Algeria hostage crisis: ‘It seems a decision was made not to look weak, but to head in as soon as was practical’

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THE Algerian military were never going to have an easy choice as to what they did about this incident.

If they waited a long time before an assault, the kidnappers/militants could have bedded in more, could have booby-trapped more, could have prepared more of the facilities for demolition, all of which would make an assault more bloody.

Catching the militants before they were established would make sense, in this one respect. Delay, too, could look like weakness to the militants. But attacking before the intelligence picture was satisfactory would pose risks. Not knowing how many militants were involved, what weapons they had, and where, roughly, they were would pose risks to attacking troops and the hostages.

Where does the balance lie between haste and over-caution in a situation such as this? It can never be defined – it will depend on the exact circumstances on the ground. But it seems likely that Algeria could well become the butt of criticism about how they handled this operation, rightly or wrongly. It would seem that a decision was made not to look weak, not to look cautious, but to head in as soon as was practical, possibly on the basis that local weakness in this situation would encourage militant activity elsewhere in Algeria, especially with the overlay of the Mali intervention by France as a key backdrop.

The fact that the earliest public comments from the Algerian authorities mentioned there would be no negotiations, no release of militant prisoners, would seem to show that a hard line was the chosen option from early on.

From an Algerian point of view, the country is massive; there are a lot of oil and gas sites, and, if they showed sign of weakness, that could be jumped on by militant groups, and encourage them to seize or attack other facilities.

Could the Algerian authorities have called in foreign special forces to help plan and execute any assault? In theory, yes – it has happened in different situations before now. However, it is perhaps understandable that an independent government such as Algiers would be less than happy at seeming to bow to foreign intervention.

Further, some of the militant problems that have bedevilled Algeria over the past two decades have been exacerbated by a foreign presence.

• Francis Tusa is a defence analyst.