01/17/2013 03:26 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

Algeria Attack Planned Before Mali Intervention, Officials Say

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON Jan 17 (Reuters) - Algerian militants planned their hostage-taking attack on a remote desert gas plant well before a French military operation against militants in neighboring Mali, European and U.S. national security officials said on Thursday.

Intelligence indicates that the hostage takers, believed to be members of a breakaway faction of al Qaeda's North African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), had planned to capture the hostages and take them to a hideout where it would be harder to mount a rescue attempt, a European security official said.

Representatives of the hostage takers told a news service in nearby Mauritania that the attack was a response to the French military operation to clear out Islamic fighters who have taken control of a large swathe of territory in northern Mali. The French operation began on Friday, Jan. 11.

However, U.S. and Western security sources said they believed it was more likely that the motivation behind the hostage-taking was to obtain a ransom, most likely in cash, but also possibly to seek a release of militant prisoners.

The standoff began when gunmen stormed the gas facility on Wednesday. They said they were holding 41 foreigners and demanded a halt to the French military operation in Mali.

Twenty-five foreign hostages escaped and six were killed on Thursday when Algerian forces launched an operation to free them at a remote desert gas plant, Algerian sources said, as one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades unfolded.

The operation was said to be continuing, however, and there were conflicting and confused reports from the region.

More than five Americans were believed to be among the hostages along with around 10 Britons, as well as citizens of other countries, Western sources said.

Several Western security sources said that although details about the hostage-taking remain murky, available evidence suggests the attack was too sophisticated to have been organized in the wake of the French operation in Mali.

The sources said it was more likely the hostage-takers had seized on news of that operation as a pretext for their attack.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who has advised President Barack Obama on counterterrorism policy, said the hostage-taking could fuel criticism that U.S. authorities should have been paying closer attention to the threat posed by Islamic militants in north Africa.

Some of Obama's political opponents for months have been raising similar questions about the U.S. security and intelligence posture in Benghazi, Libya, where militants launched a deadly attack on two U.S. official installations last Sept. 11.

U.S. and European sources said the reported leader of the Algerian militant faction that took workers from BP and Statoil hostage, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is a former leading member of AQIM. He either split from, or was thrown out of, the al Qaeda affiliate because he was regarded as too difficult to work with and too interested in self-promotion, they said.

A 2008 State Department cable classified "secret" and made public by WikiLeaks said an associate of Belmokhtar may have been involved in handling two Canadian diplomats taken hostage by AQIM in Mali in December of that year. They were later freed.

The cable also alleged that Belmokhtar allegedly once targeted a German diplomat in Mauritania for kidnapping-for-ransom. The cable said that as of 2008, however, Belmokhtar had "specifically ordered his operatives to avoid targeting Am Cits (American Citizens) for fear of retribution from the government."



01/18/2013 6:43 PM EST

2 American Hostages Still Unaccounted For

According to NBC News, U.S. officials have confirmed that the total number of Americans taken hostage on Wednesday was five. Of those, one was confirmed dead: Frederick Buttaccio of Texas. Two others managed to escape during Thursday's raid, while the remaining two are believed to be still in captivity. The militants had extended an offer to the U.S. to exchange two hostages for two jailed jihadists, which would account for the missing Americans.

The AP reported earlier that U.S. officials were refusing to disclose the exact number of remaining captives for fear that it might compromise their safety.

Read more at NBC News.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

01/18/2013 5:44 PM EST

Who Is Mokhtar Belmokhtar?

The Huffington Post's Hunter Stuart has written a profile on the man known as "Mr. Marlboro," believed to be behind the attack in Algeria.

Called "The Uncatchable" by French intelligence, Belmokhtar is known to locals as more of a businessman than a terrorist, having consolidated his power by being a benefactor to the region's poor desert people.

Stuart writes:

Until recently, Belmokhtar was a senior commander for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but split from the group last year to form his own militia, called Those Who Sign With Blood.

The group's ability to take over such a high-profile target as the In Amenas gas plant, and to hold captive such a large number of hostages, illustrates its power and dexterity in the region.

