The uprising of Libyan rebels against Muammar al-Gaddafi’s rule has led to some unwanted consequences: Al Qaeda-linked militants across North Africa have been benefiting from the lack of control over the Libyan Army’s hardware depots. This will present challenges to regional security for years to come.
It was a Sunday just before mid-June in the desert of Northern Niger. A convoy of three Toyota 4x4s had just entered the sleepy desert town of Ourarene, about 80 kilometres north of Arlit, a regional uranium mining centre essentially run by the French company Areva. All three vehicles, containing only one driver each, came to a stop in the almost unbearable desert heat.
Then the shooting started.
- Hidden at some distance, a patrol of Niger’s Presidential Guard opened fire at the Toyotas with heavy machine guns and automatic rifles.
- One of the vehicles immediately got hit, while the drivers grabbed their weapons and fired back.
- Soon, the men belonging to the undamaged cars jumped in, shifted into reverse gear, swerved around and made a full-throttle dash amidst the sound of rattling automatic gun fire, incoming bullets whizzing by and clouds of desert dust popping up, according to accounts assembled by French and local media, citing witnesses and security sources.
- One soldier was fatally wounded in the exchange, six others injured.
- The security forces on site quickly called for reinforcements from the regular army, the Presidential Guard and the Gendarmerie.
- Helicopters were launched from Arlit, and a small surveillance aircraft soon arrived in the airspace over Ourarene, scanning the surroundings for the two 4x4s that had escaped the initial attack.
- When soldiers approached the smoking wreck of the Toyota they had hit first, they found the driver shot dead. It did not take them long to discover hints at the identity of the dead man: He was a ‘Barbu’, or ‘bearded one’, a regional synonym for Islamists of Arab origin.
- In the back of the 4×4, the presidential guards found no less than 640 kilograms of military-grade ‘Semtex’ plastic explosives, neatly packed into 40 boxes of 16 kilograms each.
- Dozens of Czech-made detonators, several military uniforms, various documents and 90,000 US Dollars in cash were also stashed in the car. The explosives and the detonators were clearly labelled – ‘Libya’.
- It took the thin-stretched Nigerien authorities three more days, until 15 June, to locate the remaining two cars.
- One had been abandoned about 40 kilometres north of Agadez, with more than 80,000 inhabitants the largest city in Northern Niger.
Abta Hamaidi Mohammed, a shadowy Nigerien weapons trafficker and former government adviser, surrendered to the authorities in Agadez.
Sources close to the investigation claim that Mohammed was piloting one of the Toyotas, and that he was ‘guiding’ the convoy through the desert.
The catch in Niger’s desert in June highlights some of the unwanted fallout that the Libyan uprising has had across North Africa. Not long after Libyan rebels took up protest banners and arms in February, Western and African security experts pointed to the uneasy ramifications the situation could have. As ragtag rebel forces drove the Libyan Army out of the country’s East, ammunition depots were abandoned by their guards and left to looters.
A whole range of people took advantage of the security vacuum: Pro-Western rebels, bandits, and of course some Jihadis and their sympathisers, who have a traditionally strong support base in and around the ‘rebel capital’ Benghazi. This way, weapons ranging from heavy machine guns to anti-aircraft guns to ‘SAM-7’ portable anti-aircraft missile launchers have most likely found their way into the arsenal of ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ (AQIM).
AQIM is the new name of the Algeria-based ‘Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat’ (GSPC, or ‘Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat’) which was re-branded as an Al Qaeda affiliate in early 2007. At the time, the GSPC had been under heavy pressure from authorities, its strength was dwindling. The move was intended to open up new sources of funding from pro-jihadi donors in the Gulf region and elsewhere, and to attract badly needed recruits.
However, the re-branding was perceived as controversial amongst the group’s leadership and their rank and file. Despite the occasional attack in its homeland Algeria and some kidnappings of Westerners across the Sahara plains, AQIM basically remained stuck with their backs to the wall. Membership was going down to merely 300 by some accounts, as the group was struggling to get their hands on explosives and was in need of cash and weapons. That was until earlier this year; the Libyan uprising has unintentionally provided the Al Qaeda-linked extremists with a new perspective, putting yet more stress on the already shaky regional security situation.
The discovery and disabling of the weapons convoy in Niger in mid-June again shows the collaboration with regional nomadic tribes that the GSPC and later AQIM have long relied on. The place where the three Toyotas were fired upon by Nigerien soldiers, Ourarene, lies deep within Touareg territory, situated well away from routes that are normally used by overland traffic. But the case also demonstrates that even such clandestine convoys are not immune from detection.
In fact, as Nigerien security officials contend, ‘human intelligence’ about the convoy was picked up well before the vehicles actually entered Niger. According to a tip-off, two Toyotas packed with explosives and other weapons passed the city of Sebah in south-west Libya in early June. Instead of heading directly south to the border with Niger, the cars first drove west into Algeria. There, the 4x4s turned left towards the Hoggar, a region characterised by a bizarre rock landscape, scarcely inhabited by Touareg nomads.
Sometime between 08 and 10 June, the two Toyotas crossed from Algeria into Niger, where they linked up with a third vehicle – most likely the one with weapons trafficker Abta Mohammed at the steering wheel. At this stage, the convoy was almost doomed. Phone calls made by the passengers were tapped and their movements tracked until the convoy was raided on 12 June in Ourarene.
Despite the counterterrorism success in June, security services in the West look upon the newly energised weapons flows in North Africa with great concern. In the past few months, similar weapons convoys have been reported heading to Mali and even into Senegal. Untold amounts of explosives have entered the black market in the region since the advent of the ‘Libyan spring’. Not least, the potential terrorist threat against civilian and other aircraft by portable air defence weapons, not just in Africa, is rising again after decades of laborious counter-proliferation efforts. Whatever the outcome of the Libyan rebellion, regional security will remain affected by the unintended consequences for years to come.