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Negotiating with Terrorists

20th January 2013

Have the Algerian authorities messed up this ghastly crisis, by forcing a deadly showdown?

One view says yes. Even if the terrorists had started killing the hostages under their control, it's better to keep trying to talk to them to head off complete disaster. An outcome in which some terrorists and some of their captives survive is 'better' than an outcome in which all or almost all die - better to salvage some human lives (even wicked ones) from the carnage than none.

The other view says that there are no meaningful criteria for assessing this extreme situation, and that as it's their country the Algerians must decide how such episodes are going to be tackled on their territory going forward. Looked at like this, the Algerian action sends a commendably clear message:

"If you kidnap people in Algeria and try to make political demands (eg for trading prisoners) using terrorist tactics, you will die and your demands will stay unmet. Maybe it's better to go somewhere else instead?"

A separate question is, of course, how far any action launched by the Algerians to tackle this situation was in fact done well. Western intelligence sources should have had almost real-time analysis of what was happening in and around the compound from all sorts of different information-flows, and perhaps watched aghast at some of the methods and tactics being used.

There again, once incidents like this start to unfold few countries (and especially countries in the Middle East or North Africa) are going to want to suffer the apparent loss of self-esteem involved in asking for outside technical help.

Plus who needs to introduce into an already difficult situation the potential Western legal niceties (and liabilities) over targetting and 'proportionality' that come with having Western soldiers directly - or at least openly - involved in the operation?

Indeed, refusing to call in top-end Western special forces is in effect part of the underlying message the Algerian leadership want to send to the terrorist world:

"We aren't playing these games according to Western 'best practice'. We are doing things our own way, and if that turns out to be a lot more chaotic and merciless than you can imagine, too bad for you."

No easy answers.

One good thing the UK government can do in such circumstances is to call out any journalist or pundit who talks about the terrorists 'executing' hostages. 'Execution' is a word that somehow legitimises these killers and their cause by suggesting an outcome arising from a legal process. Terrorists murder people.


 

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