The arrest of Malian Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra early Tuesday inevitably will disrupt planning for a foreign military intervention aimed at dislodging al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb from northern Mali. The diverse national security interests of the main foreign stakeholders in such an intervention — Algeria, the United States and France — already meant any move to dislodge the jihadists who control much of the West African nation was on hold. While there is widespread agreement that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb control of northern Mali must be challenged, the consensus ends there.
The ruling Malian junta, comprised largely of junior officers who rebelled against their senior commanders and overthrew their civilian bosses in March, feared a potential challenge from units of the Malian army in line to receive European military assistance for the northern offensive. The junta would rather al Qaeda continue to occupy northern Mali than see Western military cooperation empower the Malian military. The arrest of Diarra, revealing the degree of junta control behind the scenes of Mali's national unity government, puts brakes on official military cooperation by Western countries, which do not want to be seen as endorsing undemocratic behavior.
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Of the three foreign countries most concerned with events in Mali, the strongest opposition has come from Algeria, the most stable North African country. Algeria easily weathered the Arab Spring, which caused serious disruptions in its neighbors, thanks in large part to Algeria's significant natural resource wealth and its robust internal security force. Algiers wants to seize on this opportunity to entrench itself as the dominant power in North Africa, but fears an offensive against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali could knock it off kilter.
The leadership of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is virtually all Algerian. The group emerged from Algerian Islamist militant organizations like the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, and before it, the Groupe Islamique Armee. Both al Qaeda predecessors fought extensive guerilla-style campaigns against the Algerian state in the 1990s, and Algiers' fierce counterinsurgency made it a near-pariah state. Throwing a military coup to overturn the 1991 election of the Islamic Salvation Front did not help Algeria's international standing.
The fighting ended after Algiers reached a tenuous understanding with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In exchange for not conducting any significant terrorist attacks — though occasional skirmishes did occur — in Algeria from its leadership base in the Kabylie Mountains of northeastern Algeria, the militant group effectively was granted safe passage to relocate its manpower to the Sahel region in Mali. From there, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb can finance itself through the smuggling of illegal drugs, other goods and human trafficking, with proceeds likely shared with Algerian security officials.
Algeria fears that the militants will decline combat with Western-backed military forces in favor of seeking safe havens, with none more familiar than its home base outside Algiers, destabilizing Algeria's relative order. From there, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb could mount a reprisal campaign — especially against Algerian energy targets — for its loss of Malian territory. Until any planned intervention includes sufficient constraints to prevent the militants from returning to Algeria, Algiers will try to block any intervention, sacrificing the failed state of Mali for Algerian security.
The United States shares Algeria's desire to prevent a militant spillover in the region, but only to an extent. The difference is that the United States fears broader regional destabilization; it faces no direct threat from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Washington has little personnel and few interests in this part of Africa, where the main U.S. goal is denying transnational militants space to train and operate. The United States would like to respond to the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya by al Qaeda affiliates in Benghazi, but it will not support an intervention in Mali that only drives the militants to other countries in the region like Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Nigeria and Niger.
In contrast to Algeria and the United States, France has been the most forceful proponent of an immediate military intervention in Mali. This is because of long-standing French economic and political interests throughout the Sahel, an area once colonized by France, making France the foreign country most directly exposed to potential militant attacks. Defeating the militants would safeguard everything from French-operated uranium mines in far-flung parts of Niger to Paris-friendly governments throughout the region. It would also prevent alienated French nationals of North African extraction from seeking training in Mali's militant havens.