The Libyan Crisis and the Western Sahel: Emerging Security Issues

Princy Marin George was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • August 14, 2012

    The Arab Spring has posed varied challenges to countries in the North African region. While Egypt and Tunisia have transitioned to their first democratically elected governments following decades of autocratic rule, Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria have witnessed protests that have not translated into as dramatic changes for their government structures. The fallout of these events has been as unpredictable as their direct impacts on Arab states. The Sahel states that are on the frontline of these events face the brunt of their spill over. The Libyan crisis in particular has unleashed unforeseen consequences on the West African Sahel states—Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Mauritania. Following an inflow of weapons, ammunition, and armed fighters from Libya’s ‘Islamic Legion’1 into northern Mali, a dormant Tuareg rebellion was revived, leading Malian government forces to launch an offensive. The succeeding months witnessed a military coup and the takeover of northern Mali by armed and Islamist groups in a battle for autonomy. Nigeria has also faced increasing violence by the armed group Boko Haram. Although Niger and Mauritania have not witnessed internal rebellion, they have been forced to open their borders for refugees resulting most recently from the crises in Mali and Cote d’Ivoire.

    The Sahel: Context2

    The Sahel region faces particular vulnerabilities owing to factors such as geography, fragile state structures and demographics. The most common and unrelenting affliction for the Sahel has been regular and severe droughts; the ongoing drought is the third to hit the region within a decade. The most recent crisis in the region has been caused by a combination of the drought, insufficient food supply, high grain prices, environmental damage and the large numbers of internally displaced people and refugees. More than 17 million people currently face possible starvation in the Western Sahel.3 In the context of this study, it is important to note that most of the challenges confronting this region pre-dated the Arab Spring, and have or are likely to be exacerbated in the wake of recent events. 4

    Fragile States

    The creation of weak states in a region that has historically been populated by nomadic people has led to the establishment of borders that undermine, to varying degrees, traditional forms of exercising power, and accentuate, especially ethnic, conflicts. The elimination of long-established methods of conflict resolution and engagement has affected the nature of conflicts in the region. Fragile state structures in most Western Sahel countries have resulted

    in the inability of governments to exercise authority and sovereignty over all parts of their territories. Porous state borders and lack of security infrastructure and transnational security cooperation have resulted not only in massive cross-border movement of migrants and refugees (displaced by inter-state conflicts and tensions) but also the expansion of unchecked illegal activities across state borders.

    Geography and Demographics

    Throughout recorded history, climate variability and climate change have triggered drought cycles and other natural disasters that have induced short and long-term socio-economic impacts in the Sahel region. With most of the population in the region dependent on rain-fed agriculture, droughts have led to poor harvests, resulting in food and pastoral crises and placing millions in extreme poverty and at risk of hunger, malnutrition and disease. The most recent of these occurred in 2010 leaving more than seven million people, mostly in Niger and Chad, facing severe food shortages. 5 Droughts have become more frequent with climate change, and are increasingly affecting larger areas of the Sahel. Persistent food insecurity has inevitably contributed to conflicts in the Sahel states. The region is also rich in natural resources such as gold, oil and gas, iron, phosphates and uranium fuel, attracting interest from major states and other non-state actors.

    Rapid population growth in the Sahel has been another contributing factor to the instability in the region and is expected to increasingly affect human and food security as well. The population in the Sahel is expected to double within the next 30 years to more than 150 million by 2040. The pressures resulting from this can upset fragile internal balances and inter-state tensions. 6 The Western Sahel is already home to a large number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from conflicts dating back to the 1990s.

    Hub of illegal activities

    Both in rural and urban areas, economic insecurity resulting from chronic crises, lack of infrastructure, and access to essential services has caused poverty and unemployment leading people to seek alternative livelihoods; in most cases, this leads to participation in widespread illegal activities. Unregulated or ‘grey’ areas, particularly in the Western Sahel, have enabled the proliferation of terrorist networks, organised crime and trafficking of arms, humans, diamonds and weapons. Money-laundering as a result of drug trafficking is also a major concern. Latin American drug cartels are known to use the region to move products (including cocaine, heroine, and methamphetamine) along established clandestine routes in West Africa and through uncontrolled territories in Mauritania, Mali and the Niger, among others. By using the region to move products into Western Europe, the cartels have created new demand in the region itself. In order to secure their routes and protect their business, professional drug traffickers employ local people who are familiar with the territory. The region also facilitates the movement of illegal migrants from parts of Africa to Europe, resulting in the proliferation of human traffickers.

    Impacts of the Libyan Crisis

    Following popular protests in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, Libyans took to the streets in peaceful anti-government demonstrations beginning February 2011. After violent attempts by the Libyan government to quell the protests, armed opposition fighters took the stage, battling government forces and wrestling for control of the capital, Tripoli. Despite international diplomatic initiatives, the crisis escalated leading to a UN Security Council resolution7 in March 2011 authorising military intervention to end the crisis. The 42-year reign of Gaddafi’s government met a violent end with his death in October 2011. While the Arab Spring reverberated across northern Africa, the Libyan crisis forced neighbouring countries such as Mauritania, Mali, Chad, and Niger to weather most of its fallouts.


