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Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
Americans at an oil facility in Algeria were among a number of people taken hostage yesterday. An Islamic militant group has claimed responsibility. An update on the crisis.
- Daveed Gartenstein-Ross senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
- Paul Pillar director of graduate studies at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University and a former CIA National Intelligence officer.
- Jean-Luc Marret senior fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique, a leading think tank on international security issues in France.
- Robin Wright journalist, joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World."
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Militants seized dozens of foreign hostages at a gas field in Algeria in an apparent response to French military presence in Mali. Defense Secretary Panetta confirmed some of the hostages are American, and he says the U.S. is weighing a response to the kidnapping.
MR. TOM GJELTENJoining me here in the studio to discuss the new terrorist crisis in Northern Africa: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Robin Wright of the Woodrow Wilson Center. Also joining us by phone are Jean-Luc Marret of the Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique and Paul Pillar from Georgetown University. We'll be talking calls and comments later in the hour. It will be interesting hearing from anyone who's worked in North Africa.
MR. TOM GJELTENMany foreigners, of course, are employed in the energy sector there. You can reach us at 1-800-433-8850, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Facebook or Twitter. And this is a fast-breaking story. And for the latest, we're joined now by Scott Sayare of The New York Times who's in Paris. And, Scott, you've been following this story minute by minute. Thanks for joining us.
MR. SCOTT SAYAREMy pleasure.
GJELTENWhat can you tell us? Is it true that Algerian security forces actually attacked the gas facility in Algeria where these hostages were being held today?
SAYAREIt appears to be true. I should preface everything I say by noting that I, obviously, am not on site. And, in fact, no reporters are on site to my knowledge. So all of the information that we've been able to glean about the situation has come either through official sources or through the militants themselves which leaves us in at a bit of a disadvantage it terms of understanding what's actually happened.
SAYAREI've just received word from BP, the British multinational oil company, that they have been informed by the British and Algerian governments that there is an operation underway in an effort to take back the site. That being said, all morning and all afternoon, there had been reports that the militants who have seized the sites perhaps tried to escape with hostages and that the soldiers that are on-hand attempted to prevent them from doing so.
GJELTENWell, it appears from lots of reports that the kidnapers are very well-armed, and, of course, it is a pretty isolated facility. So it would seem natural that any attempt to take that facility or rescue the hostages would probably be a pretty violent one.
SAYAREI think that's right. There were certainly efforts to negotiate some kind of end to the situation. There was talk, for example, the notion of allowing the hostage takers a free passage out of Algeria if they agreed to hand over the hostages. There were meant to be negotiations this morning, those appear to have not taken place because the hostage-takers simply tried to escape before they could. As you know, they do appear to be very well-armed.
SAYARECertainly everyone -- the Algerian officials that have spoken have referred to them as being very well-armed. There have also been reports of mines being laid outside the site, although it's hard to know whether those are at all accurate. In any event, it does appear that something quite violent has occurred. It's just hard at this point to know exactly what.
GJELTENAnd what -- just give us an idea of what some of the reports are because we have seen very alarming reports that a number of the hostages -- several of the hostages may have been killed in this operation.
SAYAREYeah. We're certainly seeing those reports as well. The highest numbers -- and again, I bring these up only with the greatest caution because it's quite hard to know at this point. The highest numbers we've seen, for example, are 35 hostages and 15 attackers having died in some sort of violence. The hypothesis that has been floated by a number of people on the ground or on -- in contact with people on the ground is that the militants may have tried to escape in the vehicles that they had with them and, in doing so, took the hostages with them.
SAYAREThose vehicles may have been fired upon by Algerian forces trying to prevent them to leave. And as a result, there might be a great number of deaths. There's no confirmation on the (word?) at this point.
GJELTENOK. So one scenario here that you are reporting as possible is that a number of the hostage-takers, once surrounded at the facility, actually tried to escape and were then fired on, and that's when people were killed.
GJELTENAll right. All right. Well, I'm sure you have a lot to do, Scott. Thanks for taking a few minutes to update us on the situation.
SAYAREMy pleasure. Thanks, Tom.
