Algeria’s response to the hostage crisis raises serious questions

The price of gas has just become horribly more expensive, not in treasure but in blood. The death toll of captives killed in the jihadist atrocity at the In Amenas gas plant in eastern Algeria has jumped from 23 to 48. Everything about this story is bleak: the loss of life; the hatred jihadists from a splinter group of al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb have for westerners; the ferocity of the attack; the ferocity of the counter-attack by Algerian special forces; the reported presence of jihadists who spoke excellent English; the consequences for the fight against Islamist extremism in Mali, the Sahel and across the world; the bewildering lack of information; and the death toll of the jihadists.

Stay with me on the last point. Officially the Algerian regime first announced that 32 jihadists had been killed in their successful counter-terrorism operation. There were no survivors. There is something immediately and obviously wrong about that statistic. Wars, battles and counter-insurgency operations are always messy. Not every shot fired is a clean kill; not every blast from a grenade is fatal. On an ordinary battlefield you expect the injured to outnumber the dead by three to one. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Americans are now so good at emergency first aid that the ratio of dead to wounded is something like one to six.

But the “ninjas” – the balaclava-clad Algerian special forces – killed 32 kidnappers. There is a grim tradition in Algeria’s history of civil wars of killing the other side’s wounded so that there are no witnesses. You can debate the rights and wrongs of this policy, but David Cameron has set out the British position clearly: that our response to this kind of terrorism should be “tough but intelligent“.

Leads to knowing where the AQIM splinter group (loosely translated as “the signatories in blood”) was based, where it got its money from, and whether it did have English-speaking members, died with those men. The latest news is that the authorities caught three jihadists who had been hiding, so the ratio of dead jihadists to injured is 32:3, and that again feels wrong. On the evidence, the priority of the Algerian security forces seems to have been to kill the jihadists, with securing the hostages coming a poor second and gathering intelligence nowhere.

Algeria is nothing like a western democracy. In the 90s a democratic uprising, fuelled by frustration over corruption, lack of equity and, in some quarters, Islamist leanings, was crushed in a civil war that left 100,000 dead, including many of the country’s bravest journalists. Today, the security establishment still calls the shots, relying on gas and oil for about 98% of the country’s income; that wealth is apparently controlled by a small clique. The rule of law and civil authority are sickly – and some critics go further, saying the regime is more akin to Assad’s Syria.

In the 90s I went to Algeria and reported on a series of massacres of civilians which happened very close to army barracks and were blamed on the security forces. The evidence that the state tortured dissidents was overwhelming. Even now, Algeria will not allow the UN special rapporteur for torture to visit the country.

So great care is needed before western politicians assume everything the Algerian state does against the jihadists is for the best. The UK defence secretary, Philip Hammond, said of the hostage crisis: “it is the terrorists that bear the sole responsibility for it”. True, but the Algerian security forces and their commanders bear some responsibility for the scale of the loss of life. If, as reported, Hind helicopters blew up a convoy of jihadists and hostages as they left the gas facility, the actions of the security forces fail the PM’s test of “tough but intelligent” action.

This matters because since the Arab spring, public opinion in this part of the world bites. Muslims across North Africa and the Middle East can hear western politicians attack Assad for mass murder and torture; if they observe them silent about the abuses of, say, the Algerian state then this may undermine the war for hearts and minds against al-Qaida. And no one who believes in free speech, democracy, and civil rights could possibly want that.

John Sweeney is currently a reporter for BBC Panorama and author of Church Of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology, (Silvertail Books). He reported on Algeria for The Observer, for which he was made journalist of the year.

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