SITREP | Algeria and The Mali Crisis
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SITREP | Algeria and The Mali Crisis

By Laurence Aïda Ammour

The attack against a Saharan strategic industrial plant by the Mokhtar Belmokhtar katiba (combat unit)13 on 16 January 2013, represented not only another strategic surprise but also a tipping point for the Algerian government, since it dragged Algeria straight into the Sahelian crisis.

The attack against the Tiguentourine gas plant

Image Attribute: The attack against the Tiguentourine gas plant on Januaary 16. 2013

Algeria has long positioned itself as a traditional mediator of conflicts in the Sahel, at times in apparent competition with Gaddhafi. Algeria mediated peace processes that brought a precarious end to previous Tuareg uprisings in Mali in 1991–1995 and 2006. Indeed, the Algerian treatment of the Tuareg issue was always motivated by the fear of contagion among Algerian Tuaregs and by the desire to contain Libya or any other neighboring state’s influence. Algeria knows what is expected on it in this crisis, given its status as the regional military power, its influence in the far northern part of Mali (Kidal), as intermediary in previous crises in northern Mali, and as the original home of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).[1]

Algeria also attempted to utilize this influential role to convince Tuaregs to fight against the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) groups in the Sahel. Many former Malian Tuareg rebels offered their services and join the specialized unit settled after the 2006 “Tamanrasset Accords” (Accords de Tamanrasset) signed under the auspices of Algiers, which were supposed to maintain security in northern Mali.

After condemning the military coup in Bamako in March 2012, Algeria opted for a low profile, and the government remained silent in the following months, issuing occasional statements of concern about Mali’s growing instability. This relative absence from the international policy response was first interpreted as a cautious position related to the 2012 April abduction of seven Algerian diplomats in the Malian city of Gao by the radical group Movement of Uniqueness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Algiers’ wait-and-see attitude can also be attributed to political internal preoccupation with domestic affairs and the internal competition within the elite over the upcoming 2014 presidential elections.[2] It would seem that Algeria has been waiting to see how the regional situation plays out before making any decision and thus leaving the risks of resolving the crisis to others.

Algiers’ opposition to participation in a regional intervention force is formally expressed in a constitutional article which forbids its forces from taking part in military action outside its own territory. Algeria has been continually invoking this constitutional principle, thus justifying why its forces have not crossed into Mali to eradicate AQIM, even when invited to do so by its Sahelian neighbours, particularly by Niger. Yet the Algerialed CEMOC (Joint Military Chief-of-staff Committee) was created in 2010 for precisely this purpose. However, on 20 December 2011, a few weeks before the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) proclaimed the independence of Azawad, Algerian army forces crossed into Mali. This move occurred exactly five days before Iyad ag Ghaly announced the creation of a new jihadist group called Ansar al-Dine (defenders of the faith) in Northern Mali. The question then is why Algeria had some forces entered in Mali if Algeria is so keen not to intervene militarily on foreign soil? It is not clear what kind of forces were sent, but according to the official Algerian statements, Malian military elements were reported to be training with Algerian military counterparts in Kidal Region. Algeria withdrew its so-called military advisors from Mali and cut off military assistance at the end of 2011 when the conflict was clearly about to begin (Keenan 2012).

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In the summer 2012 context of entrenchment of radical groups in northern Mali with uncertain implications, Algeria has first maintained contacts with a wide range of actors, and seemed to be prioritizing access to information and influence over a clearly formulated strategy. On the international front, the situation was immensely embarrassing for Algeria who was accused of passivity and perceived it had little choice, but to try and negotiate a deal with all Tuareg rebels in order to calm down a potentially explosive situation.

