Chapter 3
A playing field for foreign powers

While Mali has long been considered as a relative ‘no interest’ zone by the international community (because of its apparent democratic normality and the absence of strategic resources), other African countries, such as Libya and Algeria, have made this country, and the northern regions in particular, central to their Sahel leadership strategies. The inability of the Malian government to assert its political and military presence in the northern areas has greatly facilitated those foreign interferences. Amadou Toumani Touré’s voluntary relinquishment of state sovereignty in some northern areas exacerbated that sense of impunity. At the same time, fragmentation between northern communities has provided Mali’s neighbours with the ideal levers to establish their presence and/or their leadership in the region. For security, political or economic reasons, other countries in the region have used this area for their own gains, and thereby directly contributed to local instability and national tensions between north and south.

On the international side, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the growing number of kidnappings of Westerners in the country since 2003 have progressively made the country a central point of implementation for new security doctrines. The United States and France, for instance, decided to significantly augment their security and military programmes in the region. Despite growing suspicion regarding collusion between the Malian regime, trafficking groups and bandits in the north, Bamako’s authorities remain one of the main beneficiaries of foreign aid in the Sahel. However, by deliberately emphasising security issues and, as a consequence, setting aside other issues such as development or historical distrust between north and south, international programmes have fed the resentment between Malian communities.

This chapter addresses the roots of northern Mali’s attraction to other regional powers and the consequences of foreign interests on local dynamics and national unity. It also details the security programmes that have been implemented in the region since the early 2000s and the lack of national ownership that have fostered tensions and precipitated the 2012 breakdown.

Regional interference based on geopolitical interest: Libya and Algeria

Since the 1960s, Tuareg rebellions and the gradual withdrawal of the Malian military from the north of Mali have fostered insecurity at national and regional levels. These armed struggles have created a ‘political economy of violence’[80] in northern border areas – and economy based on arms, human and drug trafficking, which has fed criminal and terrorist networks while corrupting political actors.

Regional neighbours have played a part in the implementation of this paradigm. While one would expect regional partners to try to diffuse the situation, evidence shows that some of them have taken advantage of insecurity in northern Mali to advance their own geopolitical interests.

Over the years, the north of Mali has became an area of strategic, economic and security interest for several regional powers, especially Libya and Algeria and, to a lesser extent, Morocco. While the influence of Morocco in northern Mali should not be downplayed,[81] Libya and Algeria have been the most active players in the region over the past 30 years.

Libya increased its mediation and support for insurgencies in the region in order to extend its political (and ideological) control over Tuareg communities. Algeria mainly used northern Mali to export its internal security threats and to militarily secure its own territory. These two strategies have had deep effects on the already fragile equilibrium of northern post-colonial Mali.

Libya in Mali: support to rebels and patronage

The Libya of Colonel Qaddafi was involved in northern Mali as part of its greater ambition to control the Sahel. Animated by his desire to unify African countries around the Jamahiriya, Qaddafi set up the League of Grand Sahara Tribes project, which attracted the support of Tuareg communities eager to emancipate themselves from the control of the Malian state.[82] In the same vein, Qaddafi actively participated in the creation of the CEN-SAD (Community of Sahel-Saharan States) in 1998. Initially comprising Libya, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, it expanded to finally encompass 28 states in 2008 and even stretched beyond the Sahel-Saharan zone. CEN-SAD, however, always excluded Algeria. Over the years, Qaddafi used the enormous resources provided by Libyan oil to financially, militarily and politically support African rebellions, using them against his neighbours. Northern Mali was no exception to this strategy, as Muammar Qaddafi continuously alternated between supporting the Tuareg in their rebellious aspirations and mediating in the aftermath of uprisings.[83]

The support Qaddafi gave to the Malian Tuareg (and the economic opportunities Libya provided to Malian economic refugees in the 1970s and 1980s) enabled him to recruit them into his Islamic Legion. This ‘integration policy’ was beneficial to both parties. On one hand, it allowed Qaddafi to build lasting allegiances with local populations in northern Mali while increasing his military power. The Tuaregs recruited into the Libyan army ‘special units’ were used by Qaddafi for his military projects (the war in Chad and Lebanon during the 1980s for instance). On the other hand, the recruited Tuareg soldiers hoped that the Libyan leader would financially and logistically back them once they were home again and making plans to rebel against the Malian government. However, this never materialised and the several Tuareg uprisings in Mali were launched with military equipment patiently gathered by the rebels rather than graciously provided by Qaddafi.[84] The fall of his regime played a decisive role in the uprising in northern Mali.

