Libya's mercenaries pose difficult issue to resolve

Muammar Qaddafi is likely relying heavily on African mercenaries, but if Libya falls to the anti-Qaddafi protesters, they're the ones who will have to figure out what to do with them.

Kevin Frayer/AP
A Libyan militia member from the forces against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi guards three men who they suspect to be mercenaries from Chad, after detaining them at a roadbloack near Marj in eastern Libya on Feb. 27, 2011.

As anti-Qaddafi forces in Libya take control of different parts of the country, I think it is more accurate to call the events there a civil war, rather than simply “protests.” One contentious issue in this civil war is Qaddafi’s use of mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa. As the situation in Libya rapidly evolves, determining who the mercenaries are – and who is not a mercenary – has challenged both observers and the anti-Qaddafi forces. It seems clear that there are foreign mercenaries fighting in Libya, but it also appears that some innocent sub-Saharan African migrants have found themselves in danger over false charges. This post gives some background on the situation.

Historically, Qaddafi has long used mercenaries as advisers and soldiers. African poverty has created a substantial pool of potential mercenaries, and it is likely Qaddafi is now using some of these hired guns against his own people.

Foreign mercenaries are likely to be less squeamish about shooting at local people.

“They are likely to better trained – a small unit that can be relied upon. They might also have experience of fighting battles and therefore be more capable if push comes to shove,” [said author Adam Roberts].

The view was echoed by Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch. “It’s hard to get your own people to shoot your own people,” he said. “In this kind of situation, you can see why mercenaries would be an advantage because it’s easier to get foreigners to shoot at Libyans than to get Libyans to shoot at Libyans.”

Some of the foreign fighters in Libya also seem to come from groups that have long-standing political and financial ties to the Colonel. Qaddafi’s sustained and deep involvement in African politics, especially the affairs of neighboring countries like Sudan, Chad, and Niger, has included “funding and training many fighting groups and rebel organizations in West Africa and other places.” Qaddafi’s relationship with Chad is especially intense. These ties not only affected the trajectory of conflicts outside Libya, but also shaped the composition of Libya’s security forces:

Other rebels, who stand to suffer if Qaddafi falls, have been willing to join the fighting in Libya:

That gives us at least three categories of foreign fighters in Libya: foreigners who are part of the formal security forces, foreigners who are fighting for Qaddafi for political reasons, and foreigners who are killing Libyans primarily for money. Let’s add two more: those were coerced into fighting, and innocent persons accused of being mercenaries.

Regarding coercion, here is the account of one young Chadian:

Finally, we have innocent victims. Reports and speculation have indicated that in some cases anti-Qaddafi Libyans have turned on African migrants that did not participate in the fighting at all.

With mercenaries and suspected mercenaries coming from so many different backgrounds, and with chaos in Libya, what will happen to Africans accused of fighting for Qaddafi? Some, currently held in jails by anti-Qaddafi forces, are “nervously await[ing] their fate.” Others will die in battle, of course, or in lynchings. Still others may escape back across the border.

What will not happen to the mercenaries, apparently, is prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

Toppling the Colonel is obviously the foremost goal for the anti-Qaddafi forces. But the problem of dealing with captured and accused mercenaries is one the rebels will have to solve if they take power – and, given the US’s stance on the issue, one they will have to deal with primarily at the domestic level. The issue of mercenaries will also affect the tone of Libya’s relations with other African countries in the post-Qaddafi era, if indeed that era comes.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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