Tuesday, October 11, 2011
African Tuaregs fight for Gadhafi - "zenga-zenga"
With Gadhafi on the run, focus turns to Sahara's Tuareg
AGADEZ, Niger — Stragglers on the march to modernity, swords at their sides, the nomadic Tuareg of West Africa, long a footnote in world affairs, may be about to take a more central role in counter-terrorism policy, thanks to the ouster of Libya's former leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Where the Tuareg once manned camel convoys of salt and slaves across the Sahara desert, today they're surfacing as shadowy agents in a global game of drugs and terrorism, in a corner of the world that's suffering from the aftershocks of the war in Libya.
"Without Gadhafi, we wouldn't have any of this," proclaimed Aha Issufa, a Tuareg businessman, as he drove through Agadez, a sandy outpost in Niger, which borders Libya to the south. He pointed out streetlights, paved roads, the town's luxury hotel, an international airport — all financed by Gadhafi, he said, because the Niger government refused to.
Having backed Gadhafi in power, the Tuareg now are paying the penalty, fleeing Libya by the tens of thousands to places such as this, areas with little government control and few jobs outside of illicit drug trafficking that terrorism experts link to an al Qaida offshoot.
What happens next with these indigo-clad desert nomads — who say they're misunderstood victims of political and economic neglect — could have implications that stretch far beyond their parched lands.
The fact that the U.S. no longer trusts the Tuareg is evidenced by its decision to pull its Peace Corps program not only from all of Niger, but also from northern Burkina Faso, an area populated by Tuareg that's yet to be hit with a terrorist act.
Although their population of 1.5 million to 3 million spans five countries — Libya, Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso — the Tuareg are barely represented in any of those countries' capitals. They're often denounced by their own governments as rebels, bandits or worse.
Libya's National Transitional Council even has accused them off possibly protecting Gadhafi somewhere in southwest Libya near the border with Algeria.
To many Tuareg, Gadhafi was the closest thing they had to a friend in a region whose leaders are suspicious of the desert people's fiercely independent and sometimes violent ways.
When Issufa, a jolly middle-aged man with a sprawling compound and modern home on the edge of Agadez, joined the Tuareg rebels' leadership as a financier in 2007 — that's when the Tuareg launched their second armed revolt in 20 years — the move was done in protest of his people's marginalization in society, he said.
Niger is poor and landlocked, and its one major export, uranium, comes from a mine in Tuareg territory, yet hardly any of that revenue finds its way back to their arid lands.
Into that void stepped Gadhafi, in typical grand fashion. He visited Tuareg lands, tossed about his petrodollars, supported the rebels and mediated 2009 peace deals in Niger and Mali.
To some, it was mere opportunism. "I still remember when Gadhafi was a pan-Arabist and banned Tamashek," the Tuareg's Berber dialect, said Mohammed Anako, the highest elected official in Niger's northern Agadez region and a rebel leader in the 1990s. Gadhafi "used" the Tuareg for his own purposes, Anako said.
But here among most common people, there's a strong sense of loyalty to the fallen Libyan icon and anger at the NATO intervention, perceived popularly as an act of Western petro-hunting aggression.
According to Anako, Gadhafi recruited more 12,000 Tuareg into his military over the years. For tens of thousands more, Gadhafi's Libya was a land of opportunity, a booming getaway from their own communities stagnating in poverty and political malaise.
Modernity hasn't been kind to these desert wanderers. European colonialists drew borders across their traditional lands, and few have the documents required now to traverse those boundaries legally or the willingness to pay the customs fees obstructing their trade routes, which once bridged Africa's Arab north with the black subcontinent.
Some Tuareg have adapted to a more settled village life. Others have turned their backs on the law, which in the desert can seem little more than a distant abstraction. Restless youth learn quickly how to slip across porous borders. Some are simply hunting for work. For others, freebooters of the sand, the turn to illicit activity is too lucrative pass up.
What pays today is no longer the trailing camel caravans of old, but a different sort of trade. Whipping heavily armed Toyotas through invisible desert paths, Tuareg networks now traffic Latin America's cocaine, Morocco's marijuana, the region's arms and West Africa's Europe-bound migrants across the Sahara.
"Criminality is a cultural way of life for the Tuareg," said Col. Maj. Garba Maikido, the appointed military governor for the Agadez region, a non-Tuareg, in an example of an official mindset that angers Tuareg leaders. "Their mentality needs to change."
