It was always a matter of time before the international outcry over the kidnapped school girls in Nigeria would eventually die down and the media would shift gear on the newest headline grabbing news story. The abduction of the Chibok girls back in April dominated the news for much of May when the initially barely reported incident, suddenly grabbed attention leading Hollywood stars and politicians to ally and vigorously condemn the kidnapping. What was a barely known terrorist organisation operating from Northern Nigeria became a household name after it emerged that Boko Haram – roughly translated as ‘Western culture is forbidden’ – claimed responsibility for the crime.
A once locally based organisation with little funding or political outlook, Boko Haram orchestrated a coup that propelled it onto the international stage. However, a cursory look at what turned a petty criminal gang into a global terror network lies further east – in Libya.
Once a solid bulwark against the rise of Al Qaeda and affiliate groups, the ousting of Libya’s strongman leader, Muamar Gaddafi, turned the North African state into a failed nation, which has become a hub for terror groups.
When the Nato-led campaign started in March 2011, arms were shipped into the city of Benghazi to Libyans fighting Gaddafi. The rapid pace at which the Nato onslaught was approved meant that arms were being distributed generously across the country but with little checks as to who or what the recipients were or represented. Now, with the total collapse of a fully functioning central government with the capability of policing the country or controlling the flow of arms, Libya has turned into a cheap arms hub able to cater to any rogue movement operating in the volatile Sahel region.
In January of 2012, a heavily armed Libyan force demanding a ransom from Libya’s oil rich neighbour kidnapped the governor of Algeria’s Ilizi province. Algerian officials reacted promptly, forcing the criminal gang to return the official and subsequently closing its borders with the now crumbling nation of Libya.
However as the situation continued to deteriorate, with Tripoli unable to exercise any control over the plethora of armed groups that emerged from the regime change operation in Libya, the boldness of these criminals now forging alliances across the region, became more apparent.
By January 2013, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb carried out a major hostage taking operation on a gas plant in Southern Algeria. While Algeria’s army reacted swiftly to the crisis, the cost in both human lives and infrastructure proved heavy. The hostage crisis was said to have been greatly facilitated by an influx of arms and men coming from Libya.
This of course, came on the back of AQMI’s invasion of Northern Mali a few months earlier, which prompted the French government, headed by socialist Francois Hollande, to send in troops to rid Mali of a group openly calling for the topling of Bamako’s rule. By April 2012, African news outlets as well as AFP were reporting that Boko Haram militants were in Gao in Mali, fighting the local army. Referred to as ‘the Nigerian fighters’ by locals, their alliance with AQMI was sealed when Libyan fighters offered both organisations sophisticated weaponry to continue the cause of ‘jihad’.
Actions & consequences
Since the toppling of Gaddafi received almost universal backing – at least from the West and its allies – few people dared point to the root cause of AQMI’s swelling ranks: Nato’s attack and consequent removal of Libya’s government.
Once a marginal and isolated off shoot of Al Qaeda, AQMI gained both manpower and armament from the Nato-led operation in Libya.
As part of the consensus group designed to ouster Gaddafi, Qatar took the lead among Arab countries and went further in aiding Libyan rebels. On top of offering political support in both the Arab League and the UN, the gas rich Gulf sheikdom boasting international ambitions, went a step further flooding eastern Libya with arms. The removal of any real authority in the country meant that on top of these extra arms brought in from abroad, Libya’s military hardware – accumulated over 40 years under Gadaffi’s Jamhriya – also ended up in wrong hands. This has not only caused the fracture of Libyan society, with thousands of heavily armed groups refusing government authority, it has also contributed to a flourishing arms black market that has seen Qatari/Libyan weapons end up as far afield as Nigeria – in the hands of Boko Haram- or Seleka groups in Central African Republic.
The ill thought out operation Unified Protector, initially designed to implement a No Fly Zone over Libyan air space, rapidly turned into a regime change operation, which is now impacting the entire Sahel belt countries.
An already volatile part of the continent, this region is now host to rogue organisations whose outreach has been boosted by the absence of authority in the failed state of Libya.
With its strategic location at the North of Africa as well as the gateway between the continent and the Middle East, as well as its its proximity to Europe’s southern coastline, Libya’s unguarded arsenal will have far reaching consequences in the years to come.
With both Algeria and Egypt lead by governments hostile to Islamist groups, Al Qaeda and its affiliates will look further South to implement their bases.
Arguments & reasons
These events have prompted the US to re-start talks with regional governments on the need to install American bases in Africa under the Africom banner. Both Algeria and Libya – under Gaddafi – had strongly resisted the implementation of these bases likely to give Islamist groups more arguments and reasons to continue the holy war against the foreign invader. With the Nigeria kidnapping engaging international opinion, many African leaders are warming to the idea of US help in the form of more military bases. However, with decisions agreed in the heat of a crisis and with public opinion acting as a lobby groups, the far-reaching effects of these decisions are being put aside in favour of immediate positive press coverage. Just as British Prime Minister David Cameron described the rapidly approved Libyan intervention – with its ‘international’ support and its cheering Libyan crowds – as his ‘happy place,’ the fact is that three years on and Libya is still anything but happy.
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