Trouble Brewing in the Desert
13 February 2012
The aftermath of the fall of Gaddafi and the violent transfer of power in Libya is beginning to make itself felt through the region. Several stories have come out of Libya itself of conflict between tribes and factions within the country over predictable issues of power sharing, the division of spoils, and acts of revenge and reprisal, as well as conflicts between and among these groups. The transitional government is weak and inchoate, if it could even be said to exist at all. Weakness means vulnerability in the state of nature than exists among nation-stats, and it is inevitable that outside powers will seek to influence events in Libya. One must suppose that spooks and spies from all over the region have been dispatched to Libya, and that some of the disorder in the country is the work of agents provocateurs.
On 11 February 2012 the BBC story Libya’s Saadi Gaddafi threatens to lead uprising reported that Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saadi Gaddafi (who had previously tried to flee to Mexico) appeared on television on Niger threatening to lead a rebellion against the transitional government in Libya. The next day there was a much more detailed story in the Financial Times by Borzou Daragahi in Tripoli, Libya on alert after warning from Gaddafi’s son, which had some interesting information on the strained relations between the transitional government in Libya and the nation-states of sub-Saharan Africa. Muammar Gaddafi had curried favor in the region by spreading Libya’s oil money around; that largess has come to a screeching halt, with the predictable consequence that nation-states in the region are suddenly sentimental for the ex-Libyan strongman.
Interestingly, in this television appearance Saadi Gaddafi is wearing an expensive-looking Western business suit, sitting in a large overstuffed leather chair, and surrounded by symbols of wealth, opulence, and power. He looks, to put it plainly, like he is seated in an office of executive power. This is clearly meant to send a signal, and that signal is this: I’m alive, I’m in control, I have money and backers and influence and you can’t touch me. While this is a powerful signal, it is also not exactly what I would have expected. His father made much of cultural appeals, often dressing the part with theatrical panache. when the elder Gaddafi wanted to appeal to Arabs, be positioned himself as a Arab and dressed as one. When he wanted to appeal to Saharan and sub-Saharan Africans, he positioned himself as an African and dressed the part, and would engage in heated anti-Arab diatribes. So what is Saadi Gaddafi’s intended constituency when dressed as a Westernized businessman? The obvious answer would be “western businessmen,” but in this case I do not think that the obvious answer is the correct one. I will wait for more clues before I hazard any more guesses on this head.
In the map above I have put numbers in the nation-states indicating the number and location of Muammar Gaddafi’s surviving children: Saadi Gaddafi is in Niger, Saif al-Islam is at home in Libya, a prisoner of the transitional government, and in Algeria there are Muhammad al-Gaddafi, Hannibal Gaddafi, and Ayesha al-Gaddafi. Interestingly, the Gaddafis in Algeria have been quite silent, whereas Saadi in Niger is in front of television cameras — precisely the reverse of what I expected. And then I put a star in Mali to represent the clashes there.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Sahara, Tuareg tribesman who served as Muammar Gaddafi’s mercenaries for many years (read: well-trained and well-armed) have returned to their native regions, mostly in Northern Mali but, being nomads, they travel across Algeria, Niger, Chad, and Libya as well, and are reinvigorating an old insurgency of Tuaregs against the Malian government based in Bamako. I say, “based in Bamako,” because if you look at a map you will see that there is a lot of desert between Bamako and the Mali-Algerian-Niger border region. It will be extraordinarily difficult for the government of Mali to effectively project power in this periphery, and especially so against desert nomads who call the region home. Strategic Forecasting has published an excellent analysis of the Tuaregs in Mali, Mali Besieged by Fighters Fleeing Libya, which details some of the problems that Malian government is having and will have.
The government of Mali claims that the Tuareg rebels are affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), while the Tuaregs make the counter-claim that they will be a bulwark against AQIM. In other words, AQIM is in play in Mali. At the same time, other al Qaeda identifying representatives have urged support for the rebels against the Syrian government. The relationship of this to North Africa is distant, but, I think, still significant. Notwithstanding the fact that Syria is ruled by the minority Alawites, who are Shia, and al Qaeda affiliated groups tend to be predominately Sunna (which would make the al Qaeda support of Syrian rebels comprehensible under any circumstances, and therefore not surprising), one can see this as a preemptive move by rump al Qaeda elements to get back in the game after having had most of their apex leadership killed. The relation to the Sahara is that a similar dynamic could emerge here, with al Qaeda shifting its focus from its traditional preoccupations to supporting the overthrow of regimes of all kinds, so that the ensuing chaos might be exploited. With this stance comes the popular sympathy and street cred of having sided early with rebels who are ignored by other powers, and therefore being in a position of disproportionate influence should those rebels prove successful.
We now recall, in this context, that the elder Gaddafi himself tried to play both sides of the al Qaeda card, at one moment warning the Western powers (essentially), “Après moi, le déluge,” while at another moment trying to hijack popular Islamic sentiment by seeming to align himself with the goals of al Qaeda. Thus one message that Saadi Gaddafi’s business suit may be intended to send is that, “I’m not al Qaeda,” but, of course, he could change that with his next television appearance. And, also of course, there is a diplomatic advantage to being unpredictable, especially when acting against the predicable purposes of established nation-states.
In The Gaddafi Diaspora I suggested that:
“…North and Central Africa are complex crossroads, made all the more complex by recent events. With all these forces in play, the Sahara Desert may become a periphery that decides the fate of the political centers of the region. The momentum of history, at least in Africa, has passed into the vast emptiness of the interior of the continent. This will be a theater to watch in coming years.”
I continue to think that the Sahara may yet prove a disruptive theater in future African affairs.
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