Paper first published in the World Defense Review, March 2011
As battle lines crisscross between the rebels marching west to overthrow him and loyal military units taking the offensive against rebel-held towns in the eastern Libya, Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi's fight for survival is being generally viewed through the optic of the shifting sands of Middle Eastern politics through which most media outlets have been reporting the story. Largely forgotten in the process, however, is that, whatever its relation to current ferment in the Arab Middle East, Libya is an African power whose fate has significant implications for the rest of the continent. Hence some points worth keeping in mind as one considers the geopolitical consequences of the drama now playing itself out along the shores of the Gulf of Sidra.
Qadhafi's adventurism has long exacted its toll on Africa. While most international observers who even knew about it laughed off the Libyan leader's 2008 coronation—in, rather ironically, Benghazi, now center of the rebellion against him, of all places—by some two hundred African kings and other traditional rulers as their "king of kings," Qadhafi has long harbored ambitions of hegemony over the continent. Moreover, at least until the more recent years, he did not shy away from acting to secure that objective when he thought he could get away with it.
Not only did he support numerous independence movements—including those of Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe—in the 1970s, but he also sent his army into Chad in an attempt to seize the contested Aouzou Strip, although he was forced to withdraw when France intervened to help its former colony. As I documented in my two books on the West African wars of the 1990s, Libya's interest in Sub-Saharan Africa was nothing short of catastrophic for millions of Africans, especially his backing of warlord Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front/Sierra Leone (RUF/SL) which together unleashed more than a decade of havoc across West Africa from which the subregion is just now recovering. Although he did not indict Qadhafi along with his two West African allies out of concern for losing international backing for the then novel Special Court for Sierra Leone, my friend David Crane, the chief prosecutor for the tribunal, has long described the Libyan ruler as "the center of a long-term criminal conspiracy" to subjugate the region and exploit its riches.
While the resolution unanimously adopted by the United Nations Security Council last Saturday refers the actions of the Qadhafi regime to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for investigation, I argued in this column more than four years ago:
Charles Taylor now faces an international war crimes tribunal for being one of those who bore "the greatest responsibility for crimes against humanity" in the Sierra Leonean conflict. Even if, for obvious reasons of realpolitik, Taylor's Libyan patron cannot at the present time be tossed into the dock with him, shouldn't Muammar Qadhafi at least be named—and shamed—as the principal co-conspirator in the Liberian's rampage of terror and destruction? Don't we owe that much to the millions of shattered lives in West Africa as well as to our common humanity?
In any event, there is a poetic dimension to the fact that the protests against Qadhafi's 42-year rule began in Benghazi exactly a week after prosecutors in The Hague made their closing arguments before the trial chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the war crimes case of his onetime protégé, Taylor.
The "African mercenaries" reportedly fighting for the regime represent a set of complex issues. Since the Libyan uprising began, there have been repeated reports of "African mercenaries" fighting to defend Qadhafi, leading to other reports of backlash against black Africans in parts of the country that have fallen under rebel control as well as videos of the displayed bodies alleged to be those of slain mercenaries. In fact, these various reports are indicative of a rather complex reality.
Relatively early in his rule, Qadhafi created an international mercenary force, the Islamic Legion (al-Failaqa al-Islamiya), recruited primarily from the youth of countries in the Sahel—including a significant number of Tuareg and Zaghawa tribesmen from Mali, Niger, Chad, and Sudan—to help with his fights in the region. While the Islamic Legion was officially disbanded in the late 1980s, many of its members were either placed into special units within the regular Libyan military or otherwise resettled in Libya. In more recent years there have been reports of Africans with military experience transiting Libya as clandestine immigrants to Europe have been recruited. Undoubtedly, having spread his largesse across Africa in recent years, Qadhafi would even be able to find at least some of the continent's rulers willing to at least allow him to hire some of their citizens directly for mercenary service.
For years Qadhafi also ran a network of training camps for aspiring African revolutionaries and strongmen like Liberia's Taylor and Sierra Leone's Sankoh. While the former is now behind bars—and likely to stay there for the rest of his life—and the latter has gone to the judgment of a higher tribunal, there were thousands of other alumni from across Africa. When Qadhafi abandoned his plans for military conquest, some trainees filtered home, while others were eventually recruited into the elite units like the 32nd Brigade (the so-called "Khamis Brigade" commanded by youngest son Khamis al-Qadhafi) which are now fighting for their paymasters' survival. The real danger now, as former New York Times Africa correspondent Howard French put it succinctly earlier this week, "It is all but certain that there are new Charles Taylors out there, trained and armed by Qadhafi and eager to mount violent bids for power. And with their patron going down in flames, they will be heading home."