The Mali dossier (as well as the Western Sahara one) has always been led by the Algerian intelligence services, the Département de la Sécurité et du Renseignement (DRS) (Ammour 2013). Convinced that it should hold the monopoly of mediation with regards to the northern Mali crisis, Algeria’s attitude was no longer necessarily to wait and see: Algeria has expressed its preference for a political solution in Mali.[3] ECOWAS and Mali transitional authorities were wondering how Algiers could contribute to a negotiation process with the armed groups, particularly Ansar al-Dine, whose head Iyad Ag Ghali is well known in Algeria. He is among those leaders of the Tuareg rebellion working closely with the DRS.[4]

He came to prominence in 1988 when he founded a Tuareg secessionist movement in northern Mali. Moreover, he was the main leader of the Tuareg rebellion that began in 1990 and ended with the peace ceremony at Timbuktu in 1996. During that period, Iyad came under the eye of the DRS who were concerned that the rebellion might spread into Algeria. His first involvement with the GSPC/AQIM was in 2003 when he facilitated the liberation of the 14 out of 32 hostages abducted in the Algerian Sahara by Abderrazak Lamari (a.k.a El Para), a former Algerian parachutist to be said a DRS agent.[5] As a local notable, Iyad ag-Ghaly recycled himself in the hostage liberation business, taking large percentages of the ransoms, and playing all sides of the table.

That may explain the off-the-record set of talks Algiers led along the 2012 summer. In July, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika discretly received envoys from Ansar al-Dine, MNLA, and even from MUJWA (the kidnapper of algerian diplomats in Gao). Few days after, the MNLA publicly excluded the mediation of Algiers and accused the algerian government of expelling the injured Tuaregs who are seeking a shelter in southern Algeria, and of infiltrating the MNLA with agents from the DRS. The Algerian authorities never officially acknowledged that meeting took place. In October 2012, another secret delegation of Ansar al-Dine visited Algiers. The same month the Algerian government sent a humanitarian convoy and three military vehicles to Kidal, under the control of Ansar al-Dine. Another Algerian convoy reached Gao under the control of MUJWA. In both cases, Islamist organizations were in charge of distributing the food to local populations. The same month, French intelligence services assessed that Iyad Ag Ghali received a medical treatment in Aïn-Naadja military hospital in Algiers, thus confirming that the Islamist leader is at home in Algeria.

It seemed then more profitable for Algiers to portray the MNLA as a destabilizing force, but one which was unable to found a State according the sacrosanct principle of self-determination. Algiers had more interest in dealing and negotiating with a familiar interlocutor, who would be easier to manage (to manipulate), whom ideological principles fluctuate, and whose interests might be limited to a consistent financial gain. Thanks to Algiers, Iyad ag-Ghaly was imposed as an unavoidable interlocutor in the regional conflict exit strategy plan, to such an extent that even the ECOWAS representative eventually held talks with him in Ouagadougou in November 2012. But even if Iyad ag-Ghaly announced he had given up implementing Sharia law throughout Mali (but in Kidal), some Malian and Western observers would still have been suspicious of such sudden reversal.

The longstanding ties between the DRS and some key-individuals of Ansar al-Dine, the blood ties between Iyad ag Ghaly and Abdelkrim al-Targui who leads the AQIMkatiba al-Ansar, and the presence of Ansar alDine men in southern Algeria’s supply base and base camp, demonstrated that Algeria was apparently monitoring the Mali crisis dossier through the use of personal contacts.[5] Keen to avoid criticism related to this connection, Algiers would later on refuse the egalization of a Salafi party in Algeria (the Front of the Free Awakening). Paradoxically, however, Algiers still permitted a Malian Salafist to build up his credibility among other protagonists of the peace process.
At first, Algeria’s stance on the Mali crisis appeared to echo a greater number of stakeholders: the UN Secretary General’s report dated 29 November 2012, for instance, urged caution and dialogue. On the other hand, West African officials condemned the UN for being “out of touch” over its lack of urgency in taking action in Mali, and were pushing the Mali government to cut an autonomy deal with Tuaregs in exchange for their joining the fight against al-Qaeda.

It seemed then that Algeria succeeded in finding out an opportunity to regain its traditional role as regional power-broker and mediator in any Tuareg conflict. By using Ansar al-Dine as a proxy in northern Mali, Algeria could pretend to provide an apparent peacemaker foreign policy, and retrieve a consistent leadership after decades of diplomatic decline. However, further serious setbacks came to contradict the Algerian strategy and prove that it was far from being wise in dealing with such a complex interlacing context.