For the Malian government, Libyan patronage presented an alternative to costly investments and somehow responded to consent-based sovereignty-sharing.[85] The Libya of Muammar Qaddafi not only played a stabilising (and destabilising) political role with regard to the Tuareg rebellions, proposing mediation and sponsoring peace agreements (by, for instance, moving Tuareg rebel leaders out of northern Mali), it also greatly contributed to the Malian economy as assistance from Tripoli helped develop several economic sectors. Qaddafi paid for the construction of mosques, set up the Malian national television network in the 1980s, and financed the Malian government complex.[86] Those investments gained him support from the Malian government and some sectors of the population.[87]

Libyan investments in Mali were accompanied by a significant flow of economic migrants in the opposite direction. Since the droughts of the 1970s, the gradual collapse of the pastoral economy, and the political isolation of northern populations, generations of young people in search of employment have taken the route to Libya.[88] There, these ishumars (derivative of the term chômeurs, or unemployed) engaged in trans-border activities, ranging from seasonal employment to informal or criminal trafficking. Those economic opportunities allowed northern Mali to survive difficulties ‘through the financial and material flux allowed by the Libyan leader’.[89] It was also in Libya that the ishumar protest culture was developed, infusing and unifying rebel Tuareg projects in the 1990s.[90]

When Qaddafi’s regime collapsed in 2011, Mali was deprived of one of its main political brokers and economic benefactors. Together with the heavy weapons that accompanied returning well-equipped and well-trained Tuareg ‘vigilantes’ of the Islamic Legion, this development precipitated the outbreak of the 2012 crisis.

But Libya was not the only country trying to impose its regional hegemony through northern Mali. Algeria, seeing the northern regions of Mali as its own backyard, regularly intervened in the internal affairs of its southern neighbour.

Algeria’s natural backyard

Despite considering itself as the champion of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism because of its constitutional doctrine of non-interference, Algeria never refrained from being involved in Malian affairs. The continuous rebellions in northern Mali actually offered Algiers the opportunity to establish itself as a responsible regional actor, as showcased by its many mediations between Bamako and the Tuareg rebels (Tamanrasset agreements in 1991, mediation in 1992, Algiers agreements in 2006 and also in 2015).

The diplomatic role Algiers wanted to play in order to assert its regional leadership also encouraged a strong mobilisation in the global fight against terrorism. Since its own civil war in the 1990s, Algeria has engaged in a ferocious counter-terrorist enterprise against domestic terrorist groups. This has not always been a success, as the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) and the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) managed to make terrorist attacks against government targets on numerous occasions.[91] This led the Algerian government to intensify its efforts and launch a repression and infiltration programme. That policy proved to be successful as it reduced the level of violence within Algeria and created tensions within the GSPC.[92] The consequence of this success was a displacement of the terrorist threat to peripheral deserted areas, such as northern Mali.[93] From there, the organisation began to operate in the Sahel region, making a living out of hostage-taking (mainly Western hostages) and trafficking.

The expansion of GSPC activities to sub-Saharan countries, with no comparable military capabilities (Mali, Niger, Mauritania), had deep destabilising effects. The allegiance of the GSPC to Al Qaeda in 2007 and its change of name to AQIM, increased the terrorist threat, as the organisation was now backed by a major terrorist network.

Moreover, Algeria’s ambiguous posture in the region also had negative consequences on the stability of the Sahel. First, Algiers tried to set up a coordinated regional response to cross-border terrorism. This was highlighted by the signing of the Tamanrasset Plan in 2009 by Mali, Niger, Algeria and Mauritania, which led to the creation, in 2010, of a Comité d’Etat-Major Opérationnel Coinjoint in Tamanrasset (CEMOC – a joint military operations centre) and of a joint intelligence cell in Algiers (UFL). The effectiveness of CEMOC and the joint intelligence centre have been regularly questioned by some who argue that the arrangement was designed ‘in part, to ward off Western military intervention in response to terrorist and criminal threats in the region’.[94] Any external military intervention is seen by Algeria as a direct affront to its national sovereignty. Whether these assertions are accurate or not, Mali has directly suffered from the intensification of Algeria’s domestic fight against terrorism.

