Small Wars Journal

The Amenas Siege and the Growing Hostage Problem in Africa

Mon, 02/11/2013 - 8:30am

Algeria’s bloody siege of the Amenas facility was a necessary first shot of retaliation in a growing regional problem, as groups both criminal and ideological groups seek sources of income and influence. Out of the instability of Somalia, hostage taking grew as the chosen occupation of pirates in pre-AU offensive Somalia. As regional instability increases and piracy grows in the Gulf of Guinea, hostage taking could become the tactic du jour of many groups due to long-established profitability. The Amenas episode will stand as a strategic success in helping limit the nature of the coming conflicts growing from regional instability.

To contrast the brutal decisiveness of the Amenas siege, a tragedy of the commons sustained Somalia’s prolonged hostage problem. States’ non-negotiation policies were defeated by corporations incentivizing hostage-tactics through negotiation with pirates. The state policy of containment rather than roll-back allowed corporations the legal ability and time window necessary to arrange and execute the unintended subsidy. That combination of negotiation and containment failed; land engagements by AU troops finally wiped out the sea-supporting shore infrastructure and power vacuum that pirates had filled. Amenas differs slightly in that militants may have intended to execute their prey and destroy the Amenas facility. However, swift military action still prevented the incentivization of hostage-taking by removing the opportunity for militants to establish a political narrative via protracted stand-off. It also robbed the militants of the time necessary to turn the facility into a maze of deadly traps. The immediate bloodbath is far outweighed by the long-term strategic message that hostages are liabilities and hostage takers mark themselves for death. It is more important than ever that this message is repeated; the tropical depressions of West African conflict may soon combine into a hurricane.

While West Africa appears to move beyond its chaotic past, resurgent militancy and instability are joined by trends of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. Western observers have paid particular attention to the sudden and dramatic collapse of Mali into an unpleasant froth of civil war and Islamic extremism, Boko Haram has risen as a force to be reckoned with in Africa’s most populous nation. Boko Haram has trained with militants in Mali and their leadership has also been reported operating with groups in the region. Militants in Algeria, Nigeria, and Mali gain connectivity while the low-hanging fruit of potential mariner hostages tempt in the Gulf of Guinea. States have this opportunity at the outset to establish rules of engagement and public expectations. Hostage-taking will not be the sole tactic of pirates and militants. However, at least that protracted and damaging tactic can be discouraged by establishing norms early.  Namely, hostage taking will never meet with payment; it will be met with immediate and brutal precision by law enforcement and military. While collateral damage should be avoided where practical, the state must not be held in thrall by tactical blackmail.  

Although many will find the strategic disregard for hostages heartless, it must be by design. That heart, a willingness to engage in protracted negotiation for political and financial resources with hostage-takers, is what gives value to the hostage-taking tactic. Financial motivations aside, negotiations also give hostage-takers who are politically oriented time to communicate with the media, establish narratives, and use their position as a pulpit for their cause. Using their human shields to defy the law also gives hostage-takers an exaggerated image of strength to exploit. Negotiations give those whose objective is terror the opportunity to set traps, publicly execute hostages, and otherwise cause mayhem on world-wide media. Ransom, political grandstanding, and intimidation are all possible scenarios and must be dealt with as swiftly and as brutally as the gas-field scenario in Algeria.

Hostage taking is  a gangrenous wound. The longer the trend is allowed to fester, the greater the damage that must be done to halt it. When the trend is immediately sterilized and stitched, one decreases the need to cut large pieces of flesh to stop the infection. Somalia and Algeria illustrate opposing methods to deal with the different stripes of hostage-taker. In Somalia, hostage-taking received only surface bandages, festering until billions of dollars were lost to ransom, untold opportunities were lost to instability, and countless lives lost both physically and metaphorically. With time, it sapped the chances to rebuild legitimacy and ever decreased stability. The Algerian solution, although not long enough past to show trending results, should drastically changes the hostage calculus. The message in Algeria is unquestioningly clear: hostage takers die swiftly. If governments from the Guinea Coast to the Mediterranean expect to deter future hostage taking, they must echo the Algerian message and resist the urge to match failed western policies in Somalia.


Ned McDonnell III

Sun, 02/17/2013 - 7:25pm

In reply to by nrogeiro

As unsavory at it was, the Algerian response will likely save lives in long run by not reinforcing hostage-taking as a profitable and land-locked piracy. While people exult the results in Mali right now, might there not be safe-havens setting themselves up in Southern Algeria to permit a subsequent return with a vengeance?

Could the same happen with Nigeria and Niger? If that vengeance, mentioned above, works and Mali eventually falls to the militants, could Mali and Niger wind up being contingent hinges for protracted 'islamaoist' struggles in Algeria and Nigeria? That might require a costly joint-adventure (as a pincer) from Nigeria and Algeria to eradicate safe-havens so they have nowhere to go.

Interesting article. Thanks, Ned.


Sun, 02/17/2013 - 1:25pm

This theme is made more relevant after today's taking of hostages in Buchi state, Nigeria. There are seven foreign workers from an attacked construction company. It could be common criminals, but at least two major proclaimed "small jihadi" ("small jihad" in the sense of armed action, "big Jihad" being spiritual struggle)have been active there, probably with accomplices in neighboring Niger. One of the consequences of the expulsion of AQ-related groups from Mali is the possible growth of indirect strategies like this in all the southern Sahara-Sahel region, Horn of Africa, Great Lakes, etc.
Again African emergency meetings and measures are needed, as this requires a big regional cooperative effort.
Lisbon, Portugal