Debacle in the Desert, Redux
Despite a busy travel week, we've been following events in Algeria with a great deal of interest. While accounts of the hostage crisis at the Ain Amenas natural gas complex have varied widely, news from the site has become increasingly grim; at one point, the Algerian government claimed that all the captives had been freed and some of the Americans in the group had been flown to military hospitals in Europe. But more recent reports paint a much different picture, as indicated by this AP dispatch:
The Algerian government says 32 militants and 23 captives were killed during the three-day military operation to end the hostage crisis at a natural gas plant in the Sahara (editor: subsequent reports put the number who died at more than 80).
The provisional death toll was issued by the Interior Ministry on Saturday after the special forces operation crushed the last holdout of the militants at the gas refinery, resulting in 11 extremists killed along with seven hostages.
A total of 685 Algerian and 107 foreigner workers were freed over the course of the standoff, which began on Wednesday, the statement added.
The military also confiscated machine guns, rocket launchers, missiles and grenades attached to suicide belts.
And don't be surprised if the death toll rises. As far as we know, there are no western journalists at the Ain Amenas complex (the dateline on the AP article was Algiers, hundreds of miles away). Reporters are having to rely on whatever the Algerian government decides to share, along with bits of information from governments who had citizens taken captive. With each new account, the number of hostages listed as killed has increased, and it's common practice in the Middle East to release wildly optimistic version of events (in the immediate aftermath of a crisis), then let the bad news dribble out later. The result has been a muddled picture--at best--and the real story of what happened in the Algerian desert may not emerge for weeks or months, if ever.
The other noteworthy angle in this tragedy has been the media's relative lack of curiosity regarding the "roots" of this terrorist operation, and the unilateral response that eventually ended it. As the Algerian military operation drew to a close, Time openly speculated about security concerns for western oil firms operating in the Sahara desert--with far less emphasis on the geopolitical factors that prompted this week's deadly attack.
"There is no knowing when oil companies will deem it safe to return expatriate staff to Algeria, let alone risk plowing billions into new energy projects; Algeria has been courting Western investment, not only in its hydrocarbon sector but also to finance such renewable-energy plans as solar plants in the vast Algerian Sahara. At minimum, potential investors will now drive a harder bargain, given the additional expenses they would have to incur on security in order to expand their infrastructure in Algeria. “Operating in Algeria has just become more expensive,” the Eurasia Group’s Africa director Philippe de Pontet said in a memo to clients on Friday. “Assets sold in the coming 12 to 18 months with have a significant discount applied.”
Western oil firms have been operating in the Maghreb for decades--and Algeria has extensive experience in fighting terrorists--but this was the first successful attack on a petroleum complex. Why now? Well, for starters, there's last year's successful coup in Libya that toppled Mommar Qadhaffi (with U.S. and NATO support). With the former Libyan dictator dead, many of his Toureg mercenaries returned home, and reportedly participated in the operation at Ain Amenas. Funny, but we haven't seen a single member of the MSM ask an administration official about our knowledge of this migration, and its impact on regional security. Likewise, we're waiting for an enterprising reporter to ask oil firms in Algeria if they received any warnings about an increased security threat, stemming from Qadhaffi's collapse in Libya.
There's also the matter of the recent French intervention in Mali, where Islamists threatened to overrun much of the country. With the arrival of French troops, terrorists began looking for ways to retaliate, and one Islamist communique suggested the gas complex attack was in response for western military action in Mali. If nothing else, the French incursion pushed more terrorists back into Algeria, and increased the probability of an attack.
While some western leaders praised the Algerian actions, others were privately critical, saying the use of attack helicopters actually increased hostage deaths. Of course, no one has said what the U.S., Great Britain, France (or other nations) offered in the way of support. And for that matter, we can't find a single U.S. press report that describes the military assets available in the western Med, assuming the Algerian inquired about assistance.
If all of this sounds a little too familiar, it should. Back on September 11th, four Americans were killed in a "surprise" attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The Obama Administration initially tried to blame the raid on an Internet video that was offensive to Islam. But as the truth emerged, we quickly learned that the strike was well-planned and coordinated--and that U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens (one of the Americans who died) had been long concerned about the deteriorating situation in Benghazi and our almost non-existent security presence.
In response, Team Obama stonewalled. The nation was suddenly treated to news of an extramarital affairs by CIA Director David Petraeus, which delayed his testimony. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will finally make it to Capitol Hill this week, after being sidelined by a series of health issues. And the Director of the FBI finally made it to Benghazi last Thursday, 129 days after the attack.
Expect a similar response on the Algerian crisis. To be fair, the most recent terror debacle is slightly different from Benghazi; the facility attacked last week is not U.S.-owned (although several Americans were present at the time of the raid). Additionally, Algeria has a long history of going it alone on terrorist issues, so its possible Algiers would have declined offers of help--if they were ever offered.
But that's not to say that the U.S. didn't play a role in setting the stage for the terror attack. Events on the global stage don't happen in a vacuum; actions in one locale often have an impact on neighboring regions and states. That's one reason the terrorists struck in Algeria. Qadhaffi's fall sent many of his Algerian mercs back home, and the French operation in Mali forced more of them across the border as well.
That doesn't mean the United States is to blame, or even most of the blame. We are one of many actors influencing events across North Africa. That's one reason our remarkably incurious press corps might want to ask Mr. Obama about our long-term plans in the region. The current fighting in Mali is likely to get worse (and spread), creating a completely new set of challenges in the Maghreb. A report in today's Financial Times says the West faces "decades" of guerrilla conflict in North Africa and it's a safe bet that Europe will be looking to the U.S. for leadership.
Memo to all the media swells who will be wining and dining at various inauguration events over the next couple of days. When you get back to "work" you might ask members of Team Obama about their strategy for North Africa, beyond sending a few surveillance drones, and tankers to refuel French aircraft. Like Iran, this is another "can" you can only kick so far.