GJELTENLet's go now to Jean-Luc Marret. Jean-Luc, what can you tell us about this? Do you know anything about this group that has apparently taken these hostages and what their connections might be to al-Qaida more broadly and to the militants who are fighting in Mali?
MR. JEAN-LUC MARRETWell, first of all, I want to mention that I'm also a visiting fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations in Washington, D.C.
GJELTENVery good. Thank you.
MARRETAbout the small group, that's a splinter cell from AQIM...
GJELTENAnd by AQIM, you mean al-Qaida...
MARRETAl-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb -- sorry -- that is involved right now in North Mali fighting with the French troops and other African troops. And this small group acted alone and -- in attacking this industrial facility. I think we should also mention that some of the jihadi groups involved now in North Mali like the Tuareg of Ansar Dine condemned this massive hostage taking, saying that they don't do that on their side. So I think we can describe these guys as pretty much unilateral.
GJELTENUnilateral. Now, there have actually been some reports, Jean-Luc, that it is a -- if there are connections to al-Qaida that it's kind of a rogue al-Qaida branch. Is that your understanding?
MARRETYeah. But talking about core al-Qaida and sort of global jihad is a very American way to describe the reality. I think we have alternative way to represent that reality, especially in France. And for that reason, I would mention that all of the current situation is basically a very localized jihad. We have organization. We have sort of solidarity. We have the core al-Qaida somewhere in Afghanistan and Pakistan but a concrete field agenda.
GJELTENOK. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies 'cause you -- can you add anything to what Jean-Luc has just told us about his understanding of this group?
MR. DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSSWell, first, I'd say, with respect to my colleague Jean-Luc, whose work I respect quite a bit, I do have one area where I don't quite agree. I think that when he says that it's unilateral, I would put some question marks around that in the sense that, you know, the claim of responsibility that we got from Belmokhtar agree entirely that's it's a splinter group from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
MR. DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSSWhen he did split, it was kind of an amicable split which came in December, and he said that he maintained his loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri. That, of course, doesn't mean that he's acting on behest of Zawahiri. But, you know, this was an operation that not an easy one to undertake. It's 700 miles from the Malian border.
MR. DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSSAnd so the question I would have is, you know, was there a localized support network? I mean, who else was involved? Was it simply that Belmokhtar had the -- and his group had the ability to undertake this action within Algeria? Or was there a broader network that was helping to support them? At the outset, it's not clear to me that this was unilateral and simply the work of this one group.
GJELTENRobin Wright, clearly, there are connections to the Mali operation where Mali -- militants in Mali had taken over much of the country. The French army joined the army of Mali in taking it back. There is a connection between these two events, isn't there?
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTYes. And this particular crisis comes in context of a huge destabilization of a chunk of Africa, Northwest Africa that has suddenly presented a real challenge to the outside world. That's why France has gotten involved. It's afraid that a very important former colony to it could have some kind of spillover effect in Europe that's geographically still close. But you have Algeria, Mali, Libya, Niger and Mauritania all facing Syria's political challenges.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTThere are over 300 militias in Libya, and this incident happened just about 30 miles from the Libyan border. And there's been a influx of weapons from Libyan militias across the border into Algeria to -- bound for Mali to arm some of the various groups in Northern Mali, an area itself that's larger than France. And so you see this region suddenly much larger than Afghanistan or some of the other -- or Somalia, you know, the other failed states that have contributed to the rise of extremism, have given havens to extremist groups.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTAnd so yes, it's -- Algeria's crisis looks like it's immediately linked to the strife inside Mali where rebels are moving increasingly toward the capital Bamako, destabilizing again this important country. But it comes in context of something that the outside world is suddenly catching up with and saying huh, what happened? And what are the potential for this particular incident to be replicated over and over and over again?
GJELTENBecause we've become accustomed to talking about al-Qaida, first of all, and, of course, the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, later in Yemen. And now here, we're talking about North Africa.
WRIGHTAnd just a few months ago, there was an assessment that al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb was waning in influence. And now suddenly it's proving that it has muscle even if it is by one of the many cells under the umbrella in this region.
