This month, two attempts to rescue hostages taken by terrorist groups in Somalia and Algeria resulted in the deaths of many captives. Hostage taking is not new but the impact can be far reaching, especially when military-style interventions such as that in Algeria result in countless deaths. Along with the tragic loss of life, incidents such as these fuel the radicalisation of terrorist recruits and strain diplomatic ties between the governments that must work together to find solutions. Why do terrorists resort to hostage taking and what are the considerations when planning counter-measures?
The first incident occurred on 11 January in Somalia when French security forces tried to rescue French intelligence operative Denis Allex, who had been kidnapped by al-Shabaab in 2009. The unsuccessful operation resulted in the death of Allex as well as two French soldiers and 17 al-Shabaab fighters. According to the French government, Allex was killed by his captors during the rescue attempt. Al-Shabaab blamed French authorities for Allex's death, claiming he was executed in retaliation for the death of its members during the rescue attempt.
The second, more dramatic incident occurred on 16 January when suspected members of al-Mua`qi`oon Biddam or Those Who Sign with Blood, led by infamous Algerian terror suspect and smuggler Mokhtar Belmokhtar, took hundreds of workers hostage at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria. The four-day siege began when terrorists attacked buses carrying foreign workers. A day later Algerian forces retaliated, resulting in numerous fatalities. Then on 19 January the Algerian army launched its final assault in which around 11 terrorists and the seven remaining hostages were killed. In total, 685 Algerian workers and 107 of the 132 foreigners working at the plant were freed, while 29 hostages and 32 terrorists died (this figure is expected to change as new information becomes available). On 20 January, the Algerian government said more bodies were discovered, but that the extent of their injuries made it impossible to establish if they were hostages or terrorists.
Hostage taking is a favoured tactic for terrorists for several reasons. First, it brings widespread publicity, which is guaranteed to raise the profile of the terrorist group that claims responsibility. Second, it is a useful way to show up the governments affected. Both the act of taking hostages as well as the counter-measures launched by affected governments ultimately present the authorities as being vulnerable, particularly if the hostage takers can manipulate the media. In a video released by al-Shabaab in July 2012, Allex appealed to French President Francois Hollande saying, 'Mr President, I am still alive, but for how long? That depends upon you, for if you do not reach an agreement for my release, then I am afraid this will be the last message you receive from me - My life depends on you.'
Hostage taking is also a useful source of funding for terrorist groups. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and especially Belmokhtar, are known for taking hostages to finance their activities. Western hostages are of particular value: the media coverage that follows is extensive and the terrorists are likely to secure sizeable ransoms for their release. Of course, when kidnapping or hostage taking is carried out for purely financial reasons, the line between terrorism (motivated by a broader ideal or ideology) and pure crime (motivated by financial gain) becomes blurred. As a result of growing concern over ransom payments, in 2010 the African Union (AU) condemned the payment of ransom and stressed that this should be considered a crime.
Lastly, in the history of terrorism, kidnapping and hostage taking in return for the release of members of the terrorist group responsible is a well-known tactic. Indeed, in the recent In Amenas gas plant attack, terrorists threatened to blow up the facility and kill US hostages unless 100 of their imprisoned cohorts were released.
In the wake of the two incidents in January this year, criticism has been levelled at the responding governments for the loss of life resulting from their attempts to rescue the hostages. Several lessons can be learned from these interventions.
The primary objective of any hostage intervention should be to save lives and limit casualties. A secondary aim should be to bring those responsible to justice. Ultimately, hostage takers want governments to negotiate, even if only to secure recognition of their group's existence. So providing time for negotiations is key. Negotiations can drag on for months, if not years, as the Allex case in Somalia proved. By contrast, at In Amenas, Algerian authorities showed little interest in negotiation. Although several governments have an official policy of not negotiating with terrorists, the principle of negotiation is a valuable strategy. At the very least it allows responders to play for time. Of more importance is that negotiations are a means to gather intelligence.
Accurate intelligence enables a successful tactical operation as it reveals how many hostage takers there are, where they are situated and possibly who they are. This is important for separating hostage from hostage taker, and would have been especially necessary in the Algerian incident where many of the terrorists were dressed as security guards, making it difficult to differentiate between friend and foe.
When saving lives is the main priority, security forces need to be deployed where most of the hostages are located. For this to succeed, speed and surprise are essential. In the French rescue attempt in Somalia, al-Shabaab had advance warning of the tactical intervention, suggesting that the intelligence used to plan the response was outdated. Situations on the ground can change drastically at very short notice, calling for constant information gathering, analysis and interpretation.
Lastly, hostage negotiators agree that a tactical intervention or breach should always be considered as a last option. In the Somalia incident, all attempts to secure the safe release of Allex through negotiations had failed, making rescue the only available option. In the case of Algeria, however, the decision to opt for a military intervention will be scrutinised. Only those directly involved in the planning will know why this option was taken, but allegations have already been made that Algerian authorities' first priority was to prevent the destruction of the facility since gas and oil exports are the country's main source of revenue. This could explain the authorities' decision to act hastily, which meant that security forces went in 'blind', allowing the terrorists to kill their hostages before being killed themselves. While it is true that Algeria's long and troubled history with terrorism could explain the intervention at In Amenas, it is the cost of this response for both Algeria and the other states affected that is now at issue.
The scale of the In Amenas attack is a stark reminder that hostage taking as a strategy for terrorists is a reality and a growing threat. Given the vulnerability of many African states to terrorism of this nature, security forces must be trained on how best to respond to hostage and kidnapping situations in a way that protects national interests but ultimately saves lives.
Anneli Botha, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria Office