possibly as many as 130 or so) and many local employees hostage at a petroleum facility in Algeria on Wednesday morning, the Algerian military launched an attack on the facility on Thursday. This involved bombing several of the vehicles the terrorists had armed and were using to hold hostages, leading to a number of hostage deaths — the Algerian government has stated that they know of four hostage deaths (two Britons and two Filipinos), while a spokesman for the militant group claimed that the attack led to the deaths of 35 hostages and 15 militants. The Daily Mail cites “French sources” saying that Algeria decided to attack because the terrorists had begun executing hostages. The BBC summarizes what various countries have said about the fate of their citizens:
Japanese officials were meanwhile quoted as saying that at least 14 Japanese nationals were still missing. At least three managed to escape. . . .
Norway said eight of its nationals were currently unaccounted for. One is being treated at a hospital in In Amenas, while four escaped unharmed.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said two French workers were safe. It was unclear if another two were involved, he added.
One Irish citizen, an Austrian and five Americans have been freed, according to officials.
The British and Japanese governments have expressed their anger at not being informed of the operation on Thursday, with British prime minister David Cameron publicly railing this morning in Parliament against the Algerian government’s rebuffing the U.K., with a spokeswoman later confirming, though, that they respected the Algerians’ decision.
As of yesterday, the White House and the State Department have not expressed similar sentiments, declining to comment at all on whether the U.S. was even informed of the attack beforehand, and whether the U.S. had offered any assistance, offering only assurances that they remain in communication with the Algerian government (the Associated Press quotes an anonymous administration official saying the U.S. did make an offer of assistance). Secretary of defense Leon Panetta said today in London that, “Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no refuge. Not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere.” Panetta provides terrorists this notice on behalf of the U.S. government, when it is actually the Algerian government trying to deny terrorists a refuge — while the U.S. refuses to even make public its annoyance or its offer for assistance. If we cannot guarantee the safety of Americans in Algeria because their government will not allow us to assist and we cannot persuade them otherwise, Panetta’s promise is rather hollow indeed.
The Algerian government is a key player in any operations the West would like to carry out in West Africa, so our governments have been wary of angering them, but surely at least U.S. officials’ rising to the level of David Cameron’s indignation might have been in order. Further, obviously the Algerian government was resistant to offers of assistance, wishing to preserve its sovereignty and demonstrate its own ability to battle terrorists, but the survival of the American citizens, and all the hostages including the Algerians, in large part depended on the quality of the forces coming to rescue them, and it’s hard to believe more could not have been done to persuade them of this. The Algerian security forces are some of the most effective in the region, but hostage rescue is an operation best resolved by one of a few elite special forces in the world, not mere competency (see: Munich); Algeria was not quite up to the task, and as David Cameron said yesterday, there will likely be only “bad news ahead.”