The British government is flying a team of consular staff and intelligence analysts from MI6 and MI5 to Algiers to help secure the release of the Britons involved in the ongoing hostage crisis.
David Cameron leaves Downing Street to make a Commons statement on the hostage situation in Algeria. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
The entourage is understood not to include members of the special forces, though the UK has continued to offer technical and logistical support, as well as experts in hostage negotiation.Britain is believed to have advised the Algerians "to play it long" in terms of dealing with the kidnappers, and to draw upon all the expertise of those countries that can offer advice and intelligence. But events moved quickly out of control on Thursday when Algerian military forces raided the gas plant where the hostages are being held."We don't have a full picture yet, so it is too early to learn the lessons," one source said. "But on the face of it, this is not the way we would have handled it."The US is known to have flown a surveillance drone over the plant, potentially offering the Algerians Istar capability – intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance.There is widespread scepticism in Whitehall that the terrorist attack was a direct result of France's operations in Mali – intelligence experts assess it would have taken weeks for Mokhtar Belmokhtar to assemble and arm a crew to attack the plant, and to gather the intelligence needed to strike successfully.Ministers have been told that when the crisis is over, and a proper assessment can be made, the real significance of this incident will be the willingness and confidence of some elements of al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb to launch an attack on a western target in the region.The suspicion around Whitehall is that Belmokhtar would have attacked the facility at In Amenas anyway, and it may have been opportunism on his part to declare that it was in retaliation for the French deployment of combat troops to Mali.Ministers have been told that Belmokhtar has never tried anything on this scale before, which is one reason why the Algerian prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, has been keen to come down hard and fast – perhaps without due regard for some of the consequences.However, one senior army officer with knowledge of hostage negotiations told the Guardian there were "no golden rules" when dealing with kidnappers.The expert noted the terrorists would not have gone into this expecting to come out alive, nor would they have expected their objectives to be met – securing the withdrawal of French forces from Mali.All of this might have prompted the Algerians, who have a domestic as well as an international audience to consider, "to take a hard line" against followers of an insurgent leader who has been fomenting trouble for years.