LONDON – The hostage crisis in Algeria has thrown a wrench into the Obama administration’s strategy for coordinating an international military campaign against al-Qaida fighters in North Africa, leaving U.S., European and African leaders even more at odds over how to tackle the problem.
For months, U.S. officials have intensively lobbied Algeria — whose military is by far the strongest in North Africa — to help intervene in next-door Mali, where jihadists and other rebels have established a well-defended base of operations. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other high-ranking U.S. officials made repeated visits to Algiers last fall in a bid to persuade the oil-rich country to contribute troops to a U.N.-backed military force in Mali.
But Algeria’s unilateral decision to attack kidnappers at a natural gas plant — while shunning outside help, imposing a virtual information blackout and disregarding international pleas for caution — has dampened hopes that it might cooperate militarily in Mali, U.S. officials said. The crisis has strained ties between Algiers and Washington and increased doubts about whether Algeria can be relied upon to work regionally to dismantle al-Qaida’s franchise in North Africa.
“The result is that the U.S. will have squandered six to eight months of diplomacy for how it wants to deal with Mali,” said Geoff Porter, an independent North African security analyst. “At least it will have been squandered in the sense that the Algerians will likely double down on their recalcitrance to get involved. They’ve already put themselves in a fortresslike state.”
Obama administration officials have said that a multinational military intervention is necessary to stabilize Mali but that such a campaign must be led by African countries and is unlikely to succeed without Algerian involvement. Algeria’s military is the heavyweight of the region, and its intelligence services are the most knowledgeable about the murky Islamist networks that have sprung up in the region.
Algeria is also the birthplace of al-Qaida’s affiliate in North Africa, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Most of the group’s leaders and allies are Algerian, including the suspected ringleader of the hostage plot, a one-eyed desert bandit named Moktar Belmoktar.
The group has expanded its activities beyond Algeria to Mali, Mauritania and Niger. But Algeria has been reluctant to fight AQIM outside its borders. The reasons are complex, but Algerian leaders say they are under little obligation to help other countries facing the problem — such as Mali — given that no one came to their aid in the 1990s when they fought their own grueling civil war against insurgents.
U.S. officials offer mixed reviews of Washington’s overall ties with Algiers on counterterrorism. One senior U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk freely about the relationship, called it “solid, not spectacular. It’s not carte blanche by any stretch of the imagination.”
As the extremist threat has become more acute in recent years, the U.S. military has repeatedly pressed Algeria for overflight permission so its long-range reconnaissance planes can reach northern Mali from U.S. bases in Europe.
Algiers has agreed at times, but it only approves flights on a case-by-case basis and often requires extensive advance notice, U.S. officials said. It withheld blanket permission unless Washington promises to share intelligence from the flights, including what they observe while over Algerian territory. U.S. officials said they are legally barred from doing so because of concerns that Algeria might misuse the intelligence to target people who are political opponents, not terrorists.
The Algerian military and security services have a history of brutality and extrajudicial killings. During the civil war in the 1990s, one faction of Algerian generals earned the nickname “the eradicators” for their insistence on eliminating enemies instead of negotiating.
“It’s closer to a police state than anything, and cooperation is on again, off again,” said Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “They are fairly tight about it.”
At the same time, the United States has become dependent on Algerian intelligence to sort out a blurry constellation of jihadist groups, desert bandits, ethnic rebels and other groups. While some profess allegiance to al-Qaida, most are focused on local grievances or criminal rackets.
“As is obvious to you, we are not from this region,” army Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. forces in Africa, told reporters during a September visit to Algiers, his fourth stop there in 18 months. “We do not have the same understanding of the various actors in the region.”
U.S. officials estimate that AQIM has about 250 to 400 dedicated fighters in its ranks. But it often makes common cause with other militant groups, making its true strength difficult to pinpoint.
An enduring example of failed U.S. attempts to persuade Algeria to play a regional counterterrorism role can be found in Tamanrasset, a remote Algerian garrison town in the heart of the Sahara.
In 2010, at the behest of U.S. military officials, Algeria agreed to establish a regional intelligence-sharing and joint-operations center in Tamanrasset to track al-Qaida fighters and other cross-border militants responsible for an epidemic of hostage-takings. Security forces from Mali, Niger and Mauritania were invited to participate and, it was hoped, organize joint patrols in the desert.
Three years later, however, the Tamanrasset center is still a bare-bones operation where military leaders from the four countries meet only sporadically, U.S. officials said. Algeria has also rebuffed requests to host U.S. military or intelligence officers at Tamanrasset, to the disappointment of the Pentagon and CIA.
Algeria’s precise motives remain a puzzle to U.S. officials, but some analysts said its leaders have shown they are willing to tolerate jihadists in the region as long as they confine themselves to the wastelands of the Sahara, thousands of kilometers away from Algiers, the capital, and the Mediterranean coast where most of the country’s population lives.
Additionally, the migration of jihadists to Mali and other countries may make them less of a problem for Algeria. “It more or less has kept the neighbors off balance and allowed Algeria to remain the regional hegemon,” said J. Peter Pham, an adviser to the U.S. military and an Africa expert at the Atlantic Council of the United States.
Algerian officials have denied such suggestions. In discussions with U.S. officials, they have blamed Mali for allowing the terrorist threat to fester, accusing its leaders of being corrupt and cutting secret deals with AQIM, according to classified diplomatic cables made public by the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks.
In a February 2010 meeting, frustrated U.S. officials prodded Nourredine Ayadi, the Algerian ambassador to Mali, to hasten the opening of the joint operations in Tamanrasset.
Ayadi bluntly replied that the Malians couldn’t be trusted, according to a U.S. cable summarizing the meeting. He charged that Malian officials had tipped off AQIM about a pending joint Malian-Algerian military operation and that the Malian government had refused to extradite “high-level” al-Qaida suspects to Algiers.
“It seems likely that efforts to bring Mali and Algeria closer to fight AQIM, though necessary, will continue to be a very uphill battle,” Gillian Milovanovic, the U.S. ambassador to Mali, said in a cable to officials in Washington.