The Algerian hostage situation appears to be continuing for a third day. Initial reports said that the militants took 41 foreigners and several hundred Algerians hostage, but those figures seem to be significantly lower than the actual number of hostages. Algeria's official news service, Algerie Presse Service, is now reporting that 132 foreigners and at least 600 Algerians were taken hostage. Algerie Presse Service is also reporting that the Algerian army rescued approximately 575 Algerian hostages and about 70 of the foreign hostages. Other local sources are reporting that 18 militants out of a now estimated 30 have been killed thus far.
Of the foreign hostages released following the Jan. 17 rescue operation, many have already gone to their respective home nations. The United States has sent an airplane to the facility to assist the hostages. The U.S. aircraft also may have transported a hostage rescue team to the site — such teams are readied for deployment any time U.S. citizens are kidnapped. Furthermore, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Jan. 18 that the militants who attacked the United States and its citizens in Algeria will be hunted down.
Some 30 hostages are believed to have died in the operation, which involved Algerian special operations forces backed by main battle tanks, helicopters and helicopter gunships (foreign powers claimed to know nothing about the operation). Many other hostages remain unaccounted for. According to an Algerian security source quoted by Al Jazeera, eight Algerians and seven foreigners, including two British, two Japanese and a French national, were among the dead.
Algerian forces are currently searching the large compound for the hostages and the remaining kidnappers and fanning out across the desert to locate any kidnappers attempting to escape. There are also reports that the remaining kidnappers and their hostages have moved toward the industrial part of the complex, where they have threatened to blow up the complex if the Algerians make another assault.
Given that the hostage situation is ongoing, the foreign governments with kidnapped nationals have been largely reticent in their statements, but it is clear that there is already considerable concern over Algeria's handling of the rescue operation. The Algerian government has claimed that it was forced into launching the hasty operation because the kidnappers were threatening to blow up the natural gas plant and had begun shooting after several hostages freed themselves. As we have noted, however, Algiers is operating with different constraints and interests that could prioritize the quick resolution to the situation over the absolute safety of the hostages.
What is particularly worrisome is the fact that hostages are still unaccounted for despite the bloody engagement between the Algerian security forces and the kidnappers. The kidnappers are now fully aware that Algerian security forces are hunting them down and are willing to use deadly force. This elevates the risk to the hostages, who could be killed in crossfire or by the kidnappers if the militants decide to eliminate the hostages before being neutralized. In addition, it does not appear that the militants secured any ransoms — likely a large incentive for the kidnappings — and this could make the kidnappers more likely to kill the hostages.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s group, which carried out the kidnapping operation, reportedly has claimed that operations against the Algerian government will continue. Other reports indicate that Belmokhtar is expected to release a video offering to trade the remaining hostages for Omar Abdul-Rahman, also known as "The Blind Sheikh," and Aidia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist convicted of terrorism charges. This corresponds with previous kidnappings Belmokhtar has been involved with, in which he has demanded the release of prisoners and substantial ransoms. Moreover, Belmokhtar is already calling for Algeria and France to negotiate an end to the war in Mali.
Opportunity in Uncertainty
The disparity between initial reports and recent reports highlight the ambiguity surrounding the ongoing events in Algeria. British, Japanese, U.S. and French officials remain confused about the situation, and some foreign governments have claimed that Algeria has kept them in the dark. The situation has already caused British Prime Minister David Cameron to postpone his EU reform speech in the Netherlands and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to prematurely end his trip to Southeast Asia. It will take quite some time to nail down details of what events transpired and to get final figures on how many hostages and captors were killed.
Meanwhile, Belmokhtar's group is taking advantage of these uncertainties to threaten other Algerian energy installations. The kidnappers warned Algerians to stay away from energy installations run by foreign companies in Algeria, indicating that more attacks could be in store. Such operations take considerable time and preparation, however, and it is unlikely that follow-on attacks on this scale would be successful in the current security environment. Nonetheless, the threat is heightening fears over Algeria's ability to secure its energy sector, as evidenced by BP's decision to remove its employees from the country. Even if the operation has resulted in some setbacks for Belmokhtar and his followers, they are succeeding so far in tarnishing Algeria's most strategic economic sector.