(USA TODAY) -- The al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group that took over a natural gas
facility in Algeria is offering to free American hostages in exchange
for two convicted terrorists being held in U.S. jails, Mauritania's ANI
news agency reported Friday.
The militants say they want the
release of Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and Pakistani Aafia
Siddiqui and plan to released a video outling the offer, the news agency
The 74-year-old Abdel-Rahman, also known as the "Blind
Sheikh," is serving a life sentence in North Carolina for conspiracy in
the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.
60 foreign workers taken hostage by Islamists remain missing Friday
following a raid by Algerian forces that freed hundreds of Algerians,
according to the Algeria military.
The state Algeria Press Service
says the military freed 573 Algerians and more than half of the 132
non-Algerians in Thursday's raid at the natural gas facility in the
It remains unclear how many foreign workers died in
the raid or of what nationality, and how many escaped the In Amenas
LIVE COVERAGE: Fate of hostages in Algeria unclear
Algerian special forces who carried out the raid killed up to 20
hostage-takers, members of an Islamic group known as Qatiba, which
translates as Signers in Blood. The forces have surrounded a portion of
the facility where more terrorists and some hostages remain, provincial
administration sources told APS.
military is still trying to reach a "peaceful settlement" before
"neutralizing" the terrorist group, security sources told APS.
at the facility include citizens of Britain, Ireland, Japan,
Netehrlands and the United States British Prime Minister David Cameron
said Friday during an address to members of parliament that efforts to
free the hostages without violence are continuing.
The exact fate, and number, of hostages kidnapped by Islamic militants remains unclear.
U.S. official said late Thursday that while some Americans escaped,
other Americans remained either held or unaccounted for, the Associated
Press reported. The official spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity
because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Friday, the Reuters news agency, citing local sources, reported that a
U.S. plane has landed in Algeria to pick up Americans caught up in the
crisis. Reuters also reported that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta,
speaking to security specialists in London on Friday, said "Terrorists
should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no refuge, not in
Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere."
Cameron and others
complained that Algeria went ahead with its raid without alerting
Western leaders they were planning an attack.
Reuters, citing an
Algerian security source, is reporting that 30 hostages were killed in
the assault, including several Westerners. The source also says 11
militants died, including the group's leader, Tahar Ben Cheneb,
described as a "prominent commander in the region."
A British official told CNN there was a "significant" number of British victims.
of the hostage-takers Qatiba have been in contact with the a news
agency in neighboring Mauritania called ANI and told the agency that the
raid by Algerian forces killed the leader of their group, Abou El
Baraa. At least 14 other terrorists were killed, ANI said.
was created in December by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who broke off from the
terror group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to form his own
operation. The kidnappers come from Algeria, Canada, Mali, Egypt, Niger
and Mauritania, ANI said.
AQIM is operates out of nearby Mali,
where it is fighting the Mali army and French forces to take over that
country and impose an Islamic state.
Stephen McFaul, an Irish engineer who escaped, reported seeing
Algerian forces attack Jeeps containing hostages who were being moved
inside the complex, his brother told Reuters. Four vehicles blew up, and
McFaul's vehicle crashed, allowing him to flee.
McFaul said the terrorsts hung explosives around the hostages' necks.
plant is jointly operated with British company BP and the Algerian
state energy firm. British oil giant BP's Group Chief Executive Bob
Dudley released a statement saying that "Sadly, there have been some
reports of casualties, but we are still lacking any confirmed or
White House spokesman Jay Carney said
Thursday that U.S. officials were still gathering details. U.S.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered a security review for
diplomats, civilians and business across North Africa.
Algerian military's handling of the hostage situation fits their overall
approach to terrorists, says Geoff Porter of North Africa Risk
Consulting, a political risk consultancy that specializes in North
"They don't negotiate with terrorists, and they don't pay ransoms," Porter said.
of the reasons oil installations have never been attacked before is any
attack would be a suicide mission, Porter said. The oil facilities are
so remote and in such barren terrain, that attacks are doable, "but the
Algerians would deploy helicopters and kill everybody," he said.
Escape would be impossible, but a suicide mission "becomes more feasible, which is what we saw today," Porter said.
recent months, the United States has been courting Algeria; Clinton has
twice visited Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
leaders, however, have repeatedly warned against Western intervention in
the region. Algeria warned that the NATO operation in Libya, which
defeated former leader Moammar Gadhafi, would destabilize the region,
and that the French intervention in Mali would do the same, Porter said.
(Algerians) are likely to feel vindicated, and to reject any criticism
for their reaction to a domestic crisis they feel were brought about by
Western actions they advised against," Porter said.
Algeria's priority is "to restore stability and deter future incidents," Porter said.
Qatiba spokesman, pictured in a black turban and an automatic weapon in
front of a jihadist flag, told Mauritanian news website Sahara Media
Agency that the attack on the gas facility was in retaliation for
Algeria's decision to allow French aircraft to use its airspace in its
intervention in Mali. Experts doubted that, saying the attack must have
been planned for a while, well before the French air assault that began
only six days ago.
The United States military has a quick
reaction force capable of deploying quickly to Algeria, according to a
military official who declined to be named because they are not
authorized to speak about the issue. The Pentagon also has
"capabilities" to watch over the region, though officials would not
specify whether that involves manned aircraft or drones.
attack began with the ambush of a bus carrying employees from the plant
to the nearby airport but the attackers were driven off, according to
the Algerian government, which said three vehicles of heavily armed men
"After their failed attempt, the terrorist group
headed to the complex's living quarters and took a number of workers
with foreign nationalities hostage," said the statement.
influence in the poorly patrolled desert wastes of southern Algeria and
northern Mali and Niger has grown. The group operates smuggling and
kidnapping networks throughout the area. Militant groups that seized
control of northern Mali already hold seven French hostages as well as
four Algerian diplomats.
Algeria's security forces have struggled
for years against Islamist extremists, and have in recent years managed
to nearly snuff out violence by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
(northwest Africa) around its home base in northern Algeria. In the
meantime, AQIM moved its focus southward.
AQIM has made tens of
millions of dollars off kidnapping in the region, abducting Algerian
businessmen or political figures, and sometimes foreigners, for ransom.
leaders adopted an eradication policy against Islamist insurgents in a
war that cost more than 100,000 lives. The insurgents eventually
accepted amnesty and renounced violence. Remnants of the insurgency have
been fighting for an Islamic state in northern Mali, Porter said.
three AQIM factions in North Africa and the Sahara were "on a downward
trend" until 2012, Porter said. The collapse of Libya, which allowed
weapons from Gadhafi's vast arsenal to be seized by extremists, "helped
them gain power in northern Mali and the group has transformed from 2011
and 2012," he said.
While not all the jihadi factions involved in
violence across the region call themselves al-Qaeda or are officially
affiliated with the group, their goals tend to be the same, Porter said.
goal is still spread radical Islam, attack the near enemy, attack the
far enemy, create a sharia state - it's just no longer called al-Qaeda,"
Aaron Zelin, an analyst at the Washington Institute for
Near East Policy, said that while al-Qaeda central is "probably the
weakest it's ever been," the jihadist movement has adapted and has
strengthened in North Africa.
"The central organization has been
weakened, but the branches have gotten stronger because a lot of them
are more embedded within the local milieu," he said.
In its new
form, al-Qaeda and its jihadi affiliates and sympathizers are less able
to launch attacks on the USA or Europe, where security is better than a
decade ago, and more focused on "setting up little emirates" and
threatening U.S. and Western interests in their own countries, Zelin
"They want to bleed the U.S. and its allies dry and exhaust them over a long period of time," he said.