Since last year, Qadhafi has also sheltered Dr. Khalil Ibrihim, leader of what is probably the strongest of the Darfuri rebel groups, the Zaghawa-dominated Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) which, in 2008, managed to stage an audacious attack across the desert that brought its forces to the very gates of Khartoum. JEM was formerly based in Chad, but since a rapprochement between that country's President Idriss Déby Itno and Sudanese ruler Omar Hassan al-Bashir, it has lost that sanctuary. While JEM spokesmen have denied that their forces are intervening in the Libyan civil war, there is a long history of Libyan meddling in their home region as well as a history of alliance between Qadhafi and the Zaghawa.
There is, moreover, what has, until the recent outbreak of violence, been a significant immigration of Africans to Libya such that their total numbers, including at least 500,000 from Chad alone, added up to as much as one-sixth of the Libyan population. This massive influx provoked a number of anti-immigrant protests and even some outbreaks of violence. Thus it is likely that some of the talk of "mercenaries" is really part of this backlash against primarily black Africans whom many Libyans, rightly or wrongly, view as being favored by the Qadhafi regime. Many of these economic migrants now face reprisals and the governments of their home countries are, for the most part, unable to come to their aid, unlike the American, European, and Asian countries which evacuated their citizens with varying degrees of efficiency over the course of the last week. In this respect, the Libyan rebels are hardly being helpful when their spokesmen whip up hysteria with press conferences to showcase absurd pronouncements like the claim reported by Reuters on Wednesday that Kenya, Mali, and Niger were sending troops to shore up the Qadhafi regime.
Although it should not be exaggerated, there is a risk that Islamist extremists may gain foothold in Libya. Traditionally, Islam in Libya has been overwhelmingly Sunni and largely moderate. In fact, the monarch Qadhafi overthrew in 1969, King Idris, was the grandson of Sayyid ibn ‘Ali as-Sanusi, founder of the eponymous religious order who had clashed with both authorities at Cairo's Al-Azhar University and those in Mecca precisely because he had criticized their conservatism and argued that Muslims should not blindly follow established jurisprudence, but rather engage in independent interpretation (ijtihad) for themselves.
That being said, it is also true that for all his appropriation of Islamic motifs and building of mosques named after himself across the length and breadth of Africa, Muammar Qadhafi adopted relatively early a hard stance against militant Islamism, indeed, against any form of political Islamism. To be fair to Qadhafi, his ranting about al-Qaeda during his ABC News interview with Christiane Amanpour is not some new fixation. In 1998, his was the first government to seek an INTERPOL warrant—the so-called "Red Notice"—against Osama bin Laden.
Within Libya, the regime virtually eliminated the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that had been formed by Libyans returning from the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan and subsequently promoting aggressively programs to "de-radicalize" the remnant. In fact, the eastern regions around Benghazi, Derna, and Ajdabia which have spearheaded the current uprising against the incumbent regime were at various points home to one or another Islamist opponent of Qadhafi, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the various cells that sprung up in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, following the May 2009 death in custody of the militant Ali Mohamed al-Fakheri, a.k.a. Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a trainer for al-Qaeda who was handed over to Libya after several years in American and Egyptian custody following his capture in Pakistan in 2001, thousands of mourners turned out for his funeral in his hometown of Ajdabia.
As I reported several months ago, al-Qaeda's regional franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is undergoing a strengthening of its manpower and operational capabilities. The terrorist group's leadership has issued a statement of support of the rebellion against Qadhafi, who was described as "an enemy of Allah," and will certainly attempt to exploit the situation in the country to its advantage anyway it can. Noman Benotman, a former LIFG leader-turned-counterterrorism analyst, warned in a paper released last week by the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation in London:
In the absence of an independent or secular civil society, some underground Islamist and hardline Salafi currents have developed in Libya. These seem to have played a role in some of the anti-regime protests in Eastern Libya. Although their influence appears to be limited, the Qadhafi regime's current behavior could easily have a radicalizing influence on these movements and might lead to them adopting indiscriminate violence themselves (as happened in Algeria in the 1990s following the military's crackdown on pro-democracy protestors there).
