The revival of the Tuareg insurgence in Africa is one of the most significant consequences of the Libyan civil war and the subsequent destabilization of Africa’s Sahel region provoked by the fall of the Libyan government.
On April 6, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the new political and military group fronting the Tuareg insurgence, declared the independence of the Azawad, the region in northern Mali that ethnic Tuaregs consider their homeland, after they seized Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao, the three most important cities in north Mali.
It was the culmination of a long-standing insurgence that resumed in January when Tuareg fighters who had fought with Moammar Gadhafi loyalists returned home and turned their weapons against the Malian government.
The insurgence, which seeks independence from the Malian central government, has been flaring up since the early 1960s, notably in the first half of 1990s and from 2007 to 2009. A nomadic people, the Tuaregs live in the Sahara and northern Mali and have long requested more autonomy, accusing Mali of marginalizing them and focusing southward.
Previous insurgencies have always finished with cease-fires, leaving the Tuaregs’ wish list unfulfilled. This time, they have succeeded for three key reasons.
First, the current insurgence is better-organized and better-armed, thanks to the weapons the fighters took home after serving with Libyans. According to local sources, they have heavy weapons including 82mm mortars, RPG-7, both anti-personnel and anti-tank, 73mm and 82mm recoilless guns, and ZSU-23 anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickups and used as fire support weapons.
They are also said to have anti-tank missiles such as the Milan and AT-3 Sagger, and man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) such as the SA-7 Grail, and probably the latest variant of the Igla missile family named the SA-24 Grinch. The latter were reportedly shipped to Libya just before the civil war erupted.
According to one Malian Army colonel, the Tuareg rebels have used heavier, more sophisticated weapons and demonstrated improved military organization in their attacks. The current MNLA commander, Bilal Ag Acherif, served as a colonel in the Libyan Army, as did several other MNLA members.
Gadhafi always used Tuareg fighters, as do other African countries, out of fear of a domestic military coup.
The second reason the Tuaregs succeeded is the military coup in Mali that ousted elected President Amodou Toumani Tourè on March 22. Tuareg rebels quickly took control of Gao and Timbuktu after seizing Kidal as Malian Army troops pulled out and returned home.
Third, the advance was helped by Ansar al-Dine, the radical Islamist movement that joined the MNLA in its effort to control northern Mali. Ansar al-Dine’s contribution was decisive in the seizure of Gao and Timbuktu, where the Islamist group declared the imposition of Sharia law and forced women to wear veils.
Ansar al-Dine is led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a prominent figure in the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s who is said to have links with al-Qaida; Ghaly’s cousin leads a splinter group of al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). But the secular MNLA has always rejected charges it is linked to al-Qaida and has probably forged a tactical alliance with Ansar al-Dine to force Malian Army troops to leave the north of the country.
An independent state in northern Mali could add to the instability already plaguing the region and serve as a safe haven for jihadists from Nigeria, Niger and Algeria, in much the same way that the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in the 1990s let al-Qaida into the country.
The international community is already concerned about AQIM’s presence in the region, not to mention the whereabouts of weapons taken from the unguarded arsenals of the Libyan Armed Forces. According to several sources, these weapons have also appeared on the black market, and some may have fallen into the hands of terrorist groups.
During the Libyan civil war, the Algerian government reported that a convoy of trucks had crossed the border from Libya carrying MANPADS and rocket-propelled grenades for AQIM. Other MANPADS may have also reached Somalia-based radical group al-Shabaab, as well as the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram.
The NATO intervention in Libya was limited to airstrikes and did not include ground troops. It was not able to prevent this weaponry outflow. And the countries that signed up for the air attacks to oust Gadhafi opted not to carry out a stabilization mission thanks to economic crises at home.
So as the conflict spreads farther south in Mali, chaos is increasing in Libya as local militias proliferate and seize control of territory, while the country’s new central government proves unable to disarm them and restore order and stability.
Pietro Batacchi is a senior analyst and head of the military affairs desk at the Rome-based Centre for International Studies, which advises the Italian parliament on foreign policy and security issues.