Second, Algeria’s counter-terrorism cooperation with regional countries, and especially with Mali, has remained limited and dependent on its own interests. Algiers, indeed, considered Bamako to be insufficiently committed to the fight against AQIM, too eager to facilitate the liberation of terrorist prisoners, and too quick to pay ransoms for Western hostages.[95] Bamako, contrastingly, viewed Algiers as being unwilling to use its military superiority to capture AQIM cells that crossed Malian borders, despite the droit de poursuite conferred by Malian authorities.[96] Some international observers even accused Algerian elements from the Departement du renseignement et de la sécurité (DRS) of ‘leveraging control over military operations and influence within Tuareg communities to profit from lucrative Sahel smuggling operations’.[97] Others argued that Algeria sought to dominate parts of the Sahel that could hold gas or mineral reserves.[98]

The permanence of a terrorist threat in the Sahel and the de facto inability of countries in the region to address instability have encouraged other international partners, especially France and the US, to implement their own security strategies. However, rather than focusing on the root causes of insecurity and addressing economic tensions and political frustrations, the approach of the international community has indirectly contributed to a worsening of the situation. Mainly focused on fighting terrorist groups and traffickers, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, international partners have neglected other aspects that could have prevented the insecurity from growing, for example supporting local economic development and involving Malian actors in order to create stability.

The security focus of the international community

The 9/11 terrorist attacks, the growing influence of the GSPC in northern Mali and the spread of a terrorist threat at the gates of Europe have contributed to decisive international engagement in the Sahel. The kidnappings of Westerners in 2003 highlighted the human costs and the potential economic consequences (supply of raw materials, especially uranium in Niger) of instability in the Sahel, and, therefore, encouraged unprecedented actions.

This section focuses on international programmes that have been implemented to fight terrorism and reduce insecurity in the Sahel. It evaluates their effects in the light of a negative Malian security assessment that culminated in the 2012 crisis.

The Sahel: from a terra nullius to a hotspot in the ‘arc of crisis’

While the assessment of the global weakness of West African states (instability, porous borders, corruption) should have encouraged international partners to implement a comprehensive approach covering security and development issues, the US and France decided to pressure local countries mainly on matters of security. This military focus set aside a range of issues considered to be secondary, such as economic development, infrastructure investment or enhancement of the political representation of northern populations. International security incentives have, indeed, led to exclusively military-oriented programmes that, in some specific cases, bypassed national sovereignty. These included foreign intelligence and special forces acting in deserted areas of the Sahel.

Al Qaeda terrorist attacks in Western and African countries have made the Sahel a growing point of interest in terms of international security. West African states, especially Niger (which has been accused of selling uranium to Iraq) and Mali, decided to prevent criticisms and appear as resolute partners in the ‘global war on terror’. One month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Malian authorities decided to expel 50 Pakistani preachers from Bamako. In northern Mali, worshipers from the Pakistani proselytising organisation Jama’at al Tabligh, especially Tuareg Ifoghas, were closely watched by Malian intelligence for their alleged connections with radical Islamic networks.

Between 2001 and the 2012 crisis, the international community initiated several security programmes and allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to the fight against terrorism, whether through intelligence, special forces, military training or equipment. Those unprecedented efforts proved unable to reverse the constant deterioration in regional security, especially since February 2003 when 32 Westerners were kidnapped (seized in Algeria and detained in Mali). That event confirmed the existence of a terrorist threat in the Sahel, and stimulated a global effort to address security issues in the region.

International plans to fight terrorism in northern Mali

In 2002, the United States Pan-Sahel Initiative was launched to address security and terrorist issues in the Sahel and help countries to ensure their own stability. Starting with $7 million and a limited focus on Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad, the US initiative progressively expanded and became, first in 2004, the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI, with a $500 million budget over six years) and then, in 2005, the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP, four-year budget of $288 million). The US programmes involved several components, including political (led by the Department of State), economic (USAID) and military actions (‘Enduring Freedom’ AFRICOM operation).

