The U.S. military was closely tracking a one-eyed bandit across the Sahara in 2003 when it confronted a hard choice that is still reverberating a decade later. Should it try to kill or capture the target, an Algerian jihadist named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, or let him go?Amazing, isn't it? Not a mention of how the Obama administration's invasion of Libya, not to mention the whole Arab Spring clusterf-k, has unleashed a torrent of newly-vigorous terrorist activity in Africa. Here's how Der Spiegel described things last month, "Algeria Hostage Crisis Highlights Islamist Threat Across North Africa":
Belmokhtar had trained at camps in Afghanistan, returned home to join a bloody revolt and was about to be blacklisted by the United Nations for supporting the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But he hadn’t attacked Americans, not yet, and did not appear to pose a threat outside his nomadic range in the badlands of northern Mali and southern Algeria.
Military commanders planned to launch airstrikes against Belmokhtar and a band of Arabs they had under surveillance in the Malian desert, according to three current and former U.S. officials familiar with the episode. But the ambassador to Mali at the time said she vetoed the plan, arguing that a strike was too risky and could stir a backlash against Americans.
Since then, Belmokhtar has gradually built a 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 hostages at a natural-gas complex in Algeria. At least 38 foreign captives were killed, including three Americans.
In addition to raising his global profile, the spectacular attack turned Belmokhtar into a symbol of how the United States over the past 10 years 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. By stabilizing weak African countries, the goal 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 the northern half of 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.”
The security situation in Libya has visibly worsened since the beginning of the uprising against dictator Moammar Gadhafi nearly two years ago. The military has been essentially dissolved and weapons from Gadhafi's armed forces have flooded the markets in the region, ending up in the hands of various militias, including the extremists in northern Mali. Fifteen months after Gadhafi's death, a stable and sustainable government has yet to take hold. Real control over the country rests with competing warlords, and Islamist groups in the region have profitted.Anyway, WaPo's piece takes U.S. policy up to the present and doesn't discuss the collapse of security in North Africa over the last two years. But I wouldn't want to impute bias or anything. No siree. (More here, FWIW.)
The blood bath at the oil field shows that Algeria has been the most impacted by the developments in Mali. For this reason, Algiers has long opposed French military intervention in its southern neighbor. Algeria itself is still suffering the consequences of its civil war in the 1990s, in which fighting between the military and Islamists killed hundreds of thousands of people.