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Jan 17, 2013 | 18:37 GMT

Algeria: Rescue Operation Shows the Limits of Cooperation

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Summary

The Jan. 17 Algerian rescue operation at an eastern energy facility is meant to demonstrate that Algiers would defend its national security regardless of foreign nationals' safety or international opinion. This runs counter to the Western convention that safeguarding the lives of hostages during kidnapping situations is the paramount objective. The operation shows that Algeria will cooperate with the West but not at the expense of its own imperatives. 

According to media reports, as few as six and as many as 35 hostages died in the raid. It is unclear who started shooting first, but a number of foreign energy workers, who may have been divided into two groups separate from their Algerian and Muslim co-workers, were able to escape their captors before Algerian security forces intervened. It is also possible that the militants shot at the fleeing foreigners, a move that compelled the Algerians to proceed with the operation even if they were not fully prepared to do so. A final group of seven foreign workers, including some Americans, reportedly were still being held by the militants before Algerian security forces ended the standoff. The status of the remaining hostages is unknown.

Foreign publics will certainly denounce the controversial operation; in many countries, any operation that results in civilian casualties is deemed a failure. But this operation will not be as unpopular in Algeria, where domestic constraints trump international backlash.

That is not to say Algiers is insensitive to foreign concerns. Rather, Algeria is more concerned with ensuring its national security in the face of potentially destabilizing jihadist activities, which is a direct consequence of the French intervention in neighboring Mali. The government has long contended with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb militants, who had largely been contained in the mountainous regions of northeastern Algeria. Algerian security operations forced many jihadist militias to relocate to the relatively safer territory of northern Mali.

But the French military intervention in Mali — which will be bolstered by the imminent arrival of ground forces from West African countries with Western logistical and intelligence assistance — is bringing significant pressure on these displaced jihadists, who must now decide whether they will defend their territorial gains in Mali or decline to fight against their numerically superior adversaries. Those who decline will have to retreat to safer ground, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb does not have any other havens to turn to. Southern Algeria and Libya are no more stable than northern Mali, and while there might be limited room for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to maneuver in these remote areas, it cannot control significant urban locations as it did in Mali.

Algeria reluctantly conceded to French support in the military intervention. So far, Algeria has opened its airspace to French fighter aircraft flying to Mali and staging locations in the Sahel. While Algiers has pledged some cooperation, it will not defer to the West for its national security.

Though it will be criticized for its casualties, the hostage rescue operation ultimately was successful — if the objective was to crush the militants and end the standoff. It was designed to deter future militant kidnapping operations, and as a result, jihadists now recognize that Algiers did not negotiate or offer ransom payments. The operation is also meant to convey to the West that Algerian cooperation in Mali is not subject to negotiation on national security or regime stability.

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