In Niger, On The Trail Of Gaddafi's African Mercenaries

The Libyan leader has turned for additional firepower to the Tuareg berber people, who have a history of relations with Tripoli -- and their own longstanding conflict with the Niger government.

Doctors in Brega, Libya show identity card of a slain pro-Gaddafi fighter they say was a Tuareg from Niger
Doctors in Brega, Libya show identity card of a slain pro-Gaddafi fighter they say was a Tuareg from Niger
Christophe Chatelot

AGADEZ - "We're here, and everything's fine. They gave us weapons in Tripoli, and for now we have to stick to Sabaha (in southern Libya). But we'll be on the frontlines soon….Long live Gaddafi!"

Reached from Agadez, in northern Niger, Suleiman's laughter is lost in the static of the cell phone. Communication is cut off somewhere in the Sahara desert, a thousand kilometers away from the Aïr mountains of Niger where Suleiman was born.

The northern mountain range remains the stronghold of the rebellion of the Tuareg, a nomadic Berber people, who have fought on and off against the authorities in the capital of Niamey.

That Tuaregs from Niger have been recruited as mercenaries for the Libyan regime is Agadez's worst kept secret. But it is hard to meet a volunteer who'll speak openly about it -- and impossible to know just how many have taken Muammar Gaddafi's side since the beginning of the Libyan crisis.

"There are hundreds of them," estimates a former rebel leader in Agadez. "They leave in caravans. The ride is long but easy. We avoid Nigerien army checkpoints, and once in Libya, we're at home. We've always been welcome there."

The desert is unconquerable. North of a line going from the Malian border to Libya, passing through Tahoua, Agadez and Dirkou, the Tuaregs know the dirt roads that lead up into Algeria and Libya better than anyone else. These roads see all sorts of traffic: arms and drugs, goods and African migrants heading to Europe. For years, these roads have been leading them to Libya, a land of asylum and a sanctuary for generations of Tuareg rebels since the 1960s. It is a land of financial and personal integration for the luckiest, of thankless seasonal labor for others. For a Tuareg community that doesn't feel welcome in its own country, one of the poorest in the world, Libya is a gold mine.

"Unemployment, idleness, destitution and political frustration, added to the feeling that they are in debt to Gaddafi… All the ingredients are there to make the Tuaregs fight by his side. Gaddafi doesn't need equipment or money, he needs men," says Issuf Maha, 46, a former official of the Nigerien Patriotic Front (NPF) rebel group.

Nigerien Tuaregs in Libya, with full access to Gaddafi's inner circle, have activated networks. "Rhissa Boula and Aghali Alambo (two former rebel leaders) contacted a number of people," Maha adds. One young man, Houcene, hasn't made up his mind about going to Tripoli. "A friend called me," he says. "They promised up to $100 a day. It's tempting, but I don't really want to fight for a foreign country, even if it's Libya." One of his friends went. "He left with about 60 others from the Tahoua region. Once in Tripoli, thanks to the old commanders' connections, Libya gave them weapons. They formed small units and now they're in Benghazi (the opposition stronghold) to take the city."

Gaddafi has often used battalions of Tuaregs, picking these rugged warriors from tribes living in Southern Libya but mostly in the Tuareg communities of Mali and Niger, the largest, "about 1.5 million people for a population 11 million," according to a Nigerien general. Integrated in the ranks of the Islamic Legion, these men fought in Lebanon, despite not speaking Arabic, and in Chad in the 1980's. Many then stayed in Libya. Some worked their way up to the top of the Libyan military ranks, unheard of in their native Niger, where Tuaregs are under-represented in government bodies. One of Gaddafi's closest advisors is a Tuareg and two Southern shabiyats (districts), Ghat and Wadi al Hayaa are run by Tuaregs.

In Agadez, many dream of such promotions. "If we want security in the North of the country, we have to integrate Tuaregs in the army. They know the region better than anyone else. But the army sees us as thugs," regrets Mohamed Anako.

Still, Agadez has been precariously calm since a verbal peace agreement quickly put together in the Libyan port city of Syrte in April 2009, under Gaddafi's supervision, which put an end to a two-year Tuareg uprising in Niger. "It was just a tacit agreement to start the peace process," says Aklou Sidi Sidi. Niamey only partly recognized the protocol. "Gaddafi paid for everything but as usual, he just gave suitcases full of dollars to rebel leaders," says Maha.

With the Libyan money, the 3,000 or so identified rebels were demobilized and disarmed. In exchange, Niamey called a general amnesty, freed prisoners and lifted the state of exception installed in Agadez and the surrounding region. But no economic or social measures were taken. "They should have integrated former rebels, given young people jobs, but they never followed up," says the region's governor, Colonel Yaye Garba, a Zarma appointed in Agadez by the military junta.

The makeshift peace agreement has frustrated 35-year-old Houcene. He's among those low-ranking rebels who only got a little money for their demobilization after two years of guerilla in the bush. "Former leaders took the lion's share. They drive around Niamey in fancy SUVs, live in big villas," he says. Some haven't even been back to Agadez, afraid to face their former brothers in arms. Especially since the money paid was less then what Libya had promised. "Gaddafi promised $20 million and only paid four million," says Issouf Maha. Houcene, who's been unemployed since he gave up his weapons, says there's no place left to turn. "We were betrayed by everyone: Niamey, Tripoli and our own leaders."

Read the original article in French

Photo - AlJazeera

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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