The chaotic end of Algeria's hostage crisis at a natural-gas plant in the Sahara on Thursday highlights the broad front on which Islamic extremists can strike back against France's military intervention in Mali.
Algerian officials said their troops and helicopter gunships stormed the gas facility where Islamic extremists were holding foreign hostages, including several Americans, when the terrorists tried to leave plant with their captives.
An unknown number of hostages were killed in the military assault, according to various accounts.
Algerian state media said four foreign hostages had been freed in the raid and at least one of them, Michael McFaul, a Briton from West Belfast, was able to speak by telephone to his family.
The extremists, loyal to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian jihadist who was formerly a regional commander for al Qaeda, told a Mauritanian news agency that they had more than 40 foreign hostages from nine countries.
They told the Nouakchott Information Agency, which often runs reports from al Qaeda-linked militants, that 35 hostages and 15 of the militants' comrades had been killed when helicopter gunships strafed the vehicles in which they were traveling. There was no independent confirmation of the figures or of their account.
Algerian officials said they feared the terrorists were heading across the nearby border to Libya, where large areas of the country are without effective government and have become havens for extremists since the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
U.S. officials were tight-lipped about the situation, possibly because they lacked information from the Algerian authorities about what was happening.
"Because of the fluidity [of the situation] and the fact that there is a lot of planning going on, I cannot give you any further details at this time about the current situation on the ground," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Washington.
Information coming from Algeria was "pretty sketchy" even after the assault began, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told ABC News in an interview in England. White House press secretary Jay Carney said the Obama administration was "seeking clarity from the government of Algeria."
An unarmed U.S. surveillance drone soared overhead as the Algerian forces closed in, U.S. officials said.
The U.S. offered military assistance Wednesday to help rescue the hostages, but the Algerian government refused, according to a U.S. official in Washington cited by The Associated Press. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the offer.
A European official, agreeing to speak without being named in order to discuss sensitive issues, told The Washington Times: "The Algerians acted on their own. They didn't consult us. They didn't consult the Americans. No one knew what was happening until it had started."
British Prime Minister David Cameron had not been informed in advance of the operation and would have liked to have been, a spokesman for Mr. Cameron said.
Mr. Cameron himself warned his countrymen: "We should be prepared for further bad news."
In addition to several Americans and Britons, there were Norwegian, Romanian, French, Filipino, Japanese, Malaysian and Irish citizens among the hostages, dozens of whom remained unaccounted for Thursday evening. One Associated Press report Thursday evening, hours after the Algerian raid, said at least some Americans were still held or unaccounted for.
The Algerian government said it was forced to intervene because of the militants' stubbornness and their desire to escape with the hostages.
"An important number of hostages were freed, and an important number of terrorists were eliminated, and we regret the few dead and wounded," Algerian Communications Minister Mohand Said Oubelaid told national media, adding that the "terrorists are multinational," coming from several countries with the goal of "destabilizing Algeria, embroiling it in the Mali conflict and damaging its natural-gas infrastructure."
The extremists told the Mauritanian news agency that their attack Wednesday on the natural-gas pumping facility was intended to avenge the French intervention in Mali. Al Qaeda-linked terrorists there have wrested control from the Malian military of the country's vast desert north and are establishing a safe haven for extremists.
Wednesday's terrorist attack was large and coordinated enough that some security specialists were skeptical it had been planned in the five days since French troops arrived in Mali.
The French troops came at the invitation of the country's government to help defend it from an increasingly threatening Islamic extremist insurgency that already holds the north and was poised to defeat government forces altogether, according to one scholar.
"[The terrorists] have the military capability," said Michael Shurkin, a political scientist at the Rand Corp., a think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif.
"They probably would have taken down the Malian government if they had wanted to and if the French hadn't stopped them," Mr. Shurkin said of the extremists — a coalition of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terrorist network's affiliate in Northern Africa, and two indigenous Malian Islamic groups.
AQIM has taken hostages before and has made millions of dollars by ransoming Western tourists and aid workers.
Wednesday's assault was the terrorists' largest haul of hostages since 2003, when AQIM snatched 32 Western tourists in southern Algeria. This was also the first time Americans have been involved.
BP, the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach operate the gas field, and a Japanese company, JGC Corp., provides services for the facility.
Wednesday's attack was on a larger scale and against a harder target, with as many as 50 Algerian police at the gas plant. The heavily armed attackers said they had to fight their way inside.
"They've done extremely well for themselves in Mali," Mr. Shurkin said of AQIM, which mainly consists of veteran Algerian extremists such as Belmokhtar.
The one-eyed veteran of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets "has a new spring in his step," as demonstrated by the ambitious scale of Wednesday's attack, the Rand Corp. analyst said.
He added that it is "debatable" whether the terrorism risk in the region and beyond would worsen as a result of the intervention.
"AQIM was already planning to do bad things," Mr. Shurkin said.
But the French raised their terrorism-threat level over the weekend, anticipating a response to their deployment that eventually will grow to 2,500 troops, officials in Paris have said.
In the U.S., there was some concern that the French are getting themselves — and by extension, their allies — into an operation that might last longer than they anticipate.
"This is likely to be a protracted operation," said Air Force Maj. Robert Firman, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command.
Mr. Shurkin said that the French "are going to be much more involved on the ground than they want to be" and potentially for much longer.
For the French, the risks of not acting and allowing al Qaeda to topple the Malian government were greater than the risks of intervening with troops, he added.
"Aside from the terrorism risk [of allowing al Qaeda a safe haven], which is debatable, the regional risks of having a potent military force like that on the loose" were unacceptable, Mr. Shurkin said.
He predicted that the extremists in Mali would put up a tough fight against the French.
"They are prepared for a prolonged conflict," he said. "They did their homework, and they have stood up well" so far to French air power.
Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, predicted more trouble in the region, and specifically in Mali.
"This is where jihadists from all over northern Africa and other places will come because they think they're winning the fight," Mr. Rogers told CNN.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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Shaun Waterman is an award-winning reporter for The Washington Times, covering foreign affairs, defense and cybersecurity. He was a senior editor and correspondent for United Press International for nearly a decade, and has covered the Department of Homeland Security since 2003. His reporting on the Sept. 11 Commission and the tortuous process by which some of its recommendations finally became ...
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