algeria and mali crisis
the multifaceted crisis in Mali, which has effectively led to state collapse and split the country in two, has drawn international attention to Algeria’s role in the stability of the Sahel. One might expect Algeria, as the region’s preeminent military power, and one that has sought to position itself as a leader in counter-terrorism, to lead the international response to the growing chaos along its volatile southern border. Indeed, Algiers has hosted a parade of Western and regional leaders hoping for a white knight to face an increasingly disastrous-seeming situation. Yet the events in Mali have come at a time when Algeria’s leaders are distracted by narrow domestic interests, and by deep political changes in the Maghreb region that have left Algeria’s aging elite more isolated than ever. Algeria’s ambiguous stance in the face of a genuine regional crisis complicates the country’s self-projected image as a key regional player. Mali’s crisis (at least in the immediate, as its roots are far deeper) began in late 2011 as independence-seeking Tuareg insurgents, armed with weapons from Qadhafi’s arsenal, streamed home to Mali from Libya. The crisis escalated in March, when mid-ranking Malian soldiers, dismayed by repeated defeats and defections and by massive corruption at the senior command level, overthrew the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré. The Tuareg insurgency took advantage of the disorder to seize all the main towns in the north, and then fractured among rival factions. Of these, the autonomy-seeking National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which launched the fight, appears increasingly irrelevant, while the Islamist movement Ansar al Deen, which seeks to impose an extremist vision of sharia throughout Mali and has leveraged its ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), appears to enjoy the upper hand. The increasingly brazen presence of AQIM commanders in northern Malian cities, the brutal treatment of local populations by militant Islamists, and reports of foreign fighters flocking to the region have provoked concerns inthe region and in Western capitals that northern Mali could become a launching pad for transnational terrorist attacks. Some additionally fear that the ideology that ostensibly motivates Ansar al Deen and AQIM could gain currency beyond Mali’s borders. Meanwhile, Mali’s political class and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have struggled to reconstitute any semblance of an effective government in Bamako. Algeria has long positioned itself as a quiet mediator of conflicts in the impoverished Sahel, at times in apparent competition with the late, more flamboyant Qadhafi. Notably, Algeria mediated peace processes that brought an (albeit fragile) end to previous Tuareg uprisings in Mali in 1991-1995 and 2006-2009. Since the winding down of its own civil strife in the late 1990s, Algeria has also sought to marshal a coordinated regional response to cross-border terrorism, smuggling, and other armed group activity in the Sahel’s vast and under-policed border regions. The signature initiative of this effort is the “Tamanrasset Plan” agreed to in 2009 by Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania, which led the establishment, in 2010, of a joint military operations center (known as the CEMOC) in Tamanrasset (southern Algeria) and of a joint intelligence cell in Algiers. In 2011, Algeria offered a reported $10 million in development aid to Mali. Yet Algeria’s role in the Sahel and relationship with Mali are complex and fraught. Algerian-Malian counter-terrorism cooperation was particularly troubled under deposed President Touré. Algeria, with some justification, viewed Bamako as insufficiently committed to the fight against AQIM (even as AQIM commanders operated from Malian territory), incapable of protecting shared intelligence, and eager to facilitate prisoner release agreements and ransom payments to AQIM kidnappers.2 Western military and development aid, premised on Mali’s identity as a frontline state in counter-terrorism, may also have fueled corruption within the armed forces, although a precise picture is lacking.3 Malian officials often countered, off the record, that AQIM, an Algerian-led group, was Algeria’s responsibility, and criticized Algeria for allegedly being unwilling, despite Bamako’s permission, to use its superior forces to pursue AQIM cells when they crossed the border into Mali. Some further (and vaguely) accused Algeria, or elements of the Algerian security services, of leveraging control over military operations and influence within Tuareg communities to profit from lucrative Sahel smuggling operations, and of seeking to dominate zones of the Sahel that may hold lucrative natural gas or mineral reserves. As in Algerian opposition circles, some actors in Bamako suspect Algerian intelligence and/or security services of covertly aiding or abetting AQIM in order to bolster their domestic and regional position. Indications that the 2011 appointment of Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga as Mali’s foreign minister would ease bilateral relations remain untested due to the 2012 coup, which overthrew Maïga along with the rest of the Malian cabinet.
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