Should this happen, of course, it will be to the detriment of the Libyan people and their neighbors, and, indeed, will constitute a serious threat to the security of all Africans.
Libya is deeply involved in Africa, diplomatically and economically. As I documented here a year ago, in recent years Qadhafi has carved out, both for himself and for Libya, major roles as political and economic actors in Africa. Not only was the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (Communauté des Etats Sahélo-Sahariens, CEN-SAD) established in 1998 with permanent headquarters in Tripoli, but the African Union, as its leaders acknowledged in their 1999 "Sirte Declaration," issued from the Libyan ruler's hometown, that they were "inspired by the important proposals submitted by Colonel Muammar Qadhafi, Leader of the Great Al-Fatah Libyan Revolution, and particularly, by his vision for a strong and united Africa, capable of meeting global challenges and shouldering its responsibility to harness the human and natural resources of the continent in order to improve the living conditions of its peoples." Qadhafi was even chosen by his African counterparts to chair the AU in 2009.
More than its political influence, however, has been Libya's economic reach throughout the African continent, driven by the substantial revenues from the country's energy sector coupled with a relatively small population among which that wealth has to be shared (to the extent that it was shared at all before Qadhafi's pledge last week to pay a $400 subsidy to every family). From the Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company (LAFICO), first established three decades ago, the Qadhafi regime expanded its portfolio to include no fewer than another six such investment vehicles, including the Libyan Investment Authority, the Economic and Social Development Fund, the Social Security Investments Fund, the Libya Africa Investment Portfolio, the Libyan African Investments Company, and the Libyan Foreign Investments Company. The decisions made by these sovereign wealth funds seem to be economic, although they are not without geopolitical implications. The investments have included everything from leasing 100,000 hectares of agricultural land in Mali to majority ownership of the Novotel in Kigali, Rwanda, to a 69 percent stake in Uganda Telecom to Oil Libya Holding Company's more than two thousand gas stations in some twenty different countries. Might a fire sale of choice assets, worth billions of dollars and located in virtually every African state, be in the offing?
The Libyan financing has been critical to the building of infrastructure in Sub-Saharan African, including the reverse flow-capable extension of the Mombasa-Eldoret oil pipeline in Kenya to the Ugandan capital of Kampala. The recently announced tender for the construction of a 230-kilometer pipeline from Lake Albert to Kampala is predicated upon the construction by the Libyans of the extension from Kenya, while soon-to-be-independent Southern Sudan's ambitions of bypassing the North with its oil exports is largely based on the completion of the Ugandan pipeline. Thus the extent to which a post-Qadhafi government—or even Qadhafi himself, should he survive the current challenge to his rule—chooses to remain engaged in Africa will have serious repercussions on infrastructure as well as overall development on the continent.
The most probable outcome for Africa, irrespective of how the fight for the control of Libya unfolds, will be a diminishing of the role the North African country has played in the politics and economics of the continent. Should the rebels succeed in ousting Qadhafi, they will need to focus all their resources on rebuilding their country—socially, politically, and economically—after more than four decades of rule by the "Brotherly Guide" and the dictates of his Green Book. If Qadhafi somehow manages to put down the uprising, he will likewise have to deploy all the resources he commands to keep another one from threatening his grasp on power. In either case—or in the perhaps even more devastating scenario that the conflict is protracted and Libya is returned to the divided state it was in just half a century ago—a new geopolitical and economic balance of will most certainly emerge in Africa as the smoke of the current battles clears.
*J. Peter Pham is Senior Vice President of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also holds academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) and Editor-in-Chief of its refereed Journal of the Middle East and Africa.
Dr. Pham has authored, edited, or translated over a dozen books and is the author of over three hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress on numerous occasions and conducted briefings or consulted for the U.S. and foreign governments as well as private firms. He has appeared in various media outlets, including CBS, PBS, CBC, SABC, VOA, CNN, the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, National Public Radio, the BBC, Radio France Internationale, the Associated Press, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, USA Today, Le Monde, National Journal, Newsweek, The Weekly Standard, New Statesman, and Maclean's, among others.
The views presented in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.