Small Wars Journal


The Amenas Siege and the Growing Hostage Problem in Africa

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.

US Security Force Assistance in Africa: Human Rights, Ethics Training a Must

The Malian army that took over the government in the March 2012 coup was led by a US trained officer, Captain Sanogo.  The Malian military continues to exert great influence in the political process in Mali and as they try to expel insurgents that have taken over the northern part of Mali.  The Malian army, however, is also accused of human rights abuses that took place during the purge of Sanogo opponents, as well as with enemy combatants.  Besides training the leader of the coup, the US military also trained the Malian military for years through the African Contingency Operations Training Assistance program (ACOTA), its predecessor the African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI), and other programs.

On 24 January 2013, the US AFRICOM Commander, General Ham, acknowledged the role the US military played in training Malian forces and found the outcome worrying.  He said that the focus of US efforts was tactical training but “We didn’t spend, probably, the requisite time focusing on values, ethics and military ethos.” 

The US has trained many African militaries on the continent; notably with the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) following the UN brokered Liberian peace deal that sent Charles Taylor to exile in Nigeria in 2003.  After dismissing the former Liberian military, the US vetted and recruited a new force and drew up a comprehensive training plan in 2005 that included intensive human rights, rule of law, ethics and values training.  However, in 2007, after the first class of new Liberian soldiers graduated, US trainers cut out the bulk of these training blocks due to time and cost constraints.  US trainers promised to incorporate the training at a later date but were unable to do so. 

The only test for the AFL so far was the Fall 2012 deployment under “Operation Restore Hope” to patrol the porous borders with Cote d’Ivoire.  Desertion remains a concern as over ten percent of the AFL has quit the force.  Frequent stories of AFL soldiers committing crimes are featured in the local Monrovian news, causing concern about the ethics and values of the new Liberian troops. 

Another example of a US trained soldier gone bad is President Jammeh in the Gambia, who took power in a 1994 military coup.  This has also taken place in Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, and Bolivia.  African leaders are rightfully afraid that US training can lead to regime change. 

The values and ethics training incorporated in ACOTA training has not prevented abuses by African militaries either.  Of the 25 current ACOTA partners, Kenyan, Ethiopian, Ugandan, and Nigerian troops have been accused of atrocities. 

Upcoming budget cuts and sequestration will put greater restraints on US military spending and our capabilities in training African forces.  If the primary intent of US training is to increase the tactical capabilities in US partners on the continent it is likely that human rights, values, and ethics training will also fall by the wayside in the rapidly approaching lean years.  US leaders need to ensure that these essential training modules are reinforced in all US funded training.

Can ECOWAS replicate the success of AMISOM in Mali?

The long running civil conflict in Mali resumed in January 2012 after several years of fragile peace. The Taureg Malian National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), supported by jihadist groups, rebelled against the central government. The rebels were strongly reinforced by fighters and heavy weapons brought to Mali from Libya following that country’s civil war. Resistance and fighting spread throughout northern Mali before the government took action.

Behind the scenes, the military became increasingly critical of the government’s unwillingness to combat the rebels. In March 2012 the Malian military conducted a coup, splintering into anti- and pro-government factions. The resulting civil conflict resulted in a complete collapse of security in the northern half of the country. By May 2012 the MNLA merged with Ansar Dine, a Taureg Islamist group. Other Islamist groups, such as the The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), quickly rallied to the cause of Taureg rebellion.

The Islamist groups filled the power vacuum and established a de facto state governed by an extremist application of Shariah law. There has been a large influx of “foreign fighters,” many of whom have experience in fighting Jihadist wars in Iraq, Yemen, and Algeria. The Al Qaeda-inspired fighters imposed an extremist form of Sharia, declaring northern Mali an “Islamic” state and precipitating a disaster for the region. They subsequently began destroying Sufi shrines, designated UNESCO world heritage sites, in Timbuktu.

The military coup also resulted in the suspension of Mali’s membership in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).  After a short period of political isolation, Mali was readmitted to ECOWAS in October 2012. The domestic political situation stabilized after formation of a coalition government that included ministers close to the leaders of the March coup. However, the situation in the north has progressively worsened. The Islamists have recently gone on the offensive to conquer more territory.

During the events following the coup, both the regional and international communities were vocal in their condemnation of the situation. However, the UN, the AU, and major donors, chiefly France and United States, were slow to endorse early plans for an outside military intervention. The 11 September attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya that resulted in the killing of four American personnel, to include the US Ambassador, was a catalyst for changing attitudes, amplifying the threat posed by continued international inaction on the northern Mali situation.

This incident highlighted the threat posed by ungoverned space increasingly under the control of Al Qaeda and its allies in Africa. The use of northern Mali as a transit point in all directions of the compass for extremists to conduct operations throughout West Africa with impunity is worrying for security officials watching the region. France has significant economic and political interests throughout West Africa. The US is increasingly concerned about specific threats posed by AQIM to American interests. Many of the regional states themselves have long running conflicts with irredentist Islamic groups inspired by, or aligned with, Al Qaeda.

A military campaign to retake northern Mali looks increasingly likely to happen in 2013. Policy makers should be fully aware of the challenges such a course of action presents tactically, strategically, and politically to achieving the objectives of the intervention force. Success will be hard to achieve. The ECOWAS forces could find themselves in a situation much like NATO in Afghanistan, fighting an insurgency in difficult terrain without clear objectives.

Early indications are that ECOWAS is looking at a mission force of approximately 3300 troops to fight alongside an equal number of Malian troops. This is a very small number of troops to control the terrain of such a vast area as Northern Mali. Some observers are comparing this operation with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) that is an African-led initiative with donors playing a supporting role, particularly in logistics. Will the ECOWAS and Malian forces have the political and popular support to sustain this mission, potentially with significant casualties?

The Somalia campaign has lasted five years resulting in thousands of casualties for AMISOM forces and Somali civilians. Despite clear military success against Al Shabaab on a macro-level and the creation of political space to reinforce these gains, a dangerous insurgency using asymmetric tactics continues in Somalia. Even the US’ own experience in Afghanistan shows initial success by regular troops against irregulars does not guarantee long-term results.

The troop-contributing countries for the intervention force will face significant challenges. Logistically none of the potential participants can self-sustain their forces outside their own borders. Clearly major donor support will be required. The costs of this support are exacerbated by long distances and lack of infrastructure. Despite being the most developed of the AU’s sub-regional organizations ECOWAS has not conducted a combined military operation since its forces deployed to Liberia, where they remain on duty.

The environment intensifies the tactical problems associated with defeating the rebel groups in northern Mali. The desert is harsh, distances long, water scarce and major cities separated by vulnerable lines of communication. There have been several Taureg rebellions since independence in 1960. Each one was hard fought and only ended once a political accord was reached with the central government.

Any military force will still face difficult fighting in northern Mali. However, as in other insurgencies everything will hinge on a concurrent political effort that addresses the concerns of the Taureg peoples. If their support for the Al Qaeda-aligned groups diminishes, the chances of success translating to long-term gains are higher. It is apparent, after several prolonged periods of civil conflict, that the political differences between northern and southern Mali need resolving. This is not just for the benefit of all Malians but also the region.