It is too early to draw definitive lessons from the Algerian hostage-taking. There are too many loose ends. But nonetheless we can see the outline of some conclusions. It seems to me that there are two questions. First, how do we trade-off the immediate interests of hostages whose lives are under threat, against the danger of encouraging future atrocities by acceding to the demands of hostage-takers? And second, how effective was the intervention of Algerian forces, and could they have done better?
Hostage-taking poses an agonising dilemma. Of course our first thoughts are for those whose lives are under immediate threat (and for their families). Both common humanity, and morality, motivate us do everything and anything we can to save those individuals. If that means compromise, so be it. We recognise these feelings in any hostage-taking. We see it with Somali pirates, where we know that on many occasions, ship-owners have been prepared to roll over and pay very large sums to the pirates for the recovery of both ships and crews (and who shall say whether ships or crews were the first priority of the ship-owners?).
But what message are we sending to the hostage-takers? “We’re a soft touch. We’ll make any concession to save a ship, or an oil refinery, or a few Western lives. Just keep right on taking hostages, and we’ll keep right on paying”. It’s a tough decision, and I wouldn’t like to have to explain it to the bereaved families of hostages. But in the end, more lives may be saved by taking a tough line from Day One, than by letting hearts rule heads, and giving way to save lives short-term.
I’m rather pleased to see that commercial protection operations — OK, mercenaries — are preparing to provide close protection for merchant convoys against Somali pirates, not least because these operations are much more likely to shoot first and worry about the paperwork later. I was horrified by the recent case where the Navy failed to engage Somali pirates, apparently for fear of infringing their rights. Here in Britain, we expect very high standards in the administration of justice (though we don’t always get them). But on the high seas, in international waters, in an armed confrontation, it may not always be possible to apply the same standards. (One colleague suggested to me that it was EU fisheries agreements which undermined the livelihoods of Somali fisherman, and led them to turn to piracy for a living).
Algeria faces a serious situation in the deserts of North Africa. It has clearly decided that it has little to lose and everything to gain by being seen to be tough and resolute in the face of Islamic extremists. I think it may well be right. It may have been a breach of diplomatic protocol to take action without informing the relevant governments of foreign nationals. But Algeria is a sovereign nation, it has the right to take action to enforce the law in its territory, and it may have felt that “consultation” with foreign governments would certainly take time, and would perhaps undermine the decisiveness of its response. And it seems that delay could have allowed the terrorists to disperse into the desert with their hostages, making action against them much more difficult.
The government of Algeria’s message is simple. Not “Keep taking hostages and we’ll keep paying”. No. Much more uncompromising. “You will gain nothing by hostage-taking. No concessions. And you will die”.
The second question is whether, having made the decision to strike, and strike hard, they did all they could to protect the hostages. I’m not qualified to answer that question, and the full facts are not in yet. I suspect the government will say that hundreds of hostages were taken, and only a relative few (we hope) lost their lives, and that therefore given the difficult situation, they emerge with credit. And perhaps they do.