The kidnapping of seven foreign workers in Nigeria claimed by an Islamic extremist group has touched a nerve in Europe, coming just weeks after the tragic end of a hostage drama in Algeria in which 37 gas plant workers and 29 al Qaida-linked militants died. But analysts say the similarities probably end there and it's too early to know how this latest crisis will play itself out. A group that calls itself Ansaru issued a short statement about the kidnapping in northern Nigeria over the weekend, hinting at political motivations for snatching what Nigerian authorities say are one British citizen, one Greek, one Italian, three Lebanese and one Filipino.
But Ansaru did not make any demands, and analysts warn that if recent history is any indication, the hostage situation probably will not be resolved in a flash. "What is likely to happen is some kind of drawn-out period — weeks or months — on how to maneuver to safeguard the lives of these hostages while not giving in to ransom demands," said Mark Schroeder, vice president of Africa analysis at Stratfor, a U.S.-based private global intelligence firm. Governments and analysts have long warned about the risk of kidnapping in northern Nigeria. More broadly, the Sahel region of Africa has seen scores of kidnappings involving foreigners — some held for years.
On Tuesday, French officials said that seven French citizens, including four children, have been kidnapped in Cameroon and are believed to have been taken to Nigeria. The situation is very different in Algeria, where the army moved in after a standoff lasting just four days to end the crisis at the Ain Amenas complex. Virginia Comolli, a research associate focused on extremism at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, noted that Algeria wanted to "send a very strong message" to hostage takers and display a no-nonsense, hard-fisted approach.
"The Nigerians would not want to jeopardize the relationship they have with the Brits," Comolli said, pointing to the country's longstanding relationship with Britain on counterterrorism. "They want to be careful. If they were to act without consulting with their British counterparts it would definitely not go down well." Western governments also might not have the confidence in local Nigerian security forces to carry out an advanced hostage rescue operation and will likely mobilize their own security forces and agents.
But going in is expected to be a last resort — especially given recent operations that didn't end well. A botched attempt by France's military to rescue a French intelligence officer held for more than three years by Somalia's al-Shabab militant group saw two French soldiers and 17 Somalis killed. The militant group later said they killed the hostage in retaliation. Rescue operations are difficult and complex under the best of circumstances, let alone when intelligence is murky. In this case, it's still unclear who the hostage takers are given Ansaru's relative obscurity.
"If they're looking for a ransom then a discussion can be had," said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "It's difficult to know what they would be willing to accept in exchange. If their conditions are 'get the hell out of Mali, that's a very difficult proposition for Western governments to deal with." Still, Pantucci said it could be in Ansaru's interests to keep the hostages alive. "You snatch someone, you hold them, you create a lot of attention," he said. "It raises the profile of the problem, versus if you just go around shooting."
The approach to the latest attack could also be complicated by the vastly different approaches to kidnappings and ransom payments taken by the countries whose nationals are reportedly involved. Italy — which has confirmed that one of its citizens was abducted — has a history of negotiating with hostage takers. The British government — which has so far not confirmed statements from Nigerian authorities that a U.K. national was kidnapped — steadfastly refuses to pay ransoms. Not all the other countries identified by the Nigerians have confirmed that their nationals are involved, and the Philippines has explicitly denied it.
The divergent tactics are particularly sensitive given a previous brush with Ansaru for both countries. Ansaru first made itself known by claiming responsibility for the May 2011 kidnapping of Briton Christopher McManus, who was abducted with Italian Franco Lamolinara from a home in Nigeria's Kebbi State. The men were held for months before their captors killed them in March 2012 during a failed British-Nigerian commando raid. That rescue mission strained Italian-British relations, and out of it came pledges from Italy and Britain to beef up their cooperation on security matters and share information.