Libya and the law of unforeseen consequences (Update 31st January 2013)
When President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron gave their support to the ‘17th February’ rebellion in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi they may not have paused to think of the consequences, at least in regard to the effect on a number of African states supported by Gaddafi’s largess. What is more the French and British intelligence agencies will now be turning their attention to the changes the Arab Spring has wrought in countries south of the Sahara.
Whilst the fall of Gaddafi was received with wide approval there are some in Africa who may now be lamenting his demise. Amongst them are the residents of the cities of Timbuktu and Gao where the river Niger bends northwards to meet the Sahara. These were the ancient entrepots of the trans-Saharan slave and gold trade in the now troubled West African state of Mali.
Mali is a big, landlocked country much of which is the homeland of the Tuareg, the famous ‘blue men of the desert’ who live their unique nomadic life in the Sahara and whose origin is a mystery and customs warlike.
The Tuareg had been conducting a rebellion against the Mali government of President Amadou Toumani Toure. The Tuareg had also supplied Gaddafi with mercenaries which he armed lavishly with modern weapons. When his regime fell his Tuareg units fled back to Mali with their considerable weaponry and military training. The iron law of unforeseen consequences now made itself felt.
Two events led to further discord. On 22nd March 2012 a military coup by the western trained Mali army deposed President Toure because he was not dealing effectively with the Tuareg rebellion. The military handed over power to a civilian government but were destabilise at a crucial time leaving a power vacuum. The Tuareg rebellion, now stiffened and heavily armed by Gaddafi’s old mercenaries, took advantage and grabbed control of the province of Anzawad, their old homeland, an area in the north of Mali nearly as large as France.
There were others lurking in the background ready to piggyback on the Tuareg rebellion. Amongst them were men of an al Qaeda franchise called Ansar Dine. Its name means “Defenders of the Faith” and its followers embrace a puritanical form of Islam known as Salafism.
Ansar Dine muscled in on the Tuareg separatists and together they declared an independent Islamic state in Northern Mali. However they were uneasy bedfellows. At first Ansar Dine’s turbaned fighters gained a reputation for keeping order after outbreaks of looting. When they started enforcing strict sharia law they earned hostility from locals in Timbuktu and Gao who practised a more tolerant style of Islam.
In June 2012, the Movement for Jihad and Unity in West Africa (MUJAO), another al-Qaeda linked group with Algerian connections, took control of the headquarters of the Tuareg separatists in northern Mali. The Mali government has so far been powerless to act against them and are currently seeking outside assistance.
In a chilling excess of religious fervour not unlike the Taliban who demolished the ancient statue of Buddha on the old Silk Route in Afghanistan, members of Ansar Dine have begun to destroy the holy shrines of Sufi saints in Timbuktu.
Apart from its historic role in the trans-Saharan trade, Timbuktu was a centre for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. There are disturbing reports that the Ansar Dine fanatics are destroying, amongst other historical shrines, the 17 metre high Tomb of Askia which was built by the Emperor of Songhai in 1495. The International Criminal Court is calling the attacks on Timbuktu’s holy sites a war crime.
The wider context is important. The conflict in Somalia has been a magnet for British jihadists. They join al Shabaab, Somalia’s principle al Qaeda franchise led by Ahmed Abdi Godane. It is estimated that fifty or so Britain’s have joined them recently. Should they return they will pose a disproportionate threat to the home security services.
The developments in Mali offer jihadists a new home. Its long borders with Algeria make it a threat to France in particular but it will also focus our own intelligence services on a new region in the future.
Update 28th January 2013
As French forces liberate Timbuktu rebels destroy the precious library.
Update 31st January 2013
Prime Minister Cameron visits Tripoli.