Analysis: Hostage incident puts dent in U.S. hopes on Algeria

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LONDON -- The hostage crisis in Algeria 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 intensively lobbied Algeria -- whose military is by far the strongest in North Africa -- to help intervene in next-door Mali, where jihadis 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.

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, a North Africa 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 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 region's heavyweight, and its intelligence services are the most knowledgeable about the murky Islamist networks that have taken root.

Algeria 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 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.

Algeria's precise motives remain a puzzle to U.S. officials, but some analysts said its leaders have shown they are willing to tolerate jihadis in the region as long as they confine themselves to the wastelands of the Sahara, thousands of miles away from Algiers, the capital, and the Mediterranean coast where most of the country's population lives.

More recently, Algeria has been even more hostile to the idea of sending troops to Mali to fight alongside the French, who have sent about 1,400 troops to rescue the weak Malian central government. France was Algeria's colonial master, and the two sides fought a prolonged, bitter war before Algeria gained independence in 1962.

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