How Did Algeria Screw Up Its Hostage Crisis So Badly?

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Instead of resolving the incident at In Amenas, the country's armed forces just made a bad situation even worse.

RTR3CM44-615.jpgReuters

Update, Jan. 19 -- 1420 GMT: Algerian sources are now reporting that a final raid on the plant may have ended the crisis. The bad news? The remaining seven hostages were "summarily executed" by their captors in the process.

Three days into Algeria's hostage crisis, 100 of the 132 foreign workers held at the besieged In Amenas gas plant have been freed -- but only after a military operation Thursday that reportedly left over 30 hostages and more than a dozen captors dead. By any objective standard, the offensive was a failure: the militants neither gave up, nor were they completely eliminated. And instead of being rescued, an unconfirmed number of hostages wound up getting killed as a direct result of Algeria's actions.

In the wake of the assault, governments around the world have been heaping on the criticism . After all that's happened, it's hard not to wonder what went wrong. How could Algerian forces have handled the crisis so poorly?

One theory is that Algeria's military simply isn't equipped for hostage-rescue situations. For The Atlantic's sister site, Quartz, Steve LeVine writes that while Algerian special operations forces are disciplined and well-trained, their "action-driven" history has given rise to a shoot-first, talk-later mentality. Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former terror-finance analyst for the U.S. Treasury, traces that attitude to Algeria's long experience battling Islamist militants.

'Simply strafing the hostage scene with a helicopter certainly seems like a very blunt instrument.'

"They've gotten their nose bloodied," Schanzer said of the special operations forces. "They've often been the target of these jihadist attacks. But they've also been able to deliver debilitating blows to the organization as it's morphed and evolved over time."

It isn't just that Algeria took a hammer to what turned out not to be a nail. What happened at the gas plant Thursday may also have been the result of mismatched priorities. While Item One on the agenda of Western countries was to retrieve the foreign nationals being held at In Amenas, some say Algeria's surprising aggressiveness toward the hostage-takers may have been motivated by larger strategic concerns.

Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at King's College London's International Center for the Study of Radicalization, told me Algeria likely saw an opportunity to use the hostage crisis as a way to demonstrate its independence from the West -- and its resolve. Taking dramatic action, he said, would "send a message" both to the hostage-takers dug in at the facility as well as to other militant groups in the region.

Another working theory is that Algerian troops simply saw a tactical opportunity, and took it. Hostage-takers claim the military operation began when the kidnappers were moving their captives from one area of the plant to another; the military, for its part, says the terrorists were trying to escape the area and forced the attack upon themselves.

Whomever you believe, said one Washington, D.C.-based North Africa researcher, it's unlikely Algeria would have passed up a chance to deal the militants a blow.

"The goal tends to be, 'kill the terrorists when you can,'" said the researcher.

But even if attacking the gas plant was the right call -- and it's far from clear that it was -- that doesn't explain why the Algerian military rushed in so soon. Counterterrorism experts say the country's troops made a number of critical errors with the operation. First was the failure to properly assess the site. Had military officials taken time to observe the hostage-takers' behavioral patterns, said Maher, they would have been able to select the best time to strike.

"I just expected it to last three to four days before anything happened," he said. "But it seems like it happened very, very quickly."

Nor did it seem as though the manner of the attack was particularly well-advised, said Schanzer.

"Simply strafing the hostage scene with a helicopter certainly seems like a very blunt instrument," said Schanzer. "You've got to think that there could have been a much more surgical approach to this. There's usually a progression that leads to an operation. I didn't hear about any of that."

Local officials are still exercising tight control over what information is being released from the scene, so there's potentially a great deal to be learned that would bolster the military's case. Reports from the region now suggest the Algerian government has begun to accept international assistance in the form of transport aircraft and foreign counseling experts for some of the released hostages. Talks with the militants have resumed. 

Unfortunately, we'll likely never know whether yesterday's bloody offensive was the price that secured this breakthrough -- or if it would've happened anyway.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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