Mokhtar Belmokhtar, reportedly shown here in a video obtained by Mauritanian… (/AFP/Getty Images )
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?
Belmokhtar had trained at militant camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s, 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 yet attacked Americans and did not appear to pose a threat outside his nomadic range in the badlands of northern Mali and southern Algeria.
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.”
‘He was well within reach’
By 2003, U.S. officials were becoming alarmed about the potential for Islamist extremists to establish a haven in North or West Africa.
Radicals who failed to topple the Algerian government in the 1990s had moved deep into the Sahara, hiding in the hinterlands of impoverished countries such as Mali, Mauritania and Niger, where they turned to smuggling and other criminal rackets.
Among them was a former paratrooper known as Abderrazak al-Para, who kidnapped 32 Europeans and collected $6 million in ransom.
The kidnapping did not involve any American hostages, but it drew the attention of commanders at the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.
Using satellite imagery and other sources, the U.S. military tracked al-Para and shared the intelligence with African governments, which pursued him across the desert. After an epic chase, he was captured in Chad.
Around the same time, the U.S. military also started to track Belmokhtar and floated a plan to fire missiles at an Arab militant camp in northern Mali. Vicki Huddleston, the U.S. ambassador to Mali at the time, said she blocked the operation. It was unclear whether Belmokhtar was actually present at the camp, she recalled in an interview, adding that he was considered a minor figure.
“I said no. First, you don’t know who these people are, and second, it’s a bad idea,” she said. “We had a big fight over this.”
The four-star Air Force general in charge of the operation, Charles F. Wald, who has since retired, acknowledged that he wanted to capture Belmokhtar but insisted that airstrikes were not a serious option. He said that the U.S. military wanted to share intelligence and gear with Algeria and Mali so they could arrest or kill Belmokhtar but that civilian U.S. leaders refused. “The answer at that time was, ‘Not our business,’ ” he said.