GJELTENRobin Wright is a journalist and joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center. We're also joined by Paul Pillar, who is a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. And he's an expert on al-Qaida and South Asia with a lot of years of experience in the intelligence community.
GJELTENPaul, we're going to be going to you after the break. But we're going to stop here for a minute. We're going to take a break. And when we come back, we're going to be getting more information, more analysis about this rapidly unfolding hostage crisis in North Africa. Stay with us.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. We're talking about this confusing and very fluid situation in Algeria where a number of foreign energy workers were taken hostage yesterday by a militant group and mixed reports this morning, apparently, some kind of military operation around there that resulted in the death of some of the hostage-takers and perhaps some of the hostages as well.
GJELTENI'm going to turn now to Paul Pillar who's a former intelligence officer who specialized in the study and analysis of al-Qaida, an extremist group. He's now a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. Paul, you heard Jean-Luc Marret earlier say in his judgment that we in the United States are sort of like too quick to put these events into some really easy to classify paradigm and talk about al-Qaida in very generalized way.
GJELTENAnd he thinks that more precision is needed in describing these groups. Give us your sense of al-Qaida, this group that we -- this movement that we call al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. What is your sense of it, how unified is it, and how should we see these isolated or separate events unfolding in Mali and Algeria right now?
MR. PAUL PILLARTom, Jean-Luc is quite correct that we have, as he put it, a very American way of looking at these things. Having been hit by 9/11, we tend to put everything in a -- an al-Qaida frame of reference. And by applying that label, we tend to think of a unified global organization that really doesn't exist and never did exist.
MR. PAUL PILLARWe have this very confusing melange of extremist groups operating in this part of the Sahel in North Africa. And some of them -- and we're talking specifically about the AQIM that we have referred to -- have adopted the al-Qaida name and parts of its ideology. AQIM itself is a rebranded Algerian group that had its origins back in the awful bloodletting in Algeria that began in the early 1990s.
MR. PAUL PILLARAnd I think, I'm sorry to say, in here, I do agree with Jean-Luc that for the most part, the motivations involved here are primarily local, even though we can always point to the "lengths" to whatever is left to al-Qaida central and even though the name and even fragments of the ideology arise. So confusing and fluid, you're quite correct about that, Tom, and I think Jean-Luc is correct in cautioning us about putting everything in an al-Qaida frame of reference.
GJELTENNow, Algeria's interior minister said that this raid was overseen, and we've mentioned his name before. This raid is overseen by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who is an Algerian. He fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, so he shares that attribute with other militants. But in recent years, he's also been seen as, I understand, as somewhat of a rogue figure who's gotten involved in cigarette smuggling.
GJELTENOne of his nicknames is Mr. Marlboro. Our own reporter Eleanor Beardsley says he's known as Mr. Quran by day and Mr. Marlboro by night. So, you know, one -- in fact, one of our listeners is wondering whether the objective here might be to get ransom money, or is it ideological? Can you -- what is -- is there -- this would be very different if this were a ransom operation sort of undertaken kind of with organized crime thinking or something that's done for political or ideological reasons and linked to what's happening in Mali. Paul.
PILLARIt really is impossible to disentangle all of this, Tom. In fact, I can see some parallels here, although, we're talking about different ideologies to what the rebel groups down in Colombia have been doing for years. That is to say a mixture of what is political and ideological and what is criminal. Yes, groups like this one that is headed by Belmokhtar have done both operations for money, for ransom and also claimed to be acting for political reasons.
PILLARBut the reason you can't disentangle them is not only are these both motives or objectives in the minds and hearts, probably, of these people who do these operations, but the ransom money that has been gained through some of the previous kidnapping itself is the main way of financing further operations even if those further operations have a political and ideological objective. So it's criminal, and it's political all kind of mixed together.
GJELTENWell, Jean-Luc Marret, before I go back to you, I just want to report that according to CNN, the Algerian army -- BP is now saying that the Algerian army is attempting to take control of the gas installation where foreign hostages are being held. BP says it cannot confirm any reports of hostages being killed, released or escaping. So, Jean-Luc, you've hear now the reaction to your bold statement that this should be seen as a unilateral operation. Do you want to elaborate anymore on your view of this group allegedly headed by Belmokhtar and its relation to sort of the wider jihadi struggle?
