A small collection of fears dominated the policy discussion inside and outside of Libya when the Obama administration green-lit NATO’s “Operation Odyssey Dawn.” Among them: what if Gaddafi stages another Iraq? What if he retaliates against Western targets? What about his arms depots and chemical weapons? Although valid questions, Iraq’s comparison was never accurate and Western military supremacy would deter most conventional attacks.
The outflow of his weapons, on the other hand, is a hardened source of concern. Anyone from the highest government authorities to Western citizens to local populaces in north Africa received a jolt when up to 20,000 surface-to-air missiles were reported missing.
"I myself could have removed several hundred [missiles] if I wanted to, and people can literally drive up with pickup trucks or even 18 wheelers and take away whatever they want," warns Peter Bouckaert, emergency director for Human Rights Watch. "Every time I arrive at one of these weapons facilities, the first thing we notice going missing is the surface-to-air missiles."
Below this headline, small arms trafficking has been consistently reported by Algerian, Nigerien and Egyptian authorities. Concrete estimates of Gaddafi’s remaining stockpile are unavailable after NATO destroyed part of his network, but a comical military buildup suggests that northern Africa is more awash with weapons than usual. The unease of regional governments is two-fold. Enjoying tenuous relations with the sprawling Tuareg people, Mali and Niger have already received warnings from newly constituted groups who fought under Gaddafi. Above this national threat, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) expanding transnational operations are feeding into the Sahel’s instability.
Western powers, specifically Washington and Paris, generally concern themselves with the Tuaregs only as much as they interact with AQIM. The nomadic people have minimal contact with AQIM - nothing on a systematic level - and many Tuareg leaders condemn the group. However neighboring governments claim that Libyan nationals and Tuareg smugglers are moving weapons to AQIM. That leaves al-Qaeda’s African consolidator, not Libya’s Libyan Islamic Movement (formally LIFG), as the West’s primary obstacle out of Libya.
And its one-eyed commander just attempted to leverage this fear.
Speaking to the Mauritanian news agency ANI, Mokhtar Belmokhtar boasts that AQIM has been “one of the main beneficiaries of the revolutions in the Arab world.” Also known by the alias of Khaled Abou al-Abbas, the Algerian national didn’t explain how AQIM got its hands on Gaddafi’s arms caches, saying only that “our acquisition of Libyan armament... is an absolutely natural thing.” Belmokhtar has chafed with AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel at times, but dismissed reports of widespread internal divisions.
His warning is presumably based in reality, not propaganda.
Behind the preexisting fears of Libya’s missing weapons, Belmokhtar’s interview pushed AQIM into mainstream headlines and stirred up a new panic cycle. This reaction isn’t completely unfounded, but skepticism is necessary to trace AQIM’s trails in the Sahel. As al-Qaeda’s least understood branch - slightly below Yemen’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - the danger of Western overreaction poses a chronic threat to the region. For years U.S. and European powers organized counter-terrorism training with local governments years, and involved forces have embarked on a base network throughout the Sahel.
Many analysts and interested observers doubt AQIM’s jihadist reach, arguing that the group uses al-Qaeda’s brand to recruit individuals into a criminal network. Belmokhtar denies these accusations as fabrications, but that doesn’t change the fact that Western capitals are lavishing attention on AQIM.
Although the uncontained flow of SIMs appears to raise a red flag in Washington, this news isn’t exactly unwelcome. These weapons, contrary to U.S. public statements, will justify expanding operations in the Sahel. U.S. military officials have already connected AQIM to Nigeria’s Boko Haram, which in turn is “loosely” connected to al-Shabaab, a claim made without any proof. Libya’s weapons are feared to have shipped throughout Africa already, and the Pentagon is eager to hunt them down wherever they land. How the U.S. responds to AQIM is just as consequential to the Sahel’s security as AQIM’s own operations.
With the wrong strategy, Washington will simply add to the region’s destabilization.