In the Algeria crisis, Islamists were most accurate

Algerian firemen carry a coffin containing a person killed during the gas facility hostage situation at the morgue in Ain Amenas, Algeria, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013.
AP Photo

RABAT, Morocco As wildly contradictory accounts trickled out about a terror attack at an Algerian gas plant, one source of information proved to be the most reliable: announcements by the al Qaeda-linked militants themselves.

The hostage-takers phoned in regularly with up-to-the-minute reports, offered eerily accurate numbers of hostages taken and killed, and clearly laid out their goals.

All this came via a Mauritanian news website that — apart from receiving calls from radical Islamists and al Qaeda-linked militants — is known for its reliability on more mundane local news.

Algeria's official information, in contrast, was silent and murky. At one point the state news service even went dark online before returning with a home page scrubbed of all mention of the hostage crisis that had riveted the world.

When Algerian officials were willing to comment — only anonymously — their information drastically underplayed the scope of the hostage siege that left at least 37 captives and 29 militants dead and sent scores of foreign energy workers fleeing across the desert for their lives.

The reliability of the information from the kidnappers was a departure from the more bombastic and exaggerated announcements typical of al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts.

Also, instead of publishing statements on a password-protected jihadi website entirely in Arabic, the Masked Brigade that claimed responsibility for the gas plant attack sent its information to a news website published in both French and Arabic, reaching a much wider audience.

"It was in the interests of the gunmen to get their story out and the Algerians didn't perceive it was in their interest to get the story out in real time," said William Lawrence, the North Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group. "The gunmen needed to negotiate through the media, politicize the Mali conflict through the media, and score jihadist points in the media."

The editor of the Mauritanian site, the Nouakchott Information Agency, also known as ANI, attributed the difference in style to the Masked Brigade's founder, Moktar Belmoktar.

"Moktar is a man who speaks frankly of what he wants, he's straight forward," said El Mokhtar Ould Sidi, who added that his site left out the parts of the kidnappers' statements that he deemed to be propaganda. "It's very different from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or al Qaeda central."

Figuring out what was happening during North Africa's most audacious terror attack was no easy matter with the Ain Amenas natural gas complex deep in the Sahara desert, more than 800 miles from the capital, Algiers.

Despite a vibrant local newspaper scene, Algeria is not an easy place for foreign journalists to operate and information about security matters is kept under tight control by the military-dominated government.

Instead, as the four-day standoff unfolded, it was the regular dispatches from the militants carried by the Nouakchott agency that provided the most consistent source of information. The reports also bolstered the militants' assertions that the Algerian forces had endangered the hostages with their tactics.

No matter how shocking the news was, it seemed to come first and most reliably from the militants.

Soon after the attack began Jan. 16, the militants claimed to have seized 41 hostages. That night, Algerian Interior Minister Dahu Kabila maintained there were only 20 hostages and they were being held by a local terror group.

The militants replied by listing their diverse nationalities, including the presence of Canadians — something only confirmed by the government several days later.

The biggest revelations came on the second day of the standoff when frantic messages from the militants described Algerian helicopters shooting at the complex's living quarters, followed by a full-scale attack on a convoy of vehicles carrying hostages.

Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci at the time denied there had been any such airstrike, and all that was reported that day was that the army had foiled an escape attempt.

The ANI, meanwhile, said 35 hostages and 11 fighters were killed, with only seven hostages left alive — a death toll it took Algerian authorities several days to match. In the end, their final numbers were quite close.