Fallout in the Sahara: Did the War in Libya Play into the Hands of al-Qaeda?

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Luc Gnago / Reuters

Immigrants, who are fleeing the unrest in Libya, unload their belongings in Agadez, northern Niger September 15, 2011.

Where the green of central Africa surrenders to the creeping dry talons of the Saharan desert, down a 14-hour drive from the closest thing Niger has to a city, the baked mud and sand outpost of Agadez is one of those corners of Africa where years get measured in the cracking of walls or the growth of a beard. But lately, town life in Agadez has picked up considerably. The market is stacked with refrigerators and video game consoles, a side product of the trucks full of weary and parched passengers that have been streaming into its streets from the north since the war in nearby Libya started. Nearly every household here had a family member sending money back from Libya's oil economy. Sometimes whole families migrated north. Now, these returnees are wondering what they are going to do back in their own country, one of the poorest in the world. "None of my friends have found any work," says Adoum Ghoumir, who fled through Algeria back to this Nigerien town. "What will these countries do with all of us?"

The Sahara's imposing terrain is obscuring the human and political fallout of the war in Libya from outside view. At least 80,000 people have flooded into Niger alone in recent months from its northeastern neighbor and Niger's government says the number is more than twice that. Usually, fleeing refugees signal humanitarian troubles. That's the case here too, as the needy absorb the needy and authorities fear a poor upcoming harvest.

But there is a far greater danger to the cross-border wave, one that could reach far beyond these scorched lands to the West's doorsteps. Ghoumir is a Tuareg, the rugged Saharans who live mostly across the loose borders of Mali, Niger, Algeria, and western Libya. Towering, sword-wielding, and often fully shrouded but for their eyes, the fiercely independent Tuareg carry a reputation as the bad boys of the Sahara. They have historically rocky relations with their host governments, have launched a series of rebellions in the past two decades. But they had a fickle friend in Muammar Gaddafi, who at times supported their rebellions, invested in their areas, and opened up Libya's doors to them. Tens of thousands of Tuareg moved to Libya for work. Many joined his military — 12,000, according to a senior Tuareg politician in Niger — and thousands more picked up arms for him once the conflict began. Many of these were former rebels. Now, they are part of the flood home. And authorities doubt they are coming home empty-handed. "You can't travel this part of the desert without guns," says Baika Boudjamaha, head of the Nigerien polices anti-drug operations. "They could hide those weapons wherever they want in the desert or mountains and we'd never find them."

Besides serving as the base for previous Tuareg rebellions, this belt of the Sahara has in recent years turned into one of the world's most active smuggling routes. The Tuareg caravans of old that carried salts and slaves across the desert have been replaced with well-armed Land Rovers trafficking cocaine, migrants, and arms. This lucrative trade, which moves from West African coasts to the east — across the Sahara and into Libya, Sudan, and Egypt — are believed to help finance the West's chief new foe in the region, the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a shadowy cross-ethnic network originating in southern Algeria that operates in the porous desert through Mauritania, northern Mali, Algeria, and across the border into Niger. Many now expect them to slide into Libya as well.

AQIM announced itself to the world through several high-profile hostage cases of Westerners that halted tourism and led the U.S. to pull its Peace Corps program from Mauritania and Niger. Some European governments say they have uncovered domestic cells and fear a possible attack on their shores, although many doubt AQIM's capabilities extend beyond its desert base. With an unstable Libya next door offering a possible new stomping ground, much of Gaddafi's arsenal now on the market, and tens of thousands of restless youth now flooding the region, the Libyan shakeup could prove one big boon for Al-Qaeda and the drug smugglers. Mohammed Anako, a former Tuareg rebel leader himself and now the highest elected official in Agadez, sums it all up grimly: "There are big troubles ahead."

So did the U.S. and its European allies shoot themselves in the foot by intervening in Libya? Here at the base of Africa's great desert, the popular consensus is a resounding yes, albeit from one of Gaddafi's core African constituencies. "You in the West should have planned this better. You wanted the end of Gaddafi, but didn't you know the consequences and disorder that would result?" Or so Aghaly ag Alambo, who led the last Nigerien Tuareg rebellion in 2007 and was part of the high-profile convoy carrying Gadhafi's security chief Abdullah Mansour Dhao to enter Niger from Libya three weeks ago, asked me with a sly smile in his comfortable house in the capital Niamey. Resentment at how Gaddafi fell wont fade fast. My Tuareg interpreter later informed me he introduced me to some interviewees as an Australian (I'm American), due to the popular local resentment against NATO. Locals say a recent France 24 TV crew was angrily run out of town.

For a brief period not long ago, Agadez's stasis was interrupted by an influx of adventure tourism, and Agadez brimmed with new jobs. That stopped with the Tuareg's 2007 rebellion. By the time the war ended in 2009, the tourism never returned. Today, all that remains of that heyday are vacant hotels and broken down ATMs. Locals don't expect them to open back up any time soon. "We could control the rebellion," said one Tuareg resident here in Agadez. "This Al-Qaeda we can't control."