DAKAR — Algeria is a key military power in the Sahel region and could play a decisive role in the outcome of the crisis in Mali, where al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants control the northern half of the country. Questions remain as to what exactly is Algeria's position in this crisis.
Mali has officially requested military assistance from West African regional bloc ECOWAS to help retake the country’s north, which fell to heavily-armed militant groups in April, shortly after a March 22 military coup in the capital, Bamako.
As ECOWAS defense chiefs work to finalize plans for regional intervention, other actors continue to call for a negotiated solution to the crisis.
Among those calling for talks is Algeria, Mali's neighbor to the north.
West Africa Director for the International Crisis Group Gilles Yabi says Algeria is hesitant to endorse fighting on its southern border for fear that it could destabilize its own territory.
Yabi says Algeria should clarify how serious a threat it believes armed groups in northern Mali pose to regional security. He says ECOWAS intervention at this time is unlikely to yield a durable solution, as armed groups might resort to reprisals and localized violence.
Algeria has been fighting al-Qaida's North Africa franchise, AQIM, for more than a decade. The movement, now active in northern Mali, is rooted in an Algerian Salafist movement called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a legacy of the Algerian civil war in the 1990s.
During previous periods of instability in northern Mali, Algeria helped negotiate peace agreements between the government in Bamako and armed rebel movements.
During the past decade, Algeria has sought to lead attempts at regional cooperation against criminal and terrorist activity in the region, in part, analysts say, to minimize Western military influence in the Sahel. These efforts included the creation of a four-country joint military command center in the Algerian city of Tamanrassat.
Africa analyst Alexis Arieff authored a recent report examining Algerian policy toward the Malian crisis for the Washington-based Congressional Research Service.
"Algeria has positioned itself as a regional leader in counter-terrorism," said Arieff. "It has attempted to marshal a collective regional response to cross-cutting security issues in the Sahel region. The states bordering Algeria's south, these are poorer, less militarily equipped, less militarily capable states that are nonetheless effected by terrorism and violent extremism. So Algeria has tried to convince the West and the Sahel region that a collective regional response is needed."
Algeria has kept a low profile with regards to the current situation in northern Mali. Aside from rejecting the idea of the creation of a new state in the occupied territory, Algeria has been unclear about what it views as an acceptable outcome.
Analysts told VOA Algeria's ambiguity should not be confused with inactivity or disinterest.
Its capital, Algiers, has hosted diplomatic envoys from nearly all key players, including Mali's transitional government, France and a delegation from Ansar Dine, one of three militant Islamist groups in control of northern Mali.
Another group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, emerged from AQIM last year. Though the group says it wants to spread jihad south of the Sahara, it has focused its attacks on Algeria. These attacks included the kidnapping of seven Algerian diplomats from a consulate in northern Mali in April.
The militants claim to have executed one of the diplomats in early September after Algeria refused a prisoner exchange, a decision that sparked a domestic debate concerning Algerian policy toward Mali.
Analyst Arieff says it is difficult to pin down what exactly that policy is, in part due to Algeria's opaque internal decision-making processes.
"There are a lot of different players," says Arieff. "A lot of decisions are made through a process that does not involve public discussion. There are, especially in the security realm, sometimes divergent interests among these different players, which might include at any given time, the Presidency, the military, the military intelligence apparatus, different ministries, and then of course the Algerian public, the Algerian legislature, local government entities ... and so it is not surprising that given that opacity and that complexity that Algeria's position towards Mali has at times seemed difficult to decipher."
ECOWAS has taken the lead, on behalf of the international community, in dealing with both Mali's post-coup political crisis and the militant occupation of the north, but its mediation has been controversial and some analysts question whether ECOWAS is the right organization for the task.
“ECOWAS is an imperfect framework because it does not include Algeria and Mauritania, the two most influential states in northern Mali," says Wolfram Lacher, a researcher focusing on security issues in the Sahel and the Sahara at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "And in fact, both Algeria and Mauritania have been opposed to the ECOWAS approach to the conflict in northern Mali, particularly the plans for military intervention, but also the mediating role of Burkinabe president Blaise Campaore.”
ECOWAS defense chiefs wrapped up a two-day summit on Mali on September 16 and said they would be “soliciting the support” of non-member states Algeria and Mauritania to “help facilitate the deployment of the ECOWAS Mission in Mali.”