What the Tuareg will do now is an open question. An estimated 200,000 have returned to Niger and a similar number have gone to Mali, according to government estimates.
"It will be catastrophic economically," said Serge Hilpron, the director of Radio Nomade, a private radio station in Agadez that broadcasts in Tamashek as well as French, Hausa and Arabic.
Fatima, a 34-year-old mother of four who moved to Libya at the age of 12, led her family back on a six-day journey across the Sahara to Agadez in a convoy of 100 cars filled with other returnees.
"In Libya, Tuareg could get everything for free: water, electricity, school, health care," she reminisced while fluffing couscous under a canvas shade held up by wooden poles in the front yard of an Agadez mud home.
"Now we don't know what to do. If the government doesn't help us, things are going to get worse fast. There are many of us," she said. She declined to give her last name out of concern for her security.
Niger's government has appealed for international help, fearing an influx of Libyan weapons, such as Gadhafi's cache of surface-to-air missiles, and a humanitarian crisis. Authorities are also quick to point out that the regional instability could have repercussions outside its own small backyard of the world.
Al Qaida's North Africa offshoot, known as al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb — Maghreb means "west" in Arabic — has moved south of its origins in southern Algeria into Mauritania, northern Mali and northern Niger.
Officials say there are close links between the Tuareg smugglers and the al Qaida group, which derives its Islamist support mainly from the Arabized groups of North Africa. Both groups profit from the collusion, and Tuareg admit that their bandits have kidnapped Westerners and sold them to al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb as hostages.
The kidnappings have halted a brief economic surge from foreign tourism. Some fear that the flood of youth, the destabilization of Libya and anger against the West could give al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb an opportunity to make more inroads south into Mali and Niger and east into Libya.
Regardless, the expected influx of weapons and likely entry of some Tuareg returnees into the smuggling activities probably will prove a short-term boon for the al Qaida offshoot, which sent fighters to Iraq and Afghanistan but has yet to prove capable of striking on its own beyond its base.
There are also fears of another Tuareg rebellion or even a protracted Gadhafi-led insurgency in Libya that sucks in the wider region.
"As long as he is alive, people will fight for him," warned Aghaly ag Alambo, who led the Niger Movement for Justice, a rebel group, in 2007.
After the 2009 peace deal, Alambo moved to Tripoli at Gadhafi's invitation. He returned to Niger in early September in a convoy that also carried Abdullah Mansour Dhao, Gadhafi's personal security chief, and other senior Libyan officials.
"From what I'm hearing, the guy is determined to die in Libya," Alambo said of Gadhafi. "He had the opportunity and means to flee, and he did not."
Even if Gadhafi is captured or killed, one idea of his that could live on is the creation of a Tuareg state carved out of the Sahara.
For those disenchanted youth, many armed, streaming back to countries to which they have little connection, Tuareg nationalism could prove a powerful rallying cry and a unifying cause.
"That Tuareg state won't happen, but just the idea of it could make a big mess in the region," said Anako, the Tuareg politician and former rebel.
Alambo, who wore frameless spectacles and a white turban when he was interviewed at his home in Niger's capital, Niamey, warned that al Qaida and criminal elements are strengthening from the instability. "It's not hard to see what is happening," he said.
"Nothing has changed," he said, since the 2009 peace deal, which he characterized as "nothing but empty promises."
He advised the Niger government to quickly find a way to secure the nation's borders and offer social programs to occupy the youth.
And what if Niger's poor and nascent administration, still struggling to right itself after a February 2010 pro-democracy coup, fails to meet its returning citizens' demands?
"At that point, the seed the West has planted will grow," the former rebel leader replied with an amused look of I-told-you-so.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
The Black African Soldiers Who Fight for Libya—and the U.S.
Since the first shots were fired in the armed rebellion against Muammar Gadhafi, opposition groups have accused the Libyan strongman of hiring black African mercenaries. These accusations led to public anger in rebel-held cities and brutal attacks by local Arabs against common laborers from sub-Saharan Africa, forcing many to hide indoors rather than risk walking to the borders.
