A Malian tries to break the lock off a store front as looters and residents stand by in the streets of Timbuktu on January 29, 2013., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Libya’s legacy: First of two parts
How the defeat of Gadhafi by NATO forces resulted in chaos in Mali
BY DAVID PUGLIESE, OTTAWA CITIZEN FEBRUARY 9, 2013
It was late November 2011 and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had been dead several weeks, his regime overthrown by rebels supported by NATO forces led by a Canadian general, Charles Bouchard.
And it was a time for celebration in Ottawa. Cannons sounded a 21-gun salute on Parliament Hill. The Governor General and the assembled generals and politicians looked on as CF-18 fighter jets and other aircraft that had taken part in Canada’s military effort in Libya effort roared over the Peace Tower.
“Our job in Libya has been done and done well,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the gathering of military personnel who had taken part in the campaign.
It was the Conservative government’s way of showing its thanks to the Canadian Forces for its victory in Libya.
Two weeks earlier and 6,000 kilometres away, someone else had also given thanks for Canada’s intervention.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of the leaders of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, better known as AQIM, told a Mauritanian news agency how the terrorist group had been able to re-equip itself with weapons pillaged from Libya’s arsenals.
Supply depots chock full of armaments had been abandoned by Gadhafi’s troops as they retreated under the relentless attacks from NATO’s fighter jets. Belmokhtar didn’t elaborate on what equipment his men had secured, but he didn’t have any qualms in pointing out that NATO’s Libyan war was a welcome development for his organization.
“With regard to the weapons, we obviously took advantage of the situation in Libya,” he explained.
Western intelligence officers would later estimate that tens of thousands of small arms and other equipment, including rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, vehicle-mounted rocket launchers, landmines, anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks, had fallen into the hands of al-Qaida’s North African franchise, not to mention various other rebel and criminal groups in the region.
Fifteen months later, the consequences of the Canadian-NATO victory in Libya is still being played out in deadly fashion in North Africa. Consider the landscape:
In Libya, roughly 200,000 heavily armed men who fill the ranks of the various militias operating in that nation pose a serious threat to the fledging government;
In Algeria, an AQIM team seized a gas refinery in January, holding hundreds of workers hostage. During a rescue attempt by the Algerian military, at least 38 captives were killed. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would later confirm the terrorists had been outfitted with stolen Libyan arms. Belmokhtar is credited with having planned the attack.
In Syria, some of the same rebel fighters who were supported by NATO during the Libyan war are now working to overthrow that country's longtime nationalist government. The gunmen, highly trained and well armed, are believed to be linked to al-Qaida.
But the most significant and immediate consequence of the Libyan war is now happening in Mali, once thought to be one of the most stable democracies in the region and a nation strongly supported by Canada through its aid programs.
In early 2012, Tuareg rebels who had fought in Libya combined forces with Islamic extremists, including fighters from AQIM. Equipped with arms pillaged from Gadhafi’s abandoned bases, they rolled over Mali’s small and poorly trained army and by the first weeks of this year had brought the country to the edge of collapse.
In corridors of power in Ottawa, meantime, there is great worry about the situation in Mali and the future of North Africa. But there is little acknowledgment of the role the West played in creating the chaos now plaguing the region.
Not surprisingly, the first to sound the alarm about the potential fallout from the Libyan war were those who had the most to lose.
Just weeks after NATO started its attacks on Libya in the spring of 2011, African leaders were already reporting the conflict could produce unintended, but grave consequences. The warnings were largely ignored.
In late March 2011, Chad President Idriss Deby Itno told journalists that AQIM had obtained missiles and small arms from the abandoned Libyan stockpiles.
“This is very serious — AQIM is becoming a genuine army, the best equipped in the region,” he explained, adding that al-Qaida fighters were among the Libyan rebels trying to overthrow Gadhafi.
The Algerian government, which had been at war with AQIM for more than a decade, issued a similar warning: Libya’s stolen weapons were being smuggled into northern Mali.
Niger’s security forces were also trying to monitor the secretive convoys travelling through its remote desert border area with Libya. At one point, Niger’s soldiers were able to intercept trucks carrying 645 kilograms of explosives and 445 detonators, all stolen from Libyan arsenals, before they could reach AQIM. Other such convoys, however, successfully delivered their weapons to the terrorist group.
