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.

Libyans stand on an army tank at the state security camp in Benghazi, Libya, Tuesday, Feb. 22. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi vowed to fight on and die a 'martyr,' calling on his supporters to take back the streets from protesters demanding his ouster, shouting and pounding his fist in a furious speech Tuesday on state TV.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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.

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.

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“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.”

RELATED: How absolute is Qaddafi's power? Key questions.

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.

Among his closest client states were Chad, Niger, and Mali, nations of Africa’s semi-arid Sahel region with unstable governments and few resources to develop themselves.

“The relationship between Libya and Chad is much deeper than the others,” says Mr. Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group. “Libya has been involved with almost all of the mediation efforts in Chad, between the government and rebels, and throughout the civil war in Chad. His mediation never really led to sustainable peace, but from an African perspective, he was eager to be seen as the only one able to calm things down in Chad. It was a status thing.”

Libya’s aid to its poorer African neighbors may have been an ego boost for a man who liked to see himself as a leader of a unified Africa, but his aid money did very little to help uplift the lives of the very poor, say experts like Vircoulon. Most of the aid comes in the form of investment, from the luxury LAICO (Libyan African Investment Company) hotel chains scattered around many African capitals to the OilLibya petrol stations found in many major African cities. These investments don’t create many jobs, and they certainly don’t do much in the way of uplifting the lives of rural Africans, but they are visible reminders of Libya’s importance on the continent.

Ties to regional rebels and warlords

When Qaddafi did invest in people, they were usually soldiers and quite often rebel leaders. He has reportedly offered training and financial aid to myriad militant groups and figures, including warlords like Liberia's former President Charles Taylor, Sierra Leone's former rebel leader Foday Sankoh, and current Chad President Idriss Deby, also a former rebel leader. Mr. Deby’s government is believed to be heavily reliant on Libya for its budgetary needs.

Libya’s mediation in Chad between Deby and the Sudanese government of President Omar al-Bashir seems to have born some fruit, stopping those two countries from using rebel movements in each other’s territory in a decade-long feud. Since the mediation, Chad has seen no more reprises of the two stunning rebel advances that reached Chad’s capital of N’Djamena, although Sudan’s Darfur region continues to see sporadic violence between rebel groups and government forces.

Yet Western diplomats say Qaddafi’s mediation is largely self-serving.

“I think his role in the Sudan-Chad conflict and destabilization in southern Algeria have greatly aided the opportunity space [for rebel groups],” says a Western diplomat who covers the Sahel region. “This diminishes government control and allows groups like Taureg rebels and AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] to flourish, and diverts state resources away from populations toward security.”

But if Libya’s foreign policy causes as many problems as it solves, why do African leaders put up with it, and why don’t they speak out when Qaddafi’s regime is unleashing violence against his own people?

Perhaps it is “the residual appeal of his role as a leader of the developing world anti-Western and third-way movement,” suggests the Western diplomat. “It’s a good question.”

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