Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

As France embroiled itself in battles against Islamist extremist rebels in Mali last week, a hostage crisis broke out in nearby Algeria. Last Wednesday, the al-Qaeda linked terrorist group Brigade of the Masked Ones seized a natural gas facility near In Amenas, located 30 miles west of the Libyan border. They held hundreds of Algerian and foreign workers captive, supposedly in response to Algeria’s acquiescence to the use of its airspace for French forces fighting in Mali.

Algeria’s state oil company Sonatrach owned the facility and jointly operated it with British Petroleum (BP) and Statoil, the national oil company of Norway. By the end of last Saturday, the crisis had been resolved after 72 hours of standoffs between the captors and the Algerian military and two chaotic rescue missions, but at a bloody cost.

According to Algerian government reports, 37 hostages and 32 captors are dead after the three-day crisis. On the other hand, 107 foreign nationals and 685 Algerians were rescued. During the final rescue mission on Saturday by the Algerian military, seven hostages and 11 Islamist fighters were killed.

As the foreigners taken hostage at the plant came from many different countries, world leaders and diplomats urgently sought to account for their citizens. Colombia, Romania and France each lost at least one citizen. Three Americans, six Britons, five Norwegians and six Filipinos are confirmed dead or missing. Japan has at least seven nationals unaccounted for. Seven of the dead have not been identified. During Saturday’s Algerian assault on the plant, two Americans, two Germans and one Portuguese were rescued. In the confusion and chaos of this crisis, the numbers of those missing and dead are bound to fluctuate.

Initially, the terrorists attacked a bus carrying foreign workers at the gas facility. They were well-equipped with machine guns, AK-47 rifles and rocket launchers. According to early accounts from survivors, many of the foreigners were gagged and blindfolded and had explosives strapped onto them. Some hid themselves from the kidnappers, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. A few hostages escaped amidst the chaos of the crisis.

Survivors also said that not all of the kidnappers were Algerian, with conflicting reports of the captors originating from nearby Niger, Libya or even Syria. One terrorist reportedly spoke perfect English and facilitated communication between the hostages and their captors.

The militant group responsible for the attack reportedly attempted to negotiate a prisoner-exchange with the United States, but was rejected immediately by the State Department.

The Algerian military moved swiftly on Thursday to try to dislodge the terrorists from their positions. The move prompted concerns from other world leaders, who complained of a lack of consultation given the vulnerability of their citizens. Nevertheless, no country outwardly criticized the Algerian intervention.

“When there is a hostage-taking with so many people involved and such coldly determined terrorists […] a country such as Algeria has had […] the most appropriate responses because there could be no negotiations,” said French President François Holland, praising the Algerian government after the crisis ended.

Defense Secretary of the United Kingdom Philip Hammond said he was still “pressing the Algerians for details on the exact situation.”

Algeria is an Arabic-speaking country in West Africa that gained its independence from France in 1962. Large swaths of the country lie within the Sahara Desert. After the secession of South Sudan in 2011, Algeria became the largest nation in Africa. Until the Arab Spring, the country had been under a state of emergency since the start of a civil war in the 1990’s.