The Algerian hostage crisis: Is Obama leading from behind again?

The Week
A video still purportedly shows militant militia leader Moktar Belmoktar, who is reportedly behind the hostage crisis.
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A video still purportedly shows militant militia leader Moktar Belmoktar, who is reportedly behind the hostage crisis.

Tensions rise as Algerian forces reportedly attack gunmen believed to be al-Qaeda-linked militants, with the lives of Western hostages, some from the U.S., at stake

The hostage crisis in Algeria reportedly reached a deadly turning point on Thursday as Algerian forces attacked al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants holding dozens of Western hostages, including Americans, at a remote natural-gas complex. According to unconfirmed reports, some of the hostages — and some of their captors — were killed. Members of the al-Qaeda-linked group claiming responsibility for the kidnapping said that Algerian helicopter attacks left 35 hostages and 15 militants dead.

The White House called the Islamists' siege of the gas facility, partly owned by BP, a "terrorist attack," and said administration officials were working with the Algerian government to sift through conflicting and preliminary reports on what was going on. An al-Qaeda-affiliated group has claimed it attacked the gas facility to retaliate for France's intervention against Islamist rebels in neighboring Mali, but U.S. officials said they have yet to confirm who's responsible. "It's a fluid situation," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. The U.S. reportedly dispatched an unarmed surveillance drone to the site on Thursday to send back first-hand information.

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Once again, Obama is "leading from behind," says Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post. First he sat back and left it to France to "intervene in Mali, trying to stem the tide of Islamism that has swept over the northern part of the country and made it a safe haven under the rule of al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb." Now the president is following developments in Algeria from afar as that country's forces reportedly go in, guns blazing, with American lives at stake. The alleged leader of the Algeria operation "was designated as a terrorist six years ago," but because Obama would rather use drones than capture and interrogate terror suspects, the alleged ringleader remained free to plot, recruit, and kill. "This is yet another example of the delinquency and lack of attention to national security matters that has plagued the administration for four years."

There is indeed "something of an 'Obama doctrine' for these sorts of conflicts," says Fred Kaplan at Slate. The president "acknowledges the war on terror" — the need to "kill or capture certain bad guys, the importance of dismantling groups like al Qaeda and containing their expansion." But Obama is also firm that there will be "no more Iraqs or Afghanistans" on his watch. Instead of charging onto every battlefield he seeks low-cost ways to make Americans safer, such as pitching in with our "unique capabilities" — drones, airlifting of supplies, intelligence gathering — to allies on the ground. Some "uncharitably" call this leading from behind, but it works.

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We don't know the territory, we don't know the players, we don't know who's worth backing, and who's not. There are others who do, and they happen to have a bigger stake in the conflict. One lesson we should have learned in the last decade (and in much of the half-century before that) is that, in these sorts of cases, where we're so in the dark, we should keep a low profile, if we get involved at all. [Slate]

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