Map 5
International security responses
Regional security responses

Source : OECD Sahara-Sahel Atlas 2014

In 2008, France decided to launch its Plan Sahel in Mali, Niger and Mauritania, to fight terrorism and assist local development programmes. It allocated €58 million to the programme, which has now been extended to others countries in the Sahel with the goal of enhancing security coverage. The Plan Sahel was coupled with a quick reaction force (Operation Sabre) and a permanent military presence in Dakar (Sénégal) and Libreville (Gabon). The Plan Sahel inspired other initiatives, especially from the European Union with the launch in 2011 of the Strategy for Security and Development (€600 million for good governance, development and conflict prevention programmes).

The French and US initiatives have, however, turned out to be almost exclusively security oriented and, intentionally or not, served to sideline other issues that they had initially pledged to deal with.

Despite all these initiatives, Mali, for its part, only began to address security and development issues in 2010-2011.[99] With financial support from the international community, the Special Programme for Peace, Security and Development in northern Mali (PSPSDN) was intended to assist the economic development of the north and prevent future destabilisation. Led by Mohamed ag Erlaf, a Tuareg Ifoghas from Kidal and a minister in the 1990s, the PSPSDN has been, quite ironically, a major cause of growing discontent in northern communities. With a €50 million budget, the PSPSDN was designed to address both security and development issues. The aim of the programme was to strengthen the capacities of the army (new garrisons and police stations) and, at the same time, create health centres, schools, grain banks, water supply, etc.

However, the programme turned out to be, once again, almost exclusively military-oriented and mainly managed through a southern diagnosis of the problems, featuring southern military units, excessive centralisation and the absence of local consultation. The PSPSDN has been extensively debated and contested, especially by a Tuareg advocacy network (Réseau plaidoyer en faveur de la paix, de la sécurité et du développement au Nord-Mali) led by Alghabass ag Intallah, deputy of Kidal and brother of the new Amenokal, the traditional chief of the Ifoghas community.[100] Local communities were deeply disappointed by a programme they first considered to be an historic commitment, based on the 1992 Pacte national and 2006 Algiers peace agreement, to northern populations. The creation of ‘Poles sécurisés de développement et de gouvernance’ without local consultation and the disproportionate resources allocated to security programmes instead of to development deeply sullied the image of the PSPSDN. In the end, the programme was seen by northern communities as a new attempt from Bamako to dominate the northern regions and impose an exogenous political order, therefore exacerbating northern resentment.

Security without trust: the failure of the fight against terrorism in northern Mali

The 2012 crisis also emphasised the discrepancy between international security efforts and the capabilities of the Malian security apparatus. The success of international assistance in addressing the security situation or supporting local ownership of military matters has been questioned. The speed and ease with which the armed groups took the northern cities between January and March 2012 has demonstrated both the weakness of the security programmes that have been implemented so far and the shortcomings of available (and shared) intelligence data regarding the resources and activity of terrorist organisations.

By marginalising contacts and good relations with local communities, the central government and its international partners have, in the end, weakened local ownership of the security programmes, which also explains the support given to armed groups by local populations. Islamist groups, indeed, have acted as a social security provider, fulfilling roles that the Malian government has been unable to deliver to northern population – for example, medical and food aid, schooling, financial donations for marriages, and fuel.

Ransoms,[101] political deals (exchanging hostages for prisoners)[102] and electoral bargains (withdrawal of the Malian army from the north before the 2007 presidential elections) have also played major roles in undermining the security situation. In each case, they have fed local hostility towards national and international authorities and delayed the search for alternatives until it was too late.


Regional political and security interference in the Sahel played a major part in the lead-up to the 2012 crisis. By feeding rebellions through political support, economic assistance and military supply, or by fostering internal divisions within the northern communities, foreign countries bear significant responsibility for insecurity in the Sahel. As a wide-open political and social ecosystem, northern Mali has been highly vulnerable to foreign interference. The weakness of the Malian state and the biased lenses through which southern authorities saw northern issues, encouraged interference by other countries. Moreover, Algiers and Tripoli considered Mali as a strategic area for their leadership disputes.

