The Washington Times on January 17, 2013, reported on he chaotic end of Algeria’s hostage crisis at a natural-gas plant in the Sahara. It highlights the broad front on which Islamic extremists can strike back against France’s military intervention in Mali. Excerpts below:
Algerian officials said their troops and helicopter gunships stormed the gas facility where Islamic extremists were holding foreign hostages, including several Americans, when the terrorists tried to leave plant with their captives.
An unknown number of hostages were killed in the military assault, according to various accounts.
Algerian state media said four foreign hostages had been freed in the raid and at least one of them, Michael McFaul, a Briton from West Belfast, was able to speak by telephone to his family.
The extremists, loyal to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian jihadist who was formerly a regional commander for al Qaeda, told a Mauritanian news agency that they had more than 40 foreign hostages from nine countries.
Algerian officials said they feared the terrorists were heading across the nearby border to Libya, where large areas of the country are without effective government and have become havens for extremists since the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Information coming from Algeria was “pretty sketchy” even after the assault began.
An unarmed U.S. surveillance drone soared overhead as the Algerian forces closed in, U.S. officials said.
The U.S. offered military assistance to help rescue the hostages, but the Algerian government refused, according to a U.S. official in Washington cited by The Associated Press. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the offer.
British Prime Minister David Cameron had not been informed in advance of the operation and would have liked to have been, a spokesman for Mr. Cameron said.
Mr. Cameron himself warned his countrymen: “We should be prepared for further bad news.”
In addition to several Americans and Britons, there were Norwegian, Romanian, French, Filipino, Japanese, Malaysian and Irish citizens among the hostages, dozens of whom remained unaccounted for… One Associated Press report hours after the Algerian raid, said at least some Americans were still held or unaccounted for.
The Algerian government said it was forced to intervene because of the militants’ stubbornness and their desire to escape with the hostages.
Wednesday’s terrorist attack was large and coordinated enough that some security specialists were skeptical it had been planned in the five days since French troops arrived in Mali.
The French troops came at the invitation of the country’s government to help defend it from an increasingly threatening Islamic extremist insurgency that already holds the north and was poised to defeat government forces altogether, according to one scholar.
“[The terrorists] have the military capability,” said Michael Shurkin, a political scientist at the Rand Corp., a think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif.
“They probably would have taken down the Malian government if they had wanted to and if the French hadn’t stopped them,” Mr. Shurkin said of the extremists — a coalition of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terrorist network’s affiliate in Northern Africa, and two indigenous Malian Islamic groups.
BP, the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach operate the gas field, and a Japanese company, JGC Corp., provides services for the facility.
But the French raised their terrorism-threat level over the weekend, anticipating a response to their deployment that eventually will grow to 2,500 troops, officials in Paris have said.
Mr. Shurkin said that the French “are going to be much more involved on the ground than they want to be” and potentially for much longer.
For the French, the risks of not acting and allowing al Qaeda to topple the Malian government were greater than the risks of intervening with troops, he added.
“Aside from the terrorism risk [of allowing al Qaeda a safe haven], which is debatable, the regional risks of having a potent military force like that on the loose” were unacceptable, Mr. Shurkin said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, predicted more trouble in the region, and specifically in Mali.
“This is where jihadists from all over northern Africa and other places will come because they think they’re winning the fight,” Mr. Rogers told CNN.