The Evolving Hostage Crisis In Algeria

In an ongoing crisis in North Africa, the Algerian military has reportedly launched an operation in response to the dozens of hostages taken by extremist groups at a gas field near the Libyan border. NPR's Neal Conan talks with University of Cambridge lecturer George Joffe about the evolving situation.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

And another story we've been following the past couple of days: Yesterday, an extremist group in Algeria attacked a remote natural gas production complex in the Sahara Desert and seized hostages, most of them Algerian, but including some Americans and other Westerners. Today, Algeria's military responded. Reports conflict on numbers. It seems clear some hostages have escaped, others have been killed.

George Joffe, lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge joins us now on the phone from Cambridge. George, nice to have you back on the program.

GEORGE JOFFE: Thank you.

CONAN: And what do we know about what's happened in Algeria today?

JOFFE: Well, what we know at the moment - at least it's been reported on the British media - is that there appear to have been heavy losses of life as the result of the Algerian decision to attack the plant. And although no details have come through, the British (unintelligible) feels it's been kept rather in the dark. There are great fears that a large number of foreigners at the site may, in fact, have died in the conflict.

CONAN: Prime Minister Cameron has issued a statement, saying we need to be ready for bad news.

JOFFE: Indeed, he has. Yes.

CONAN: There is also a question that the Algeria's government spokesman confirmed that some hostages have been killed in that ongoing military operation at this facility, and said there was no choice on behalf of the Algerian troops who were there, that they had to intervene after negotiations failed.

JOFFE: Well, that's true, but the Algerians tend to be rather speedy about these things. And, in fact, the foreign hostages were believed to be some kind of guarantee that an incident like this would not occur. And it seems that the kidnappers made a great mistake in that calculation.

Their purpose, I think, was to find a basis for negotiation, partly over their demands and partly in the hope that there will be ransoms paid to release the foreign hostages. And that proves to have been very - to have gone very badly wrong. There's also a rumor that, in fact, they tried to break out from the camp to take the hostages away, but that was frustrated by Algerian troops surrounding the base.

CONAN: And take the hostages away. This facility's only, what, about 40 miles from the border with Libya.

JOFFE: It's not Libya that would have been the place that they would have gone to. They undoubtedly would have gone south, I think, into the depths of the Sahara. There's been a redoubt for Islamists there for many, many years, particularly in northern Mali, and they might even try to have made the journey over there, as well, on the assumption that because they had foreign hostages with them, the Algerians would not attack. That occurred before in 2003, when 33 European tourists were taken hostage in a very similar circumstances.

CONAN: And, at that point, the Algerian military held its hand, but they also had long experience with terrorists - indeed, these particular terrorists.

JOFFE: That's quite correct, because this group originates in 1997 in northern Algeria, in a region called Guelb El-Kebir, close to the Algerian capital. And that itself was an outcome of the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. And the group moved down to the Sahara in 2003, partly because of the oppression from the Algerian army, and it's been buried there ever since.

It declared an affiliation with al-Qaida in 2006, but in reality, its activities have all been local. And they've been integrated, too, into the great smuggling routes across the Sahara. So it's by no means a simple terrorist group.

CONAN: And the gentleman is said - the man said to be in charge of this particular group is a, again, at least according to the Algerians, a man of some renown.

JOFFE: Oh, yes. Mokhtar Belmokhtar is very well-known indeed. He's well-known. He's a southerner, in fact. He's been involved in smuggling operations. He also has been involved in Afghanistan many, many years ago. He's been closely involved with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb for many years. And, indeed, last year, he was forced out of the group by the current leader, Ahmed Droukdel(ph), and that may explain why this separate operation was mounted in Algeria, as an attempt to demonstrate that he is still a true jihadi and that he is still capable of operating, even though excluded from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

CONAN: We are - according to the some reports, he spent some months in Libya in the past year, gathering weapons.

JOFFE: That's also correct. Indeed, not just him. There's been an outflow of weapons from Libya during the civil war, not just last year, but the year before as well. They're flown into Mali, and they're largely responsible for the high level of armaments that the Islamist groups there and the Tuareg groups there actually have. So in a way, Libya has provided the means by which these kinds of operations can take place, partly because of the way in which the Gadhafi regime released the stocks that he was holding in a vain hope to try to guarantee some continuance.

