The situation in Algeria appears to be complication upon complication. The local government is acting unilaterally to try to save hostages from as many as 10 different countries. They are in a remote, sprawling compound thousands of miles from the capital city, and held by an independent fighting force with ties to international Islamic extremists.
Whether Western intelligence agencies should have predicted this attack will dominate much of the news cycle in the coming days. For now, the top priority should be ending the situation as quickly as possible, one expert says.
"Hostage rescue is the hardest thing to do," says Jim Reese, a former U.S. special operations officer who specialized in these missions. "The Algerians probably have some capability, but it would be a difficult target to have for any forces."
Algeria will likely deploy its Special Intervention Group, a secretive commando unit formed in the late 1980s to serve a purpose similar to American units such as Delta Force and Navy SEAL Team Six.
Teams that conduct hostage rescue may train together for years and only experience one mission in their career, says Reese, now CEO of private security firm TigerSwan. They all rely on the critical elements of surprise, speed and violence of action. At a wide-open, sprawling site like the BP-run natural gas facility in rural Algeria, even the most advanced teams would have difficulty saving the victims.
"Right now there is still an ongoing crisis. The site has not been fully secured, you still have people missing," he says. "The worst case is this continues to drag out. As the terrorists are neutralized on the site – either captured or killed by Algerian commandos – this thing drags on."
It could take up to a week to "back-clear" the entire site, he adds, to ensure that all of the extremists have been found and eliminated. Meanwhile, there needs to be a complete account of all people who could have been at the site and whether any remain hostages elsewhere.
"I think the Algerians will have this thing wrapped up pretty quickly," says Reese. "We'll probably have a couple people missing still. It will probably take some time to find them.
"We'll get bounce in the news media for the next three to five days, and this will get back to the status quo. Unfortunately, this will happen again in some other place."
Algeria has largely excluded Western governments from participating in rescuing the hostages, according to media reports. This is not unusual for an ongoing situation that would require extensive international coordination.
"If you're the directorate of the [Algerian] Ministry of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense, your phones are ringing off the hook with the Americans, the British, the Irish. Their foreign ministers are being inundated," says Reese. "Unfortunately, the West can get in the way sometimes. Sometimes you have to back off and let the people sitting 'on the X' do their jobs."
The CIA and Defense Department will likely prepare their own plans for rescue missions, but must then be faced with deciding if the U.S. wants to act unilaterally, he says.
Whatever the outcome, Reese cautions what the countries involved could do next. It's easy to dedicate too much attention to the "political and PR perspective," as some claim was the case with Congressional hearings and international investigations following the Benghazi attacks last September. It will be important, as al Qaeda operatives continue to plan attacks, for countries like the U.S., U.K., and France to maintain focus, he says.
"Mali is in engagement. It's a crisis center right now. We all know al Qaeda wants to attack Western-type places. The problem is we get hung up on hard sites, like embassies," says Reese. "They're looking at softer targets. They're looking at people traveling in buses who are more open. They want to embarrass us instead of attacking a hard target where they're going to lose people."