What We Think We Know About the Wild Algerian Hostage Situation
The Algerian military says it's searching the premises after a confusing day, leaving the rest of us to figure out what the French operation in Mali has to do with possibly hundreds of people fending for their lives, complete with escaping hostages (some of them American) who may have had explosives strapped to their chests, plus helicopters, a U.S. drone, angry Brits, and more.
Reports are still murky at best, but the Algerian military operation on the desert gas plant where foreign and local hostages were being held by an al Qaeda-linked group appears to be over. That doesn't mean anything went so well inside the BP facility Thursday — not well at all, multiple reports seem to indicate — but the Algerian military says it's currently searching the premises, leaving the rest of us to figure out what the French operation in Mali has to do with possibly hundreds of people fending for their lives, complete with escaping hostages (some of them American) who may have had explosives strapped to their chests, plus helicopters, a U.S. drone, angry Brits, and a whole lot more.
We've been following what U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta labeled "terrorism" since Wednesday, but the Algerian military assault on the compound began early Thursday with helicopters and special forces — and it came as a surprise to most of the foreign countries with hostages reportedly inside the plant. The British government was mad they weren't consulted before the operation got under way, and the White House expressed their concern with reports of the amount of casualties coming from the operation; President Obama and David Cameron checked in late in the day, and the U.S. dispatched a surveillance drone. By nightfall, Algerian state TV station APS reported the Algerian military had ended after eight hours, quoting an unnamed source.
It's almost impossible to judge, at this point, whether the operation was a success or not. It should also be noted that details are sketchy and still coming in by way of conflicting news reports from various countries and sources with competing agendas. But Irish Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore spoke with CNN and relayed his account from the wife of an Irish citizen who escaped: "I understand that what happened is that the kidnappers attempted to move their captives by convoy," he said. "I think there were probably about five vehicles involved. The Algerian authorities, it would appear, attempted to stop that from happening." Gilmore went on to relay that apparently hostages were made to wear explosive vests, but it remains unclear whether that stopped or exacerbated the military rescue. Multiple American television stations were reporting as the evening news began that two American hostages may have escaped.
Again, none of these numbers are final, and most information is coming by way of sketchy Algerian sources: State media said 600 Algerians were freed. Reuters reports 40 Algerians and three foreigners were freed by the army over the course of the operation. ABC's Martha Raddatz reports five of the American hostages are now safe, though she doesn't say how they gained their freedom. NBC News said that some of the escaped hostages were due back in London soon. But some hostages weren't so lucky, apparently. Most reports say at least 30 hostages were killed. The AP reports that "at least six people, and perhaps many more, were killed — Britons, Filipinos, and Algerians." It's unclear if any Americans are among the dead at this time. A source told Reuters that eight Algerians, two Japanese, two Britons and one French national are among the dead. Fifteen of the dead hostages are thought to be Algerian. British government sources told BBC they're expecting to hear about multiple British casualties.
An Algerian security source told Reuters that 11 militants were killed during the military operation, but one of the more concerning — if still unclear narratives — coming out of Algeria is how well the attackers knew the site coming in. From what we can gather, the attackers did their homework before carrying out the attack. They varied nationalities. Le Monde reports at least one of them spoke fluent English. Reuters reports they knew the layout of the building well, and where they should go to be most effective, before they attacked. You can read more about the various groups claiming responsibility for the attack over at our updates from the day, but multiple reports cited an al Qaeda-linked group, the so-called Masked Brigade, allegedly formed by Moktar Belmokhtar, known as "Mr. Marlboro" for his cigarette smuggling days, who was reportedly killed in the military operation:
Les montages glorifiant M.Belmokhtar se répandent sur le web jihadiste qui annonce 15 morts dans ss rangs en #Algerie twitter.com/_DavidThomson/…— David Thomson (@_DavidThomson) January 17, 2013
What the attackers were after remains even less clear. Originally, the attackers claimed the situation was a response to France's military ground attacks in Mali. New intelligence from U.S. and European officials says they were planning the attacks long before France invaded Mali last week. American intelligence seems to indicate that one of the more likely goals of the attack were a cash ransom, or to ask that militant allies be released. That intel meshes with CNN's Christiane Amanpour report that hostage-takers asked that al Qaeda operatives in Mali be released.