CONAN: And in the hopes that the people would arise and resist the other people, the other Libyans who were coming to take control of the country and kick Mr. Gadhafi out, eventually to kill him.

JOFFE: Absolutely correct. But it was made more complex by the fact that Colonel Gadhafi also relied on a large number of Tuareg to strengthen its forces. And they, with the collapse of the Libyan regime, then made their way back across the desert into Mali and decided then, to push their own agenda of trying to create an independent Tuareg state in Northern Mali. And it's from that, that the current crisis has really developed.

CONAN: And that was, to some degree, hijacked by Islamic forces, including al-Qaida in the Maghreb, and that the situation that's going on in Mali. We were told, that the demands of this group that seized the hostages and the natural gas complex, were that the French quit their intervention in Mali and they were punishing the Algerian government for allowing French over flights on the way to Mali.

JOFFE: Oh, that's true. But I think you have to see that as rhetoric. It's a form of justification for what's going on. The French were bound to intervene because - and this is a point that's been overlooked. In the neighboring country Niger, the main sources of uranium for the French nuclear power industry are located. So the French were acutely concerned about any instability in the area, particularly as they've already had several of their nationals captured in Niger and taken off into Mali to be held for ransom. So there's been an acute sensitivity in Paris about the situation.

And it was really the fact that the groups inside Mali began to move southwards, last week, that forced the French to intervene much earlier than they intended to do. They would always have intervened because of the strategic implications of the presence of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb there. But the situation is also complicated because the group itself is fractured into three separate groups. And the Algerians have tried to interfere by persuading two other groups to attack the others. So you can see that it's an extremely complex situation in which the French felt that the time had come and they had to intervene.

CONAN: And why, in this instance, did the Algerians allow the French over flights, in the past they have not?

JOFFE: Largely because the Algerian move to split the groups had failed. One of the groups they thought they'd fought off decided to join al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, moving south and trying to occupy the rest of Mali. And that forced the French to intervene earlier than they intended, and they forced the Algerians to attempt, in some way, to help in this process by allowing French over flights over Algeria.

CONAN: And tell us about the Algerian government's interest here. This government has been - this is a country that's been very quiet compared to its neighbors who have been roiled since the Arab Spring.

JOFFE: Well, Algeria, partly because of the civil war in the 1990s, was able to avoid the worst outcomes of the Arab Spring, in the sense that the regime was able to continue there. And Algeria, too, feels that it should be the dominant power inside the region. It's, therefore, tempted to avoid, allowing other states to intervene in Mali, which is along its southern border. And it's also trying to create a defense force of 25,000 men to try to counter the activities of Islamist groups along its borders. But that really has failed.

And beyond that, too, the Algerians are extremely ambivalent about the French presence there, but they've come to realize that they can't deal with the problem without the French participating too. So all in all, the Algerian government is extremely frustrated, very irritated, embarrassed and now feels that it's got to accept something, which in the past it would never have dreamt of accepting.

CONAN: And another question about the speed of their military response today. They said negotiations had failed. Clearly, negotiations could have gone on. Was there some concern that these other countries - the United States, France, Great Britain - might have decided to intervene, themselves, and with or without Algerian permission?

JOFFE: I'm quite certain that that was strongly possible, that the Algerian government felt that it was under pressure from the outside for action, that it wasn't prepared to tolerate any other state intervening. There is said to have been a drone, by the way, flying over the complex today and that it, therefore, wanted to demonstrate that it was capable of handling the situation by itself. And, of course, in certain terms, it is. But the trouble is it's been an immense loss of life, and that's the one problem that the states concerned - that's Japan, the United States and Britain - will find very difficult to accept.

CONAN: And the drone immediately raises issues of American military presence. There is some, very small numbers, though.

JOFFE: Well, the United States has had Special Forces in the region of the Sahel for many years. They're part of AFRICOM. And their purpose has really been to advise and to instruct the armies of surrounding states in an attempt to wield together an effective force to deal with the threat of extremist groups in the region. They have not been directly involved in operations, or only very rarely. And I think the Obama administration is extremely anxious to avoid direct involvement if it can. But at the same time, as it is in the case of Libya, to provide oversight facilities by the use of drones, for instance, or even to use them in an aggressive sense if it's really necessary, is something that can't be discounted. And I'm quite sure the Pentagon is well aware of this.