“The region has turned into a powder keg,” Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s foreign minister, told delegates at an anti-terrorism conference in the fall of 2011. “Things have changed and degraded since the Libya crisis ... the region is on a path to war. With stolen weapons circulating, al-Qaida’s total impact is growing.”
But after Gadhafi’s death in October 2011 and the end of the war, interest in the situation in North Africa largely faded into the background in Canada and elsewhere in the West.
Several months later, however, the United Nations Security Council produced an extensive report that concluded Gadhafi’s overthrow had plunged the region into turmoil.
Gadhafi had offered employment for large numbers of Africans, and those people were now heading home. Their return created clashes between various groups in the home nations, some of them already dealing with the effects of drought and widespread crop failures and unable to feed many of the returnees.
“As a result of the crisis, millions of economic migrants, especially from Chad, Mali, Mauritania and the Niger and other African countries were forced to flee Libya and return to the communities they had left in search of better living conditions,” the January 2012 UN report noted.
“Overnight, the governments of the region had to contend with the impact of the crisis on an already challenging humanitarian development and security situation.”
The UN report also warned about large amounts of stolen Libyan weapons and explosives filling the arsenals of criminal and terrorist groups in the region. A large number of countries took part in or supported the UN study, but Canada is not listed among them.
Just as the UN report was being released, a clearer sign of the consequences of the Libyan war was about to be felt in northern Mali.
Among those leaving Libya and making their way into Mali were well-armed Tuareg tribesmen who had served in Gadhafi’s army. The Tuareg consider northern Mali their homeland, which they call Azawad.
Since the early 1960s, the Tuareg have conducted an on-again, off-again fight for independence from Mali. There were peace deals along the way, but many Tuaregs felt their grievances had not been adequately addressed.
In essence, the dispute runs along ethnic lines. Lighter skinned Tuaregs from the north felt they were treated as second-class citizens by the ruling black majority in the south, where most of Mali’s population lives.
As a result, thousands of Tuaregs had moved to Libya for work, either as labourers or to serve in Gadhafi’s army. With the Libyan leader's overthrow and brutal assassination, their benefactor and employer disappeared and the soldiers headed home, taking their Libyan weapons with them.
It is also worth noting that Gadhafi had been one of the most active supporters of the efforts to crack down on militant Islamism in North Africa, and his fall removed a major roadblock to the spread of extremism in the region.
By January 2012, a divergent group of Tuaregs and Islamic fighters had gathered in the north to face Mali’s military.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) wanted a secular independent state for the Tuaregs. Another group, Ansar Dine — Defenders of the Faith — was led by a former leader of the Tuareg independence movement that had split from the MNLA. Like the MNLA, Ansar Dine wanted an independent Tuareg state, but one that followed the strict rule of Islamic Shariah law. Other gunmen in the north included members of AQIM and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, an AQIM offshoot.
The re-emergence and the strength of the Tuareg opposition appeared to take Malians by surprise. Two years earlier, Mali’s president of the day, Amadou Toumani Toure, met U.S. Gen. William “Kip” Ward in Bamako to tell him that the “Tuareg rebellion has been brought to an end.”
The statement was based on a message of peace sent to Toure by the head of a recent rebellion. Toure told Ward he had actually become more worried about AQIM than the Tuareg because the al-Qaida group was having success enlisting disaffected youth.
AQIM’s roots can be traced back to Islamic insurgents who have been fighting the Algerian government for years. But over time, the group had become more closely aligned with al-Qaida and branched out to conduct attacks and engage in kidnapping in other countries in the region.
In December 2008, for instance, Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were abducted and held for 130 days by AQIM. Reports suggested their release was made in exchange for the freedom of four AQIM detainees.
AQIM had also established training camps in northern Mali and in 2009 a group of its fighters assassinated the Malian army’s intelligence chief in Timbuktu.
At the same time Toure was expressing worries about AQIM to the American general, he was bluntly conceding the weakness of Mali’s military. The Malian army was at a turning point, Toure told Gen. Ward, with an older generation giving way to a younger, less experienced one.