First, on the ground, the jihadist groups have strengthened their hold on the northern part of Mali and were preparing themselves for the possible military confrontation with the African forces. On November 28, 2012, AQIM announced the creation of a 6th brigade called “Youssef ben Tachfine”, made up mainly of Tuaregs residing in northern Mali. It was headed by El Kairuani Abu Abdelhamid al-Kidali (“from Kidal”), a local Tuareg member of the group’s al-Ansar brigade, whose leader is Abdelkrim al-Targui, the cousin of Iyad ag-Ghaly. Such a new ethnic distribution system was the result of growing resentment by non-Algerians after they were denied leadership positions. It was also an alarming sign that locally-rooted djihadist katibas had consolidated prior to the French military intervention in January 2013. More over, at that time, concerns were raised about the extension of jihadism in West Africa by Oumar Ould Hamaha, a former associate of Mokhtar Belmoktar, then head of MUJWA in Gao, and future leader of Ansar al-Sharia.[6] Hamaha declared: “We want to enlarge our zone of operation throughout the entire Sahara, going from Niger through to Chad and Burkina Faso” (Joscelyn 2013).

Second, Iyad ag-Ghaly’s apparent negotiations’ agenda revealed other hidden political ambitions, related to his coordinating projects with AQIM: just after the signature of an agreement with the MNLA under Algiers’ auspices (21 December 2012), Iyad-ag-Ghaly broke off the accord at the end of December, and took the lead of the Islamists offensive towards southern Mali cities (Konna and Dyabali). The confidential letter from Abdelmalek Droukdel (head of the AQIM northern Algeria katiba) to the islamists leaders in northern Mali found out in Timbuktu in February 2013, proves that a real synchronisation between AQIM and Ansar al-Dine did exist, and that the gathering of all the radical forces was part of a long-term strategy of entrenchement in the Azawad region:

“We must not go too far or take risks in our decisions or imagine that this project is a stable Islamic state. It is too early for that, God knows. Instead, it is necessary to be cautious in the matter and we must be more realistic and look at it from a broader and more complete perspective to see a historic opportunity that must be exploited to interact with the Azawad people, including all its sectors, with the aim of uniting it and rallying it behind our Islamic project, by adopting its just cause and achieving its legitimate goals, while giving it an authentic Islamist tinge. … That demands of us to establish a new framework regulating the organizational relationship with Ansar Dine and defining the nature of the appropriate activities, in a way that combines the continuation of our global jihadi project and the preserving of the Azawad Islamic project, while developing it and avoiding its failure. …. As for internal activity, in this we would be under the emirate of Ansar Dine. Our emir would follow their emir and our opinion would follow their opinion. By internal activity, we mean all activity connected to participating in bearing the responsibilities of the liberated areas.”.[7]

Third, on 30 September 2012, the US Africa Command chief, General Carter F. Ham, clearly aligned his view with the political solution route favored by the Algerian government saying “One of the key aspects of seeking a resolution to the security challenges in northern Mali will be to separate terrorist organizations from non-terrorist organizations”. This US alignment with Algerian stance is to be understood in the light of the strong partnership that emerged after 9/11 when Algeria needed to be firmly integrated into the new dynamic and the NorthSouth security system in order to retrieve a place on the international scene after almost ten years of isolation due to the civil war. By joining the “Global War on Terrorism” the Algerian government found the opportunity to regain its international legitimacy and transform its foreign policy into a new source of legitimacy for its domestic policy. The strengthening of ties with Washington resulted in a flurry of visits to Algiers by American officials and regular invitations to the White House for Algerian ministers and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. On the security level, there has been an increase in the number of joint operations and initiatives. The FBI has opened a field office in Algiers, Algerian officers have been trained in the United States, and there has been a series of joint intelligence missions between highranking DRS officers and their American counterparts. The two countries have therefore established relations that are primarily focused on the security issue, with Washing- ton formulating and determining the principles, methods, and strategies.

On February 2013, the US State Department designated Iyad ag-Ghaly as a wanted terrorist (US Department of State 2013). One month later, Ansar al-Dine, was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department, because of its close cooperation with al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa. This move not only shows the contradictions and the incoherencies of the US administration policy, but points out the difficulties Washington D. C. has had in understanding the complexity of the Malian situation from the start.

