Post-Gaddafi Libya at Heart of Regional Violence

Dogon ethnic group women walk back to the village on 1 February 2013 in Binta. (Photo: Eric Fefenberg – AFP)
Published Sunday, February 3, 2013
What comes to pass along Libya’s vast southern border can impact not just North Africa, but countries around the world.
World powers suffer battle fatigue quite easily, principally because of the unpopularity among the electorate of drawn-out wars.

When such fatigue set in five months after France launched its first air raid on Gaddafi forces, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy sent Gaddafi an offer of safe passage to the Fezzan with 200 of his supporters, in return for leaving Tripoli. Gaddafi countered by demanding that he instead be joined by 2,000. Surprisingly, Sarkozy – after consultation with NATO allies – agreed.

The agreement was drafted and everyone – including Gaddafi’s closest confidants – began working out the logistics. Gaddafi soon surprised everyone by tearing up the agreement and travelling to the coastal city of Sirte to make his last stand. However, his convoy was captured en route heading south towards the desert. Was this because the French led Gaddafi to believe that the offer for a safe southwards passage might still be available? That is something we will never know from Gaddafi himself.

Leaked documents suggest that it was the Algerians who provided NATO with Gaddafi’s coordinates by monitoring his calls to his daughter Aisha. Privy to the sarkozy offer, the Algerians were probably alarmed at the prospect of Gaddafi’s presence near their south eastern borders given his alliance with the Touareg separatist movement, otherwise known as the “lords of the desert.”
The situation in the Sahel region would have been far more complex and the threat to Libya and its neighbors would have been far more perilous had Gaddafi accepted the Sarkozy offer and lodged himself in northern Niger, where he has always enjoyed sympathy and support. This could not have escaped the attention of France’s policy makers. Perhaps Gaddafi’s calculation that the Sarkozy offer was in effect a trap might not have been far off the mark.

Even without a Gaddafi-run enclave, Libya’s south – bordering Sudan, Chad, Niger, Egypt, and Algeria – remains the country’s soft underbelly. The strip of land from northern Chad all the way to Mauritania and the Atlantic Ocean is known as the Sahel region, one of the world’s poorest areas and a site of vast socio-economic deprivation.

In the Sahel, central government control is at its weakest, hence the heightened potential for non-state actors like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to recruit, arm, and train. Recent events in Mali and Algeria illustrate this threat. The Algerian extremists who seized Westerners at a natural gas plant in the desert reportedly got their arms from Libya, as did the insurgents in Mali who France is now trying to crush.

The insurgents’ activities are not confined to the Sahel or to south Libya. The danger emanating from the south poses a real threat to the whole of Libya, as well as its neighbors to the east, west, and south.

Over the past two years, from the uprising to the overthrow of Gaddafi, Libya has been one of the main recruiting centers for Islamic extremists and al-Qaeda fighters. Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton spoke to the US Congress about the events in Benghazi, warning that jihadist groups have formed a complex network of alliances in North Africa, using south Libya and Mali as their main bases.

Members of the group who recently seized the Tigantourine gas field in southeastern Algeria, leaving 38 hostages and 29 extremists dead, included several Egyptian jihadists active in Libya. Sources in Algiers reported that Mohamed-Lamine Bouchneb, the militant leading the attack, had purchased arms for the assault in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Before their attack, the kidnappers gathered – undisturbed – in the southern Libyan town of Ghat, just across the border from Algeria.

A senior Algerian officer also claimed to have definite evidence that the organizers of the Tigantourine attack are the same group who carried out the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. This correlates with statements from US State Department officials that some members of Ansar al-Shariah, the local group that the US believes carried out the attack in Benghazi, had connections to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the militant groups now entrenched in the Sahel region.

It’s still unclear how far the French will take their present pursuit of this network of extremists operating all along the Sahel region. Will France extend its operation to Libay to target the source of arms directly?

France will calculate any action in Libya with extreme caution. Old rivalries for influence in the Sahel die hard, particularly those between “old Europe” and the US. The latter will look askance at any attempt by France to seek to gain long-term military dominance in southern Libya. No doubt France knows where this line is drawn and will probably not seek to cross it.

Europe is extremely concerned for its interests in Libya. Most recently, Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Australia have urged their citizens to leave the Libyan city of Benghazi due to a “specific, imminent threat to Westerners” linked to French actions in Mali and the danger of new kidnappings by extremists.

As if there is not enough intrigue in the Sahel, a recent report issued by the French Directorate of Military Intelligence (DRM) stated that Qatar is helping to fund armed groups. In particular, the Qatari special forces are supporting certain rebel factions in northern Mali, including Ansar Ed-Dine.

The report is more speculative than factual and begs the question of Qatari interests in the Sahel and its ability to operate independently of the US and Europe and against the interests of Algeria. If Qatar’s financial and military involvement in the Sahel is confirmed, it has the potential to inflame an already combustible region.

This brings us full circle to Libya, where a combination of a rise in militant extremism, a weak central authority, an abundance of heavy arms, and growing regional secessionist sentiments is pushing the country towards the “failed state” precipice.

While the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Libya is of concern to neighboring countries and beyond, only Libya can solve the problem of factionalism, arms trafficking, and al-Qaeda’s increasing influence in the region. This catastrophic blind march towards the edge of disaster has to be halted by any means.

Nor can Libya’s neighbors afford to be complacent about the repercussions of such a scenario. If Libya does not enforce government control throughout the country, the country will most certainly join the ranks of “failed states.” In the gathering storms of turmoil and instability of the region, the Mediterranean will have to pay an exorbitant price. This is justifiably so because the fate of the Sahel is intertwined inexorably with that of Libya.

Abdullah Elmaazi is founder and CEO of Trakon Consulting & Training. He is a regular contributor to The Tripoli Post.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar’s editorial policy.

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