The weapons flee Libya










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.

AQIM and Libya’s missing weapons

It is a frightening thought; an al-Qaeda franchise in the heart of Africa which has sworn to target European and American interests in the region, not to mention local governments, equipped with a growing arsenal of heavy weapons and even surface-to-air missiles. Two reports have recently suggested rather strongly that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had acquired truckloads of weapons from abandoned army stocks in Eastern Libya, including SA-7 missiles. This news has caused concern among commentators and officials, especially in the wake of NATO supreme allied commander Adm. James Stavridis’ testimony last week that U.S. intelligence had detected “flickers” of al-Qaeda among Libya’s anti-Qaddafi rebels, news that several Islamist former militants and a former employee of Osama bin Laden in Libya are playing key roles in Libya’s rebellion, and as writers dig back into the “Sinjar Records” documents from al-Qaeda in Iraq that showed an unusually high percentage of foreign fighters came from Eastern Libyan cities like Benghazi and Darnah, epicenters of the current rebellion. Yet before things get out of hand and people draw the worst conclusions about the admittedly real threat from AQIM to the region, these latest reports of weapons acquisition require a careful look, to determine not only what the impact of AQIM acquiring these weapons might be, but also if these reports can be trusted at all.

First, to the Reuters report citing an unnamed Algerian security official that eight truckloads of weapons from Eastern Libya had traveled through Chad and Niger before ending up in Northern Mali, including SA-7 “Strela” missiles (the same missiles used to target an Israeli airplane in Kenya in 2002), as well as “RPG-7s, FMPK (Kalashnikov heavy machine guns), Kalashnikovs, explosives and ammunition.” The official continued, saying, “we know that this is not the first convoy and that it is still ongoing.” An interview nearly two weeks ago with Chad’s president Idriss Déby similarly asserted that AQIM had acquired SAMs in Libya and brought them back to northern Niger, and was becoming “a real army, the best-equipped in the region.”

If true (and I’m really not sure about this) the news is interesting and worrisome, but not for the reason many people think. While the specter of an al-Qaeda affiliate getting their hands on SAMs brings to mind the failed 2002 attack, the scenario described in the two stories imply instead that AQIM is hoarding the missiles in isolated strongholds in the Sahel (the Ténéré region in Niger and likely the Timétrine in Northern Mali) far from any high-profile airline targets. And while it’s not impossible that these weapons would be redeployed or re-sold, the effort that would have gone into transporting these weapons across several countries and thousands of miles of difficult terrain just to send them elsewhere.

Instead, as I told journalist Paul Cruickshank last week, it is far more likely that AQIM would hold onto the weapons to defend against raids from helicopter-borne special forces troops, from France or elsewhere, which have been known to operate in Niger and Northern Mali and have staged at least two operations against AQIM forces, in July 2010 and in January 2011, where French forces rapidly deployed and attacked fleeing AQIM forces in Mali in a failed attempt to rescue two hostages seized 12 hours earlier in Niger’s capital of Niamey. This possibility also makes some sense alongside an interesting piece of information from North Africa analyst Geoff Porter, who wrote in an article for the CTC Sentinel in February that AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar had bought a .50 cal. DSHK (or “dushka”) anti-aircraft weapon. AQIM has become militarily more aggressive in the Sahel in recent years, and heavy weapons would indicate an increased desire to expand its operations, especially as its forces becomes increasingly isolated in northern Algeria.

What is also interesting about the possibility of AQIM purchasing weapons taken out of Libya by smugglers (as the Reuters piece implies) is that it shows that despite releasing several audio tapes in support of the Libyan revolt (and despite reports of a limited AQIM presence in Libya), AQIM is using the chaos not to fight against the Qaddafi regime, but to build up their supplies and further reinforce their safe havens far from the Libyan jihad.

That is, of course, if these reports are even true. Despite the widespread attention this news has received, the claims about AQIM seizing weapons come in large part from two sources, Idriss Déby and an anonymous Algerian intel officer. While Déby’s concern about AQIM may well be genuine, he has also developed a very close relationship with Qaddafi in recent years, to the point where, in the same interview with Jeune Afrique where he said AQIM had seized the SAMs, he also said he has been speaking with Qaddafi every day.

