Tens of thousands have fled conflict in the north, to find poor conditions, unemployment and homesickness elsewhere.
France and the United States are stepping pressure on Algeria to back a military intervention in Mali, where Islamist fighters have taken control off the northern region.
“An intervention in northern Mali is possible without the military backing of Algeria but not without its green light,” Pierre Boilley, the head of the Centre of African Studies, a French think-tank, said on Sunday.
Algeria is the region’s biggest military power by some margin and has been dealing with northern Mali’s top Islamist leaders – most of them are Algerian – for years..
US officials on Sunday also called on greater regional involvement.
“We encourage greater cooperation with the regional states in dealing with terrorist threat,” Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs, told the AFP news agency.
“We encourage collaboration, communication with the notion that terrorists don’t recognise international boundaries… That is the key to success”.
“Many countries in the region such as Algeria and several analysts think that negotiations are possible with Ansar Dine. Let us see,” Jean Felix-Paganon, France’s envoy to the Sahel, told Jeune Afrique weeky.
French officials discussed the crisis that split Mali in two since March during a visit by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in July and Mali will again top the agenda when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers on Tuesday.
French President Francois Hollande is also expected there in December.
Once considered one of Africa’s most promising democracies, Mali has slid into chaos this year.
Renegade soldiers overthrew the government of president Amadou Toumani Toure on March 22.
“What we have seen unfold in Mali during 2012 is merely the latest manifestation of the way in which the DRS has used the ‘terrorists’ that it has created to further the interests of Algeria’s ‘mafiosi’ state “
– Jeremy Keenan, SOAS, London
The coup was short-lived but a Tuareg rebellion that had launched a major offensive two months earlier took advantage of the power vacuum to seize the entire northern half of the country.
The main secular Tuareg group was soon overpowered by Islamist fighters with ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The Islamists, who have been enforcing an extreme form of Islamic law in recent months, have access to the huge supply of Libyan weapons that flooded the region after Muammar Gaddafi’s demise, heightening fears northern Mali could become what Afghanistan was to the Taliban a decade ago.
Experts say Algeria’s huge foreign exchange reserves, its experience in tackling a decades-long Islamist insurgency and the 1,400 km and largely porous border it shares with Mali, give it a crucial role in any intervention.
Algeria, home to some 50,000 Tuaregs, had initially opposed plans for an international military force to wrest back Mali’s north, largely due to fears it could spark unrest at home.
It has since slightly softened its stance saying that while talks are essential it would not necessarily oppose a military intervention.
The UN Security Council on October 12 approved a resolution urging West African nations to speed up preparations for an international military force of up to 3,000 troops that would attempt to reconquer northern Mali.
France and the United States have offered logistical support.
“Algeria has the capacity to scupper any intervention by not sealing the border hermetically,” Alain Antil, a researcher at the French Institute of International Affairs, said.
“The approach on Mali must go beyond (West African regional bloc) ECOWAS and must include Algeria,” Richard Downie, deputy director and fellow with the Washington think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Africa programme, said.
According to analysts, Algeria wants to contain the risk posed by AQIM in northern Mali but fears that military involvement could backfire.
“After having succeeded in tackling the menace of terrorism, Algeria does not want to become the main target of these movements,” French terrorism expert Jean-Charles Brisard, said.
But Jeremy Keenan, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, argued in Democracy Now in September, that the Islamist fighters operating in Mali werein fact the the creation of the Algerian secret police.
The fighters were also being supplied, supported and orchestrated by the the secret police, he said.
“What we have seen unfold in Mali during 2012 is merely the latest manifestation of the way in which the DRS (Algerian secret police) has used the ‘terrorists’ that it has created to further the interests of Algeria’s ‘mafiosi’ state,” Keenan argued.
Keenan also said that the Algerian secret police were working “with western military intelligence in fabricating ‘false-flag’ terrorism to justify the West’s global war on terror in Africa”.