The Mounties have landed in a tense political climate in Algeria to investigate claims that Canadian citizens were part of the terrorist group behind this month’s deadly hostage-taking.
Ottawa has sent a team of investigators to the North African country after days of diplomatic wrangling with Algiers over unproved claims that two Canadians were among the guerrillas with al-Qaeda links involved in the brazen attack against a Sahara gas plant.
Federal officials said that co-operation with Algerian authorities is improving, but that any publicity about the current operation could jeopardize this “delicate mission” to investigate the allegations that Canadian citizens were involved in the attack against the In Amenas complex.
RCMP officials are seeking any evidence, such as DNA or passport numbers, that could indicate a Canadian connection.
For this, the Mounties need the co-operation of their Algerian counterparts. Federal officials said relations between Canada and Algeria are on a stronger footing since early this week, when Ottawa complained of a lack of co-operation from authorities in Algiers.
“Canadian officials are on the ground in Algeria working with Algerian officials to get the necessary information,” Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, said on Thursday.
Mr. Roth refused to provide information on the federal agencies involved in the mission, citing the “ongoing operational matter.” Spokespersons for the RCMP are refusing comment, fearing that any remarks could compromise the operation.
On Monday, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said two Canadians were among those who took the hostages. Commandos raided the plant to end the standoff and at least 38 hostages died.
Algiers has released no proof of its claim.
Over the past decade, federal agents have wrestled with claims of Canadian al-Qaeda operatives being killed in Chechnya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia.
Some have proved true, although it has sometimes taken weeks or months to figure it out.
Foreign Affairs, the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service all play distinct roles when dispatched abroad for such investigations, according to Ray Boisvert, a CSIS executive who retired last year to start a consultancy called I-Sec Integrated Strategies.
The diplomats are always the lead Canadian officials given that they manage relationships with the host country, Mr. Boisvert said.
Canada’s spies play more of a “support role,” he said. They comb through files of known terrorist threats to Canada, or open doors for other federal agents in countries where security services are influential.
“In that part of the world, they only like dealing with intelligence services,” Mr. Boisvert said.
While it is not known whether CSIS has intelligence officers in Algeria, the RCMP has boots on the ground. The Mounties have forensic expertise and could analyze DNA and travel documents.
Canadian detectives were sent to the Sahara four years ago to open a criminal investigation against the very same group of terrorists, who are led by a one-eyed Algerian jihadist named Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
In 2008, the Belmokhtar crew abductedd two Canadian diplomats and held them for 130 days, asking for a multimillion-dollar ransom.
The hostages were released in mysterious circumstances and no charges were laid.
Ottawa denied having any role in a ransom. But U.S. State Department cables later revealed by WikiLeaks showed that Algerian, Libyan, and U.S. officials complained that a mysterious ransom payment strengthened the Belmokhtar faction. One U.S. envoy was quoted saying Canada caved in to the terrorists’ demands.
Canada has been falsely linked to terrorism, including the specious but often repeated claims that the Sept. 11, 2001, attackers entered the United States through Canada.
But Canada has also housed its share of would-be terrorists, including the so-called Millennium Bomber, Ahmed Ressam, a refugee from Algeria. Any proof of Canadian involvement in the Algerian hostage crisis would prompt a massive search for potential accomplices in Canada.