Since the de facto downfall of the Gaddafi regime, much analysis has justifiably focused on the questions of Libya’s internal dynamics and future stability. However, the possible implications on the security of the wider region, extending south through the Sahel to Nigeria, have been less widely considered.
One cause for concern that should have been raised during NATO‘s campaign in Libya was the fact that airstrikes did not target Gaddafi’s vast stockpiles of missiles and other arms. The predictable result of this massive error has been that several arms depots — including one that contains SA-7b Grail heat-seeking missiles imported by the Gaddafi regime from former Soviet bloc countries — have been found looted in Tripoli.
The consequences of this development are very worrying indeed. The greatest danger is that smugglers could hand over these weapons to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is the local affiliate branch of the jihadist group across northwest Africa and the Sahel. As Peter Bouckaert — emergencies director of Human Rights Watch — put it, “If these [munitions] fall into the wrong hands, they could turn all of North Africa into a no-fly zone.“
AQIM initially began as an anti-government insurgency (also targeting Berber activists) in the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s under the name “Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat,” eventually swearing allegiance to al Qaeda in 2006.
AQIM has since furthered its range of operations southward into Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal. The group primarily engages in suicide bombings and other attacks on outposts belonging to the Algerian security forces, and has been involved in kidnappings of foreigners elsewhere (e.g. in December 2009, an Italian couple en route to Burkina Faso were taken hostage by AQIM in Mauritania).
The outcome of the Libyan civil war will no doubt give further impetus for AQIM to step up its attacks on the Algerian government, which made the tactical error of openly backing Gaddafi against the rebel forces and could well see further unrest among the population.
A further problem is posed by the outflow of pro-Gaddafi Touareg fighters from Libya into the country‘s southern neighbors. The Touareg are a nomadic Muslim Berber group, whom Gaddafi supported in their insurgency campaigns against the governments of Chad, Mali and Niger. Gaddafi never disguised his hatred of Berber language and culture, but his cooperation and cordial relations with Touareg fighters were partly rooted in his later rhetoric that called for a borderless Islamic republic across the Sahara.
As Tristan McConnell points out, the Touareg have controlled traditional caravan trade routes across the Sahara, now used for arms smuggling and human trafficking. Disgruntled over the loss of support with the overthrow of Gaddafi, mercenaries within the Touareg might forge ties with AQIM, a development that would only strengthen the latter and foster greater security threats to nations like Niger.
Yet perhaps most troubling is the fact that AQIM has recently been establishing contact and financial links with an Islamist group in Nigeria known as “Boko Haram” (meaning “Western Education is Forbidden“). Some members of Boko Haram may also have received training from AQIM militants. If AQIM gets hold of weaponry from Libya, it is probable that some of those arms will be supplied to Boko Haram as well.
Boko Haram, originally founded in 2002, is a group that seeks to transform all of Nigeria into an Islamic state. Among the organization‘s “grievances” include the supposed unacceptability of teaching that the Earth is spherical and the “sinful” idea that rain is caused by evaporation and subsequent condensation of water. Boko Haram came to widespread attention in 2009 for its massacres against minority Christians in the north, and it poses a particular threat in a nation that has a sharp sectarian divide between a predominantly Muslim north and a primarily Christian south.
Unfortunately, the Nigerian government has effectively engaged in a policy of appeasement towards Boko Haram, which forced one university in the country‘s northeast to close indefinitely in July (and may be aiming to target other universities in the south), bombed police headquarters in Abuja, the capital city, in June, and was responsible for a car bomb attack on the UN headquarters in Nigeria last month, killing 23 people.
On the other hand, as disclosures from Wikileaks cables show, the Nigerian authorities have released known terror suspects — including affiliates of Boko Haram and AQIM — in an attempt to placate Muslim tribal elders in the north, who were supposed to act as parole officers for released detainees.
In light of these trends, consider how much further damage deeper cooperation between Boko Haram and AQIM will do to Nigeria‘s stability.
Unfortunately, NATO, which has been spending billions of dollars trying to prevent the return of al Qaeda to Afghanistan (even though the group is hardly likely to want to return there anyway), now appears to have significantly increased the risk of the creation of a strong hotbed of Islamist militancy in a vast region extending from Libya and Algeria down toward Nigeria.