U.S. military commanders planned airstrikes against Belmokhtar and a band of Arab militants they had under surveillance in the Malian desert, according to three current and former American officials familiar with the episode. But the U.S. ambassador to Mali at the time vetoed the plan, saying a strike was too risky and could stir a backlash against Americans.
Since then, Belmokhtar has gradually helped build an al-Qaeda-branded network while expanding his exploits as a serial kidnapper, smuggler and arms dealer. Last month, his group, Signatories in Blood, took dozens of people hostage at a natural gas complex in Algeria. At least 37 foreign captives were killed, including three Americans.
In addition to raising his global profile, the attack turned Belmokhtar into a symbol of how the United States over the past 10 years has bungled an ambitious strategy to prevent al-Qaeda from gaining a foothold in North and West Africa.
The U.S. government has invested heavily in counterterrorism programs in the region, spending more than $1 billion since 2005 to train security forces, secure borders, promote democracy, reduce poverty and spread propaganda.
The strategy was portrayed as a sobering lesson from the costly invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The goal of stabilizing weak African countries was to keep al-Qaeda out and obviate the need to send U.S. combat forces into the Sahara.
Despite those efforts, Belmokhtar’s group and a hazy array of other jihadist factions and rebellious tribesmen seized control of northern Mali last year. In March, a U.S.-trained Malian officer carried out a coup, further plunging the country into chaos.
“We had this great program, and we put hundreds of millions of dollars into it, and it failed. Why did it fail?” said a member of the U.S. Special Operations forces who worked in Africa until he retired last year. “Fundamentally, we missed the boat.”
Todd Moss, who was deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 2007 to 2008, blamed “a wholly inadequate policy response.” He said U.S. officials placed their faith in a flawed model to promote development and build institutions, especially in northern Mali, a Texas-size territory with little government presence.
“There was no consensus on the size or seriousness of the threat,” Moss added. “We were looking through both civilian and military rose-colored glasses. And that should give us pause as we try to figure out how to move forward.”