When thugs and fanatics succeed in extracting ransoms for hostages, the unknown targets of future abductions ultimately pay the price. This week, that price became evident amid the carnage in an Algerian gas complex.
It is still unclear exactly what motivated the militants who seized the facility on Jan. 16. They apparently came from various countries, including Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Mali, Niger, Canada and Mauritania. Claiming responsibility for the attack, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a militant linked to al-Qaida, said the assault was in response to Algeria’s decision to allow France to use its airspace to stage attacks against militants in neighboring Mali. Experts, however, believe planning for the attack began well before the French intervention.
The most likely explanation is that the militants sought to do exactly what pirates in Somalia and other places have done, often successfully: use foreign citizens as bargaining chips. In this case, the kidnappers demanded the release of other militants rather than cash, but the principle is the same. Like the Somali pirates, al-Qaida-linked terrorists in the Sahel, a North African region just south of the Sahara, have relied on ransoms as a source of financing for years. North African terrorists have collected a total of around $150 million in ransom money, according to Lyes Boukraa, an expert on terrorist activity in the region.
In the lead-up to the final Algerian rescue operation, several countries whose citizens were captured, most vocally including Japan, pressed Algerian officials to hold off on any action that might risk lives. Criticism mounted after a first rescue attempt allowed the majority of the hostages to escape but failed to end the crisis. As the international community debated, the militants threatened to detonate explosives at the gas compound and flee to Mali with the hostages. The Algerian military struck again to prevent their escape. The second strike succeeded in retaking control of the gas compound, but not all of the hostages were rescued.
As of Tuesday, 38 hostages from nine countries were confirmed dead. While it is not known exactly how many people were originally captured, the plant employed nearly 800 people, including 134 foreign workers, according to Algerian Prime Minister Abdul Malek Sallal.
The White House, which during the crisis apparently wavered between supporting the Algerian position and considering some sort of negotiation, has continued to avoid taking a clear position. In a statement issued Saturday evening, President Obama said he hoped to “gain a fuller understanding of what took place so that we can work together to prevent tragedies like this in the future.”
The Algerian assault reminded me of Operation Thunderbolt, the 1976 Israeli raid that sought to free hostages from a hijacked Air France plane, who had been taken by Palestinian militants and flown to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. There, the hostage takers were protected by the Ugandan military. Israeli commandos freed 102 hostages by means of a raid in which three hostages, the seven hijackers and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed. A fourth hostage, who had been hospitalized earlier, was killed the next day by the Ugandan Army. Five Israeli commandos were wounded, and their commander, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu (brother of the current Israeli prime minister), died in the operation.
Though Algeria’s assault did not go as smoothly and involved a higher loss of life, the Algerians, like the Israelis, have a long history of dealing with terrorists and a deep reluctance to make concessions that can encourage future assaults. (Israel has, on occasion, bent its own rules, swapping prisoners for hostages or even for the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed in action.) Algeria says its military suffered only a few wounded soldiers and no fatalities in retaking the gas complex.
For families of innocent hostages, even one death is too many. They will not be alone in arguing that the Algerian military assault resulted in fatalities that could have been avoided. The hard truth is that they might be right. But concessions to kidnappers only lead to more kidnappings. Paying ransoms turns kidnapping into a profitable business that can finance everything from religious extremism, like that of those who seek to dominate territory in Mali, to the lavish lifestyles of Somali crime bosses.
The only way we can take the price off the heads of Western citizens abroad is to stop paying it.
By taking decisive action as best they could, Algerian officials did the right thing. Now that the extent of the threat in Algeria has been made apparent, it is up to the rest of us to provide additional resources so the country will be better prepared to deal with similar attempts in the future.
We should mourn those who were lost, but we should not allow our sorrow to convince us that we somehow would have been better off if we had tried to buy back their lives at the expense of untold other victims in the future. The only side that gains in those deals is the one that sees innocent lives as property that can be taken and then sold or extinguished.