When To Act? The Dilemma In Every Hostage Crisis

Jan 18, 2013

At least some of the hostages seized by Islamic militants in Algeria reportedly died during a military rescue operation, once again illustrating the tough choices and dangers inherent in such efforts.

While many details are far from clear, NPR's Tom Bowman says U.S. officials believe three Americans were among those seized when the natural gas site was attacked by a group calling itself "the Signatories of Blood" on Wednesday.

Algerians, Britons, French and Japanese were also among those taken by the captors. The kidnappers descended on the facility in what they said was retaliation for the French military intervention this week aimed at quelling an Islamic insurgency in neighboring Mali.

Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says rescuing hostages in a situation like the one in Algeria is a complex operation that is fraught with the possibility of things going wrong.

"Hostage rescue operations are inherently high risk, no matter what the scenario is," Nelson says. "They are fluid and dynamic, and information is almost always very unclear."

To be able to carry off such operations with the probability of success is "a high-end capability," he says.

"France has a force that can do it, the United States can do it, and so can the U.K.," he says. "But a nation like Algeria may not have the resources to prepare a force to conduct these types of operations, which makes it much riskier."

Successes And Failures

The modern history of military rescue operations has been a mixed bag.

The 1976 raid on Entebbe, in which Israeli Defense Forces launched a nighttime raid to free more than 100 Jewish passengers aboard an airliner on the tarmac at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, is considered a textbook success.

Four years later, Operation Eagle Claw, an elaborate plan to free U.S. Embassy staffers held in Iran, was an embarrassing failure.

The Iran operation showed that "the more moving pieces there are, the more complicated the mission is, the more probability there is of failure," Nelson says.

"Eagle Claw was an extraordinarily difficult operation," he says. "It required multiple different services and agencies; they were setting up bases and flying and refueling helicopters; and then the plan was to drive a truck to Tehran."

The Eagle Claw debacle prompted a reassessment of the U.S. military's ability to conduct such operations and bolstered the capabilities of Special Mission Units, such as Delta Force.

In sharp contrast, the USS Bainbridge rescued the skipper of the Maersk-Alabama container ship in 2009. It had been seized by Somalian pirates in the Gulf of Aden. That, Nelson says, was extraordinarily well-handled.

Algerians Move Quickly

In the Algerian operation, the U.S., France and Great Britain reportedly were taken by surprise and were not informed by Algeria before the raid began. Algeria's quick response to the standoff may have been prompted by the fear that the kidnappers were willing to sacrifice themselves and their hostages to make their point.

"What you're seeing with the Islamist terrorists is that these people are not willing to negotiate," Nelson says. "They are willing to die, and that adds another dimension to the equation and forces the hostage rescue teams to act sooner."

But Andy Liepman, a senior analyst at RAND and a former senior CIA official, says Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who is believed to be the head of the kidnappers, has a history of exchanging captives for money. He may have been seeking to raise cash for the Mali insurgency.

"The modus operandi of [Belmokhtar] is kidnap for ransom, so it's entirely possible that he hoped to get money out of this," Liepman says.

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