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A very bad ending to Algeria crisis

Jan 24, 2013 - By The Dallas Morning News

The past week's mass hostage-taking drama in Algeria should not have ended the way it did, with a rescue mission turning into a death trap for 38 hostages, including two Texans and another American from Oregon. It might not be known for a long time whether the jihadist radicals who seized the hostages intended to kill them from the beginning, in which case the Algerian government's intervention might prove to have been justified.

But much about this four-day ordeal suggests the Algerian government was caught unprepared and embarrassed. Its military counterassault seemed hasty, ill-prepared and destined to fail, assuming the objective was to save as many innocent lives as possible.

Foreign oil-field operations in hostile environments can and do lead to kidnappings and rebel assaults, but rarely do they end in such horrendously high death tolls. Kidnap and ransom specialists say the best way to avoid bloodshed is through patient negotiation. At a minimum, such stall tactics can buy time so authorities can prepare adequately for any rescue operation.

The Algerian government's first misstep was in failing to go on full alert the moment France announced its plan to intervene militarily to reverse Islamist insurgents' rapid advance in Mali, Algeria's southern neighbor. Algeria has been battling Islamist extremists for decades and knows all too well what the dangers are. The potential for spillover violence from Mali, not to mention neighboring Libya, was high.

Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal's description of the hostage-takers' meticulous long-range planning and execution of the assault on the remote eastern desert town of Ain Amenas suggests a major intelligence failure by his government. Once the extent of the attack was clear, the Algerian government again stumbled by refusing outside assistance.

Islamist radicals define victory as achieving martyrdom in the struggle for their cause -- as the 9/11 attacks demonstrated. Taking dozens of infidel lives only sweetens their sense of victory and, perhaps, raises the likelihood that other radicals will mimic this attack.

This serves as a wake-up call to foreign workers around the globe, particularly in countries where Islamist militant groups are known to operate. Texas petroleum specialists and oilfield workers travel daily to such areas, mainly lured by the promise of high pay.

Before accepting such employment, they should scrutinize prospective employers' security procedures and policies regarding kidnap-and-ransom negotiations. They should take the time to know the host country. What is its policy regarding hostage negotiations and the acceptance of outside assistance? Algeria's hard-line policy was well-known.

It's too late to get these answers once a terrorist attack is under way. Workers accustomed to Western law-enforcement procedures could be in for a rude awakening if they don't enter potentially hostile foreign environments with eyes wide open about the dangers.

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