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Algeria in Mali: A Departure from the Military Non-Intervention Paradigm?

17 Dec 2020

Since the rise of a nationwide protest movement in February 2019, Algerian politics have been dominated by questions of change and reform. Long-ruling President Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down, and several individuals within his close circle were condemned for corruption or “conspiracy against the authority of the state”. In an attempt to further address popular frustrations, the new President Abdelmadjid Tebboune organised a constitutional referendum, held on 1 November 2020. While considered “a crucial step” towards structural reform by some, many Algerians saw it as a façade created by those in power and boycotted the referendum. Although the voter turnout was low (23.8 percent), the referendum was approved by 66.8 percent.

Concretely, the referendum included reforms such as increased parliamentary oversight, reform of the judiciary, and a limitation of presidential terms. However, in the debates on the referendum's content, less attention was paid to a provision that would lift the prohibition on deploying the armed forces abroad, allowing them to take part in peacekeeping operations, which could end—or at least curtail—the country’s long-standing tradition of non-intervention. Could this be the first step towards a new regional security policy of Algeria, the state with the second largest army  on the African continent?

The referendum has already been linked to the possibility of a more prominent Algerian role in the conflict in neighbouring Libya. But what are the implications for its other unstable neighbour, Mali? This Perspective looks at the Algerian tradition of non-intervention and considers the potential for change in the country’s security policy in Mali, and the broader Sahel, a region deeply affected by violent extremism.

Algeria’s tradition of non-intervention

Having fought a nearly eight-year war against French colonisation, an independent Algeria entered the world stage with high ambitions in 1962. During the 1960s and 70s, the country was a prominent critic of remaining imperialist structures and aspired to become a (or rather the) leader of the Non-Aligned Movement - a political coalition of developing countries that refused to choose sides in the Cold War. The Movement was built upon mutual respect for nations’ territorial integrity, and aimed for economic progress through cooperation on the basis of mutual interest and equality. Thus, core values of Algiers’ foreign policy were independence, sovereignty, and the rejection of the East-West divide.

Although the end of the Cold War reduced the significance of its non-alignment stance, Algeria’s emphasis on independence and sovereignty never changed. Wary of losing its strategic autonomy, the country built up one of the largest armies of the African continent and is still generally hesitant to agree to foreign investments, something which it has been able to do thanks to a great wealth of natural resources. By the same token, Algeria has continued to refuse to deploy its forces abroad, preferring a diplomatic approach instead — a principle that was codified in Article 29 of the Algerian constitution. Pointing to the current crises in Libya and Syria, Algeria holds that foreign interference with domestic affairs or military interventions generally do more harm than good. Moreover, the traumatic civil war of the 1990s will likely have made Algiers uninclined to deploy its armed forces abroad, out of continuing fear for its own stability.

At the same time, Algiers’ refusal to interfere with the internal affairs of others has led to criticism from neighbouring states that it does not do enough to counter the rise of jihadism in the region - especially because it has the capacity, as well as large counterinsurgency experience following its decade-long civil war. Mali is one of those neighbours.

Algeria’s approach in Mali: non-intervention in practice

With more than 1,300 km of shared borders along which local communities maintain close ties, Algeria and Mali have numerous links. Going far beyond a simple co-existence, Algiers regards its southern neighbour as vital to its geostrategic interests. Given the geographic and ethnic continuity across their respective territories, instability on one side of the border can have direct implications on the other. Considering “the north of Mali as its natural backyard”, the potential domestic implications of Northern Malian Tuareg irredentism having been a longstanding source of concern for Algeria. The two countries’ recent history has moreover been highly intertwined in at least two important respects, both providing telling examples of Algiers’ non-intervention stance.

The origins of some of the terrorist groups currently operating in Mali can indeed be traced back to the Islamist insurgency of the Algerian ‘black decade’. Facing increased pressure within their Algerian bastions, elements of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), the predecessor of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), withdrew and took refuge in Northern Mali in the early 2000s. While Algiers had employed a two-fold approach in combating terrorism domestically, combining national reconciliation and repression, the ban on its armed forces’ engagement abroad discarded any military intervention to dislodge these groups as they started gaining foothold beyond its southern border.

