Al Qaeda leaders discussed a plan in 2010 to arrange a peace deal with the government of Mauritania, according to documents seized by U.S. Navy Seals when they raided Osama bin Laden's Pakistani hideout in 2011 and made public by the U.S. government on Tuesday.
The plan suggested that al Qaeda's North African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), would promise "not to carry out any military activity in Mauritania", initially for a year, with the possibility of renewal.
In return, the proposal says, Mauritanian authorities would release all al Qaeda prisoners, commit not to attack AQIM, and pay it 10 to 20 million euros ($11 million-$22 million) a year to "prevent the kidnapping of tourists".
Senior U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the documents said they had no evidence that any such deal was ever done, or that the militant group had contacted anyone in Mauritania to make the proposal.
El Housseine Ould Nagi, legal counsel to Mauritania's president, denied that his government had had anything to do with such a deal.
"We have always been against paying ransoms and indirect financing of terrorism. Consequently, there has never been a secret accord between us and those people," he said.
Unlike its neighbors Mali and Algeria, Mauritania has enjoyed relative freedom from AQIM attacks in past years, especially since 2011. It has also faced international criticism for freeing jihadist prisoners, such as a former spokesman for the AQIM-linked group Ansar Dine. Others have escaped in opaque circumstances.
However, Mauritania also hosts a regional security body known as the Group of Five Sahel and is working with Western allies France and the United States to counter a growing Islamist insurgency in the region.
Olga Bogorad, an independent security analyst specializing in Islamist groups, said it was possible that Mauritania was playing a double game:
"On one side, it has a deal with AQIM and enjoys no terror attacks on its soil ... and on the other, it participates in counter-terrorism efforts to avoid criticism and probably to get support."
AQIM, a spinoff of what was originally an Algerian-based Salafist militant group, made its first public appearance in January 2007 and rose to prominence mainly through its involvement in kidnapping Westerners for ransom in countries in the Sahel region including Mauritania, Niger and Mali.
In July 2012, the head of the U.S. military's Africa Command described AQIM as al Qaeda's wealthiest affiliate.
The al Qaeda document also says that a "truce" with Mauritania would allow AQIM to "put the cadres in safe rear bases" that it said would be available there while enabling the group to focus on Algeria.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington, additional reporting by Kissima Diagana in Nouakchott and Emma Farge in Dakar; Editing by Kevin Liffey)