Fallout in the Sahara: Did the War in Libya Play into the Hands of al-Qaeda?
> Alan Boswell /
Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011
Where the green of central Africa surrenders to the creeping dry talons of
the Saharan desert, down a 14-hour drive from the closest thing Niger has to
a city, the baked mud and sand outpost of Agadez is one of those corners of
Africa where years get measured in the cracking of walls or the growth of a
beard. But lately, town life in Agadez has picked up considerably. The
market is stacked with refrigerators and video game consoles, a side product
of the trucks full of weary and parched passengers that have been streaming
into its streets from the north since the war in nearby Libya started.
Nearly every household here had a family member sending money back from
Libya's oil economy. Sometimes whole families migrated north. Now, these
returnees are wondering what they are going to do back in their own country,
one of the poorest in the world. "None of my friends have found any work,"
says Adoum Ghoumir, who fled through Algeria back to this Nigerien town.
"What will these countries do with all of us?"
The Sahara's imposing terrain is obscuring the human and political fallout
of the war in Libya from outside view. At least 80,000 people have flooded
into Niger alone in recent months from its northeastern neighbor and Niger's
government says the number is more than twice that. Usually, fleeing
refugees signal humanitarian troubles. That's the case here too, as the
needy absorb the needy and authorities fear a poor upcoming harvest.
pictures of the lengthy battle for Libya.)
But there is a far greater danger to the cross-border wave, one that could
reach far beyond these scorched lands to the West's doorsteps. Ghoumir is a
Tuareg, the rugged Saharans who live mostly across the loose borders of
Mali, Niger, Algeria, and western Libya. Towering, sword-wielding, and often
fully shrouded but for their eyes, the fiercely independent Tuareg carry a
reputation as the bad boys of the Sahara. They have historically rocky
relations with their host governments, have launched a series of rebellions
in the past two decades. But they had a fickle friend in Muammar Gaddafi,
who at times supported their rebellions, invested in their areas, and opened
up Libya's doors to them. Tens of thousands of Tuareg moved to Libya for
work. Many joined his military - 12,000, according to a senior Tuareg
politician in Niger - and thousands more picked up arms for him once the
conflict began. Many of these were former rebels. Now, they are part of the
flood home. And authorities doubt they are coming home empty-handed. "You
can't travel this part of the desert without guns," says Baika Boudjamaha,
head of the Nigerien polices anti-drug operations. "They could hide those
weapons wherever they want in the desert or mountains and we'd never find
Besides serving as the base for previous Tuareg rebellions, this belt of the
Sahara has in recent years turned into one of the world's most active
smuggling routes. The Tuareg caravans of old that carried salts and slaves
across the desert have been replaced with well-armed Land Rovers trafficking
cocaine, migrants, and arms. This lucrative trade, which moves from West
African coasts to the east - across the Sahara and into Libya, Sudan, and
Egypt - are believed to help finance the West's chief new foe in the region,
the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a shadowy cross-ethnic network
originating in southern Algeria that operates in the porous desert through
Mauritania, northern Mali, Algeria, and across the border into Niger. Many
now expect them to slide into Libya as well.
(See portraits of refugees fleeing Libya.)
AQIM announced itself to the world through several high-profile hostage
cases of Westerners that halted tourism and led the U.S. to pull its Peace
Corps program from Mauritania and Niger. Some European governments say they
have uncovered domestic cells and fear a possible attack on their shores,
although many doubt AQIM's capabilities extend beyond its desert base. With
an unstable Libya next door offering a possible new stomping ground, much of
Gaddafi's arsenal now on the market, and tens of thousands of restless youth
now flooding the region, the Libyan shakeup could prove one big boon for
Al-Qaeda and the drug smugglers. Mohammed Anako, a former Tuareg rebel
leader himself and now the highest elected official in Agadez, sums it all
up grimly: "There are big troubles ahead."
So did the U.S. and its European allies shoot themselves in the foot by
intervening in Libya? Here at the base of Africa's great desert, the popular
consensus is a resounding yes, albeit from one of Gaddafi's core African
constituencies. "You in the West should have planned this better. You wanted
the end of Gaddafi, but didn't you know the consequences and disorder that
would result?" Or so Aghaly ag Alambo, who led the last Nigerien Tuareg
rebellion in 2007 and was part of the high-profile convoy carrying Gadhafi's
security chief Abdullah Mansour Dhao to enter Niger from Libya three weeks
ago, asked me with a sly smile in his comfortable house in the capital
Niamey. Resentment at how Gaddafi fell wont fade fast. My Tuareg interpreter
later informed me he introduced me to some interviewees as an Australian
(I'm American), due to the popular local resentment against NATO. Locals say
a recent France 24 TV crew was angrily run out of town.
For a brief period not long ago, Agadez's stasis was interrupted by an
influx of adventure tourism, and Agadez brimmed with new jobs. That stopped
with the Tuareg's 2007 rebellion. By the time the war ended in 2009, the
tourism never returned. Today, all that remains of that heyday are vacant
hotels and broken down ATMs. Locals don't expect them to open back up any
time soon. "We could control the rebellion," said one Tuareg resident here
in Agadez. "This Al-Qaeda we can't control."
> See TIME's video about the youth in Libya looking beyond Gaddafi.
> See a brief
history of Muammar Gaddafi's 40-year rule.
Immigrants, who are fleeing the unrest in Libya, unload their belongings in
Agadez, northern Niger September 15, 2011.
Luc Gnago / Reuters
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Received on Wed Sep 28 2011 - 16:20:05 EDT