By contrast, Algiers has been continuously involved in Malian affairs at the political level. From the Tamanrasset Agreement (1991) to the Algiers Accords (2006), it has established itself as a key actor in the mediations that followed the successive Tuareg rebellions that have punctuated Mali’s contemporary socio-political life. While partly aimed at containing an eventual contagion of Malian Arab-Tuareg movements’ separatist inclinations to certain fringes of its own society, this role may also to be viewed in relation to the influence Algeria intends to exert as a prominent regional power.

The rebellion which broke out in northern Mali in early 2012 however proved quite particular insofar that it saw a temporary alliance between Tuareg separatist militants of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and terrorist fighters of AQIM, Ansar Dine and the Movement of Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Still marked by the memories of its civil war, Algeria feared the spillover of mounting violence in its southern region, even more so following an attack against the gas facility of In Amenas in early 2013.

Despite these concerns, and in line with its non-intervention doctrine, Algeria advocated for a negotiated political solution to the Malian crisis, in which it again assumed a leadership role. After a series of unsuccessful attempts, a peace agreement was finally negotiated under its auspices, and signed in 2015 by the Malian government, pro-government armed groups of the Platform, and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA). In parallel, military interventions—which have not included Algerian forces—have continued to multiply throughout the subregion to counter violent extremism, with French troops being deployed under Operation Barkhane, replacing Operation Serval since 2014, UN peacekeeping forces of the MINUSMA, G5 Sahel Joint Forces, and the more recent Tabuka Force. Despite these efforts, the security situation in Mali and the broader Sahel has deteriorated further. Not only does the Malian state's presence remain rather weak over large remote areas, but instability and violence have extended, first throughout central regions of the country, and rapidly reaching neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso. While Algeria suffered no terror attacks on its soil in 2019, the number of deaths caused by terrorist activities has increased dramatically in the Sahel during that same period. Such a contrast has at times raised suspicions about Algeria’s attitudes towards violent extremist groups. In addition to having been relatively spared from terrorist violence, the fact that some high-level terrorist leaders such as Iyad Ag Ghali or Abdelmalek Droukdel, have reportedly been able to find shelter or move around within its national territory has reinvigorated concerns about Algiers turning a blind eye to some violent armed actors, provided they do not carry out attacks on Algerian territory.

Notwithstanding these shortfalls, and the serious criticism the 2015 Algiers peace agreement has received, notably due to its slow implementation, the national reconciliation process has remained the mainstay of Algiers’ approach in Mali. With the notable exception of Algeria opening up its airspace to allow the French army to fly over its national territory, authorities have reaffirmed that “the situation in the Sahel is linked to development and governance issues which have created a void filled by terrorist organisations” - a situation that cannot be addressed through an all-military approach. However, while to date the possibility of a deployment of Algerian troops across its southern borders has been totally discarded, with the new constitutional provisions allowing for their engagement in peacekeeping missions, this prospect deserves further attention.

The 1 November referendum: a game changer?

Among the constitutional changes approved by the November referendum is article 31, paragraph 3, which allows Algeria’s armed forces to engage in peacekeeping operations that fall “within the framework of the principles and objectives of the United Nations, African Union and the Arab League”. Peacekeeping as defined by the UN is based on three core principles: consent of parties; impartiality; and the non-use of force except in self-defence and defence of the mandate. In this line, the president of the expert committee in charge of the constitutional revision argued this provision should not be regarded as a starting point for a profound shift in Algeria’s foreign policy. But, the question remains: what impact will this somewhat ambiguously phrased paragraph have for Algeria’s role in the Malian crisis—especially taking into consideration the ongoing military interventions by other national and supranational forces?

What is clear is that Algiers is concerned about its Malian neighbour. Algerian authorities disapproved of the August coup d’état, which they considered illegal and a threat to the already faltering Algiers accords. Moreover, in October the Malian state agreed to free 200 prisoners detained for terrorism-related offenses in exchange for the release of four hostages, including the prominent politician Soumaila Cissé. Having had a tough non-negotiation policy regarding ransom payments since its traumatic ‘black decade’, the Algerian Defence Ministry firmly denounced this decision and has already arrested two of the released “extremists” on its territory. As such, Algiers believes it is in some ways paying the price for a lack of Malian resoluteness in dealing with the crisis.

