Foreign Policy Blogs

Libya and the Sahel: Has a Dictator’s Demise Doomed the Region?


After the fall from power in 2011 of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya’s de facto ruler for forty-two years, there was no lack of backslapping bonhomie among NATO country members who had helped overthrow the despot from power. Indeed, the West’s bombing sorties had been skillfully executed, with France and Great Britain playing key roles in a campaign that required flexibility and skill in order to support a disorganized rebel force and to avoid the political fallout that would have resulted from high civilian casualties. Although some Republican foreign policy hawks in Washington chafed at the characterization of America’s role in the campaign as “leading from behind,” it was difficult at that time for anyone to argue against the success of the mission.

Fast-forward nearly two years since the end of the civil war, and the situation in Libya has changed dramatically. The initial exuberance following the fall of Qaddafi has given way to hand-wringing in Washington, as a fierce battle rages between Republicans and Democrats over whom to blame for the death of Christopher Stevens, the former U.S. Ambassador to Libya, last September 11 in an attack of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. While Washington engages in political posturing and finger-pointing, deeper concerns about post-intervention policies are being ignored with grave consequences not only for Libya but also for other countries in the region.

Developments in countries located in the Sahel, the Sahara desert’s southern fringe, reflect the unrest spreading beyond Libya’s borders since Qaddafi was thrown out. The proliferation of weapons, escalation of armed attacks by radical Islamic groups, and the return  of hundreds of thousands of Africans no longer welcome in Libya are three phenomena with consequences that the international community, in its rush to claim credit for toppling Qaddafi and bringing democracy to Libya, did not foresee and which are now wreaking havoc in Africa’s arguably most volatile region.

First, the weapons. It is important to remember that Libya, under Qaddafi’s watch, was a large-scale purchaser of arms. Since the beginning of the civil war in February 2011, an unknown volume of munitions have been smuggled into the Sahel, as well as into parts of the Middle East, including Egypt, Gaza and Syria. Indeed, Islamic militant groups in Mali, whose control of the northern part of the country and near takeover of the capital, Bamako, precipitated France’s military intervention in January 2013, were armed with high-powered weaponry from Qaddafi stockpiles. Reports have also indicated that Syria’s rebels have received substantial arms from Libya through shipments financed by Qatar, adding to the militarization of that country amid its worsening humanitarian crisis and increasing concerns that once inside Syria, the weapons may fall into the hands of extremist groups operating in the country. Countries in the Sahel, particularly Niger, Algeria and Mauritania, were always wary of Libya’s civil war and the toppling of Qaddafi, and it now seems their concerns were justifiable.

Following close on the heels of increased weaponry in the region has been an escalation in armed attacks by extremists in the Sahel. The U.N.’s decision to deploy a 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force, the world body’s third largest, to Mali by the end of this year, while laudable in its aims, is likely akin to a game of whac-a-mole: Jihadists confronted by a superior force have only to move through porous, sparsely populated borders to other desperately poor countries to rest, rearm and plot renewed strikes. And while troops may be able to bring stability to the area in which they are deployed, there are already indications in the Sahel that security gains in one country may come at the cost of increased extremism in others. For instance, there are reports that Malian rebels have fled to Darfur in the western part of Sudan; similarly, large tracts of land in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger have little to no government presence, allowing jihadists to move unencumbered and control large swathes of rugged terrain. Recent suicide-bombings in Niger, the first known in the country’s history, demonstrate that armed groups have spread out across the Sahel, while continued turmoil caused by Boko Haram  (“western education is sacrilegious”) in Nigeria’s northeast shows little progress is being made in the government’s effort to provide security.

In addition to the threat an expansion of arms and extremist groups across international borders pose to the region, many countries in the Sahel now have to cope with the return home of hundreds of thousands of their citizens who had relocated to Libya prior to its civil war. The Libyan economy provided jobs for many sub-Saharan Africans who had fled countries with internal strife and were able to send much-needed remittances to their families as a means to combat poverty. The influx of the returnees to their home-countries has resulted not only in a sudden drop-off of important financial support, but has also applied additional strain on already fragile socioeconomic structures as families and governments try to cope with a large influx of jobless young men. In an U.N. report issued in 2012, the International Organization for migration estimated that 95 percent of returnees from Libya were male, between the ages of 20 to 40, and had low-levels of educational attainment. These men, many of whom suffered severe psychological trauma, human rights violations and extortion while fleeing Libya during its civil war, make eager recruits for jihadist organizations such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which, according to the same U.N. report, have reportedly assumed a humanitarian posture, providing services and assistance in remote areas that aid organizations are unable to reach. This influx of now unemployed returnees, combined with the prevalence of food insecurity, natural disasters such as drought and floods, and epidemics (polio, meningitis, cholera and malaria) have only increased the vulnerability of communities in the Sahel.

If the West is going to accept credit for the toppling of Qaddafi, it must also take responsibility for the unintended consequences precipitated by his ousting. The toppling of a dictator looks less impressive when his expulsion threatens the territorial integrity of other states and enhances the appeal of extremist forces. The mistaken belief that American and European intervention in Libya could be reduced to getting in quickly, avoiding boots on the ground and leaving as soon as possible points to a misunderstanding of the regional importance of Libya to the Sahel and the complex interrelationship of Libya and its neighbors. It seems that Western governments failed to see (or chose to ignore) the extent to which instability in Libya would exacerbate the rise of extremist elements and, combined with the spread of Libyan arms, foment insurrections in the Sahel.  Moreover, NATO’s course suggests a lack of clear understanding of the economic impact removing Qaddafi would have on the wider region and its implication vis-à-vis the recruitment of young men into the jihadists’ ranks.

The spillover from Qaddafi’s fall is likely to continue to have a profound impact on the Sahel, influencing insurgencies across the region. And while leaders in Washington continue to point fingers at one another over Ambassador Stevens’ death, they would be wise to use that energy, instead, to work in concert with their European partners to develop a plan to tackle the grave issues that have bubbled over since the lid of Qaddafi’s control has been removed from the pot.