MARRETWhen I say unilateral, I was thinking about operationally speaking because this is clear that this guy is trying to go back in the picture when it's about -- in the North Mali crisis. That's the main thing. And -- but he has been recently marginalized. That's very well documented. And -- but the massive hostage taking that is happening right now, if it's confirmed that we have so many death, I would -- I think it is significant of the lack on Algerian side of a real SWAT team capacity to decisively act in an industrial facility.
MARRETAnd in leading, we have so many hostages. So if that's all confirmed, I would say that's rather a failure for the Algerian authorities. And also, I think, in a way, that's a non-Democratic way to manage the problem, like the Russians did two years ago in Beslan or in the Moscow theaters. I don't see any West European or North American SWAT team acting this way using helicopters in an industrial facility. But military are not designed to act like that. That's more SWAT team and counterterrorism per se.
GJELTENWell, let me ask you this, Jean-Luc. Does this operation raise any sort of second thoughts about the wisdom of the way the French military acted in Mali with a very conventional military operation, including air strikes against those militants? Because we do know these hostage-takers saying that they are acting in retaliation not only for the French action in Mali but also for the Algerian government's permission to the French for using Algerian air space. Does this raise any questions about the wisdom of what has happened in Mali?
MARRETYeah. That's clearly an escalation. I agree with that. On the French military operation, I would say that the whole thing was to stop AQIM for protecting the 6,000 expatriates we have in the South Mali, number one. And it was also to stop this sanctuarization (sic) from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in North Mali because when you have a city like Timbuktu, you have an access to banking and business structures, medical structures, communication, propaganda and proselytism, a whole bunch of things that could have helped them to crystallize a new land of jihad.
MARRETAnd the whole thing on the French side was to act in a way that we will prevent such a land of jihad. The way the U.S. acted in Iraq or we all acted in Afghanistan was a big lesson in France about not to do in a way especially in the area.
GJELTENWell, Robin Wright, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is saying that the United States is considering its response to the situation in Algeria because Americans are involved there. What options does the United States have here?
WRIGHTWell, it has a number of different options, none of them very attractive. I've actually driven across the Algerian Desert from Algiers all the way down the border not far from where this installation is. And it's a pretty bleak area. It's hard to do anything quietly. Clearly, we can provide intelligence through drones. We can -- we have tremendous capabilities with our special forces as you as a military reporter knows better than any of us.
WRIGHTSo there are a full range of limited and full-scale operations. But I think the bigger problem is what you asked earlier, and that is the French reaction in Mali, how -- to what degree can -- whether it's the United States or France, NATO -- the major powers actually eradicate this wide range of cells operating throughout the region? Air power alone is not going to do it.
WRIGHTThe French have committed 2,500 troops into -- to operate in Mali to try to remove the rebels, some of whom have deep bunkers, very sophisticated networks. They've been working on this, establishing themselves for a long time. It's a little bit like the, you know, the long fight slough we've had in Afghanistan for a decade, and we still haven't managed to eradicate the Taliban. So the challenges we face are of the same nature in a pretty tough terrain.
GJELTENWell, let's talk a little bit about what some of the implications of these developments are. This is truly a major escalation of tensions in North Africa. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, oil and gas are central to Algeria's economy, and this -- these events really underscore the risk that is faced by workers there and by companies and by governments. What do you see is the implications here for the energy sector for Algeria and for all of those countries in North Africa that depend so heavily on energy extraction?