Fearing increasing spillover effects from the instability in the Sahel, the country intends to play a more active role, with President Tebboune earlier stating Algeria was “90% of the solution” in Mali. Considering that sending its forces is no longer prohibited, Algiers might well be contemplating to deploy its troops there - for instance in the Northern border regions. While there can be no purely military solution to the current crisis, sending peacekeepers would at least support the stabilisation of the country. Moreover, a directly-involved army would allow Algeria to have a greater say in international debates on the Sahel, not least because France currently seeks to reduce its presence in the region. Another geopolitical argument in favour of deploying Algerian peacekeeping troops relates to the ongoing competition for influence in Sub-Saharan Africa that is being waged by Algeria and Morocco – a competition that analysts believe Morocco is currently winning because of its economic and soft power. A more prominent Algerian involvement in providing regional security might counterbalance this.

While meeting the repeated calls for Algeria to assume its responsibilities in the Sahel, such an engagement on the military front may, however, undermine Algeria’s credibility as key mediator in peace resolution processes - a ‘stabilising’ role that Algiers has historically relied on to build up its influence in its southern neighbourhood. Alongside potential implications on its strategic positioning on the regional scene, a military intervention could also have repercussions for Algeria’s own security. Besides the danger faced by the deployed troops, in a country hosting the “most dangerous” UN peacekeeping operation currently deployed, it could provoke a new wave of terrorist attacks on its own territory. The Ministry of Defence’s overview of 2019 indicated that fifteen (suspected) terrorists were killed last year and twenty-five were arrested. This indicates that a terrorist attack is certainly not unthinkable still.

Furthermore, internal political factors are at play. The low turnout at the referendum suggests that President Tebboune still has little popular support, and sending a large unit of troops to a crisis as complex and intractable as that in Mali is likely to only further worsen this. Besides, removing a legal prohibition is not the same as changing a norm: sovereignty, of both itself and others, will likely remain prominent in Algerian thinking. A (seemingly) clear example of this is that several sources claim that Chief of Army Staff Chengriha disapproved of the changed military legislation, fearing that Algeria could engage in external operations “synonymous with meddling or occupation”. Military circles’ reticence might also be linked to the national armed forces’ scant experience with international military operations and its army having always been an organisation relatively closed to outsiders. Cooperating with others would require Algeria’s military to be open and give some insight in internal structures and practices. In case the Algerians send a peacekeeping force to Mali, they would be joining a large foreign military presence, operating in stabilisation and counterinsurgency operations, as well as training missions.

A final factor influencing Algerian decision-making is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as the domestic situation was recently deemed “worrisome and alarming” by the authorities and remains an area of major government focus. Perhaps as important is that President Tebboune, who also is the country’s Minister of Defense, has been infected with the virus and is still recovering. Tebboune was being treated in a German hospital, and his address to the nation on 13 December was his first public appearance in almost two months. The President’s (de facto) absence has slowed down all processes of reform and gave rise to a series of rumours about who is currently leading the country.


Whether Algiers takes a course of more geopolitical prominence or domestic prudence is still to be seen. It is clear however that both come with costs, as after almost nine years the Malian conflict remains far from being resolved, despite all diplomatic initiatives and military interventions. Given Algeria’s longstanding tradition of non-intervention, and its approach in the Sahel since the outbreak of the 2012 crisis, it is not certain that Algiers would accept the political, security and strategic trade-offs that would come with a direct military engagement. If it is indeed decided to send in Algerian forces, this will likely start small to prevent their presence from being interpreted as interference or even “occupation”, but also to balance security risks, and allow the army to get used to international military missions and cooperation. As such, Algerian security policy for the Sahel region will likely be characterised by a strong degree of continuity in the short run, even as the problem of violent extremism in the region grows ever more pressing.