Algeria hostage crisis: why even Britain’s special forces might not have done much better

The coming days will see continued debate over whether Western forces could have handled the Algerian refinery siege better than their local counterparts. As ever, there’s the temptation to think Britain’s SAS could have done the job with far fewer casualties, repeating the spectacular success they had with the Iranian embassy siege in London in 1981.

I wrestled with this same debate in rather stark terms myself back in 2008, when I was kidnapped in pirate-plagued Puntland in northern Somalia. As I sat prisoner in a cave in a remote mountain range, with little to do but stare at the walls, I spent much time wondering who, if anyone, might try to spring me free. Would it be a precision strike by the SAS, parachuted in on a special mission from Britain? Or would it be the rather less professional forces of the Puntland Police, who would probably come in guns blazing, and leave everyone – me included – dead?

As I found out after my eventual release six weeks later, I was the only person actually having this debate. A pal in the British military informed me that while they were indeed aware of my plight, no plans had been drawn up for “Operation Freeman”. Their reasoning was that there was no imminent risk to my life – or, at least, not enough to warrant what would have been a very dicey SAS mission into the wilds of northern Somalia.

The Puntland Police, meanwhile, carried out what I can only describe as Operation Bull––––. Four days into the kidnapping, a police official suddenly announced that they had the cave surrounded and were about to storm it – much to the horror of my boss back in London, who, fearing a bloodbath, spent the next few hours frantically pleading with them to hold off. It then transpired that the official’s claims were complete rubbish, and that the police had never been looking for us in the first place. Which, as you imagine, did little to improve my boss’s confidence in them.

The fact is, though, that had my life really been in imminent danger, neither the SAS nor the Puntland Police would have stood much chance of springing me alive. For a start, I was guarded round-the-clock by between 10 and 15 armed men, who posted sentries both in and around the cave itself and at various spots in the surrounding mountains. The area we were held in was also so remote and quiet that it was hard to imagine how any rescue mission could get near without giving the alarm away. And even if they had, there would have been a very high possibility of me getting killed in the crossfire. Caves, with their solid stone walls, are very dangerous places to have battles in – as I found out one day when my captors fought a brief gunfight with a rival clan, which sent bullets ricocheting above my head.

Indeed, at the risk of offending Andy McNab fans (of which I am one), I am tempted to say that we in the West have perhaps a little too much faith in our special forces’ capabilities in hostage situations. The Iranian embassy siege of 1981, which sprung the SAS to worldwide fame, was a spectacular success, but it was probably the exception rather than the rule. Numerous operations since then, from the attempt to free Scottish aid worker Linda Norgrove in Afghanistan in 2010, through to the French special forces operation two weeks ago to free a kidnapped secret service agent in Somalia, have ended in tragedy of one sort or another. Which is why, as per my own case, these operations are only carried out if it’s thought the hostage is all but certain to be killed otherwise.

Moreover, the Algerian hostage crisis of last week was of a different scale altogether, with hundreds of people involved and large numbers of gunmen – most of whom, I suspect, would be all too happy to be “martyred” in the process. This is a crucial difference from what might be termed “old school” hostage situations such as the 1970s airline hijackings, where the gunmen’s desire to stay alive was one of the only things that the would-be rescuers had going for them.

In fact, there is an argument for viewing what happened in Algeria was not really a kidnapping at all, but a “deferred homicide”. This was a phrase first used by kidnap negotiations in post-Saddam Iraq, when confronted with jihadists who would abduct foreign nationals and threaten to behead them unless their respective governments pulled their troops out of the country completely.

While the tactic did have some limited success – the Philippines government infuriated the Americans by pulling its troops out after the kidnapping of a Filipino truck driver – most of the jihadi groups knew the likes of the British and American governments would never allow a hostage-taking to dictate their military strategy.

In other words, such kidnaps were not an attempt to strike a bargain, but simply a prolonged act of murder, by setting an impossible price for a hostage’s life. The sole purpose was to put psychological pressure on the government of the citizens concerned – hence, also, the disgusting practice also of filming the beheadings and downloading them as snuff movies onto the internet for all to see.

The Algerian case, as far as I can see, was much the same in many ways. The kidnappers would most likely have known that there was no chance of the French military halting their military operation in Mali in response. Nor would they have entertained much hope of being able to negotiate some fat ransom – the whole thing was far too big, public and multinational for that kind of backroom deal.

Instead, I suspect they all went in there in the full anticipation that neither they nor many other people in the refinery would ever come out alive. As such, the success of this operation should perhaps be measured not by the numbers who didn’t survive, as by the numbers who did.

Read all Colin Freeman’s Telegraph Blog posts here

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