The mysterious dark-complexioned soldiers are with a secret commando unit trained under a Pentagon anti-terrorism project in Libya. Though their nationalities vary, the majority of these desert warriors are Tuaregs from the deep Sahara, including parts of Algeria, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Libya. These nomadic tribesmen, better known as the "blue men," are familiar figures on adventure programs from Discovery Channel and National Geographic, guiding camel caravans or herding sheep through the dunes and stony wastelands. In recent years, they have become the frontline fighters against the fugitive Osama bin Laden and the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
At remote gunnery ranges outside of Sabha, a military town in the southwestern Fezzan region, the Tuareg commandos receive training from American special-forces instructors in automatic-weapons-handling, sniper marksmanship and communications. These masters of desert survival need no outside training in tracking and outmaneuvering the AQIM, who in the Sahara region are called the Salafists. The counter-terrorism cooperation between the U.S. and Libya, two countries with a history of rocky relations, is kept out of media view. Neither is this joint project ever mentioned in the U. S. Africa Command's Trans-Sahara Terrorism Program, which openly includes every other country of the vast arid region.
Though the Libyan Tuaregs' clandestine mission is kept under wraps by the Pentagon, a similar taste of desert warfare can be gained (courtesy of WikiLeaks) from December 2009 diplomatic cables out of the U.S. Embassy in Bamako, Mali, describing a Timbuktu boot camp run by U.S. Army trainers from Fort Carson, Colorado.
"The (Malian) colonel called over one rather unimpressive soldier, an older rail-thin man with a scraggly beard and bloodshot eyes who had been lounging against a motorbike, explaining that in spite of appearances this was one of his best men and noting that he had been one of the few survivors of a July 4 ambush of a Malian Army patrol by AQIM. The soldier said the Salafists would never confront the Army head-on, and if the Army engaged, they would flee, but if there is not proper security, they will creep back and murder you in the most cruel, unimaginable ways.”
The oldest veterans among the clandestine Libyan unit are re-enlistees from a long-since disbanded unit called the Islamic Pan-African Legion, which fought major battles against French forces in Chad during the 1980s. How these Tuareg fighters were regrouped and bolstered by younger tribesmen goes back to the beginnings of the Afghan War, immediately after the 9/11 attacks.
TIMBUKTU, Mali — Last month at a guesthouse within sight of the rolling dunes of the open Sahara, I sat down to await one of Muammar Qaddafi’s mercenaries.
Through an intermediary he agreed to meet and explain why the Tuareg — an ancient Saharan people who inhabit large desert swathes of Libya, Mali, Niger, and Algeria — would help the Libyan leader crush the democracy protests — including unarmed civilians, women, and children — and eventually join in all-out war against the ensuing rebellion.
I learned about him when a Tuareg elder told me that in recent weeks more than 200 Tuareg fighters had returned from Libya to Timbuktu and the surrounding villages. He said that hundreds more had returned to other towns in eastern Mali. Local leaders were worried, he said, that these men could be the leading edge of a large wave of mercenaries returning from the fighting in Libya and that they could set a match to northern Mali’s own brittle mixture of ethnic rivalries.
For decades Qaddafi has recruited the Tuareg — long renowned for their desert-fighting prowess — to serve in his military. In the early 1980s, the Libyan leader called them to join his Islamic Legion, which he styled as the military cornerstone for his dream of building a united Muslim state in North Africa. But after ill-fated military adventures in Lebanon, Chad, and Sudan, he disbanded the legion and invited the Tuareg to join special brigades within the Libyan army. In recent decades, various Tuareg rebel groups, many of them trained in these Libyan units, have fought in neighboring Mali and Niger. After each of these conflicts was settled, Qaddafi provided aid and shelter to the rebel leaders and many of their former combatants.
Given this history, it wasn’t surprising in March when reports surfaced that Qaddafi was offering upwards of one thousand U.S. dollars a day for Tuareg to help his regime put down the festering rebellion. Officials from Mali and Niger reported convoys of vehicles bearing hundreds of Tuareg men streaming northeast toward Libya.
Now, five months later, as these men returned from the frontlines of the Libyan civil war, most were reluctant to discuss their experiences, especially with a Westerner. Some of them lectured me on the fallacy of American foreign policy in North Africa. “Hasn’t Obama seen what happened to Iraq when Saddam was gone?” one asked. “Does America want another Afghanistan?” inveighed another. “Why is the United States interfering in the internal affairs of Libya?” railed a third, who, as a Malian who fought in Libya, failed to see any irony in his question.
