In Algeria, at least 22 foreign hostages remained unaccounted for in what has been described as one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades. Islamist militants opposed to the French air strikes in neighboring Mali seized a gas facility near the Libyan border. It remains unclear how many people died on Thursday when Algerian forces stormed the desert gas complex to free the workers. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has acknowledged it is now directly aiding France’s military operation in Mali. We speak to Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Algeria, where at least 22 foreign hostages remain unaccounted for in what has been described as one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades. On Thursday, Algerian forces stormed a desert gas complex to free hundreds of workers who were employed at the site, which is partially owned by British Petroleum. Islamist militants opposed to the French air strikes in neighboring Mali had seized the gas facility near the Libyan border on Wednesday. It remains unclear how many people died in Thursday’s raid, but estimates of the foreign casualties range from four to 35.
This is Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said.
MOHAMED SAID: [translated] The operation was successful in neutralizing a large number of terrorists and freeing a large number of hostages. But unfortunately—and we’re sorry to say this—there were some deaths and injuries.
AMY GOODMAN: In a statement carried by Mauritanian media, the hostage takers said, quote, "We hold the Algerian government and the French government and the countries of the hostages fully responsible if our demands are not met, and it is up to them to stop the brutal aggression against our people in Mali," the statement said.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the Obama administration’s decision to aid France’s operation in Mali.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: It’s important that we put this latest incident into the broader context. This incident will be resolved, we hope, with a minimum loss of life. But when you deal with these relentless terrorists, life is not in any way precious to them. But when this incident is finally over, we know we face a continuing ongoing problem, and we’re going to do everything we can to work together to confront and disrupt al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. We’re going to be working with our friends and partners in North Africa. We are supporting the French operation in Mali with intelligence and airlift. We’re working with a half-a-dozen African countries, as we did with respect to Somalia over so many years, to help them be prepared to send In African troops.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier today, the United Nations refugee angency said up to 700,000 people are expected to be uprooted by the violence in Mali, including 400,000 who could flee to neighboring countries in the coming months.
To talk more about the events in Algeria and Mali, we go to Washington, D.C., to speak with Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Emira, welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s start off with the hostage situation in Algeria. What do you understand at this point?
EMIRA WOODS: Well, first, Amy, I think we have to begin by extending condolences to the families of all those who have lost life in this incredible tragedy.
We have to understand that the situation is fluid. There are hostages that have reportedly been taken coming from eight—at least eight different countries, including Britain, Japan, Ireland. There are now, still, reports that not only those that have been killed coming potentially from Britain, from France, from Japan and other countries, but also that, you know, this is a crisis that’s still underway. The Algerian military is still seeing this as an ongoing incident. And so, the information is scanty, and it’s fluid. It’s changing very rapidly. And it’s coming out very slowly because of the—you know, remember, Algeria is essentially a military state, you know? So, information is not flowing freely. And also, there is a reluctance, really, to share information with international actors, particularly former colonial powers and other Western countries, given the history of what has happened in Algeria.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Emira, the reports coming out initially today say that many of the Western country governments were angry about the fact that the Algerians moved in without first discussing or talking to the countries whose nationals were being held hostage. But at the same time, the reality is that when the French went into Mali, and which of course ended up provoking this hostage crisis here, no one consulted with the Algerians as to whether the French should send troops into Mali.
EMIRA WOODS: Absolutely, Juan. I think this is a wonderful reminder that military attacks, military interventions, lead to awful consequences. So, clearly, what we see—and it goes, really, back to the intervention in Libya. The military intervention in Libya, ousting Gaddafi, essentially unleashed massive caches of weapons, coming both from the Libyan side but also, you know, from the Western side that was flooding Libya with weapons. Those weapons made their way to Mali and created an opportunity for ongoing conflicts in the north to really escalate. So, I think we see these unintended consequences of military intervention. And we have to underscore that, you know, often what we’re doing is breeding more enemies, breeding more extremists at every turn.
