WASHINGTON -- Sharpened by combat over more than a decade of intense counter-terrorist operations across Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. special operations forces are well-poised to mount a rescue mission if ordered against Islamist terrorists holding Western hostages deep in Algeria's Eastern desert.
But the extensive U.S. experience in operating against Islamist militant groups offers a sobering caution against any expectations that American commandos could quickly dispatch the al Qaeda-linked terrorists expanding their grip on neighboring Mali and elsewhere in Northern Africa.
Senior U.S. officials have described both the hostage seizure in Algeria and the Islamist rebellion in neighboring Mali as evidence of a metastasizing threat from al Qaeda, with terrorist franchises under the umbrella of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) erupting across parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East from Algeria to Syria. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this week that the United States should "do whatever we can to try to stop the momentum of AQIM."
That might include targeting and killing the ringleader of the Algerian group behind the hostage-taking, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed militant who fought in Afghanistan and is known as "Mr. Marlboro" for his one-time pastime of smuggling cigarettes. Removing a charismatic terrorist leader can collapse a small, tight-knit organization, especially under the high stress of a hostage situation.
U.S. forces have often used such "decapitation" strikes against senior terrorists, in raids or with armed drones -- but with imperfect results. In relatively new terrorist groups, the sudden death of a leader can have a devastating effect, Army Maj. Bryan C. Price, director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, reported in a new, detailed study.
But al Qaeda leaders killed in drone strikes often have been replaced quickly. "What we found with al Qaeda was they could regenerate their leadership faster than we thought," Craig Nixon, a retired Army brigadier general who commanded counter-terrorist operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, told The Huffington Post.
U.S. Army Rangers, as well the Navy's SEALs, SEAL Team 6 and the Army's Special Operations Detachment D, have become adept at launching from a near-cold start with limited intelligence, poring over target imagery and building and rehearsing an attack plan in-flight.
U.S. officials said a counter-terrorist unit organized under the U.S. Africa Command following the debacle at Benghazi, Libya, last September has been alerted for a possible mission against Belmokhtar and the Algerian branch of al Qaeda. Although France is expected to take the lead, other U.S. counter-terrorist units under the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, headquartered in Tampa, Fla., are also monitoring the situation.
Sustained counter-terrorist operations against AQIM in Mali, for instance, may require a longer commitment of time and military force than the Obama administration so far has been willing to consider.
But as former CIA chief Panetta told reporters this week, "You know, as we've often found in these kinds of wars, it isn't something where you can kind of throw your hands up and say it's all over. This is -- this is the kind of war that's going to require continuing pressure over a period of time."
In Iraq, for example, the U.S. counter-terrorism task force that was built under the direction of then-Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal got good at finding and killing senior al Qaeda leaders, but found the organization's ability to mount terrorist attacks was undiminished. In his recent account, My Share of the Task, McChrystal explains how he and others methodically worked to shorten the time it took for them to receive and process intelligence, plan and execute raids, and quickly act on new intelligence from interrogation of prisoners or from material gathered in the raid.
"We built a network to defeat their network," said Nixon, who commanded Task Force Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2005. "It was a structure that allowed for smart autonomy -- enabling our small forces to react extremely fast, which kept them inside the decision cycle of terrorists who were widely dispersed. Operations that would have taken days to plan and get approved were being done in hours," he said. The task force was able to increase its operational pace from one raid every few nights to 12 or more each night.
For the terrorists, Nixon said, "there is a crossover point where they are spending more energy just trying to survive than trying to accomplish their objectives."
But in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan, Task Force Ranger and other counter-terrorism units had the luxury of nesting inside ongoing U.S. conventional military operations, giving them easy access to bases, air support and medical facilities, quick reaction forces and other assets.
Moreover, Nixon's troops could maneuver alongside ongoing U.S. conventional operations, allowing them to move less visibly. In sharp contrast, Nixon said, in Somalia in 1993, his Ranger troops were operating nearly alone, meaning that every time they launched from a secure base they were highly visible. "It was difficult to maintain any kind of surprise," he said.
But given the Obama administration's demonstrated reluctance to take on new foreign military missions, conventional U.S. military support is not likely to be available in Mali, an historic African empire and former French colony whose vast desert stretches have defeated previous military forces.
Apart from the White House phobia against new military expeditions, the Pentagon is well aware that in Iraq and to some extent in Afghanistan, the presence of large conventional U.S. forces caused a backlash of popular resentment against "foreign infidels" that made it easier for anti-U.S. militias to recruit fighters.
"When the United States and its allies have used overwhelming force and deployed large numbers of conventional soldiers, al Qaeda has benefitted through increased radicalization and additional recruits," writes Seth Jones, a RAND expert and former senior adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Command, in a new book, Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qaeda since 9/11.
At present, AQIM, bountifully armed largely with weapons leaking from post-Gaddafi Libya, controls roughly the Northern half of Mali, making it the largest area controlled by al Qaeda in the world. France is landing a military force that will eventually build to a modest contingent of 2,500 soldiers backed by strike jets and helicopter gunships.
The most effective strategy against al Qaeda, Jones told The Huffington Post, is a combination of counter-terrorist missions against the local al Qaeda leadership, combined with training and advising local government forces to conduct conventional military operations to seize and hold ground.
That may not eliminate the al Qaeda group, but constant pressure from special operations forces will reduce the threat to manageable proportions -- a state Jones called "mowing the grass."
A fitful effort has been made to train Malian military forces through annual multi-national exercises named Atlas Accord and Flintlock, according to the U.S. Africa Command, which is based in Stuttgart, Germany. Scheduled exercises in Mali this year were cancelled because of the war.
BEFORE YOU GO
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.
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
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.
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 http://t.co/XxyjLaX6
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.
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.
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