Conflict & Justice

Sahel in a handbasket


A woman who fled violence in northern Mali looks out from a tent at a camp for displaced people in Sevare.


Fred Dufour

LONDON, UK — The bloody end to the hostage standoff at a gas plant owned by BP and Statoil in the Algerian desert can't have been the way President Barack Obama wanted to start his second term.

Hours before he took the oath of office at a private ceremony Sunday, Algerian security forces stormed the plant at In Amenas, killing at least 37 of the foreign hostages along with most of the Islamic militants who held them.

“The blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out,” Obama said before his swearing-in, held a day early for constitutional reasons before Monday’s public event.

Americans were shocked by the quick denouement in Algeria. Publicly, the Obama administration has backed the Algerian military's raid. But many US officials have talked privately about ways Algeria could have handled the crisis differently, and sought a negotiated solution, a US diplomat to a NATO country told GlobalPost.

The swift and violent end to the crisis removed the threat of a 1979 Iran-style hostage drumbeat in Washington for Obama to “do something” — pressures that led Jimmy Carter to launch the disastrous Desert One rescue attempt in an earlier era.

Now, with a French intervention in neighboring Mali and US security efforts still suffering the sting of criticism over the death of Washington’s ambassador to Libya last summer, America is being forced to recalibrate its sense of where “the Sahel” — lands touched by the vast Sahara desert — belongs in the pecking order of national security risks.

For a president struggling to wind down one of the two Middle Eastern wars he inherited four years ago, that is hardly a welcome specter. And a cultural minefield may lie ahead. France’s intervention in Mali and the risk of US and British involvement significantly raise the possibility of alienating African public opinion, ever sensitive to paternalism from their former colonial powers.

Cultural gaffes like that committed by the French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian Sunday, who vowed a “total reconquest” of Mali, a former French colony, will hopefully be minimized. If not, they will fuel sympathy for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), possibly even outside militant Islamic circles. (The map below, detailing France's military operation in Mali, was shown during Le Drian's press conference last week in Paris. Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images.)

Even among "friends," the different approaches already rankle. Britain and Japan have criticized the Algerian military for its harsh tactics, which almost certainly caused some of the deaths among the foreign hostages.

As much as the Obama administration would like to avoid being drawn in, even before the crisis in Algeria or the French airstrikes and ground battle against Islamic militants in Mali, American involvement across the top of the African continent had been rising.

More from GlobalPost: Al Qaeda in Africa, an in-depth series

AFRICOM, the sub-Saharan-focused US military command established in 2007, has launched a series of partnership programs aimed at shoring up the region’s rag-tag national armies — primarily in response to the Islamic militant groups that were born of the exceedingly violent Algerian Civil War of 1991-2002.

Among them, several pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, including the perpetrators of the gas plant attack in Algeria last week, AQIM.

Western powers and their allies in the region — which include such repressive “anti-terrorism partners” as Algeria’s dictatorship, the Moroccan monarchy and slave-holding Mauritania — have reason to be optimistic about the past two weeks, however.

The fact that Algeria, France’s former colony, allowed French warplanes to fly in its airspace en route to Mali was a historic turnabout criticized by some in the Arab world, particularly among elderly veterans of Algeria’s bitter independence war against the French in the early 1960s.

Both US and French intelligence agencies believe Algeria is the key to blunting the activities of the Sahel’s militants — so many of them grew out of Algeria’s own domestic violence, and the Algerian security state has by far the region’s most extensive intelligence capabilities.

This is not merely an issue for the poor countries of the Sahel: Mali, Niger, Chad, and the Mediterranean lands of Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. The problem could also be felt to the south and west, where Islamic violence in Nigeria, perpetrated by a group called Boko Haram, could worsen if secure lines of communication are established between groups that range across the Sahara.

Seen in the zero-sum terms that often prevail in the Middle East, Algeria’s action will send a tough message to AQIM and other Islamic militants.