ALGIERS, (Reuters) – The participation of French troops in a raid on an al Qaeda camp in the Sahara could increase the risk to the hostage they tried to rescue and strengthen the insurgents, Algerian security sources said.
Mauritanian troops said that, backed by French special forces, they killed fighters from al Qaeda’s north African wing AQIM at a base in Mali on Thursday. Paris said it had no news of 78-year-old hostage Michel Germaneau.
Asked about the operation at the weekend, serving and former security officers in Algeria, the main base for al Qaeda’s north African wing where the government has long experience fighting the insurgents, said the operation was a failure on several levels.
“France failed to release its hostage. It failed to eliminate (local AQIM leader) Abu Zeid,” a former Algerian security officer who hunted insurgents for years said.
He said the potential repercussions went beyond that. “It angered the terrorist group which will now either demand a ransom or kill the hostage if it has not done it already,” the former officer, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters.
Algeria is sensitive about the role of former colonial ruler France in its backyard. It says the al Qaeda problem in the Sahara is best solved by the region’s states and bristles at any sign Western powers are acting without consultation.
A French Defence Ministry source said on Saturday Paris had “consulted” Spain on the operation and “informed” Mali and Algeria before the attack.
The source said the operation was launched after AQIM failed to provide proof that Germaneau was alive or engage in negotiations over him.
One serving Algerian security official said the operation would help the insurgents recruit more followers by allowing them to cast their campaign as a fight against Western “infidels” and not just fellow Muslims.
“The failure will be used by the extremists to spread their anti-Western propaganda,” the security official, who did not want to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media, told Reuters.
Hardline Islamists already appeared to be exploiting the operation. “Mauritania made a big mistake when it opened its borders to France to kill our people in the land of Islam,” said Sheikh Abdelfetah Zeraoui, an Algerian cleric who represents the ultra-conservative Salafist strain of Islam.
“A Muslim should never help a non-Muslim to kill a Muslim,” he said on his website. The cleric advocates non-violence and his Salafist faith is shared by most of the insurgents.
Algerian security forces have been fighting Islamist insurgents since the early 1990s in a conflict in which an estimated 200,000 people have been killed, although the violence has subsided in the past few years.
AQIM’s senior leaders are all Algerians and the organisation evolved from an Algerian insurgent group called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.
A second serving Algerian security official told Reuters another problem with the French operation was that it ran counter to Algeria’s policy of promoting cooperation among Saharan states to defeat al Qaeda.
“France’s failure shows that our approach is the most appropriate,” said the official.
Algerian officials say only the countries of the region have the local knowledge needed to track-down the insurgents. They point to the creation of a joint military headquarters in the Sahara earlier this year as a big step forward.