GARTENSTEIN-ROSSThis is far and away the most spectacular attack that we've seen in Algeria in years, and it's also unprecedented in terms of the targeting, in terms of targeting the oil and gas sector. One thing I've spent a lot of time looking at -- not in North Africa, but more in the Arabian Peninsula -- is the history of al-Qaida's targeting of the oil and gas sector. This is something that actually -- originally, when bin Laden declared war against the United States, he said that oil targets were off -- were not part of the battle because that would be part of the wealth of the coming caliphate.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSSHowever, later on, he ended up reversing himself in 2004, and since then you had a number of major attacks against oil targets within Saudi Arabia. Now, the reason for that is quite simple -- that this is something which is the lifeblood of the world economy. The attacks are spectacular. They draw attention, but also a strategy that at least the al-Qaida senior leadership had adopted and is one of bleeding the United States, bleeding their enemy.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSSIn this case, the fact that they were able to execute this attack at an oil and gas target, which tend to be very well guarded, is impressive. And you suddenly have not just Algeria, but other countries in the region thinking how do we protect our facilities here because it's a wake-up call for them that these targets really could be hit.
GJELTENDavid Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And, Paul Pillar, what do you see here is -- in terms of the evidence of strategic thinking on the part of al-Qaida leaders, whether locally or more regionally?
PILLARWell, just picking up on the point that Daveed addressed, the groups involved, they have grievances. They probably do have grievances against a lot of people -- the French, possibly now us in the United States, but also the Algerian government. One of the issues raised in the last couple of days was Algeria's cooperation with France in letting them use at least their airspace for bringing their forces to Mali.
PILLARBut I think the main thing to take into account is not just that this was a direct challenge to the economic lifeblood of Algeria, but also that it was a target of opportunity in terms of where this and the other oil and gas facilities are located.
PILLARWe should just recall a bit of history here. During the terrible violence in Algeria in the early to mid-1990s, when perhaps something like 200,000 Algerians lost their lives, that was pretty much confined to the populated north, and the oil and gas facilities in the remote southern parts of the country were left pretty much untouched. So I agree with David. This is a significant departure.
GJELTENJean-Luc Marret, you've mentioned before that this operation, apparent operation by the Algerian security forces, is not one that the French or United States or other Western militaries would have been likely to undertake in perhaps quite such an aggressive way. Algeria is a sensitive point for -- sensitive place for the people of France.
GJELTENYou have a long, long history there, often a bloody history. What's your sense of how this crisis will be seen in France by the French people, and sort of what's at stake here? We've been talking about the U.S. responses here. What's at stake here in terms of French interests in Algeria?
MARRETWell, we have this almost structural way to intervene for years everywhere in Africa or -- as peacekeepers. So I think the French opinion is pretty much aware that we could lose troops, especially because by culture, if I say, we prefer to be in the field. And so we're going to have casualties, for sure, and -- but I don't think that will change the trend among the -- and the support among the French public opinions.
MARRETNo, I don't think that will change. The only thing that could seriously change would be if we would have huge events in France as a consequence or domino effect of North Mali situation. I think that would be the main thing, and I'm not even sure about that.
GJELTENRobin Wright, the Obama administration certainly been aware of the threat from North Africa, but they have also -- administration officials have also made it clear they're not very anxious to get involved.
GJELTENDuring congressional testimony in June, Johnny Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, seemed to play down the terrorist threat to the United States from North Africa, saying the al-Qaida affiliate there "has not demonstrated the capability to threaten U.S. interests outside of West or North Africa, and it has not threatened to attack the U.S. homeland." Given that approach, or given that view of the situation, how does that constrain what the United States might do in this situation?
WRIGHTWell, there are a lot of constraints on U.S. involvement, including the fact that we're still committed in Afghanistan. Syria looms, Iran and the dispute over its controversial nuclear program on the horizon, that United States, given the treasury limitations, the American public mood about going to war, engaging in conflict, just doesn't want, is not likely to support some kind of major intervention.
WRIGHTThe interesting thing is that the U.S. actually has a split among policymakers. You had the statement by Johnny Carson, as you point out, in June that backed away from whether al-Qaida in Maghreb was of major threat. And then after the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi that killed U.S. Amb. Chris Stevens, there was a lot of noise out of the Pentagon about, wait a minute, al-Qaida of the Maghreb -- which is blamed for the attack, or a cell within the movement is blamed for the attack -- could be quite dangerous, and it could represent a greater threat across the region.
WRIGHTAnd so I think there's been, you know, a little bit of division about what to do, how big a threat it is and how much of U.S. resources to commit at this juncture, given the fact we have a full agenda on our plates already.
