Instability Threatens the Sahel

Instability Threatens the Sahel

Weapons and unrest are spreading from Libya and inflaming long-dormant tensions throughout the region.


The fallout from Libya is spreading. The most immediate impact is the growing instability in the region of the Sahel, the belt of countries just south of North Africa.

Late last month, the flooding of looted weapons and Tuareg fighters from Libya to sub-Saharan Africa triggered an insurgency and a coup in Bamako, the capital of neighbouring Mali. Building on the success of the Tuareg in northern Mali, both nationalism and Islamism are likely to take root there. With the fighter and arms pipelines feeding Libya’s neighborhood and beyond, the threat is spreading to Sub-Saharan Africa. Unless there is greater regional and international resolve, the cascading effect of the Libyan revolution is likely to empower African secular and Islamist movements.


The Arab Spring created opportunities for Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Hitherto functioning underground, the Islamists in North Africa now operate above ground as well. By cooperating with secular parties, Islamist movements such as the Libyan Islamic Fighters Group (LIFG) openly advance their agenda of the Islamization of Libya. In integrating the leadership and membership of the LIFG, the new government in Tripoli is challenged to adopt their strident interpretation of Islamic law. Thus, the long-term impact of the Libyan fallout is the mobilization of the vast Muslim population in Africa by threat groups active in the North, West and East of Africa.

The Context

The Libyan civil war began with the arrest of a human-rights activist in Benghazi in February 2011 and ended with the capture and killing of Qaddafi in Sirte last October. Though some Libyan Tuareg had opposed Qaddafi, many others found employment in the Libyan regular army, which included a few thousand Tuareg fighters from the Sahel, mostly from Mali and Niger.

The Tuareg, a nomadic Berber people who cross the borders of northern Africa, have been fighting for independence for a hundred years. The region witnessed five Tuareg rebellions, the first from 1916–1917, the second from 1962–1964, the third from 1990–1995, the fourth from 2007–2009 and the current rebellion starting in January of 2012. Algeria and Libya (including Qaddafi) have historically played significant roles in mediating rebellions in both Niger and in Mali.

The most prominent Tuareg leader, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, lived in Libya accumulating weapons and preparing for a new rebellion. In an interview he gave before his mysterious death, Ag Bahanga remarked to El Watan of Algiers last August, “the disappearance of al-Qaddafi is good news for all the Tuareg in the region. . . . His departure from Libya opens the way for a better future and helps to advance our political demands. . . . Now he's gone, we can move forward in our struggle.”

Turning Point in Timbuktu

Starting September 2011, when it was evident that the Qaddafi regime was going to collapse, Tuareg fighters began to cross over to Niger and Mali in vehicles loaded with weapons and other equipment. The Tuareg fighters serving in the Libyan military emptied the arms depots. Whatever that was movable was transported to Niger, Mali and other countries with Tuareg populations. With the flow of arms and trained Tuareg fighters from Libya, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) launched its campaign in December 2011. Mali's military is very under-resourced and had nothing equivalent to what the Tuaregs had brought back from Libya.

When MNLA launched its fight for independence of Azawad, the Mali military suffered a series of setbacks. The military was unhappy that the government did not provide adequate resources to restore law and order in northern Mali. In late March, the military, led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, staged a coup against the democratically elected president of Mali Amadou Toumani Touré. Hailed as a soldier of democracy, the sixty-three-year-old Touré was a month away from stepping down as president after a presidential poll set for April 29. Today, Mali, one of the few African democracies, is ruled by a military junta.

The MNLA captured the regional capitals of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, the fabled destination described by Ibn Battuta. Although MNLA members are not Islamists, another group, the Ansar ud-Din (Helpers of the Religion), consolidated the areas captured by MNLA. Committed to establishing a theocracy, Tuareg leader Ag Ghali fought side by side with MNLA, framing the fight as a jihad with the goal of implementing sharia. Ag Ghaly’s interpretation of sharia is compatible with the Taliban style of stoning and amputations.

MNLA and Ansar ud-Din started to clash with each other in Timbuktu. Unlike MNLA, which is committed to secular rule, Ansar ud-Din seeks to impose Islamic law. Ansar ud-Din fighters pulled down the NMLA flags in Timbaktu and called for the implementation of shariah in April 2012. Christians fled the city in fear, increasing the number of displaced and refugees to over two hundred thousand.

Although MNLA opposes al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar ud-Din works with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), a breakaway faction of AQIM. Formed in mid 2011, MOJWA joined Ansar ud-Din in their operations against the Mali military. MOJWA, which kidnapped Westerners, mounted suicide attacks and participated in the fighting in Gao, operates in southern Algeria and Northern Mali.

Growing Islamist Threat?

Although Tuaregs are Muslims, they are largely an ethno-nationalist movement. There are intermittent tensions and sporadic clashes between the nationalist and Islamist Tuareg factions—and there is concern that the Islamist faction will consolidate the victory through the MNLA.

Today, both the secular and the Islamist fighters are competing for power. MNLA proclaimed “the irrevocable independence of the state of the Azawad starting from this day, April 6, 2012.” Keen to establish a theocracy, Ansar ud-Din leader Ag Ghaly said earlier this month that “we are not an ethnic, or tribal or racist group, but we are an Islamic Jamaat and our loyalty is to all Muslims, and we belong to our great Muslim Ummah, and we disown and declare enmity to the Kuffar and polytheists.” He made clear his commitment to sharia:

It is not a secret the scale of suffering which our Muslim society is suffering from, and the worst of it is disabling the Islamic sharia, which Allah have blessed us with, and replacing it with the manmade laws that is taken from the Jews, Christians and their followers, which resulted in oppression, aggression, immorality, disobedience, poverty, deprivation.

The presence of Ansar ud-Din in the fight in northern Mali will be hailed by al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and other like-minded groups in Africa. Their ideologies will change the social and religious fabric of Africa, which has been traditionally very moderate and tolerant. With famine and illiteracy, unemployment and a youth bulge, Africa is ripe for conflict. It is paramount for both African and other governments to raise their awareness of the growing threat.

Curbing the influence of such groups requires a multipronged, multidimensional and multijurisdictional strategy. It involves not only decisive law enforcement and military action but also engaging the local population through mainstream religious, educational, social and cultural organizations.

The most profound cascading effect of the Libyan revolution is the deterioration of the security of the trans-Sahel region. A pre-counterinsurgency environment is in the making in the Sahel—a zone of transition dividing the Sahara from Africa's tropical forests covering parts of the territory of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Sudan and Eritrea. Before it is too late, there should be greater international will and African commitment to stabilize this threatened region.

Professor Rohan Gunaratna is head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore and author of Inside Al-Qaeda. He lived and traveled in Africa.

Image: Magharebia