LONDON — The hostage crisis in Algeria has upended the Obama administration’s strategy for coordinating an international military campaign against al-Qaeda 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 in the fall in a bid to persuade the oil-rich country to contribute troops to a U.N.-backed military force in Mali.
The bloody three-day hostage standoff at a Sahara natural gas plant took a dramatic turn Friday as Algeria's state news service reported that nearly 100 of the 132 foreign workers kidnapped by Islamic militants had been freed.
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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-Qaeda’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 D. 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 fortress-like 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 taken root.
Algeria is also the birthplace of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa, known as al-Qaeda 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 one-eyed desert bandit named Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
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 counter-terrorism. One senior U.S. diplomat, speaking on the 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.