The decision to designate Iyad ag-Ghaly and its organization as terrorist may have been interpreted as a move to distance itself from the Algerian government strategy of compromise, and be seen as an implicit disavowal of Algiers’ short-term vision. It remains to be seen if the Algerian authorities will draw the lessons of their rapprochement with a Salafist organisation, even if it is a Tuareg one.

About The Author:

Laurence Aïda Ammour, Bordeaux Institute for Political Science (France), Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (Spain), GéopoliSudconsultance (France).


[1] The Kidal region (Adrar of Ifoghas mountains) where most of the leaders of the MNLA, the MIA (Movement of Islamic Azawad, a splinter group from Ansar al-Dine created in January 2013), and Ansar al-Dine come from, is locally renowned to be the influence zone of Algeria where cross border trafficking of food, oil, and various licit goods has been common practice since the 1960s. The Algerian subsidised foodstuffs sold illicitly in north Mali have created a shadow economy that allows the poor region of Kidal to maintain a degree of food security. Even the Malian President Amadou Amani Touré admitted this to be the case in 2009 by saying Northern Mali is Algeria’s 49th province. See Ammour 2012.

[2] Today opacity within the regime has worsened after the President’s stroke and his hospitalization in Paris in April. Despite promises to step down from power, internal speculations over the future power struggles over an eventual fourth term in the next presidential election have heightened concerns about the stability of the country.

[3] A position reiterated five months later (Le Soir d’Algérie 2012; Yacoub H 2012, La Tribune).

[4] After the French military intervention in Mali, three leaders of Ansar al-Dine found shelter in Tamanrasset after some negotiations with the DRS. (Boufatah 2013). On the links between Iyad ag-Ghaly and the DRS see (Keenan 2013). See also (Nossiter A, MacFarquhar N 2013).

[5] His real name is Amari Saifi. He joined the armed Islamist movement in 1992 and later on became the second-in-command of the GSPC. He came to prominence through the kidnapping of 32 tourists in the Sahara. After the release of the hostages he flew to northern Chad where he was captured by a rebel Chadian group. Today he is believed to be imprisoned in Algeria. An investigation led by Salima Mellah et Jean-Baptiste Rivoire asserts that Saifi was in fact a DRS agent. See their article from 2005. See also Keenan 2009.

[6] Not only Iyad ag-Ghaly, but also Ahmada Ag-Bibi, a.k.a. “the man of Algiers” who lives in Tamanrasset and was in charge of the food supplying of Ansar al-Dine; Senda Ould Bouamama, former right-hand of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was the leader of Ansar al-Dine in Timbuktu (in May 2013 he surrendered to the Mauritanian authorities); Deity Ag-Sidamou, who was based in southern Algeria where he managed the gas supplying for Ansar al-Dine through his own local illicit networks; and finally Nabil Jazaïri (The Algerian), who previously served in the Algerian army, and was chief of the Kidal area and in charge of the training camps of Ansar al-Dine.

[5] He is known as the man with the red beard. He was one of the most active founders of MUJWA and was responsible for the kidnapping of three humanitarian workers in the Rabouni-Tindouf Sahrawi refugees camp (Algeria) in 2011. Early December 2012, he created a new armed movement, Ansar al-Sharia, mainly composed of Azawad Arabs and Berabish (like him) from Timbuktu. He is also the brother in law of Mokhtar Belmokhtar. He is said to have been killed in March 2013 by Arabs of the Kunta tribe in the Gao region.

[7] This letter has been translated in English by the Associated Press. Only three out of six chapters are readable. The other chapters are missing. It has been written after a meeting on 18 March 2012 between A. Droukdel and five Sahelian commanders. See Associated Press 2013. Another 79 page-document written by Abdelmalek Droukdel, entitled “Roadmap relating to Islamic Jihad in Azawad” was discovered in a television station in Timbuktu by a French journalist of Libération. It has not yet been translated.

Cite This Article: 

Ammour, L A 2013 Algeria’s Role in the Sahelian Security Crisis. Stability: International Journal of Security & Development, 2(2): 28, pp. 1-11, DOI:

This article is an excerpt from a research paper, titled "Algeria’s Role in the Sahelian Security Crisis" published at International Journal of Security & Development under Creative Commons License 3.0

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