June 19, 2011 9 Comments
Francophone African news coverage has been rather preoccupied with the news that Nigerien Presidential Guard forces this week intercepted a convoy of three 4X4 trucks in the north of the country not far from the uranium mining town of Arlit, destroying one truck and capturing another that had been abandoned, reportedly seizing nearly 640 kg of military-grade Semtex and hundreds of detonators in boxes stamped “Libya”, as well as nearly $90,000 in cash.
While Nigerien authorities originally announced that their troops had engaged “armed bandits,” it’s becoming increasingly clear that the trucks were either driven by arms traffickers with suspected links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as Radio France Internationale has reported, or directly by AQIM elements, as reported by Jeune Afrique and a Nigerien official close to the country’s president. An Arab fighter was killed in the exchange, identified by the latter as a “barbu” a standard term for Islamists, and a former fighter in the Nigerien Tuareg MNJ (Mouvement des Nigériens pour la Justice), which has waged several rebellions against the government in the past, surrendered to the Nigerien authorities on June 15.
While many of the details of the exchange remain confused and incomplete, the seizure of the explosives and detonators provide the first hard evidence that Libyan weapons are flowing out of the country and into the Sahel. Officials in the region as well as Europe and the United States have been warning about this nearly since the conflict in Libya began, news which made me rather skeptical, especially since much of the concern seemed to be coming from Algerian and Chadian officials, both of whom have other concerns about the instability and Western engagement in Libya. But this most recent incident seems to confirm the reports that weapons are leaving Libya through long-actve smuggling routes in the country’s south that traverse the relatively unpopulated and under-secured region north of Nigeria, routes which run south and west, crossing Mali and heading into West Africa.
The surrender of the trafficker and fighter Apta Mohammed is one of the more fascinating details of this story. Mohammed reportedly served as a “guide” for the convoy, and while his involvement could be an isolated instance of Tuareg involvement in weapons and other smuggling, it could also presage more troubling developments. Setting aside for a moment the potential AQIM involvement, Mohammed’s presence as part of the convoy could indicate an increasing involvement of former Tuareg fighters in the arms trade in the region, raising the possibility of more money and advanced weapons flowing into Niger’s north, which could upset the rather delicate balance that has held in the region since the most recent Tuareg uprising was settled in 2009. The North is already coping with the return of tens of thousands of Nigeriens (some Tuareg, some not) fleeing the instability in Libya, some of whom may have fought as “mercenaries” for Qaddafi. Again, this situation has been getting very short shrift in the anglophone Western press, but instability in Niger’s north could cause nasty problems in the Sahel and southern Libya, and deserves more attention.
Turning to the AQIM connection, rumors circulated just after the kidnapping of seven employees of the Uranium giant Areva and a subcontractor in Arlit last September that AQIM had been poking around the Aïr Mountains and making inroads among the Tuareg. The possibility of Tuareg cooperation with – or worse, membership in – AQIM caused a fair bit of concern at the time, though evidence of Tuaregs actually joining AQIM has been pretty slim. However, this most recent incident seems to indicate at least limited connections between AQIM and traffickers in the region, a fact that could pose another risk of instability; AQIM has quite a bit of money to throw around, accrued from kidnapping, the drug trade, and quite possibly the weapons trade as well. Given the crowded and increasingly dire situation posed by the region’s refugee crisis, AQIM could take advantage of the situation to stage a recruiting drive. Now, this is far from certain, as there is no evidence that AQIM has nearly the local connections or recruiting presence that it does in Northern Mali (in Timbuktu, for instance, they are said to openly advertise on walls) or in Mauritania, from where the organization has drawn a few hundred recruits in the past several years. But again, something to watch.
Which brings us, finally, to AQIM itself. When reports first emerged in April that AQIM had taken advantage of the disarray in Libya to seize high-quality heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft artillery and SAM-7 missiles, I argued (and still believe) that the weapons were likely intended not for attacks against military or civilian aircraft, but instead to defend AQIM camps against raids by Western Special Forces, most likely those who wear the bleu, blanc et rouge. However, Semtex, detonators and military-grade explosive devices are another game entirely.
For the past several months AQIM has been relatively quiet, aside from a brief spate of unusually deadly attacks against Algerian security forces in the country’s north. However, these weapons, aside from their obvious resale value to a number of interested groups in the region, could be used to restart a terrorist campaign in the Sahel, especially as Mauritania and Mali have tightened their counterterrorism relationship recently, and Mauritania has made it abundantly clear that they intend to go after AQIM camps in Mali. The problem with this is that despite the group’s very clear hatred of Mauritanian President Ould Abdel Aziz and desire to see him dead, AQIM in the Sahel has been limited in its terrorist ambitions by a lack of targets and huge open spaces that need to be traversed in order to wage any attack. And Mauritanian forces seem to have gotten increasingly good at disrupting AQIM operations, as evidenced by the botched attempt in February to kill Abdel Aziz in which Mauritania’s security services tracked a small AQIM convoy from the time it crossed the border with Senegal, eventually cornering one bomb-laden truck which spectacularly exploded during a firefight and chasing down the others.
The place where these weapons really could make a difference is northern Algeria, where AQIM has conducted a persistent IED campaign for years against Algeria’s army, police and gendarmerie. But again, many open questions remain about the Sahelian AQIM’s relationship with the increasingly isolated north, as well as the viability of smuggling routes that might allow the group to move weapons to their brothers in the “Triangle of Death”, especially at a time when Algeria’s security forces and a certain U.S. military command in Stuttgart are undoubtedly watching very closely.
Finally, this incident provides more evidence that, rather than seeking to run the revolt in Libya (as some members of the U.S. security establishment and Congress seem to want to believe), AQIM is using the chaos there to take what it can, before retreating to Algeria or Mali. No one has provided any indication that more than two or three AQIM members are entering Libya at any given time, and while they could be making contacts with rebels or other assorted jihadists for the purpose of fighting, it is just as likely that they are scouting the terrain, or laying the groundwork for other smuggling convoys. But as with so much in the world of counterterrorism and especially with regards to Libya and the Sahel, what we do not know far outweighs any shadows of information from open sources that pass for evidence. Caveat Lector.