    Neighbouring countries have seen an influx of refugees and economic migrants returning from Libya. In addition to Libya’s considerable investment and direct economic support to countries such as Chad, Mali and Niger during the 1990s, the strong Libyan economy had also attracted workers from these countries. Following the fall of the Gaddafi government, the number of returnees from Libya crossed 209,030, with 95,760 in Niger, 82,433 in Chad, 11,230 in Mali and 780 in Mauritania. 8 The influx of traumatised and impoverished returnees has not only disturbed social structures in receiving countries, but has also impacted the humanitarian situation in countries that already face food and nutrition crises, poverty, unemployment, limited access to social services, weak state institutions, diseases and effects of natural disasters such as drought. Labour migration to Libya acted as a key source of income for the development of neighbouring communities. The loss of remittances has had an especially adverse effect on these countries, particularly in light of looming food crises.


    In addition to returnees, large quantities of weapons and ammunition have been smuggled out of Libya. Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger are the frontline countries affected by this outflow. Unsecured weapons storage facilities that were previously guarded by the Libyan government are the main source of the outflow. The movement of these weapons (which include rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft artillery, ammunition and possibly surface-to-air missiles) across state borders by former fighters who were either members of the Libyan army or mercenaries participating in the Libyan conflict, has led to the proliferation of arms, to the benefit of arms traffickers and terrorist and other armed groups operating in the region. Though countries such as Chad, Mauritania and Niger have adopted heightened security measures to limit the inflow of weapons into their territories, the large amounts of arms that are missing or unaccounted for are a cause for concern.

    Terrorist groups

    The poor social, economic and political environment in the Sahel make it a fertile breeding ground for the penetration and development of terrorist groups and other armed or criminal groups that seek to profit from the increasingly chaotic conditions in the region. 9 Since its founding in 2007, the Algerian-run Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been a key actor in the Sahel-Saharan region. Following Algeria’s fight to contain it, AQIM developed networks in the Sahara, cooperating with smuggling rings in the region. 10 The AQIM has so far been weakened by deep internal rivalries, and has in the past largely partnered with criminal groups in the Sahel rather than with ideologically ambitious local Salafi movements. 11 With increasing instability in the Sahel, particularly in Mali and Niger, the threat of expansion and increased consolidation of the group in the Sahel-Sahara is an issue of concern.

    Most recent reports suggest that the AQIM is consolidating its hold in northern Mali12 through control of existing drug trafficking networks, kidnapping ransoms, 13 inflow of arms from Libya along with armed fighters, and armed and extremist groups seeking to expand their activities in the region. 14 AQIM could benefit from the fact that other groups, particularly smaller, ill-equipped and emerging ones, seek to draw legitimacy from affiliating with it. 15 There is also evidence of ties between AQIM and newly formed armed groups such as the Ansar Dine in northern Mali, as well as with the Nigeria-based radical Islamist group, Boko Haram. 16 Thus far, Al-Qaeda’s three affiliates—Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and AQIM—have remained essentially Arab. 17 The potential role that other groups might play in this complex network of actors is yet to be seen. The Al-Shabaab group, for instance, pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in October 2009. Although Osama bin Laden publicly supported the Al-Shabaab, the militia group was not formally incorporated into the Al-Qaeda.

    There exists a clear possibility of networking among these various groups that used to operate independently across the African continent. A direct impact of this on the Western Sahel would be an increase in instances of organised crimes, and human and drug trafficking. The presence of AQIM also seems to have led to an intensification of extremist activities in the name of Islam (as most recently seen in northern Mali). Al-Qaeda’s history indicates that it is strongest when it has attached itself to deep-rooted local conflicts (such as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Somalia) and “rides” with them. 18 The situation in Mali and potentially, Niger and Nigeria, could provide the right ingredients for AQIM and its allies to take root.

    The Tuareg issue and Mali19

    The Tuareg20 have sought autonomy in the Sahel region since the early 1900s. The first rebellion took place in northern Niger during 1916-17 against French colonial rule, and was one among several recurring conflicts between the French and the Tuareg. The three major succeeding conflicts took place between Tuareg populations in Niger and what is now northern Mali, and the governments of the newly independent states from 1962-64, 1990-95 and 2007-09. The most recent instance of their struggle for independence is the renewed fight against the Malian government by the group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (known by its French acronym MNLA) beginning in January 2012. The group was formed in late 2011 and is led mainly by members of Mali’s Tuareg minority, many of whom were formerly part of the Libyan army during the Gaddafi era, or fought as mercenaries in the uprising that overthrew the Gaddafi government. The MNLA claims to be an ideologically secular and pro-democracy movement that is fighting for an internationally recognised independent state of ‘Azawad’—the Tuareg name for the three regions of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal in northern Mali.

