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OPINION: Libyan Instability Feeds Extremist Violence from Timbuktu to Rafah – By Abdullah Elmaazi
31/01/2013 02:59:00
World powers suffer battle fatigue quite easily, principally because of the unpopularity of drawn out wars among the electorate. With such fatigue five months after NATO launched its first air raid on Gaddafi forces on its way to recapture Benghazi, French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent Gaddafi an offer of safe passage to the Fezzan with two hundred of his supporters, in return for leaving Tripoli.Gaddafi countered by demanding that he instead be joined by 2000 and surprisingly Sarkozy, after consultation with NATO allies, agreed to.

The agreement was drafted and everyone, including Gaddafi’s closest confidants - expecting him to sign - began working on the logistics. Following this Gaddafi surprised everyone by tearing up the agreement and travelling to the south coast of the Gulf of Sidra city of Sirte to make his last stand.

However, he was captured while in a convoy heading towards the desert. Was this because Gaddafi was led to believe that the offer for a southwards safe passage might still be available?

Leaked documents suggest that it was the Algerians who provided NATO with Gaddafi’s location coordinates by monitoring his calls to daughter Aisha.

The Algerians privy to the Sarkozy offer, were probably alarmed at the prospect of Gaddafi’s presence near their south eastern borders and his alliance to the Touareg separatist movement- otherwise known as the “Lords of the desert”.

The situation in the Sahel region and that of southern Libya would have been far more complex and the threat to Libya's neighbours as well of course to Libya itself would have been far more perilous had Gaddafi accepted the Sarkozy offer and lodged himself in northern Niger,for example, where he has always enjoyed sympathy and support.

This could not have escaped France's policy makers attention and perhaps Gaddafi's calculation that the Sarkozy offer was in effect a trap might not have been far off the mark.

Yet even without a Gaddafi run enclave, Libya's south remains the country's soft underbelly - bordering north-western Sudan, Chad, Niger, south-western Egypt and south-eastern Algeria.

The strip of land from northern Chad all the way to Mauritania and the Atlantic Ocean is known as the Sahel region - one of the world's poorest areas and a site of vast socio-economic deprivation.

In the Sahel, central government control is at its weakest and hence the potential for non-state actors like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to recruit, arm and train is at its greatest. Recent events in Mali and Algeria illustrate this threat.

The Algerian extremists who seized Westerners at a natural gas plant in the desert reportedly got their arms from Libya, as did the insurgents in Mali who France is now trying to crush.

The insurgent's activities are not confined to the Sahel region or to the south of Libya. The danger emanating from the south poses a real threat to the whole of Libya as well as to its neighbours to the east and west.

Over the past two years since the uprising to overthrow Gaddafi, Libya has been one of the main recruiting centres for Islamic extremists and al-Qaeda fighters. It is becoming clear that al Qaeda is spreading in the Sahara.

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to the US Congress about the events in Benghazi, warning that Jihadist groups have formed a complex network of alliances in North Africa with southern Libya and Mali as their main bases.

The group who seized the gas Tigantourine field (Ain Amenas, south-eastern Algeria) which left 38 hostages and 29 Muslim extremists dead were recruited by Mokhtar Belmokhtar and included several Egyptian jihadists active in Libya.

Sources in Algiers report that Mohamed-Lamine Bouchneb, the militant leading the attack at the site, had purchased arms for the assault in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. The kidnappers gathered, undisturbed, at the southern Libyan town of Ghat, just across the border from Algeria before their attack.

A senior Algerian officer claimed that the organisers of the Tigantourine attack are the same group who carried out the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.

This correlates with statements from the US State Department officials that some members of Ansar al-Shariah, the local group that the USA believes having carried out the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, had connections to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the militant groups now entrenched in northern Mali.

How far will the present French operation go in perusing this network of extremists operating all along the Sahel region? Will France claim the right of hot pursuit or seek to locate and destroy the source of arms inside Libya? France will calculate any action in Libya extremely carefully.

Old rivalries die hard, particularly those between "old Europe" and the USA. The latter has no issue with France's action on NATO’s behalf in the Sahel region and in particular in its former colonies of Mali and Niger.

The USA, however, will look askance at any attempt by France to seek to gain major long term military dominance in southern Libya and no doubt France knows where this line is drawn and will probably not seek to cross it.

Egypt is also finding itself increasingly embroiled in the events in Libya. Egypt has legitimate concerns about the spill-over of what is happening in the Sahel region and in the eastern region of Libya onto its borders.

Al Salafiya Al Jihadiya Movement (Salafi Jihadi Movement) the extremist group which the Egyptian Morsi administration has been combating in Sinai have, according to Egyptian intelligence sources, strong links to similar groups operating in the south and east of Libya and in the Sahel region.

