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Crisis dampens hopes of enlisting Algeria to help fight Al-Qaida

  • Article by: CRAIG WHITLOCK
  • Washington Post
  • January 18, 2013 - 8:40 PM

LONDON - The hostage crisis has upended 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 lobbied Algeria -- whose military is by far the strongest in North Africa -- to help intervene in next-door Mali, where jihadists have established a base of operations. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other high-ranking U.S. officials made repeated visits to Algiers in the fall in a bid to persuade the oil-rich country to contribute troops to a U.N.-backed 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 -- 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 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, a security analyst.

Obama 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 Algeria. Algeria's intelligence services are the most knowledgeable about the Islamist networks that have taken root. It is also the birthplace of Al-Qaida's affiliate in North Africa, known as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. Most of the group's leaders and allies are Algerian, including the suspected ringleader of the hostage plot, a desert bandit named Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

The group has expanded 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 civil war against insurgents.

The region was recently destabilized by a flood of weaponry and armed Tuaregs who had fought for Moammar Gadhafi but escaped across Libya's borders. Many of those mercenaries have since teamed with AQIM to take control of the northern half of Mali. "This has just been an utter disaster. It was eminently foreseeable," a senior U.S. diplomat said of the ripple effects from Libya. "It was the infusion of that additional manpower and weapons ... that enabled this to happen."

As the extremist threat has become more acute, the U.S. military has 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, 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 -- which has a history of extrajudicial killings -- might misuse the intelligence to target political opponents, not terrorists.

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