So, I think, clearly, looking at the root causes of crises and trying to address concerns, particularly from people who are feeling marginalized, communities that have vast resources on their land but are suffering from complete economic isolation and political isolation—I think we have to address these root causes. We cannot meet extremists where they are, you know, through bombings and military attacks. We have to address issues of extremism, of militarism, of insurgencies, by looking at economic opportunities in places that are long marginalized, looking at political expressions for people who have long not had a voice. It cannot only be interests in sort of economic resources and military might to secure access to those resources.
AMY GOODMAN: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke to ABC Thursday as the hostage crisis was still unfolding. Martha Raddatz conducted the interview.
DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: There’s no question that when this kind of terrorist act takes place and it involves hostages, some of whom are American, that’s a serious manner. And we’re looking at all of the necessary steps that—that we need to take in order to deal with that situation.
MARTHA RADDATZ: But do you believe they’re being held by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants?
DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: I don’t think there is any question that, based on what we do know, that this was a terrorist act and that the terrorists have affiliation with al-Qaeda.
MARTHA RADDATZ: And do you believe this has something to do with Mali and the action, the French-led action, that’s taking place in Mali?
DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: When you’re dealing with—with affiliates of al-Qaeda, that they’re terrorists, and they will do terrorist acts. And that’s what they’ve done here.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Emira, you’ve heard the defense secretary’s explanation now. There are some reports that the group that launched this attack is not affiliated with al-Qaeda; it’s, in essence, a splinter group that had major differences with the al-Qaeda group in North Africa. Could you talk about the group that supposedly the Algerians have identified as being the group that supplied the attackers in this case?
EMIRA WOODS: Well, Juan, I think you’re absolutely right to say that the relationship with al-Qaeda, and even the relationship with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is quite tenuous, at best, you know? So, what we have are clear reports that, you know, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who—the leader that kind of orchestrated this assault, is not affiliated with al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb. You know, he may have had some relationship in the past but has completely distanced himself from AQIM. So I think we cannot draw with this broad brush this link to al-Qaeda.
I think it is actually emboldening even more extremists. But we have to understand that they are—the extremists are multiplying, with a lot of different rationales. You know, those who are opposed to the French, the longtime colonizers in the region, you know, have seized this as an opportunity to express their anti-French and anti-Western sentiments. Those who are concerned about issues of sovereignty and independence of the region are seizing this opportunity.
But, you know, essentially, what happened in Mali began with the expression of people for greater self-determination. This did not have anything really to do with al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. So, we cannot oversimplify. We have to look at the root causes of these crises and look to not, you know, only military interventions, but really long-term political measures, political negotiations, and actually looking at long-term issues that will bring peace, that will bring a rebuilding of a social fabric that’s been torn apart in the region in a number of ways. And so, I think we have to begin to pay attention to those broader comprehensive measures—
AMY GOODMAN: Emira Woods, could—
EMIRA WOODS: —as the international community.
AMY GOODMAN: Just to be clear, where this hostage taking took place in Algeria, at an oil site—you were talking about natural resources—at an oil site owned by BP or run by BP, Algerian state oil company, a Norwegian company, if you could tell us where it is in relation to Mali, just to give people a sense, especially also of geography, what is happening.
EMIRA WOODS: Absolutely, Amy. I think it’s important to recognize what we’re talking about. You know, this is an incredibly oil-rich region. It’s in the Sahara Desert. So it is the—North Africa and West Africa, which have had long deposits of gold, of uranium, of oil. Some of the region, particularly Libya and Algeria, the oil has been extracted for quite some time by a number of international actors. There are other parts of the region, like Mali, where the oil exploration is heavily underway. So I think we have to recognize the centrality of resource in all of this context in that region. It is the increasing significance of oil from Africa that—whether it’s countries that have been longtime producers of oil or countries that are just getting under stream and just discovering oil, but it is increasing the international significance of Africa for the global economy. And I think this is often at the root of the crisis. People on whose land this oil lies are often those that are the most marginalized economically. You know, you talk about the 1 percent and the 99 percent. They are the 99 percent, and they see these elites, both the oil—big oil companies and the local elites that are supporting them, as seeking their own just very narrow interests and ignoring the rights of people on the ground. So, yes, it’s a vast, vast region. It’s the middle of the desert, but it is an incredibly rich region in terms of natural resources.