To read the entire profile, click here.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

01/18/2013 5:32 PM EST

Kidnapper Identified

17-year-old Abdullah Abdallah Ould Hmeïda has been identified by Mauritanian news agency Sahara as one of the al Qaeda-affiliated militants who laid siege on the gas plant in the Algerian desert. Ould Hmeïda, who joined the group at age 14, was killed in the Algerian military's rescue operation yesterday.

--Shirin Barghi

01/18/2013 4:48 PM EST

American Hostage Was Shot By Militant

The Guardian spoke to an Algerian oil worker who has since been freed from the gas plant. He provided harrowing details of the terrorists' actions and the subsequent raid by Algerian forces.

At 10am on Thursday, when the Algerian army assault began, he said he heard "explosions, shots, bombing and women's screams". Then the hostage-takers told local workers: "Algerian brothers, don't be afraid, go in peace, you're going to go home, we're your brothers, we're all Muslim." One American hostage who had been with his Algerian colleagues was wounded after a fall, another was shot by a militant. "I don't know if they'd seen he was American or if they were afraid when he moved," he said. The American did not die immediately, he said, but he understood the man had since died.

The State Department has confirmed the death of one American, reported by the AP to be Frederick Buttaccio from Texas. It is unclear whether Buttacio is the hostage described above.

To read the rest of the first-hand account, visit the Guardian.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

01/18/2013 4:38 PM EST

Gallup: Algerians' Disapproval Of U.S. Leadership Among Highest In The World

A new Gallup poll reveals that Algerian approval of U.S. leadership has sunk to its lowest level since 2009, when Obama took office. In 2012, 68% of Algerians disapproved of U.S. leadership, rivaling the 71% rating received by the government under the Bush administration in 2008.

Algerians' disapproval of U.S. leadership is now among the highest in the world, behind only Pakistan and the Palestinian Territories. As news of the hostage crisis in Algeria -- involving Americans among other foreigners -- continues to unfold, the data show that the U.S. may need to tread carefully in its handling of the situation. While it is unclear at this point how Algerians feel about the terrorists' actions, it is clear that the large majority of Algerians were disgruntled with U.S. leadership before this crisis and thus may be leery of any action the U.S. might take.

To see the full report, visit Gallup.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

01/18/2013 4:30 PM EST

Fire At The Gas Plant

Al Arabiya English is reporting a massive fire at the In Amenas oil facility.

@ AlArabiya_Eng :

#BreakingNews: Reports of massive blaze in Algeria gas plant where hostages were held

--Eline Gordts

01/18/2013 4:27 PM EST

Dead French Hostage Identified

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced on Friday that at least one Frenchman was killed during the hostage crisis in Algeria. "The Algerian authorities have just informed us that one of our compatriots, Mr. Yann Desjeux, unfortunately lost his life during the operation to free hostages," Fabius said in a statement, according to Reuters. "The lives of three others of our compatriots who were on the site during the terrorist attack have been saved," he added.

--Eline Gordts

01/18/2013 4:18 PM EST

Name Of Dead American Hostage Released

Per the AP, the American hostage who has died in Algeria is Frederick Buttaccio from Texas. How he died remains unclear.

To read more, click here.

--Eline Gordts

01/18/2013 4:05 PM EST

Number Of Americans Still Being Held Unclear

The AP reports that Americans are still being held hostage, though the exact number remains unclear. After receiving an update from Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, Secretary Clinton stressed that the "utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life."

Read more from the AP.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

01/18/2013 3:38 PM EST

'Without The Ouster Of Gaddafi, There's No Mali'

In the Jan. 11 episode of The World This Week on France 24, Paris Match's Régis Le Sommier connected the dots between Mali and Libya, stating that the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi paved the way for the militant resistance in Mali.

"Libya has given these people a number of weapons, there's been an outflow of weapons toward these people. They have gathered in central Mali, they've created the conditions for a new tribal zone over there, bringing back some threats directly toward Europe from this region," Le Sommier said. "What have we left in Libya? What is the state of Libya now? Not that I worship Gaddafi, but weren't we much better off when Gaddafi was there?"

A number of the kidnappers and arms used in the Algeria attack are believed to have come from Libya.

Watch the clip below:

For the full episode of The World This Week, click here.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

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