As for the other source, it is silly to think that a senior Algerian official would speak about such a sensitive issue, and in such detail, without official sanction. And Algeria has taken a strong stance against foreign intervention in Libya, likely out of a calculation that more revolutions in North Africa are bad revolutions, as well as Algeria’s traditional opposition to foreign military involvement in conflicts in they’re back yard. Indeed, after telling the Reuters journalist about AQIM’s newfound weapons, the Algerian concluded that, “If the Gadhafi regime goes, it is the whole of Libya — in terms of a country which has watertight borders and security and customs services which used to control these borders — which will disappear, at least for a good time, long enough for AQIM to re-deploy as far as the Libyan Mediterranean.” The official concludes then that to prevent this eventuality, Qaddafi’s regime must be preserved, with or without Qaddafi.

It is quite a reach to assume that AQIM is in any real way involved in the fighting, let alone that AQIM would be able to use the vacuum left by Qaddafi’s fall to take over a large swath of North Africa, especially given the fact that no estimate that I have seen puts AQIM’s numbers in the Sahel at more than several hundred, hardly enough to control swaths of territory that are far more populated than AQIM’s area of operations in the Sahel, all with hostile NATO forces watching closely and rebels who may not take too kindly to al-Qaeda stepping onto their turf for any other reason than to fight Qaddafi. Instead, that final quote casts some suspicion on the earlier missile claims, raising the possibility that the Algerian government is inflating or at least heavily advertising an AQIM involvement in Libya in order to discredit efforts in the West to overthrow Qaddafi or support the rebels.

Additionally, this new information follows on what appears to be a rather crude attempt to forge an AQIM statement claiming that AQIM fighters were killed in a NATO air raid last Friday, analyzed quite thoroughly by al-Wasat co-editor Aaron. As Aaron points out, not only do the details of the statement appear to be inconsistent with standard AQIM statements, but it was released directly to the Algerian news outlet Tout Sur l’Algérie, and has not appeared on any jihadist forums or been confirmed by news reports. All told, this is more than enough to be suspicious of claims of AQIM of involvement, especially given the organization’s near-total radio silence on Libya over the past two weeks; no images of AQIM fighters alongside Libyan rebels, no testimony from Libyan AQIM fighters, no biographies of “martyrs” killed in combat, and thus far no video of seized weaponry.For an organization that generally produces astute media products, the failure to capitalize on clear openings to generate more credibility and support is a glaring failure.

None of this is to say that the disparate reports of AQIM’s growing arsenal are false or staged. Such eventualities are entirely possible, and AQIM would certainly love to get their hands on more weapons. And AQIM’s recent silence could be an attempt to lie low in the face of Western pressure, for fear of being snuffed out or hunted before securing either a better role in the insurgency or a victory against Qaddafi. But the context surrounding the limited evidence of AQIM involvement in the Libyan rebellion or benefiting from its chaos is enough to make me seriously question these stories, as we wait for more concrete evidence.

Guest Post from Xavier Rauscher: How the African Union Defines Terrorism

As Africa grows more concerned with terrorist attacks, as the conflict in Somalia spills over in the East and Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) grows more and more bold and active in the West, the African Union is currently working on a draft law and common ground to harmonize their counter-terrorism policies. Yesterday, Magharebia published a detailed article on the progress of the draft law. Here’s an excerpt:

“This law will enable member nations of the AU to pursue or extradite terrorists active on their territory,” African Union (AU) Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said. The bill also calls for “drawing up of a list of known terrorist and terrorist entities, like those of the UN”, he noted. (…)

The proposed model law should be “expandable and comprehensive, featuring all the necessary legal procedures to prevent and combat terrorist acts, including the criminalisation of terrorist acts, establishment of channels of co-operation, enhancement of surveillance on the border, exchange of intelligence, judicial cooperation and combating terrorist financing,” [Algerian Minister for Maghreb and African Affairs Abdelkader]Messahel added.

He also pointed out to the need to incorporate international agreements and the relevant UN Security Council regulations into the new bill.

