While Niger may test Algiers’ diplomatic skills, the situation in neighbouring Mali is far more threatening to Algeria and may come to test its diplomatic skills to the extreme. Since early August, the country’s Forces Armées Maliennes (FAMa) army, and its Kremlin-linked Wagner Group allies, have come under increasing attack from a northern rebel alliance. The latter is composed of: the predominantly-Tuareg, Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA); the Groupe Autodéfense Touareg Imghad et Alliés (GATIA); and the armed jihadist group of the Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) led by the Tuareg leader, Iyad ag Ghali, who has close kinship ties to the CMA’s leaders This emerging CMA-GATIA-JNIM alliance share common goals: the overthrow of the ‘five colonels’, as they call Mali’s illegal ruling junta, and the expulsion of its Russian allies.
In the last six weeks, FAMa bases and Wagner patrols have come under at least six attacks from JNIM, which has also blockaded Timbuktu for the best part of the last month. CMA fighters have also attacked and captured at least four Malian army bases at Bourem, Léré, Dioura and Bamba. In addition to these serious setbacks, on 23 September an Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft, flown by a Russian pilot, overshot the runway at Gao Airport, exploded, and killed all on board. Although the junta has remained completely silent, the aircraft was believed to be carrying 140 FAMa soldiers and Wagner mercenaries to reinforce the situation in the north, which is now in a state of war.
From our calculations, as many as 500 FAMa troops may have been killed in these events, thereby placing the junta in serious and unprecedented difficulties. On 2 October — in what looks like a desperate bid to crush the Tuareg insurrection — the junta ordered the deployment of 119 vehicles from the army bases in Gao and Bourem to head north to Kidal — around 300 kms north of Gao and close to the Algerian border — with the presumed intention of dealing a crushing blow to the Tuareg. As we go to press, the column is reported to be approaching the town of Anefis about 100 kms south of Kidal. No Malian army troops have been in Kidal since being expelled by Tuareg rebels in 2012, from when the town has been in the hands of the CMA. An army column that tried to enter the town in 2014 was quickly put to flight.
Bamako has not confirmed that troops are heading for Kidal but the head of the army’s information services, Colonel Souleymane Dembele, said that the town had to come back under state control. The junta leaders have said that establishing state control across the whole country was one of their main goals.Whether the army column will try and go straight to Kidal, or establish itself first at Anefis, which is the gateway to the region, is unclear.
In the days of the Département du renseignement et de la sécurité (DRS) — when Algeria regarded Kidal as it ‘9th wilaya and the DRS held sway over much of the Sahel — we might have expected Algerian air or ground forces to have halted the column before it reached Kidal and thereby prevent a bloodbath. However, under the command of the Russophile Army Chief of Army, General Saïd Chengriha, it is unlikely that he will commit the army to opposing the Wagner Group’s Russian mercenaries in Mali.
If Algeria stands back and there is serious fighting in Kidal, it is likely to be confronted with a flood of civilian refugees as well as Tuareg fighters seeking refuge across the border. This, in turn, could provoke dangerous unrest in southern Algeria. In an unlikely scenario, Algeria might decide to halt the column by aerial intervention and thereby protect the CMA and Kidal’s population. This would probably ensure: the implosion of the junta; the withdrawal of Wagner; and Algiers’ own rehabilitation with the US and other Western powers.
As we go to press, we anticipate the Malian column arriving in or establishing itself close to Anefis. After that, Algiers may not have more than a few hours to decide on what action to take.
Background – Sahara Focus – 29 September 2023