U.S. Officials Propose Sharing Drone Surveillance Data With Algerians

The American ambassador to Algeria and senior counter-terrorism officials have proposed sharing more information with Algerian security forces to help them kill or capture militants in their own country and in areas just across their borders.

Their approach reflects the growing support within the administration for more forceful action against extremists in the area since the attack on a gas field in eastern Algeria last month left 37 dead, including three Americans, and focused new concerns on terrorist activity in Africa.

Under one plan, information from American surveillance drones would be provided to Algerian forces to enable them to engage in operations both inside Algeria and possibly, in a limited way, across its borders. The United States is already providing surveillance information to the French-led military operation in Mali to help combat militants there who last year seized the northern half of the country.

In a cable to the State Department last week, according to administration officials, Henry S. Ensher, the United States envoy in Algiers, urged that the pursuit of the Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind of the gas field attack, be made a priority. Toward that end, he recommended that the Obama administration tell the Algerians that if they allowed the United States to fly unarmed drones over the border area of Algeria as well as over Mali, the Americans would share the information with the Algerian government.

There was broad agreement among policy makers and intelligence officials at a meeting of President Obama’s top national security deputies at the White House last week that Mr. Belmokhtar and members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb should be aggressively pursued, according to one senior American official who insisted on anonymity so he could discuss internal deliberations. But no decision appears to have been reached on whether to make a formal proposal to the Algerians.

The idea of taking stronger action in the region has been supported in recent months by Michael Sheehan, the senior counter-terrorism official at the Pentagon, and Daniel Benjamin, who until December was the senior State Department counter-terrorism official. In the past, State Department lawyers have questioned whether the military action approved by Congress against Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks authorized efforts to target extremists who were not clearly linked to the group. But according to some officials, those legal arguments have recently been overcome.

The United States has long sought Algeria’s cooperation in anti-terrorism efforts, and sharing information with a government that has jealously guarded its sovereignty would be a significant step toward that goal. During the siege of the gas plant at In Amenas, Algeria permitted the United States to fly a Predator surveillance drone over the complex, though it insisted that the drone be withdrawn after the assault was over.

Mr. Obama announced last week that about 100 American troops had arrived in Niger in West Africa, next to Mali, to set up a new drone base to conduct surveillance flights in the region.

American officials also sense a possible change of heart by Algerian officials to move away from their longstanding policy not to conduct military operations outside the nation’s borders. Algerian officials recently told the United States that they were prepared to conduct operations in border areas, one American official said.

Mr. Belmokhtar, 40 — sometimes known as “Laaouar,” or the one-eyed, after he lost an eye to shrapnel — was deemed to be a menace long before he drew international attention for last month’s attack. As the Algerians pressed their campaign against the militants, he took refuge in Mali, where he engaged in smuggling and kidnapped foreigners for ransom, including Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat and United Nations special envoy who was abducted in 2008.

By the spring of 2012, northern Mali had become a gathering place for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Other militant factions in northern Mali included Ansar al-Dine, a group largely made up of members of Mali’s nomadic Tuareg minority. Its leader, Iyad ag Ghali, has been officially designated as a global terrorist, the State Department announced Tuesday. The growing extremist presence in Mali became an increasing concern for Mr. Ensher as well as for Gen. Carter F. Ham, the head of the Africa Command, and counter-terrorism officials at the Pentagon and the State Department.

In late 2011, according to current and former administration officials, Mr. Ensher proposed that the United States share what limited intelligence it had on Mali with the Algerians to encourage them to act against Mr. Belmokhtar either directly or through their contacts with the Tuaregs in northern Mali. Mr. Ensher later expanded the idea to include sharing information from unarmed drone flights.

“We had an opportunity to prevent what’s been a continuing nuisance from becoming a threat to regional stability,” said a former senior administration official.

Some proponents of the plan thought that gaining Algerian cooperation on counter-terrorism might be problematic but figured the Algerians might come around if the United States was prepared to present a detailed proposal to share information.

“They need to take responsibility for their guys running amok in the areas,” one senior administration official said of the Algerians.

Even as the militant threat grew in northern Mali, however, there was debate within the Obama administration over how much weight to give to military initiatives in Africa and how best to forge a relationship on counter-terrorism with an Algerian government that has a track record of dealing sternly with militants.

Questions raised by the State Department’s legal office about targeting Mr. Belmokhtar presented another complication, as did the reluctance of the United States Central Command to shift drones that were being used in Yemen and Afghanistan.

With the administration preoccupied with other foreign policy crises and skeptics raising objections about the wisdom of opening a new counter-terrorism front, the proposal to fly drones and share the information was never formally approved for presentation to the Algerians.

“The question is always with partners, ‘What are they going to do with the information we give them and will they use it in ways that are acceptable?’ ” said the former senior administration official.

Last October, Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the secretary of state, visited Algeria to discuss ways to improve cooperation on counter-terrorism In December, Mr. Sheehan, Mr. Benjamin and William Burns, the deputy secretary of state, paid a follow-up visit. If the White House does decide that a new proposal to share drone information with the Algerians should be made, the use of a Predator during the hostage-taking episode in Algeria might serve as a precedent for further collaboration.

“MBM clearly has sought to raise his own profile in the context of various extremists,” said another senior administration official, using the American government’s shorthand for Mr. Belmokhtar. “He’s certainly somebody who is the subject of our attention now.”

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