Some countries are hoping this law will encourage African co-ordination on the anti-terrorism front and get past the problems that impeded regional collaboration, especially with regards to extraditions. Algeria and Mauritania have both criticised Mali for releasing terrorists, including suspects wanted by the Algerian judiciary, who were detained by Mali. Bamako released those wanted terrorists as part of a deal to free Pierre Camatte, a French hostage detained by AQIM.

A few remarks about what this news could mean:

Stating the obvious, but… This is excellent news for those worried about the rise of terrorism in Africa. It shows that African countries are taking the threat seriously and therefore are willing to go to new lengths to cooperate, including binding themselves in an international convention. Needless to say, to efficiently combat transnational terrorism, international cooperation is a must.

A classical but valuable counterterrorism instrument for Africa

From what can be gathered from the media articles on this topic, it would appear that the African Union is moving towards a “classical,” law-enforcement type of counter-terrorism convention founded on the standard aut dedere aut judicare (‘prosecute or extradite’) approach. As Algerian Minister for Maghreb and African Affairs Abdelkader Messahel claimed:

the law “will have to be comprehensive and complete and provide all legal measures to prevent and fight terrorist acts, including the criminalisation and penalisation of terrorist acts”.

From the Magharebia article:

The model bill is seen as a “comprehensive tool” aimed at directing and guiding Africa in the counter-terrorism field, especially through the unification of legislation, according to AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra. He added that the matter was primarily related to the enhancement and implementation of the principle of international law as represented in “pursuit or extradition” as soon as the “terrorist” acts are recognised as punishable on the international and African levels.

Although such an approach has shown its limits in the past, such as in the Lockerbie case (PDF file) that opposed the United States and the United Kingdom on one side, and Libya in the other side, it is still a safe and proven system that has its share of advantages and that is greatly geared towards international cooperation, especially in judicial affairs.

The aut dedere aut judicare principle is the framework on which all other international counterterrorism conventions are based. Two noteworthy differences should be pointed out about the African Union draft convention: first of all, it is regional, which makes it almost unique. Indeed, to my knowledge, only the European Union has adopted so far a regional instrument to harmonize their efforts in counterterrorism, namely the Council Framework Decision of 13 June 2002 on combating terrorism. Secondly, this convention is comprehensive. And that could open the gate to a lot more.

A way out of the impasse?

International law, in dealing with terrorism, has been confronted with what has been so far an insurmountable obstacle to obtaining a comprehensive counterterrorism instrument: the impossibility to agree on a common definition of terrorism. This is essentially due to what has been qualified by many as a “cliché”: one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Indeed, there has been a lot of debate within the international community on what constitutes a terrorist group and what does not, especially in the context of national liberation movements, from the period of decolonization to the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. In the words of Carol Bahan, “the inability to define terrorism is predominantly due to the fact that states have different beliefs about which acts constitute international terrorism.”[1]

The lack of an internationally accepted definition of terrorism has forced the international community to abandon the idea of a comprehensive international legal instrument to fight terrorism, and to adopt a “sectorial” approach: thirteen different counterterrorism conventions, each addressing a different aspect of combating terrorism as terrorism has evolved over time, from the 1963 Convention on Offenses and Certain Other Acts Committed On Board Aircraft to the 2005 International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.

What will be particularly interesting to watch once the African Union convention is finalized is what definition is adopted by African states in order to harmonize their criminalization of terrorism – a necessary step in the law enforcement approach, and announced by Minister Messahel – and whether the African consensus on a definition could lead the way – and offer the political impetus – to obtain a long-awaited international comprehensive convention against terrorism, which would without a doubt strengthen international cooperation in the global struggle against terrorism.

Xavier Rauscher is a recent LLM graduate who specializes in international law with a focus on international counter-terrorism. He regularly blogs at The International Jurist, and you can follow him on Twitter @xrauscher_

Thanks to Catherine Minall for mentioning this recent development to me last week, and to Caitlin Fitz Gerald for her help error-hunting.

[1] C. A. Bahan, “International Terrorism: The Legitimization of Safe Harbor States in International Law” (2010) 54 NYLSLR 333, 338.