American Hostages to Jihad in Algeria: 1640 to Present
Early Wednesday (1/16/13) jihadists seized  a gas field in Amenas , eastern Algeria, near the border with Libya, taking hostage just under 200 workers, predominantly Algerians, but also some forty foreigners, among them an undisclosed number of Americans. Speaking to France 24, an unnamed hostage claimed  the prisoners were being forced to wear explosive belts. The hostage added  that their captors were heavily armed and had threatened to detonate the base should the Algerian army attempt to storm it.
The jihadist attackers, in a statement  sent to ANI, a Mauritanian news agency, claimed “the operation was a response to flagrant interference of Algeria, [which] opened its airspace to the French Air Force [who] bombed areas of northern Mali,” and demanded  the “immediate halt of the aggression against our own in Mali.” Reference was also made  to “the participation of Algeria in the war with France,” as “being a betrayal of the blood of the martyrs of Algerians who were killed in the fight against French colonialism.” Al Mulathameen (“The Masked Brigade ”), who apparently prepared the announcement , is associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African affiliate of Al Qaeda. The group insisted  it was holding more than 40 “crusaders” —a prototypical jihadist reference to non-Muslims — “including seven Americans, two French, two British as well as other citizens of various European nationalities.” Algeria’s interior minister, Daho Ould Kablia, maintained the raid was orchestrated by Mokhtar Belmokhtar , an Algerian who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and has reportedly established his own group in the Sahara
Initial reports Thursday 1/17/13 (here , here ) indicated that perhaps half of the ~ 40 foreign workers, including some of the Americans, as well as ~30 to 40 of the ~ 150 Algerians held captive may have escaped their jihadist kidnappers. An ominous AP story  then reported the jihadist captors claimed 35 hostages, and 15 of their members were killed, after Algerian helicopters attacked the gas facility in a strafing run. Reuters subsequently reported  thirty hostages were killed, including seven foreign hostages, along with eleven of their jihadist captors, during the Algerian military assault. Following the violent conclusion of the standoff, US Today  later repeated both Algerian claims that 600 hostages in total had been freed, and the insistence by the jihadists that 35 of the hostages had been killed, purportedly including 5 Americans. But ABC News , citing unnamed “U.S. officials,” claimed five Americans who were at the Algerian natural gas facility when it was raided by the jihadists are now safe, and believed to have left the country.
By Friday (1/18/13) morning, British Prime Minister David Cameron  told lawmakers Algerian forces were “still pursuing terrorists,” while attempting to secure a “large and complex site,” and searching for missing hostages. Cameron noted 30 Britons had been unaccounted for Thursday (1/17/13), but as of Friday morning, that number was considerably smaller. According to Fox News , an American from Texas was still missing. Senior U.S. defense officials also told Fox News  that Thursday, two Americans had escaped unharmed; five other Americans who had been at the enormous Amenas facility were able to avoid being taken captive when the terrorists first attacked early Wednesday.
Wednesday (1/16/13), by sheer (if bitter) coincidence, a very apropos book I ordered because of my curiosity about the earliest American experiences of Islam —150 years before the US became an international power (and convenient excuse for jihadist aggression )—arrived in the mail. Entitled, “A journal, of the captivity and sufferings of John Foss ; several years a prisoner at Algiers,” (published 1798), the book chronicles Foss’s seizure at sea in a trading frigate, October 25, 1793 (“As we judged ourselves to be about 35 leagues [3 nautical miles] westward of Cape St. Vincent” [Portugal]), by Algerian naval jihadists  while en route from Newburyport, Massachusetts, to Cadiz, southwestern Spain. Foss, and his fellow seamen were told  by their Algerian jihadist captor Rais Hudga Mahomet Salamia,
…now you are slaves and must be treated as such, and do not think that you will be treated worse than you really deserve, for your bigotry and superstition in believing in a man who was crucified by the Jews, and disregarding the true doctrine of God’s last and greatest prophet, Mahomet
Foss was held in captivity under abhorrent, brutal conditions  and put to hard labor in Algiers and its vicinity for two years until the nascent American government ransomed him and the surviving members of his captured vessel, The Polly. Before elaborating on Foss’s plight, and telling observations of Algerian Muslim society, recounted as historian Robert C. Davis  has acknowledged in a reliable, credible manner, an “…unembellished, Yankee way of laying out a tale, however horrific its details,” it must be noted that his experience as an American captive of Algerian naval jihadism was antedated by those of New Englanders dating back to 1640, during the colonial era. Abolitionist, and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner  (1811-1874), in his 1853, “White Slavery in the Barbary States ,” documented the following accounts, quoting from 17th century New England town records, and letters:
…in 1640, “one Austin a man of good estate,” returning discontented to England from Qunipiack [Qunnipiac], now New Haven [Connecticut], on his way “was taken by the Turks, and his wife and family were carried to Algiers, and sold there as slaves.”…Instances now thicken. A ship, sailing from Charlestown [Rhode Island], in 1678, was taken by a corsair [naval jihadist], and carried into Algiers, whence its passengers and crew never returned. They probably died in slavery. Among these was Dr. Daniel Mason, a graduate of Harvard College, and the earliest of that name on the list; also James Ellison, the mate. The latter, in a testamentary letter addressed to his wife, and dated at Algiers, June 30, 1679, desired her to redeem out of captivity two of his companions. At the same period William Harris, a person of consequence in the colony, one of the associates of Roger Williams in the first planting of Providence, and now in the sixty-eighth year of his age, sailing from Boston for England on public business, was also taken by a corsair, and carried into Algiers. On the 23rd February, 1679, this veteran…together with all the crew were sold into slavery. The fate of his companions is unknown; but Mr. Harris, after remaining in this condition more than a year, obtained his freedom at the cost of $1200, called by him “the price of a good farm.”