The British government, too, has given some aid, but again, has tried to avoid being involved directly in the fighting. And that's also been in the general European view as well. So I think what you're seeing there is a situation where the whole situation in the Sahel is seen as so difficult and so complex, that other states don't want to become directly involved in case they become betted down and they begin to suffer from operation creep.

CONAN: George Joffe is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge in England, an expert on North Africa, in particular. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And as we look at the situation further south in Mali, the French sent some - what, 1,500 troops so far. Obviously, air strikes are underway as well by jet aircraft and by helicopters as well. This is hopes that ECOWAS, the regional force, could arrive in sometime soon to make a difference. Nigeria is the military power in the region, such as it is. Is Nigeria prepared to intervene?

JOFFE: Well, Nigeria has promised 900 troops out of a total of 3,600 from ECOWAS. Some have already begun to arrive. But by and large, the troops that ECOWAS is providing are very poorly trained. So the first thing that's got to happen is they got to be trained up to be able to cope with the well-armed extremists that are now located in the northern part of the country. It's for that reason the French troops, at the moment, are directly engaged in the fighting along the division between North and South, inside Mali.

And it's not expected that the ECOWAS forces will be capable of dealing with the threat in Mali until around September. There's to be a 550-men unit sent from Europe to train them, but not to become involved in the actual struggle. And it has to be said that these arrangements seem remarkably like a (unintelligible), given the acute seriousness of the crisis.

CONAN: And let me ask you about the ethnic breakdown here. In Northern Mali, this very large area, as you mentioned earlier, the Tuareg, who are nomadic tribesmen - obviously, some of them live in towns as well - they have long been restive, long wanted to their own state or autonomous zone. There have been various promises of that at various times, those who've always broken down. But as they move towards the southern part of the country, they made very different people. What made these forces believe they could - or if that was their goal - to take over the entire country?

JOFFE: Well, the Tuareg don't want to take over the entire country. They want to create their own state called Azawad in Northern Mali. That's their sole interest. The real question of moving South is something that relates to the Islamist groups that are associated with them. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the original group, an offshoot from it called, MUJAO, which is largely Mauritanian in nature. And the further offshoot, this time from the Tuareg, but which is Islamist, called Ansar Dine.

Now, those three groups are the groups that would like to take over the south of Mali and create out of that the beginnings of an Islamic caliphate. And they would hope to link up with Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria as well. Now, the fact that ethnically, they're very different from the populations of the south, is not seen to them, to matter. And therefore, they believe that because they are Muslim, in a way they can capture the support of the southerns(ph) as well. The southerns have a very different view of this. They live in fear of what the implications of this might be.

Having seen what already has happened in towns like Timbuktu, where shrines are being destroyed, where music has been forbidden, where rigid, strict Islamic regime is being introduced. So there are colossal tensions that would develop worthy pursue their move into the South.

CONAN: And on the other end of the country, in the North, given what's happened in the Sahara, now the gas complex is some distance from the Malian border. But nevertheless, could Algeria now, say, get involved from the other side?

JOFFE: Algeria has always been involved. It's, in fact, attempted to influence the Tuareg. It's showing itself as the patron of Tuareg interest for many, many years. The Tuareg crisis, by the way, goes back to the 1960s. And it's believed to have engaged indirectly in the affairs of the Tuareg for many, many years. And indeed, in the latest evolution of this crisis, it attempted to split the Tuareg off from the Islamist groups unsuccessfully. So I think one can see that the Algerians are bound to be involved in this.

The real question is how they're going to be involved. Will they cooperate with other countries, particularly with France? That's extremely difficult for them or will they try to do something alone, but they're not prepared to engage outside Algeria zone borders? So that presents a real problem for the government in Algiers.

CONAN: Stay tuned to NPR News for updates on the outcome of that Algerian military attack on the gas plant that have been seized in the Eastern part of Algeria. George Joffe, thank you very much.

JOFFE: You're welcome.

CONAN: George Joffe, again, a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. He joined us by phone from there. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with a look at how the flu spreads and join us Monday for coverage of President Obama's second inaugural. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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