The U.S. military had already seen problems for themselves when American special forces tried to train Malian troops. They reported a chronic lack of equipment, assault rifles that didn’t work and units without radios to communicate with each other. Even after the U.S. provided Mali’s military with 42 trucks, the country, one of the world’s poorest, couldn’t pay for the fuel to operate them.
A U.S. military report, written after a July 2009 AQIM attack that killed 30 Malian soldiers, laid out a shocking lack of training: “When asked why the survivors of the ambush left behind so many vehicles to be captured by AQIM, they said that the drivers had been killed and no one else in the unit knew how to drive. When asked why they had not used a heavy machine gun, they answered that the gunner who knew how to operate the weapon had also been killed, and he was the only one who knew what to do.”
The U.S. responded by providing more training for the Malians, enlisting Canadian special forces and commandos from other countries to help with the task. In February 2011, soldiers from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment travelled from CFB Petawawa to Senegal to train Malian soldiers. Later that year they went to Mali to continue the training.
“This is exactly the place we should be in terms of trying to develop a counter-terrorism capacity in the Sahel and in North Africa,” Canadian special forces Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson told the Citizen in December 2011. “This is a natural fit for us.”
It wasn’t the first help Canada had given to Mali over the years. Canada was among the major supporters of a peacekeeping training school in Bamako and was also providing more than $100 million annually to fund various aid initiatives in Mali. Not that Canada’s interest in the country is entirely altruistic, of course. Canadian gold mining companies have extensive investments in Mali.
On Jan. 17, 2012, the Tuareg rebels launched their offensive, quickly overrunning several towns in the north. Mali’s army retook a number of towns but were sometimes forced to retreat after running out of ammunition.
In February, the Tuaregs laid siege to Kidal, a small town in Mali’s northeastern desert, and drove the Malian army out of another location near the Algerian border.
In Ottawa, meantime, the government appeared oblivious to the storm that was building in Mali. In mid-February, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird issued a statement, not about Mali, but to congratulate the people of Libya on the first anniversary of their “pro-democracy uprising.”
Said Baird: “Canada is proud to have played a leading role in the UN-sanctioned NATO mission that helped protect civilians during the liberation of Libya. Libya has a partner in Canada, as the country continues to make strides to provide greater opportunities for its people.”
Throughout the early months of 2012, rebels in Mali continued their offensive, advancing toward the historic medieval city of Timbuktu. At one point, the U.S. air force parachuted ammunition and supplies to a besieged Malian army unit, but the country was left largely on its own when it came to help from the West.
In the capital of Bamako, protesters took to the streets, angry with Toure for what they said was his failure to provide proper equipment and weapons to his troops. After confronting the president, a group of soldiers’ wives was shown on TV berating the leader for his incompetence: “A soldier in battle should not run out of ammunition and there shouldn’t be shortages of food for soldiers either,” one of the women said.
The anger wasn’t confined just to the wives. Some soldiers, frustrated by how the war was unfolding, began complaining about the widespread government corruption they believed was hindering their ability to counter the rebels. There were claims some government officials and Malian officers had sold equipment to the insurgents or were sharing the profits from AQIM’s drug smuggling in the north.
On March 21, the frustration spilled over into anger when soldiers, led by 39-year-old Capt. Amadou Sanogo, marched to the presidential palace demanding to see Toure. “We want ammunition to go and fight the Tuareg rebels,” one of the corporals marching on the palace told a journalist. “Enough is enough.”
There were reports of sporadic gunfire outside the palace but the president’s Twitter account sent out a message that a mutiny — not a coup — was underway. The rebellion would be later called the “accidental coup.”
Toure fled and the mutinous soldiers occupied the presidential palace for several hours. No one seemed to have an idea about what to do. The next morning Sanogo went on national TV to announce the military was taking over and that the country’s constitution had been suspended. The mutineers, he said, were “putting an end to the incompetent regime.”
The coup leaders, however, misjudged how the rest of the world would react. Canada responded by closing its embassy, announcing the move on Twitter. “Those located in the Bamako affected neighbourhoods are advised to remain where they are,” the department tweeted in its advice for Canadians in Mali. Baird condemned what he called “this attack on democracy by a faction of Mali’s military,” and Canada’s aid to Mali was frozen.
