The Algerian gas plant where hundreds of hostages were captured last week. AAP/BP
In the Hollywood version of hostage rescue things always go down fast and final. A sniper kills the sentries from two miles away with a crossbow and then the Delta Force or SAS warriors blast through the walls and dispatch the bad guys in two or three seconds of god-like martial prowess. The terrorists die screaming as they gutlessly try to turn their guns on the captives. The hostages all live and their liberators give cool nods before mounting up on their stealth helicopter for a trip back to their lonely and thankless vigil of making sure we all sleep safe in our beds.
But in North Africa it never plays out that way.
The mixed-result rescue mission at the Algerian gas plant has filled Western media with words like “debacle”, “blood bath”, and “shambles”. The focus is on how many hostages were killed, the incompetence of the troops, their commanders, the lack of negotiation and the implication that things were done improperly and the Algerians should have waited for “proper” counter-terrorist troops to arrive from “proper” countries. Conspiracies will arise as to whether the dead hostages were killed by their captors or their rescuers.
But such judgements ignore the reality of the situation: rescuing a handful of hostages from a quartet of terrorists holed up in an aircraft or a single room in the middle of a city is quite different from trying to account for hundreds of hostages and dozens of baddies spread across several square kilometres of industrial plant in the middle of the desert. Especially when the terrorists are willing to die.
Tactical difficulties aside, our PlayStation assumptions also contradict the mentality of North African counter terrorism. We think in terms of prioritising hostage rescue. But for governments like Algeria’s, the primary goal is terrorist liquidation. If the hostages are freed it’s a bonus, but much more important is the merciless crushing of any insurrection.
It’s an approach born from decades of fighting such insurgencies against guerrilla armies that are aided by porous borders, vast empty landscapes and weak governments centralised in capital cities. Unable to exert control over most of their land area or to address the causes of insurgency, the security forces concentrate on smashing terrorist activity when it pops up.
And they want to make sure that everybody sees them doing it. Nothing says better “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” than showing that even the lives of foreign hostages are expendable. The bloody climax to the events at Tigantourine have therefore been shocking to us in the West, but completely logical to the residents of the region.
A bloody track record
Previous hostage rescue missions connected with North Africa have had similar outcomes.
In 1985, an Egypt Air flight was hijacked by Abu Nidal terrorists. It ended up on the tarmac at Luqa airport in Malta. Unhappy with negotiations, the hijackers began executing a hostage every 15 minutes, starting with any Israelis and Americans aboard.
With no specialist troops of their own, the Maltese granted permission for Egyptian commandos to attempt a rescue. The plan was to storm the plane when the doors were opened for a scheduled food delivery. Instead the Egyptians went early and blew open the cargo and passenger doors with charges that set fire to the aircraft. The terrorists responded by lobbing grenades into the huddle of hostages. When the smoke cleared 56 of the 88 captives were dead. But the hijackers were killed or captured.
Bad as this may seem, it was less of a farce than the response to a similar situation in 1978. This time it was Egyptians captured at a conference in Cyprus and loaded aboard an airliner at Larnaca airport. With negotiations actually concluded and the hijackers’ surrender agreed upon, Egyptian forces flew in on a Hercules and attempted an assault on the aircraft. The Cypriot National Guard objected to this and the result was an hour long fire-fight on the airport apron between the two national forces whilst the bewildered hijackers, hostages and negotiators kept their heads down. Eighteen of the Egyptian troops were killed.
Perhaps the softest North African approach to a hostage crisis was the negotiated release of 15 tourists captured by an Islamic group in Algeria in 2003. Thirty-two Europeans went missing in February and proved impossible to locate for months. In May the Algerians managed to free 17 of the group through a lengthy assault on a mountain hide-out. The remainder of the hostages were returned in Mali in August after the alleged payment of a ransom.
The violent end of the Tigantourine siege is therefore par for the course. It is also likely that we will see more of these incidents in the near future, given events in Mali and the power vacuum following the Arab Spring. The sheer size of the area involved makes it impossible to police. (Afghanistan could fit comfortably twice just in southern Algeria alone, without factoring in Mali, Niger, Chad and Libya.) The mutual sympathies held by groups like Ansar Dine and the al-Qaeda franchises make the issue of terrorism truly trans-national and spread across a number of states with weak, corrupt or provisional governments.
As our involvement in Afghanistan moves from the newspapers to the history books, the next theatre of the War on Terror will therefore shift to northern Africa. It’s just a matter of whether anyone in the West wants to see the movie.