I think it’s important to also recognize, particularly with Algeria, that it is—not long ago, just 50 years ago, you know, intense battles were underway to fight the colonial power, to fight France, and to end colonialism. It is a very short history in terms of people’s fights for sovereignty and for liberation and for access and control of their own lands. So, I think it is important to understand the geography. Yes, Algeria neighbors Libya and also neighbors Mali, but it is also important for us to understand the history and the incredible significance of that region.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking of that history, Emira, one of the interesting things about what’s happened in the last few days is that for years the Algerian government was involved in a civil war as it sought to stamp out an Islamic resurgence within its own country, and during all that time, the Islamic guerrillas and insurgents never attacked the Western facilities that were producing oil and gas in the south of Algeria. It’s only now that they have suddenly moved to attack and take hostages. I’m wondering what your thoughts are about that.
EMIRA WOODS: Well, I think, you know, we have to—you know, we have to understand that this history of extremism really started, in the terms of Algeria, with an opposition party that was actually clamoring for greater rights in Algeria, clamoring for a longtime military state to really open up the space to opposition parties, to trade unionists, to more political participation. And the Algerians responded very swiftly, very harshly, to that opposition. And that has fomented even greater extremism. But it drove the—it drove the rebellion, and those that orchestrated it, across the borders and into neighboring countries outside of Algeria.
But I think what is at play is still a sense that within the country, you know, you had what was this—I think it’s a misnomer, but what was often called this "Arab Spring," you know, and I think there was a sense that the quest for greater political rights, that started in Tunisia and went on to Egypt, there was a real demand, even in Algeria, as well, for greater political participation. Those demands are still very much on the table. And I think there’s a sense that the very heavy hand of the government that says, "We will not negotiate with extremists; we will not negotiate," that that very heavy hand has led to a very complicated crisis, ongoing political crisis, in Algeria—
AMY GOODMAN: Emira, I want—
EMIRA WOODS: —and it’s now exhibited today.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to White House spokesperson Jay Carney speaking yesterday about developments in the Algeria hostage crisis, saying they’re not likely to affect U.S. negotiations on providing logistical support to the French bombing of Mali.
PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: We share the goal, the French goal of denying terrorists in Mali a safe haven, denying terrorists in the region a safe haven. And we’d note that the government of Mali has asked for French support in their fight against AQIM. As you know, the government of France has asked for some additional intelligence and logistic support from the United States. And as I said the other day, we’re considering those requests. We have some unique airlift capability, and we are working with the French to provide them support in moving in troops and equipment. As we’ve said previously, we are also providing intelligence support.
AMY GOODMAN: That was White House spokesperson Jay Carney. Emira Woods, your final response on what U.S. increasing involvement means here?
EMIRA WOODS: Well, I think the U.S. has been involved in Mali in training the military and equipping, arming the military of Mali. I think we have to really examine particularly U.S. taxpayer dollars. Where are they going? And what are the results? You know, it is a U.S.-trained army captain, Sanogo, who actually launched the coup in Mali and has launched now a series of coups and counter-coups since last March. But, you know, the U.S. has played a very heavy hand in terms of support for the military already. It has not brought the results intended.
So I think what is needed is what the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States and others and Malians have been calling for: a comprehensive approach that will look at issues of political negotiations, understanding that the concerns of the Tuaregs, the ethnic group in the north, those concerns, those root causes of this crisis, those concerns must be acknowledged and must be addressed in order to actually bring about an end to this crisis. But there is, as you said in your opener, a dramatic humanitarian emergency underway. And I think until the humanitarian crisis, with, you know, hundreds of thousands of refugees flowing across borders, as well as internally displaced, that the real long-term needs of economic livelihoods for the people not only of the north, but the entire country of Mali, those needs must be met to actually bring about long-term peace and stability and security in Mali and throughout the region.
AMY GOODMAN: Emira Woods, we want to thank you for being with us, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. I also encourage people to go to our website at democracynow.org to see our interview with May Ying Welsh of Al Jazeera, who had just returned from the north of Mali and did a documentary on the Tuareg. We link to it at democracynow.org. When we come back, we’ll speak with sportswriter Dave Zirin.