Qaddafi's African mercenaries head home. Will they destabilize the Sahel?

Now that Muammar Qaddafi has fallen from power, the sub-Saharan African mercenaries who fought for him are returning home – with weapons and military expertise.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP
frican migrant workers whom rebels accused of being mercenaries seen detained in a military base in Tripoli, Libya, on Aug. 28. Hundreds of migrant workers remain stranded in Libya after six months of war unable to flee the country.

In March, as reports swirled that Sahelian mercenaries were fighting in Libya for Col. Muammar Qaddafi, Joshua Keating asked, “What happens when the mercenaries return home?” As Keating noted yesterday, we now have a partial answer. AFP reports:

“Hundreds of Malian and Nigeri[e]n Tuaregs are coming home from the Libyan front. Among them are former Malian and Nigerien rebels, but also Tuaregs of Malian origin who were in the Libyan army,” said a security source at Gao in the north of Mali.

The Tuaregs from the army obtained Libyan nationality in the 1990s and mostly fought alongside Kadhafi’s other troops. Some of them were integrated into an elite military unit, the same source said.

“Mali has the same problem” as Niger, which borders Libya, the source added.

Officials from Niger on Sunday told AFP that Nigerien mercenaries, mainly Tuaregs, had begun returning to the northern town of Agadez on the edge of the Sahara desert, after Kadhafi’s forces were routed by Libyan rebels.

“We need to fear a destabilisation of the whole Sahel with this new development. States like Mali and Niger are not prepared for this situation,” said Mamadou Diallo, a teacher at Bamako University in Mali.

“What’s going to become of these fighters? They have vehicles, weapons and expertise,” he added. “This is dangerous.”

Even this brief excerpt underscores some of the difficulties in understanding who fought for Qaddafi. As I said in February, there are multiple categories of foreign fighters in Libya, including the Tuaregs mentioned in the article, who had been there for years, as well as fighters who only went to Libya this year. There are also black-skinned Africans who are targeted in Libya on suspicion of being mercenaries.

Regarding Sahelians who actually fought in Libya, though, whether they were there for a decade or a month, their return to Mali, Niger, Chad, or elsewhere could, as Mamadou Diallo told AFP, prove destabilizing. This movement of fighters also points to a new political reality in the Sahel: the absence of Qadhafi’s presence as a political mediator (and sometime instigator) in various internal conflicts throughout the region. Sahelian governments have been working to prepare for a post-Qadhafi future, but they are deeply concerned not only about security issues, but also about the potential economic and humanitarian impact that returnees will have on poor and remote areas.

I am no expert on the Tuaregs, but it would seem to me that new rebellions are not inevitable. Still, a period of uncertainty seems likely, as individuals, communities, and nations adjust to the changes that the fall of Qadhafi is bringing.

For two relatively recent pieces on the Tuareg, see here and here.

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

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