Returning to Foss’s memoir, it opens  with experiential advice, coupled to an appeal:
The importance as well as utility of having a work of this kind generally disseminated through the United States, must be apparent to every thinking person. The suffering of our fellow citizens in Algiers were great indeed! They ought not to be too easily forgotten. Every step to avoid a repetition of them will undoubtedly be pursued. But should, at any future period, from causes not seen, more Americans be doomed to wear the galling chain (God grant that period may never arrive), a knowledge of the habits, manners, and customs of the place, may not be unserviceable. From the tender and feeding soul, a perusal of the following pages, must call forth the tear of sympathy. The hardships—the sufferings—the agonizing tortures, which our fellow citizens had to endure, while groaning under all the horrors of Mahometan vassalage, of Algerine tyranny, must call into action every tender sigh and virgin drops of pity embalm the memory of those whose fate it was to sink under the weight of accumulated woes.—Alas! they’re gone.
Foss also preempts  any criticism that the account might somehow have exaggerated his travails given the nature of Islamic doctrine and practice, certainly by the Muslim votaries of Algeria.
Some of my descriptions of the treatment of the Captives may appear rather wire-drawn, but then my readers ought to be informed that these merciless Barbarians are taught by their religion to treat the Christian Captives with unexampled cruelty, and that in so doing they do God a service! Hence to expect pity or commiseration from those sons of Ishmael would be as absurd, as to expect a shrubbery from the burning deserts, or cooling streams, from the parched plains of Arabia.
Upon arriving in Algiers (November 1, 1793), Foss recounts ,
…we were rowed onshore, and landed amidst the shouts and huzzas of thousands of malicious barbarians. We were conducted to the Dey’s [Algerian ruler’s] palace by a guard, and as we passed through the streets, our ears were stunned with shouts, clapping of hands and other acclamations of joy from the inhabitants; thanking God for their great success and victories over so many Christian dogs and unbelievers, the appellation they generally give to all Christians.
During their brief audience  before the Dey, the captives were told “he was determined never to make peace with the United States,” * and referring directly to those Americans before him he added, “now I have got you, you christian dogs, you shall eat stones.” Dispatched to the Dey’s slave pen or bagno, the enslaved prisoners were  stripped naked, issued their year’s allotment of slave’s garments, and chained:
…it [the clothing allotment] contained a blanket, a capoot (which is a sort of jacket with a head) a waistcoat made something like a frock, to draw over the head, it not being open at the belly, a shirt, with neither collar nor wristbands, a pair of trowsers [trousers], made somewhat like a woman’s petticoat, (with this difference,) the bottom being sewed up, and two holes to put the legs through and a pair of slippers…[T]hey put a chain on each man’s legs, reaching up to the shoulder, and weighing about 25, or 30lb., this was our first night’s lodging in this doleful mansion of horror and despair
Robert Davis’s brief assessment  of Foss’s journal has concluded, appositely, that it captures the “two iron realities” of Algerian slavery—arduous labor, and death. The high mortality was a consequence of chronic malnutrition, traumatic work accidents from the dangerous tasks imposed, and mistreatment (i.e., beatings, including with a bastinado, or cudgel to the soles of the feet, commonly repeated 150-200 times). But Davis’s brief overview ignores  Foss’s rich narrative account of the Islamically-inspired mores he witnessed during his captivity, and recorded in unapologetic, disturbing detail. These latter descriptions of Foss—consistently omitted by Davis and contemporary academics of his mindset—are redolent with an Islamic Weltanschauung that persists, all too broadly, into our era.
Blinding ourselves—or allowing academic, media, and political “elites” to obfuscate this tragic and dangerous reality for us—continues to put basic American security at unnecessary risk. Before letting John Foss’s eloquent, frank words from 1798 speak  for themselves, I note with a glimmer of optimism in the face of the tragic events in Amenas, Algeria, this uncharacteristically candid (and likely painful) admission in Wednesday’s (1/16/13) New York Times coverage :
The United States is traditionally a major importer of Algerian crude, although over the last few years much of those imports have been replaced by new oil production in American shale oil fields in North Dakota and Texas.
Key extracts recording what John Foss  observed during his captivity in Algeria on the conditions of Algeria’s American (and other Christian) slaves, Algerian Muslim attitudes and behaviors towards non-Muslims, and each other, and the Islamic motivations for what he witnessed, published circa 1798, follow: