Understanding the Algeria crisis, with help from David Cameron

January 18, 2013

Left, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron. Right, the Amenas gas complex in Algeria. (REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth, AP Photo/Kjetil Alsvik)

British Prime Minister David Cameron, in a speech before the House of Commons Friday morning, laid out what could be the clearest narrative yet of Algeria's hostage crisis from an official source. His detailed, well-informed description of the events as he understands them is a useful primer both for understanding what happened and for seeing the emerging Western narrative, which increasingly portrays the crisis as disastrously mismanaged.

This speech is a great starting point for understanding the Algerian hostage crisis and some of the deeper issues involved, bearing in mind that Cameron is naturally constricted by the medium of a public address.

To help expand on the speech, I've annotated the transcript, which is below. My notes and annotations appear in italics. Here it is:

So let me take the House through what we believe has happened the steps we
are taking now and what this means for our security and the fight against
terrorism around the world.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning terrorists attacked a gas
installation run by BP, the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian
company Sonatrech, in In Amenas in South East Algeria near the Libyan
border.

The terrorist group is believed to have been operating under Mokhtar
Belmokhtar, a criminal terrorist and smuggler who has been operating in
Mali and in the region for a number of years, and who was formerly
affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.

[Max here: Belmokhtar's history with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, also known as AQIM, is complicated. It's difficult to know for sure, but that relationship appears to be marked by the usual ideological and inter-personal politics that drive Middle Eastern jihadist communities; some reports say he had a falling out with AQIM leaders. AQIM has only been around since 2006 – before that it was an Islamist rebel group that grew out of the country's 1990s civil war – and its larger place in the jihadist world is still evolving. More on that here.]

Mr Speaker, In Amenas is some 18 hours by road from the capital Algiers.

It is in the middle of the Sahara desert and one of the most remote places
in the world. As a result it takes time to get a complete picture and the full details
are still emerging.

[Further down in the speech, Cameron subtly lets on that British consular officials were not at first allowed to fly south to be closer to the crisis. Algeria's government can be a little touchy about allowing access to the Sahara, which is not exactly a no-man's-land but is also not particularly safe for travel.]

But according to the information we have from the Algerian authorities the
terrorists first attacked two buses en route to the Amenas airfield before
attacking the residential compound and the gas facility at the
installation.

[One detail that can be easy to miss about this crisis is that there are two separate sites: the actual In Amenas gas field itself and the Tigantourine facility complex about 25 miles away. Here's a map. The latter includes living areas for the complex workers, who presumably would take buses back and forth between them. That the militants attacked as the buses were moving could just be their luck, or it could bolster Cameron's point about it being pre-planned:]

It appears to have been a large, well co-ordinated and heavily armed
assault and it is probable that it had been pre-planned.

Two of those travelling in the convoy to the airfield were very sadly
killed including one British national and his family were informed on
Wednesday.

A number of other workers, were taken hostage by the terrorists in separate
locations both at the residential compound and the gas facility.

[This, above, is an important detail. It's not clear if Cameron is referring to the Tigantourine complex and the In Amenas field, 25 miles away, or just the two separate facilities at Tigantourine, which are still couple of miles apart. Either way, it hints at why an Algerian military raid on the facility would be so complicated, and why militants in other areas could still hold hostages almost 24 hours after that assault.]

The precise numbers involved remain unclear at this stage but the hostages
included British nationals, along with nationals of at least seven other
countries and of course many Algerians.

[Americans, Japanese, and French were (are?) among the hostages as well.]

As soon as we heard of the attack we initiated the government’s crisis
management procedures in both London and Algeria.

Our most immediate priority was to establish the identity and whereabouts
of British nationals, to contact their families, and to do everything
possible to secure their safe return.

I chaired a meeting of the government’s emergency committee – COBRA. I spoke to the Algerian Prime Minister on Wednesday afternoon and then again on three further occasions.

From the outset I have been clear about our implacable opposition to
terrorism and said that we will stand with the Algerians in their fight
against these terrorist forces.

But I also emphasised the paramount importance of securing the safety of
the hostages.

[Those two positions – fight the terrorists, protect the hostages – are in a bit more tension than you might think from his speech, although his "but" formulation hints at this. It's not that one priority excludes the other, exactly, but hostage rescue operations are considered often a last resort because they place the hostages at extreme risk. The Japanese government, probably for this reason, publicly called on the Algerian military to pull back from its assault. Cameron, it appears, may have shared this concern.]

I offered UK technical and intelligence support – including from experts in hostage negotiation and rescue – to help find a successful resolution. And I urged that we and other countries affected should be consulted before any action was taken.

[Again, here, Cameron is subtly pointing to the tension between the U.K. government's emphasis on cooperation and negotiation versus the Algerian approach, which turned out to be a unilateral assault.]

I also spoke to the leaders of other countries which had hostages taken –
including Japanese Prime Minister Abe, Norwegian Prime Minister
Stoltenberg, President Hollande and President Obama and I co-ordinated
further offers of support for the Algerians in dealing with the situation.

Mr Speaker, during the course of Thursday morning the Algerian forces
mounted an operation. Mr Speaker, we were not informed of this in advance. I was told by the Algerian Prime Minister while it was taking place.

[This is a really big deal. Standard protocol in this sort of situation would be for the Algerian government to at least make a show of consulting with the foreign governments involved before doing anything. Algeria's decision is particularly surprising given the economic factors involved: Algeria relies heavily on Western investment in its energy industry, which is itself reliant on Western governments trusting that Algeria has things under control.]

He said that the terrorists had tried to flee, that they judged there to be
an immediate threat to the lives of the hostages and had felt obliged to
respond.

[This roughly tracks with the Irish foreign minister's account of what happened. He told CNN that, according to the Algerians, the assault began shortly after the militants declared their intention to move the hostages in a convoy. The military, he said, warned the militants not to attempt this; when they did anyway, the military decided to open fire. That skirmish seems to have ended, according to this version of events, in the deaths of several hostages and militants.]

When I spoke again to the Algerian Prime Minister later last night he told
me that this first operation was complete but this is a large and complex
site and they are still pursuing terrorists and possibly some of the
hostages in other areas of the site.

The Algerian Prime Minister has just told me this morning they are now
looking at all possible routes to resolve this crisis.

Mr Speaker, last night the number of British citizens at risk was less than
30. Thankfully we now know that number has now been quite significantly
reduced.

[In other words, the Algerian military is still going through the facility and either finding or rescuing hostages, but there are still some remaining, including U.K. nationals.]

And I am sure the House will understand why during an ongoing operation I
can not say more on this at this stage.

Mr Speaker, our priority remains the safety of British nationals involved,
the repatriation of those killed and the evacuation of the wounded and
freed hostages.

A Rapid Deployment Consular team is en route to Algiers together with other
specialists.

And the Algerian Prime Minister has agreed my request to grant access to
our consular staff to fly south as soon as possible to support those
involved.

[The news here is that the Algerian prime minister has only now allowed this to happen. If there was a delay, as Cameron seems to suggest, that would inform the U.K. government's frustration.]

I have also spoken with Bob Dudley at BP both last night and again this
morning.

We are liaising closely on BP’s evacuation plans and have put additional
civilian aircraft on standby to assist them with their well thought through
evacuation plans if needed.

Mr Speaker, we need to be absolutely clear whose fault this is.

It is the terrorists who are responsible for this attack and for the loss
of life.

The actions of these extremists can never be justified.

We will be resolute in our determination to fight terrorism and to stand
with the Algerian government, who have paid a heavy price over many years fighting against a savage
terrorist campaign.

[It's true that Algeria has been fighting terrorism for years, and that Belmokhtar has belonged to some of the worst terrorist groups there. But those many years of fighting extend back to the 1990s Algerian civil war, which began when the Algerian military cancelled a national election that had been won by Islamists. France supported Algeria in the war, in which a number of the Islamist rebels started to look more ideologically extreme and behave much more like terrorists.

Still, one element of the war, as it is often perceived in Algeria, was Western support for the military's coup and its suppression of democratically elected Islamists. That's a real sore point. While Cameron's narrative of Algeria's fight against terrorism is not wrong, and while many Algerians would surely agree with his characterization of Islamist terrorists as "savage," it's also an interesting reminder of the mismatch between how Algeria's ongoing struggle with extremism is perceived in the West versus how it is perceived in Algeria itself.]

This is a continuing situation and we will do our best to keep parliament
and the public updated.

We hope this will reach a conclusion shortly.

There will then, of course, be a moment then to learn the necessary lessons

And I commend this statement to the House.

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