Even more on Libya’s weapons
November 9, 2011 3 Comments
Nigerien and Western news sources reported today about a particularly violent battle in northern Niger Sunday between the Nigerien army and heavily-armed men whose exact identities and affiliations are unclear; reports indicate that the convoy was composed of Libyan Qaddafi loyalists and “Malian Tuareg” and were headed towards northern Mali. One Nigerien soldier and 13 men in the convoy were killed, and Niger’s Defense Minister Mahamadou Karidio said that the army took prisoners and recovered a number of weapons, including two 14.5 mm machine guns, four 12.7 mm machine guns, two ML-49 and three M-80 machine guns, three rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), 36 assault rifles, six 4×4 trucks, and by some accounts more than 11,000 rounds of ammunition.
There have been a number of small skirmishes between Nigerien patrols and “armed men” of various identities in the country’s north in recent months. The most notable of this was an incident in June, when Nigerien forces seized more than 600 kg of high-explosive, blasting caps, and other arms (for what I wrote about the incident at the time, see this entry) reportedly intended for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This should not be a surprise; northern Niger presents a far more attractive route towards Mali than southern Algeria, where the far more capable Algerian army keeps a close watch. And the porous borders and easy access to weapons make for attractive smuggling opportunities. As the operator of a local radio station told the AP, “Because of the Libyan problem, there are now traffickers heading to Libya to pick up the arms left behind and to bring them here. These same traffickers then sell the arms to AQIM.”
However, in this case it is somewhat less clear what this convoy’s purpose was. As the AP and others pointed out, the presence of Qaddafi loyalists in the convoy could indicate simple flight of former regime members towards the relative haven of northern Mali. Several key figures, including former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Sanussi (and maybe even Qaddafi son Saif al-Islam, though this is far from definite) are believed to be hiding in this region. But the presence of heavy weapons and such huge quantities of ammunition also raise the possibility that the convoys arms were being smuggled for eventual sale or use. If the latter case is true, then the likeliest recipients are AQIM or Malian tuareg tribes, who may be equipping as part of a promised offensive against the Malian government. The prisoners the Nigerien army says it took may be able to provide more information about this.
While hardly new to the region and to various regional conflicts, any new infusion of these arms is a cause for concern. Both the 14.5 mm and 12.7 mm are versatile and rugged weapons that can be used in anti-air, anti-vehicle, and anti-personnel capacities. They can be mounted on trucks — as was done here by Libyan rebels — or operated from fixed positions, as was done here. They also pose a major threat to pretty much anything that either the Nigerien, Malian, or Mauritanian militaries can throw at whatever armed group uses them. I asked Jeff Emanuel, a former U.S. special operator, about how the 14.5 mm and 12.7 mm can be used:
A 12.7 is frequently truck-mounted (and is frequently referred to – often inaccurately – as a Dishka), and 14.5 can be as well (we saw some of these in Iraq in particular earlier this decade). The effect of the ammunition depends on what rounds are used with it; 14.5 comes in anything from API (armor piercing incendiary, which can punch through light armor and then some, up to and including the composite armor used on most armored vehicles these days) to HEI (high-explosive incendiary), which have less punch but greater ignition. A truck-mounted 14.5 would be pretty mobile, obviously, and could be pretty effective if used correctly, though the lighter firing platform makes it significantly less stable and less accurate. Another risk with 14.5 is, of course, to aircraft.
You lose range by mounting on a truck vs. the standard 14.5 anti-aircraft (AA) gun (think ZPU or a variant), and accuracy as I mentioned before isn’t going to be the best, but aircraft could be at risk of a “big sky/little bullet” incident (or in this case “big sky/pretty darn big bullet”) anywhere under 10,000 feet above ground level, with the risks increasing as they descend. A helicopter could be a more realistic target than an airplane simply because it’s lower, slower, and more vulnerable. However, while a truck-mounted 14.5 makes a realistic mobile AA platform, it’s probably more of a consistent threat to targets on the ground simply because you get more results from “pray-and-spray” shooting in ground engagements than you do trying to chase an aircraft with rounds.
AQIM has been known to possess these weapons for years, and the “heavy weapons” found in AQIM bases in the Wagadou Forest on the Mali-Mauritania in June and October almost certainly refer to these or similar types of arms. As for the tuareg, such weapons would come in handy in the event of violence breaking out; the Malian army is notoriously ill-equipped and ill-trained (despite recent efforts at professionalization) and these weapons, combined with other armaments reportedly taken back to the region by Tuareg returning from fighting in Libya, could make a very potent combination.
That said, it’s unclear what will actually happen in northern Mali’s Tuareg areas. In Paris several weeks ago a Tuareg expert I greatly respect told me that he was certain violence would break out in one way or another, a view backed up by other observers in the region. And protests for independence have been growing in the area, while the Tuareg Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and other groups threatened violence on November 5. Yet while concern about the possible return of violence to an already troubled region hangs heavily over the Sahel, for now the situation appears tense, but calm.
As has been the case from the first sign of Libyan weapons flowing from the country’s armories, we must wait and see how these weapons actually impact the Sahel and surrounding areas. Violence has escalated drastically in northern Algeria and northern Nigeria in recent months, and a number of observers have put the blame squarely on Libyan weapons (something I discuss here with regards to northern Algeria). However, I have seen no direct proof, whether from militant groups themselves or forensic evidence presented by authorities, that the weapons used are Libyan — though AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar reportedly said in an interview recently that AQIM had acquired Libyan arms. But whether violence is happening now or battles erupt later, it seems depressingly clear that such large outflows of deadly cargo can only fuel and intensify conflict in the Sahel for some time to come.