WASHINGTON – As Algerian security forces on Sunday tallied up the bodies at a sprawling natural gas facility in the aftermath of a bloody international hostage crisis, debate was emerging about whether the militant group linked to al-Qaida that seized the plant had been intent on a massacre or whether it had simply been after money.
The crisis erupted Wednesday, when militants staged a dawn raid on the desert gas complex. The United States and other Western governments had urged caution and put intense pressure on the Algerians to avoid hostage deaths.
White House officials and congressional staff said Sunday that they received only scant information from Algeria’s government and military throughout the ordeal. Algerian authorities seemed determined to use force even at the risk of harm to hostages, the officials said.
Analysts said Algeria’s no-negotiations approach had long been a policy and should not have surprised the West or the militants. But the group that asserted responsibility for the attack said in statements Sunday that it had been seeking talks, not a bloodbath.
The Masked Brigade, led by al-Qaida-linked Moktar Belmoktar, said the Algerian government had ignored its push for a bargain, calling the harsh crackdown “barbaric” in a statement published by the Mauritanian news agency ANI. The militant group had been “offering negotiations” as late as Saturday, the statement said.
The statement also included a threat, warning any country that assists France with its operations in crisis-hit Mali that more attacks would come. And it told “Muslim brothers” to stay away from Western companies, especially French ones, “for their own safety.”
The one-eyed Belmoktar, who has been involved in gunrunning and kidnapping, had long been seen as less ideologically driven than some of his compatriots in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, analysts said.
Instead, he raised millions of dollars for the umbrella group by auctioning off the release of hostages for ransoms.
Although Belmoktar had carried out deadly attacks in the past, several analysts suggested that he may not have expected such a harsh response from the Algerian government at the gas plant. He and his followers apparently split from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb just weeks ago. Many analysts doubted that he would have sent so many members of his group to their deaths at one time.
Belmoktar “keeps saying, ‘We did all this to stand up for our brother Muslims,’ ” said Dirk Vandewalle, a North Africaexpert and professor of government at Dartmouth College. “There may be an element of solidarity with fellow Muslims, but these groups are very opportunistic.
“My hunch is that he just miscalculated what the reaction from the Algerian government would be.”
But analysts were also careful not to play down the potential of violence by a group that brought a trove of arms that included six machineguns, 21 rifles, two 60mm mortars, rockets, six 60mm missiles with launchers, two grenade launchers with eight rockets and 10 grenades arranged into explosive belts, according to officials quoted by Algeria’s state news agency.
The militants had also placed explosives around the complex, Algerian authorities said Sunday, and a mine-sweeping operation was under way to remove them.
In addition to the statement from Belmoktar’s group, an account emerged Sunday of a rare video statement given by the militant leader. It suggested that a day after the initial hostage-taking, he had been seeking a deal.
“We are ready to negotiate with Western countries and the Algerian regime on the condition that they halt aggression and bombing against the Muslim people of Mali . . . and respect their desire to apply (Islamic law) on their territory,” Belmoktar said in a video dated Thursday, the Mauritanian Sahara News Agency reported. The site did not post the video, but he has earlier communicated through Mauritanian news services.
That day, Algerian military helicopters shot missiles at a group of jeeps trying to flee the gas facility, witnesses said, destroying several and apparently killing both hostages and militants alike.
Analysts said that any attempt by Belmoktar-linked fighters to escape into the desert was probably motivated by a desire to raise a ransom or extract other demands, not necessarily to kill the hostages. Unlike in the Middle East or other areas where the al-Qaida mother organization has been active, North Africa does not have an extensive history of suicide attacks.
“It’s unlike the groups concerned to engage in self-sacrifices of this kind,” said George Joffe, a North Africa expert at the University of Cambridge in England.
Belmoktar, an Algerian, would have been familiar with the Algerian government and military’s long history of zero tolerance for Islamist militancy and terrorism, analysts said.
A hostage situation at a target as economically vital as a natural gas plant was certain to draw a harsh retaliation.
“Belmoktar knows the Algerian military and should have expected this kind of response,” said Stephen Ellis, an expert at the African Studies Center in Leiden, Netherlands. He “succeeded in making a name for himself, putting him into the big leagues. He’s gone from being a relative unknown to a worldwide name and must have known this was going to make him prominent.”