GJELTENNo kidding. Robin Wright is a journalist and joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center. I'm going to take a short break. After we come back, we'll be going to some calls and comments. You can reach us at 1-800-433-8850. We're talking about the hostage crisis in Algeria today and what implications it has going forward. Stay with us.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about the very alarming hostage crisis in Algeria today and its link to the uprising in Mali -- neighboring Mali and what this all means for al-Qaida in what's known as the Islamic Maghreb and for U.S. interest and Western interest. My guests here in the studio are Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. He's a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
GJELTENAlso, Robin Wright, a journalist and joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center. And on the phone are Paul Pillar, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and Jean-Luc Marret, who is a senior fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique, which is a leading think tank on international security issues in France. And, Jean-Luc, I didn't catch it, but you pointed out that you have an affiliation here in the United States as well.
MARRETYeah, at the SAIS, Johns Hopkins University.
GJELTENOK. Very good. I just want to read an email from Charles in Kalamazoo, Mich., who's wondering, "Why has it taken so long for the international community to intervene in Mali, especially after the U.N. authorized an intervention there?" Paul Pillar, I don't know if Mali was in your area of responsibility when you were in the intelligence community, but what, in your opinion, is the explanation for why there is -- there has been some slowness in responding to the situation in Mali, which, of course, has its roots going back a long time?
PILLARWell, Robin Wright earlier commented on some of the restraints that affect us here in the United States, I would add one more. We have a legal complication, given that the current government in Bamako, the capital of Mali, is a military junta that took power in a coup not long ago, led by an army captain, and Congress has imposed certain restraints on what kind of assistance we can provide there as far as anything that puts U.S. forces in danger, and I dare say, from the French point of view, putting French forces in danger.
PILLARAnd there have already been French military lives lost in this operation. We have publics in each of those countries that have very low tolerance for that sort of thing happening. And then finally, what we in the United States and those in France and perhaps elsewhere are most looking for and that is for Africans -- neighboring African countries, to step to the plate. And that is still hoped for.
PILLARThe sad fact is there has been very little capability and ability to coordinate operations, which, in this case, the West Africans have been working on for years. But in terms of putting an effective force in the field, it's just very difficult to do. So all of those reasons -- the politics in Bamako, the war-wariness and difficulties and the Africans putting an intervention force together -- account for the slowness in the international response.
GJELTENLet me go down to William Jordan who's on the line. We're very fortunate. William, I understand you were deputy chief of mission in Algiers at one point.
MR. WILLIAM JORDANThat's correct. Up until about December 2011.
GJELTENWell, your thoughts today.
JORDANWell, essentially -- first of all, I want to say hello to Paul Pillar because I worked with him quite a bit when I was an intelligence analyst working on North Africa...
JORDAN...years ago. And I also -- but I primarily wanted to say that this crisis was one of the true nightmares that folks like me face when we were in Algeria, anticipating the worst that could happen to U.S. interest or Western interest in general. And sadly, I think that one of the things that hasn't really been brought up is that this underscores one of the problems the Algerian military and security forces face in terms of their complacency. The size of the country, which I think we tend to underestimate -- I mean, Algeria is now the largest country in Africa.
JORDANOnce again, Algeria found itself in a situation where it let out -- let down its guard at the worst possible time, and we're seeing this happen. I'm afraid this is possibly because, as Robin Wright has pointed out, this is a Northwest African security issue, not just something happening in Algeria or a momentary situation. This is something that we could see coming out more often.
JORDANAnd the last thing I would say is that -- again, picking up on a point that I think Robin Wright started to make -- unfortunately, I worry about whether or not the U.S. government has the institutional capacity to deal with this kind of thing going forward. The problem with this region, as I found out when I was working in Washington on many of these issues 10 years ago, is that you have the Near East and North Africa bureau handling the Maghreb, and you have the African bureau handling the Sahel.
JORDANAnd it's a bureaucratic scene that, not just in the State Department but at CIA and the White House as well, complicates our ability to be able to handle this. And it's something, I think, we really need to address going forward. But because of the things that Paul and Robin have said, this region does not get the attention, and therefore the oomph in terms of leadership that it needs to put it all together. Anyway, that's all I really wanted to say.