The UN Security Council condemned the coup. The African Union responded with a freeze on Mali’s assets. The Economic Community of West African States implemented trade and diplomatic sanctions, and nations around Mali closed their borders. The country of 15 million had effectively been cut off from the world.
But while western and African nations railed at the coup leaders, the response from Malians was largely muted. There were a few marches calling for a return to democracy, but there were more demonstrations favouring the coup.
For years, Canada and other western nations had feted Mali as a symbol of democracy in the region, but the reality was slightly different. Malians complained graft and bribery were rampant in Toure’s government and while a select group of insiders got richer, there was little relief from stifling poverty for the rest. And there were continuing allegations government officials were involved in drugs and arms smuggling.
Canadian and U.S. military officers have privately hinted there was some truth to the coup leaders’ concerns. They suggested that Mali’s government might have cut a deal with AQIM: in exchange for not attacking training bases in the north, AQIM would not launch terrorist strikes in Bamako and other key cities in the south.
In 2009, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika complained to a U.S. general that Mali was not pulling its weight in the fight against AQIM and that its government has released a number of captured insurgents.
One group was helped enormously by the international effort to isolate Mali after the coup: the rebels.
Soon after the upheaval, MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Acharactoumane predicted the confusion would allow rebels to gain more ground more quickly.
He was right. In late March, with rebels continuing their advance, Mali’s army abandoned its military bases around Gao, a commercial centre on the Niger River. On April 1, Timbuktu fell.
Five days later, the MNLA declared independence for a new Tuareg state in the north. Military operations would cease, the rebels announced. The MNLA had stopped near a town some 600 kilometres from Bamako.
The creation of the new country, however, was roundly rejected by the international community. But on the ground, a new order quickly took root in the rebel-held territory.
Islamist fighters who had joined the Tuareg rebellion began imposing Shariah law. Bars in Timbuktu, once a popular tourist destination, were destroyed. Women were ordered to cover their heads and people forbidden to listen to music. Soccer was banned. Those who did not obey were whipped in public.
Soon after, a convoy of trucks arrived in Timbuktu carrying jihadists from Algeria, Pakistan, Niger and Somalia.
“We are going to welcome some foreigners,” the citizens of Timbuktu were told in a radio broadcast. “Do not be afraid when you see them: We must all welcome them.”
Senior AQIM leaders gathered in Timbuktu to meet with Ansar Dine officials to decide on the future of their new territory, a bit larger than Alberta.
But the imposition of Sharia law did not sit well with Mali’s predominately Muslim population. In late May, a group of young protesters in Gao ripped down the Ansar Dine flags and replaced them with a Malian flag. Islamists dispersed the crowds by shooting over their heads.
There was also growing tension between the secular MNLA and the Islamists. In late June, that erupted into open fighting between the two groups. The MNLA was forced out of Gao and later from Timbuktu.
By mid-July, it became apparent to the MNLA that their independence movement had been hijacked by Islamists. The Tuareg rebels announced they were dropping their claim for a separate state, asking instead for an alliance with Mali that would include independence but not separation.
“It would be something like Quebec,” is how MNLA senior member Ibrahim Ag Assaleh described the proposed alliance. Ansar Dine responded that it was its gunmen, not those from the MNLA, who controlled the north.
Around the world, some observers argued it was time for the West to come to Mali’s aid. But there was little appetite for such action, at least for military intervention.
In July, the UN passed a resolution establishing guidelines for a political solution to the crisis. And while there talk about the idea of military intervention by African nations, it never amounted to anything more.
Canada, which a little more than a year before had quickly and eagerly become involved in Libya, was adamant it had no such intentions in Mali.
“Let me be clear that Canada is not contemplating a military mission in Mali,” Baird said, noting that Canada would support the diplomatic efforts being led by African nations to restore democracy in Mali.
In the meantime, the Islamists consolidated their hold on their territory.
Fowler, AQIM’s former hostage, was blunt in his assessment of what was happening in Mali under the Islamists: “This is the first time in the world that al-Qaida has a country,” he said. “I am absolutely convinced this is a cancer that is established in northern Mali, and in one of the most vulnerable regions of the world. It is a cancer that will inexorably grow.”