While Defense has been somewhat definitive on the Algerian hostage-taking situation, State has been more muted and cautious.
Yesterday, a “senior State Department Official” said:
The Algeria question is evolving. Information is still coming in on that. That is an issue that is largely in the hands of our Middle East bureau. We are following it from a southern angle, but the information is still sketchy and evolving, and I’d rather not comment on a situation in which we may make comments that could impact the safety and security of those individuals who have been reportedly kidnapped.
Today, after a meeting welcoming the President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and his delegation to the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the issue — still cautiously, but with some more commitment.
Responding to a question from CBS News’ Margaret Brennan, who asked if there was anything the Secretary would like to see the Algerians do differently in response to the hostage situation and, “more broadly,” if there are security or policy implications for Westerners, Americans in the region because of what’s happening in Mali, Clinton said — calling the question “timely” — that she had spoken with Algerian Prime Minister Sellal yesterday and expected to speak with him again this afternoon.
Speaking to the “situation,” she called it “very fluid,” that the security of the Americans who are held hostage is the US highest priority and that the US cares “deeply” about the other Algerian and foreign hostages as well.
However, because of the fluidity and the fact that there is a lot of planning going on, Clinton said that she cannot give any further details at this time about the current situation on the ground.
But, speaking more broadly, she said, “what we are seeing in Mali, in Algeria, reflects the broader strategic challenge, first and foremost for the countries in North Africa and for the United States and the broader international community.”
These are excerpts from her remarks:
Instability in Mali has created the opportunity for a staging base and safe haven for terrorists. And we’ve had success, as you know, in degrading al-Qaida and its affiliates, leadership, and actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We’ve seen the great cooperation led by African troops through the UN mission that we were just discussing in Somalia. But let’s make no mistake: There is a continuing effort by the terrorists, whether they call themselves one name or al-Qaida, to try to destroy the stability, the peace and security, of the people of this region.
These are not new concerns. In fact, this has been a top priority for our entire national security team for years. We’ve worked with the Government of Yemen, for example, in their efforts against al-Qaida in the Arabic Peninsula. We’ve worked in something called the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, which works with 10 countries across the region. So we have been working on these problems, trying to help build capacity, trying to create regional networks to deal with problems in one country that can spill over the border of another, and working to provide American support for the disruption of these terrorist networks.
At the UN General Assembly in September, we made the situation in Mali an international priority with a central focus on working to have an international response…in October, I flew to Algeria for high-level talks with the President and others in responsible positions in this security area trying to determine what more we could do to strengthen our security ties. In November, I sent Deputy Secretary Burns and a team to Algeria to really get into depth about what more we could be doing. And then in December, we began to reach out more broadly in the ongoing counterterrorism discussions that we have.
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. In fact, by this weekend, U.S. trainers will be on the continent to offer pre-deployment training and sustainment packages for ECOWAS troops. And we are prepared to fund airlift for those troops into Mali.
Referring to the crisis in Algeria, she said:
…I think 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-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
So let me just say that this is about our security, but it is also about our interests and our values and the ongoing work of how to counter violent extremism, to provide likeminded people who want to raise their families, have a better future, educate their children, away from extremism and to empower them to stand up against the extremists. And I think it’s something that we will be working on for some time, but I am confident that we will be successful over that time to give the people of these countries, as we have worked to give the people of Somalia, a chance to chart their own future, which is very much reflective of the values and interests of the United States.
Read the full text of Secretary Clinton’s remarks here