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-Qaida-linked terrorists 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-Qaida-linked terrorists — 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 hostage takers 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-Qaida-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.”
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 (1,300 kilometers) 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.