When President Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali decided, after much hesitation, to recognize the new government in Libya, he did so at the end of a visit to Algeria. I took the event as a symbol of Algeria’s potential political ascendance in the post-Qadhafi Sahel, and as another step in Algeria’s efforts to lead regional counterterrorism cooperation.
But there is another side to the relationship between Bamako and Algiers. Tensions surfaced in February 2010, when Mali freed several members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in exchange for the release of a French hostage. Algeria and Mauritania withdrew their ambassadors in protest against this approach.
This week, in another sign of tension, a Malian newspaper (l’Aube) cast doubt on Algeria’s role in anti-AQIM efforts. The article (French), provocatively titled, “Algeria, Fireman or Pyromaniac?” speculates that Algeria may be planning to manipulate Tuaregs and exploit the political vacuum left by Qadhafi as part of a design to dominate Mali and Niger. Relying on at least one unnamed (likely Malian) official, the article goes on to say that the security problems in north Mali and the Sahel result from Algeria’s lack of political will to solve them.
To my mind the relevance of this article does not lie in the truth or falsehood of these allegations, but in the existence of the allegations at all. That the allegations appear in one Malian newspaper does not mean that all Malian elites believe them, but it does point to a significant current of suspicion in Bamako regarding Algiers and its motives. That suspicion, if it turns out to be widespread, could be one of several stumbling blocks to greater cooperation in the Sahel.