An early morning raid by Islamic militants on a gas facility deep in the Sahara desert, dozens of hostages taken, military air strikes and stories of daring escapes. Tragically, this episode did not have a happy ending for the 37 hostages killed during the attempted rescue by Algerian forces, and other countries are left questioning the hasty and severe reaction from the government. Could it be that a more favorable result might have come from negotiating with this group of militants?
In recent years, the taking of hostages by terrorist groups has given way to much more violent methods, primarily involving bombs, and with the express intent to cause maximum casualties. However, in decades past, when terrorist organizations had more identifiable political objectives, a hostage crisis was a potentially highly effective tactic. In holding hostages, a group had a much better chance of evoking political reform or concession to the group, while gaining publicity for its cause. Refraining from causing widespread death and destruction would additionally garner public support, which was often rooted in a legitimate political or ethnonational grievance.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization paved the way for a slew of hostage crises when it captured an Israeli El Al Airlines flight in 1968. All 58 hostages were eventually let go in exchange for the release of 16 imprisoned Arab militants. This response was one not common to modern governments who tend to vehemently oppose making concessions to terrorist groups.
Such governments usually act in ways more like Algeria last week, often resulting in the deaths of the hostages involved. Perhaps most notably was the West German attempt to rescue the kidnapped Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich in 1972, which resulted in a firefight and the deaths of all nine hostages. Then in 1985, members of the M-19 guerrilla group attacked the Supreme Court of Colombia, holding the members of the Supreme Court hostage and planning to force a trial of the Colombian president. Opting for a military raid rather than negotiation, the country’s leaders watched in horror as 12 Supreme Court justices were killed, along with 48 soldiers.
In 2002, around 130 theater-goers were killed in Moscow amid a siege by Chechen rebels. Most of the victims died from exposure to a chemical agent pumped into the building, aimed at debilitating the rebels. Worse still would be the attack on a school in the Russian town of Beslan in 2004, which resulted in 380 deaths, over half of them children. The Russian military decided to end the three-day standoff with tanks and rockets.
These cases contain no common thread with regard to military strategy or choice of weapons. Indeed, failed hostage crises have resulted from both the presence and absence of very highly trained counterterrorism units in the past. What these events do have in common, however, is a hasty and heavy-handed approach from governments that saw force as a superior measure to negotiation.
It should first be said that groups such as al-Qaida have narrowed our understanding of terrorists. Unlike a lot of modern extremist movements, a large number both past and present formed over a legitimate political grievance, and while violence and crime should not be condoned, the greater issue at hand may be something worthy of the government’s attention. Resulting changes made by an oppressive regime may indeed bring positive change to large sectors of society.
Of course, the natural fear of leaders is that conceding to terrorists simply reinforces their actions and leads to further violence. However, there is little evidence to suggest this is true based on past cases, while meeting some of the group’s demands may actually reduce popular support for its cause, or lead the group to disband altogether.
The key here is understanding the objectives of the organization as well as the context in which they operate. No terrorist fighting for political reform in a liberal democracy has a genuine political grievance, nor does he deserve a platform due to his access to alternative and legal avenues. However, in instances where groups resort to taking hostages, or other acts, and present genuine grievances with definable goals to the authoritarian government in question, it would make sense to hear that grievance. Such acts are often the result of desperation or the outworking of years of government repression. We should not forget that many definitions would include the early American Patriots as terrorists.
With that said, there is no indication that the Algerian militants (most of whom were actually from other countries including Egypt, Tunisia and even Canada) had an identifiable objective. Their initial claims appear to be a reprisal for France’s intervention in Mali, yet little about the purpose of the attack or the desired outcome will likely ever be known. What we do know is that alternative strategies should be sought in dealing with such situations, lest countless more innocent hostages lose their lives unnecessarily when alternative measures could have been employed.