GJELTENWell, let me ask you a question, William. You said that in your judgment, the government of Algeria let down its guard here. What about BP? I mean, we had this French military operation in Mali continuing for several days, and there were a lot of warnings about the danger of retaliation, the anger of the militants. And yet, you know, one has to wonder whether BP took adequate security precautions in protecting its workers in Algeria.
JORDANWell, it's a good question. And I was actually listening to something on the BBC before tuning to your show from a BP security person in London saying that one of the problems is that although they -- and, believe me, we worked closely with BP and all other foreign oil company security folks at the embassy in Algiers.
JORDANAlthough they developed contingency plans and they have some local guard services, it's essentially the Algerian gendarmerie and military that provide the various layers of security on the -- for these oil facilities. I mean, the Algerians do clamp down very heavily. But the point is these -- the size of the areas concerned are vast and easily penetrated by the folks who live in the region and know how to get around. Criminal activities happen all the time in these zones.
JORDANAnd I would point out that Mokhtar Belmokhtar and the other folks in AQ or GSPC, as it used to be known, have gone through that region historically over the years under the noses of the Algerians. So it's easy for me to believe that BP wasn't being complacent or letting down its guard. But, you know, it's ultimately the Algerians' responsibility to make sure that nothing happened.
GJELTENWell, William Jordan, thank you so much for calling in. We really appreciate your insight and experience. And I want to go next to Clement, who's on the line from Houston, Texas. Good morning, Clement. Thanks for calling.
CLEMENTYes, sir. Good morning. I couldn't resist the impulse to call in and make some observations about the Northern Algeria where I worked in a major facility of a large contractor in the '90s. And basically, my observation is that these facilities have their security eroded. They were not paying attention. When we worked there, after losing people to terrorists, our contractor hired up not just the Algerian army, but also private security to take care of all the workers and fortified base camps.
CLEMENTAnd I suspect that it was a matter of having security eroded and lack of attention that caused the problem that they're having right now. And I appreciate you listening to my comment.
GJELTENWell, I really appreciate you calling, Clement. It's great that we're getting callers who actually have personal connection and personal knowledge of the situation in North Africa and can bring to bear their own thoughts. I want to go now to Ibrahim, who's on the line from Washington, D.C. Good morning, Ibrahim.
IBRAHIMGood morning. I don't have personal connection with the conflict in Mali but...
GJELTENYou do or do not?
IBRAHIMI do not.
IBRAHIMI am an Egyptian-American Muslim. And I really believe that the backward practices in Northern Mali is repulsive, not just for the international community but for the true Muslims. There are many missing players, the Muslim -- moderate Muslim or modern Muslim in the Arab world and in Southeast Asia, they need to at least condemn the barbaric practices in Northern Mali in the name Islam. So I really believe, at least, if they don't interfere or start -- try to stop these atrocities, they should at least condemn and say that these practices are not a representative of true Islam.
GJELTENThat's a really important point that you make, Ibrahim, and speaking in particular as an Egyptian-American. And actually I want to go now to Bruce, who's on the line from Winston-Salem, N.C. Bruce, thanks for the call.
BRUCEThank you. I have a question for your very informative panel. We talked about the Western reactions to what's going on in Mali. The question I have for your panel is could you provide our listeners with some context for the view from the regional West African governments about the extent to which the situation in Mali threatens their own internal interests? What -- how do these governments perceive events in Mali? And how are they likely to react based on their own security concerns?
GJELTENVery good question, Bruce. Let me put that to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSSThere's been a lot of concern in the region. One thing I should say, though, is that prior to this intervention, a number of countries, including Algeria, including Niger, we're also concerned about blowbacks, second-order consequences from this operation. And that's why even though al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is very threatening to Algeria, clearly benefited from the situation in Northern Mali, Algeria was extremely reticent about this operation.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSSBut if you look at the countries who've contributed, leaving outside Western countries, you've gotten a true commitment from Senegal, from Guinea. Morocco's very concerned about second-order consequences. Mauritania originally said that they wouldn't be involved. But lately, they've reversed themself in that regard.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSSSo you do have forces within the region -- countries within the region who are contributing. As Paul pointed out, they're not doing a great deal. A lot of these troop commitments are small. But the symbolic commitment shows the fact that you have a lot of regional concerns about what is going on.
GJELTENDaveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Jean-Luc Marret, what do you want to say about this -- I think this last caller raised a really important question, and that is the countries particularly in French -- francophone portions of Africa have not been as helpful as I think some on the outside wished they could be.
MARRETActually, the whole point is to be able, on the midterms, to train local capacities in France. This is the main thing we ask to all E.U. friends because they don't do as usual, not so much when it's about security concern. And -- but all the African countries involved right now have also security agreement with France. It was passed in the early '60s. So in a way, that's a sort of French local NATO, if I can phrase that this way. And -- but I agree with what Daveed said.
MARRETI would like to also raise the point that some of these countries, sometimes for domestic reason, call terrorism or jihadism what is actually just Islamism opposition. And this is particularly true, I think, in Mauritania. So sometimes there is this trend to instrumentalize the threats in order to obtain international support here or there or to dramatize the local -- the domestic situation.
WRIGHTI just wanted to add that this is a region in transition, and they all face their own internal challenges, whether it's Libya with -- which is basically still stateless. It has a government, but it doesn't have control of the country and it's dealing enormous security challenges. Algeria comes out of, you know, this awful decade of civil war, huge death toll and kind of armed mentality and fear of -- but limited military capabilities considering its huge territory.
WRIGHTMali, a military coup insurgence, several insurgent groups moving in this huge area in the North to -- against the capital. Mauritania has its owns problems that -- then you see little Tunisia, which has gone through the Arab Spring but is still struggling to write a constitution or hold permanent elections. So this is, again, part of a bigger context. And I also think Ibrahim made a very important point.
WRIGHTAnd that is the way the international reaction may be perceived as yet another time where the West comes in conflict or is intervened, meddling, whatever verb you choose in the Islamic world. And there's a danger that if this doesn't -- if the French involvement or whatever role the U.S. ends up playing doesn't happen quickly that it will look like it's yet another area where the outside world, the non-Muslim world, is trying to shape the future. And that's a danger again of the broader context of this one specific crisis.
GJELTENWell, Paul Pillar, as an intelligence analyst, you focused for many years on the al-Qaida threat. And I wanted to ask your reaction to what Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson has said, the quote that Robin referenced earlier as well, that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has not demonstrated the capability to threaten U.S. interests outside of West or North Africa and that it's not threatening to attack the U.S. homeland.
GJELTENHow do you assess the security threat from al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb as opposed to the threat that al-Qaida and al-Qaida offshoots have presented in other parts of the world?
PILLARThis entire Malian situation, even without this newest complication of the hostage incident in Algeria, has put into stark relief a basic question that the United States and its government needs to confront about how to think about international terrorism and threats to the U.S. Our dominant way of thinking about turbulent regions, like the one we're focusing on this morning, is what Secretary Panetta has been articulating the last couple of days, saying, we can't let al-Qaida establish another base for terrorist operations that they might use to hit the United States.
PILLARBut the view that needs to be brought into the picture and apparently is very appropriately, in my view, being brought in by other elements in the U.S. government is, going to back to some of Jean-Luc's initial points, that the main motivations of the violent-prone elements we're talking about are primarily local.
PILLARAnd insofar as we do get involved, especially with military force, we may only make the situation worse by being seen as the super power once again lording it over a Muslim-majority country and causing still more people to adopt the al-Qaida way of thinking that the Great Satan, the far enemy, the United States is indeed our foe even if that's not the way they initially we're thinking about us.
GJELTENPaul Pillar is a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. I've also been joined this morning by Jean-Luc Marret, who is a -- in addition to his work in Paris, is a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins University, also by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
GJELTENAnd finally here in the studio with me as well, Robin Wright, a journalist and joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in the Woodrow Wilson International Center. Thanks to all of my guests, and thanks for listening.
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