Qaddafi's ties to rebel groups scrutinized as 'African mercenaries' patrol Libya
Libya's leader Muammar Qaddafi is known to have strong patronage networks with tribal leaders throughout Africa. Multiple witnesses say African mercenaries have brutally suppressed Libyan protesters in recent days.
Johannesburg, South Africa
Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has reportedly deployed African mercenaries to brutally crack down on civilian protests, with eyewitnesses saying the French-speaking troops hail from nearby African countries such as Mali, Niger, and Chad.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Libya uprising
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Although there is little independent media access to verify the events unfolding in Libya, experts say Colonel Qaddafi has strong relationships with various African warlords and rebel groups, some of whom may now be filling the role of for-hire mercenaries. Those ties come from his role in both stirring up and resolving disputes in the troubled African Sahel region, where he has won support and loyalty from African leaders now studiously quiet about the brutal civil conflict in Libya.
“Qaddafi has had a long term relationship with other African nations, and although he was in close relations with all of the presidents of these countries over time, all the rebel groups used to go to Tripoli too, to get funding,” says Thierry Vircoulon, Central African project director for the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. “He played both sides.”
Qaddafi forms special 'foreign fighter' units
Over the years, says Mr. Vircoulon, Libya has welcomed many foreign fighters from Chad, Mali, Niger, and elsewhere to naturalize, and Qaddafi has set up special units entirely composed of foreign fighters.
“The thing is that, within his ideology of African unity, he has created some African units in his Libyan army,” says Vircoulon. “You had Africans from Chad, Mali, Niger, within the Libyan army. He had some fighters from the Chad-Libyan border, and some who were probably Tuareg. And when you are trying to woo Tuareg people, you will be dealing with guns for hire.”
It is entirely possible that the so-called “African mercenaries” seen by Libyan eye-witnesses are a blend of Libyan soldiers of non-Libyan descent along with recently hired fighters. Bringing in outsiders is crucial, because foreign fighters lack personal or cultural ties with the civilians they are fighting against in the streets of Tripoli, Benghazi, and elsewhere.
Former Libyan Ambassador Ali Al-Essawi (who resigned in protest over the reported violence) told Al Jazeera the mercenaries "are black Africans and they don't speak Arabic. They are doing terrible things, going to houses and killing women and children."
Playing savior to a troubled region
Ever since Qaddafi came to power in 1969, overthrowing King Idriss I to set up a people’s government dedicated to “freedom, socialism, and unity,” Qaddafi has billed himself as a hero for many Africans as a defender of the poor against the dominance of the rich.
Oil revenues gave Qaddafi’s government the option of creating his own sphere of influence in Africa, sending money for development projects, and at times arms to help African governments put down rebellions.