By Cherkaoui Roudani.
News of Moamer Gaddafi’s death in Sirte last years came as a great relief to both Libyans and families of his victims across the world, but the end of his infamous regime does not mean a new dawn for peace in the Maghreb or the African continent.
His passage will certainly calm fears and bring closure to some, including the families of those executed in Tripoli’s notorious 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre, but his capricious desire to destabilise neighbouring countries has changed the region’s political landscape and allowed terrorist and separatist factions to emerge.
From interference in the Uganda-Tanzania war by bombing Mwanza in 1979, to the Pan Am 103 attack that claimed 270 lives over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, Gaddafi never stopped terrorising and manipulating.
His “Green Book”, a collection of demagogic writings and theories attempting to legitimise his support for terrorist movements across the globe, demonstrated his Hitler-like personality.
Gaddafi’s excessive ambition contributed to the emergence of a number of failed and resistant states. By supporting separatist factions in Africa and Asia, the despot was able to transform, and even shatter, many human lives.
The resurgence of the Touareg revolt in 2006, along with increased smuggling activities and the emergence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahel-Saharan region and sub-Saharan Africa, indicate the effect of his long reach.
The Gaddafi regime has spent more than 8 billion dollars to build an arsenal of rocket launchers, machine guns and assault rifles. As the eight-month battle between the NTC and the Gaddafi loyalists raged, military barracks and arms stockpiles were pillaged.
From Sudan to Morocco, al-Qaeda terrorists eye Gaddafi arsenal
Given the total chaos which now reigns in Libya, the international community should expect the worst.
Quite simply, AQIM will try every means at its disposal to get its hands on a portion of Gaddafi’s weapons, such as short-range surface-to-air missiles (MANPADS), of which there are at least 20,000 units. As a direct consequence, countries already brought to their knees by the global economic crisis could be forced to confront terrorist gangs involved in arms trafficking and smuggling. Entire regions are risk destabilisation.
This situation is the worst in countries that are trying to rebuild. Niger, Mali and the Sudan – particularly the Darfur region – could see increasing conflict between rival factions. In Niger’s Aïr region, the militant Movement of Nigeriens for Justice (MNJ) could step up activities.
Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou noted the issue in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, stating that weapons “could be found across the whole of the Sahel and Sahara region, and could fall into the hands of the extremists”.
Fragile security in the Sahel and Maghreb regions, particularly along the Libya-Algeria border, could encourage AQIM to accelerate arms trafficking.
Instability may also reawaken dormant terror cells in the region, particularly in countries such as Mauritania and Chad, where many young people have joined local AQIM brigades.
Morocco and Algeria are not immune to the threat. This year alone, Morocco has been confronted with several home-grown terror cells whose members used the internet to forge links with al-Qaeda and plot attacks in the kingdom, while Algerian security forces regularly face AQIM-affiliated armed groups and their weapon of choice: roadside bombs.
The spectre of new Salafist movements emerging is very real.
Gaddafi’s regime has done a lot of damage, and the world will continue to feel the consequences. Many of the mercenaries from Libya will try to attack western targets. The recent abduction of three European aid workers from a Sahrawi refugee camp suggests that other terrorist acts are already planned.
If that is the case, and if there is no strategy for recovering the missing weapons, then nothing can be ruled out and no country is immune from the threat. In any case, there is an imminent risk of conflict with al-Qaeda. The fighting currently taking place in Mogadishu between the Somali government and terror group al-Shabab shows that al-Qaeda is trying to make inroads all over the continent.
An increase in terrorism across the Maghreb region appears likely.
Common threat could spur Maghreb cohesion
Without a joint medium-term or long-term security strategy among the countries in the region, governments will find themselves in a perilous situation. AQIM will continue efforts to strengthen its bases and seize weapons coming out of Libya.
Faced with that, Maghreb states – particularly Morocco and Algeria – have an obligation to overcome their ongoing disputes and co-operate on a post-conflict plan to face present security threats and reduce future risks. In an Arab world facing civil unrest, the countries of the Maghreb must deal with the rise of extremism and take a rational view of all options. Without that, political stability will be impossible.
Repercussions of the fall of the Gaddafi regime will be felt in the whole of the Maghreb. The current political turbulence could destabilise countries which have thus far been spared. This is why Gaddafi’s end should signal the beginning of help for Libya.
Libya needs huge all-out support to set up institutions and structures which can guarantee its full transition to a democratic system. That transition will, without a doubt, require a healthy geopolitical environment, free from all rivalry and antagonism. And for that reason we need to rethink our perspective on the Maghreb in the context of a new Arab world.
Dr. Cherkaoui Roudani, author of several scientific studies on terrorism and governance, is a Poitiers-based policy and strategic affairs consultant for France 24 and Medi 1. He is also a contributor to Le Matin, Al-Arabiya, Akhbar-Al youm and other media outlets in the MENA region.