    Northern Mali has served as a primary case of perhaps unforeseen consequences of the Arab Spring. The influx of well-armed Tuareg into this region following the fall of the Gaddafi government strengthened the newly formed MNLA and allowed it to counter the poorly equipped Malian army in the north of the country in January 2012. As clashes intensified, the government’s perceived mishandling of the Tuareg situation in the north led a disgruntled group of soldiers to orchestrate a coup and seize power in Bamako. 21 Young army officers abandoned their posts in the troubled north and moved to the south to support the coup in Bamako. 22 Amidst the chaos, the MNLA advanced rapidly to capture areas abandoned by the army. By early April, the MNLA had seized control of the towns of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal, and declared the independence of Azawad, with Gao as its capital. The declaration was dismissed by the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and other countries in the region. Though an ECOWAS-brokered agreement ended the coup and led to the formation of a transitional government tasked with returning Mali to constitutional rule, control of northern Mali has remained with the MNLA. The movement announced that it had no intention to move south towards the Malian capital, Bamako, but would instead focus on political processes and institution building in Azawad. 23

    A significant fallout of the crisis in Mali has been the emergence of new armed groups. At least two previously unknown groups—the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and the Ansar Dine—joined the fight against Malian forces beginning in February 2012, alongside the MNLA. The MUJAO is believed to be an offshoot of the AQIM while the Ansar Dine has ties with the group. Though Ansar Dine is led by a Tuareg and shares with the MNLA the goal of an independent northern Mali, both the MUJAO and the Ansar Dine are hardline Islamist groups that aim to impose Sharia law on the territories they control. 24 The two groups are believed to have driven the MNLA out of the northern regions soon after the latter declared an independent state of Azawad in April, and now control Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal. Refugees fleeing the northern regions have given accounts of public whippings, beatings and stoning for alleged violation of Sharia law in Timbuktu and Gao. 25 The two groups have also destroyed centuries-old mausoleums of Muslim saints in the ancient city of Timbuktu, calling the sites “idolatrous and un-Islamic”. 26 Consequently, Timbuktu has been placed by the UNESCO on its list of world heritage in danger. 27 Although there are indications of MNLA presence alongside other groups in northern Mali, most of its leaders are reported to have taken refuge in neighbouring Mauritania. Several of them have said that they would not counter Islamist control in northern Mali unless they received outside assistance and “unspecified guarantees from outside powers”. 28 The UN has called for sanctions against the Islamist groups and is reviewing an ECOWAS proposal for military intervention to restore Mali’s territorial integrity.

    Implications for regional and international security

    The consequences of these events for regional security are stark. In addition to migration as a direct result of the Libyan revolution, the Malian crisis has forced refugees and local populations to flee into neighbouring states. More than 250,000 Malians are estimated to have poured into Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Algeria, and increasing pressure on local communities and state governments that are already grappling with severe drought and food shortages. 29 This figure is rapidly on the rise owing to the suppression of native populations by the armed Islamist groups who control northern Mali. The region is also turning into a breeding ground for armed and terrorist groups. The existence of transnational criminal networks across the Western Sahel has in all likelihood facilitated the entry of new violent groups in the region. Terrorism, much like increased illegal activity, constitutes not only a security threat but also an economic one; kidnapping for ransom by the AQIM over the past two years, for example, has reduced tourism and hurt local economies. 30

    In the event that Mali is unable to restore its territorial integrity, the MNLA’s call for independence of northern Mali poses another concern for African leaders—the potential for the revival or encouragement of other secessionist movements on the continent. Though the threat of such a domino effect may be exaggerated (as seen following the creation of Eritrea and South Sudan), 31 the security and humanitarian consequences of an attempt to secede, such as in Mali, could easily pose dilemmas for governments.

    There are also likely to be repercussions for global security. The main threat stems from the potential for expansion of operations of transnational terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda affiliates; the troubled, chaotic northern Mali could qualify as an accessible base for this. Recent reports suggest the presence of a large number of individuals of European, Pakistani and Afghan origin or nationality, among others, claiming to be ‘jihadists’ and training with terrorist groups in Mali with the intent to target capitals in the US, UK and Europe. 32

    Regional security cooperation between states including Algeria, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Mauritania has been fragmented despite the grave implications of transnational crimes and terrorism. The ECOWAS has moved beyond its mandate to promote economic integration among the West African states, and has for long addressed security and peacekeeping issues in this region. The organisation has played an indispensable role as negotiator in recent political crises in the region. While Mali, Niger and Nigeria are ECOWAS members, neighbouring Mauritania is not. Though Mauritania and Algeria are members of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) (an agreement aiming for greater economic and political unity among the Maghreb states), the union has been inactive due to disagreements between Algeria and Morocco arising from the Western Sahara issue. 33 The potential role of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) (established as a regional economic union) and the AMU in easing instability in the region is worth exploring. Given economic and political conditions especially in Mali, Niger and Mauritania, regional and international assistance will be a prerequisite to negate the threat of terrorism and manage the consequences of political and economic instability.