In talks with Libyan officials, Egypt has repeatedly brought up the issue of the flow into Egypt of Libyan heavy weapons including long range surface to surface missiles.

Egypt has also discussed this issue with its European and American allies who seem encouraged by Egyptian efforts at securing and stabilising its western borders and utilising its political and considerable intelligence knowledge of eastern and southern Libya to influence events in the direction of restraint and stability. That is however as far as the Egyptian remit will go.

The talk in some quarters in Libya that Egypt might be encouraged to lay claim to Libya's eastern region is irresponsible, spurious and politically infantile.

Europe is also extremely concerned for its interests in Libya. Most recently, Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia have urged their citizens to leave the Libyan city of Benghazi due to a "specific, imminent threat to Westerners" linked to French action in Mali and the danger of new kidnappings by Muslim extremists.

According to British diplomatic sources, Islamists have threatened to carry out attacks against Western targets like the one on the US consulate on 11 September 2011 in which US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.

As if there is not enough intrigue in the Sahel region, there was also a recent report by the French DRM (Military Intelligence Directorate under the Ministry of Defence) some of which was reprinted by the French and international press to the effect that Qatar is helping to fund armed groups, and that the Qatari Special Forces are supporting certain rebel factions in northern Mali including (Ansar Ed-Dine).

The report is more speculative than factual and begs the questions of Qatari interest in the Sahel and its ability to operate independently of the USA and Europe and against the interest of Algeria, the regional power in the Sahel.

However, if confirmed, the Qatari financial and military involvement in the Sahel, combined with its visible political presence in Libya has the potential to inflame an already extremely combustible region.

This brings us full circle to Libya where a combination of foreign involvement, weak central authority, and abundance of heavy arms outside of government control, growing regional secessionist sentiments, a comprehensive political inaptitude and a leadership shamelessly displaying a criminal like cynical perniciousness towards Libya's increasing woes is pushing the country towards the failed state precipice.

While the deteriorating security situation in Libya is of concern to neighbouring countries and beyond, only Libya with strategic constancy can solve the problem of factionalism, lawlessness, arms trafficking and Al Qaeda’s increasing influence in the region. This catastrophic blind march towards the edge of disaster has to be halted by any means.

Nor can Libya's neighbours afford to be complacent about the repercussions of such a scenario. If Libya does not very soon translate economic growth and the extension of government control throughout the country, Libya will most certainly join the ranks of failed states such as Somalia- with the Sahel region as a whole unfolding into the Afghanistan of Africa in the ensuing decades.

In the gathering storms of turmoil and instability of the region, countries north and south of the Mediterranean will have to pay an exorbitant price. This is because the fate of the Sahel region is intertwined inexorably with that of Libya.

thanks for the article. for Libya to to move out of this situation needs to start rebuilding and foreign companies to come back. statements by Britain to pull out its nationals does not help the situation. much of what is said in the media is exaggeration and i think companies which want to come back to libya will be safe doing their work. they must hurry up and go to libya and take part in the rebuilding.
Thank you Abdullah for another eye opener article.

That Gaddafi even bothered to liaise with the French in his final days is a testament to his political naiveté if not his sheer desperation. When push came to shove, the French proved that in the final reckoning his destiny was entirely in their hands as it has always been. Whether he lived or died was only secondary to them. Even in post revolution Libya, the French are at best, a fickle ally, putting their political and economic interests in Africa ahead of whats best for the continent. Their record in Algeria and the Foreign Legion African force is a testament to that. As such they cannot be relied upon as guardians of the peace in any meaningful arrangement. That responsibility must lie fully in the hands of the North African states and the OAU. Only they can administer the border controls and logistics necessary to stem the flow of international criminal activity which, in essence, is the lifeline of terrorism. Mr Cameron’s visit to Libya yesterday promising assistance in the setup of a national security infra-structure is a belated good first step and we need to see more gestures of this sort from all of Europe. In the present situation, the various disparate criminal groups taking hold in Libya’s no-man’s-land are probably more organised then the Libyan security forces. Security is a cornerstone and a foundation for economic development. Without it Libya would be a failed state not much different to Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan. Gaddafi has left a colossal power vacuum which now attracts exploitation from all spheres (from Qatar to Al-Qaida to international pirates) seeking to destabilise the region for their own gain. Europe has a responsibility to help the affected countries help themselves against this geopolitical threat if they are not to be engulfed by the consequences.
Really useful article. Thanks. We hope you continue to write!
Read it carefully. Excellent piece to understand present and near-future developments, a hell of nightmare! Chomin

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