The evolution of the international security paradigm generated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks has led to the involvement of new international actors in the Sahel region. The huge growth in criminal and terrorist activities, coupled with constant threats against Western nationals, culminated in the launch of heavily subsided programmes. However, the exclusive focus on security undermined the efficiency of those strategies, and had some unintended consequences for West African countries.

Some of these programmes, indeed, been used by local (i.e., southern) elites to consolidate their leadership positions. Overall, the Malian strategic ‘use’ of security rents for domestic purposes and the political domination of the northern desert areas have aggravated the long-standing tensions between the central government and northern communities.

This trend is not limited to Mali. Other Sahelian countries have been caught up in this political economy of conflict.

For more information, see: Jourde, C., Décoder les multiples strates de l’insécurité au Sahel: Le cas Mauritanien, Centre d’Etudes Stratégiques de l’Afrique, September 2011, 1-8.
Especially with regards to the smuggling of cannabis coming from the Rif Valley, in which the Moroccan authorities are, to some degree, involved.
This project had been in Qaddafi’s mind for a long time but in 2006 during the Feast of Mouloud in Timbuktu he formally announced his intention to reunite all the tribes of the Sahara under one state. The project was rejected by Algeria.
Libya played the role of mediator in 2009. The ‘Sehba agreements’ were concluded between the North Mali Tuareg Alliance for Change (ATNMC), the Malian government and the Nigerien government, under the leadership of Libya.
The 2012 rebellion was conducted with military equipment stolen from several Libyan military barracks when the regime fell. It was not offered by Qaddafi himself.
See for instance Klute, G., ‘De la chefferie administrative à la para-souveraineté régionale’, in: Horizons nomades en Afrique sahélienne, ed. Bourgeot, A., Paris, Karthala, 1999, 167-181.
Gettleman, J., ‘Libyan oil buys allies for Qaddafi’, New York Times, March 2011, (accessed 24 November 2014).
In the words of Amadou Toumani Touré, after the death of Qaddafi: ‘Libya has made substantial investments in the hotel, tourism, agriculture and banking industry, contributing to our development. I will not today, as others, spit on the Jamahiriya and its Guide.’

Offner, F., ‘A Kadhafi le Mali reconnaissant’, Slate Afrique, 10 November 2011, (accessed 15 December 2014).
Deycard, F. and Guichaoua, Y., ‘Whether you liked him or not, Gadaffi used to fix a lot of holes’, African Arguments, 8 September 2011, (accessed 7 December 2014).
International Crisis Group, July 2012, op. cit.
During the 1990s, the GIA initiated a brutal military campaign of resistance against the Algerian government. The group committed terrorist attacks on soldiers and police officers but also on Algerian civilians and foreign workers residing in the country. This strategy was disapproved of by some GIA members, who, in turn, decided to create the GSPC.

For more information, see Laremont, R., ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Terrorism and Counterterrorism in the Sahel’, African Security, 4(4), 2011, 242-268.
Hassan Hattab, the historical founder of the GSPC, was replaced by Nabil Sahraoui, Abdelmalek Droukdel and Ammari Saifi, in 2003.
Arieff, A., Algeria and the crisis in Mali, Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI), July 2012.
Ammour, L., Regional security cooperation in the Maghreb and Sahel: Algeria’s pivotal ambivalence, African Center for Strategic Studies, February 2012.
Arieff, op.cit; based on Bouhlel-Hardy, Guichaoua, Tamboura (2007). ‘Tuareg crises in Niger and Mali’, Minutes from IFRI seminar held in November 2007, published in January 2008.
See Thiam, A., ‘Mali: ATT lance sa stratégie anti-Aqmi de développement du nord’, Jeune Afrique, 10 August 2011, (accessed 5 January 2015).
See International Crisis Group, op. cit., 6-7.
Ransoms for hostages generated large amounts of money for terrorist groups. Mokhtar Belmokthar, former Emir of AQIM and leader of Al Mourabitoune, allegedly netted an estimated $50 million in ransom payments. AQIM, on the other hand, is estimated to have made more than $90 million in ransom profits from 2003 to 2013.

For more information on ransoms, see for instance Aronson, S., ‘AQIM’s threat to Western interests in the Sahel’, CTC Sentinel, 28 April 2014, (accessed 16 December 2014).