Finally, the mercenary arrived for our meeting. His long, lean build resembled that of a hardscrabble farmer more than a warrior. He wore a frayed, brown bagzan (the long, loose shirt favored by locals), battered camel-leather sandals, and a black turban covering his nose and mouth, in the traditional Tuareg style. He suggested we go up to the roof of the guesthouse to drink hot sweet tea and take advantage of the breeze blowing in from the desert.
The man — I will call him Abdullah — agreed to tell his story in detail if I promised not to identify him or his family. “I am not afraid to tell the truth,” he said, but he worried Mali officials or his fellow fighters might not approve.
He is a knot of inscrutable contradictions — a Tuareg who has been on both sides of rebellion. As a boy, he said he had fled Timbuktu in the early 1990s with his family when the army attacked the city, which some in the Mali government at the time claimed was teeming with rebels and their sympathizers. He saw homes demolished by tank shells, knew political leaders who were shot, and women and children who were killed. Yet, as an adult, he chose to fight for Muammar Qaddafi against the Libyan rebels, albeit mostly for money.
To prove he had been in Libya he produced a document — with a passport photo attached and a stamp from the Malian consulate in Tamanrasset — identifying him as a refugee from Libya. He said that that he went to Libya in 2007 with his wife and children. They were given short-term residence papers in exchange for his enlistment in the Libyan army. He was assigned to a Tuareg brigade in the southern town of Awbari.
Two years ago, he was granted full residency status. In addition to the 1,500 dinars (about $1,300) he was paid per month — much of which he sent back to family living in small encampments near Timbuktu — his wife and children received free medical care, and his children went to a Libyan school. “A very good school,” he said. He was promised a house and a car if he stayed in the army. “They always promised a house and a car, but very few Tuareg ever got them,” he said. “I think Qaddafi tried very hard to keep the Tuareg in Libya. I think he smelled something was coming.”
When the protests began in Tripoli, his unit was attached to the infamous 32nd brigade, led by Qaddafi’s son Khamis, and was sent to disperse the unarmed marchers. “That was easy,” he said with startling nonchalance. “We would kill three or four in the front of the crowd and they all ran away. It was very easy.”
After Tripoli, he and his fellow Tuareg mercenaries fought in several battles east of the capital city along the coast, including at Misrata. As the fighting intensified, Libyan officials began rounding up Tuareg living in Libya, threatening to imprison them and their families if they didn’t join the fight, though many had no military training. Some deserted and joined the rebels, but most stayed with the forces loyal to Qaddafi. At Misrata, he said he saw Ibrahim Bahanga, one of the Tuareg who led the rebellion against the Mali government from 2007 through 2009. “He was with many former rebels from Mali. They were fighting hard for Qaddafi.”
Abdullah’s unit moved on to Brega and then to the outskirts of Benghazi. “We were six kilometers [about four miles] from Benghazi when the first NATO bombs hit us.” First, a missile hit a vehicle carrying an artillery piece near his position and killed eight men. “We never heard it or saw it. The men just blew up.” He and his fellow soldiers were spooked. They were well trained to fight on the ground, he said. “None of us was good at shooting down airplanes.” Men tried to hide under cars and under tree branches. When night fell, they drove without lights. When they stopped to sleep, they dug foxholes far from their vehicles.
At first, the word came down that Qaddafi had ordered his forces not to shoot at the planes. “He said he would show the world that he wanted a peaceful solution. It was a strategy to make people ask their leaders ‘why are you fighting Qaddafi? He isn’t fighting you.’ But it didn’t work and then it was too late for us to fight back.”
I asked if he had seen any civilians killed. In Misrata, he says, “We tried to find everyone there. One half of the city was cleaned.”
“What do you mean ‘cleaned?’” I asked.
“The people were killed. Women, children, everyone there.”
Who did the killing?
“Mostly it was Arabs but also some Tuareg.”
Did you kill any civilians?
“No.” He refused to elaborate.
I asked about accusations that Qaddafi’s forces had raped women. “I never saw that,” he said. But his unit found a group of women who claimed to have been raped by men from Sudan and Egypt who had been fighting with rebels.
A few weeks after the NATO bombing campaign began, Abdullah and four of his fellow Tuareg agreed to desert. “We decided that Qaddafi was a little bit crazy and didn’t know what he was doing.” They told the Tuareg officer in charge of their platoon they needed a rest, and he convinced the Arab commanding officer to approve a pass for the men to visit their families. “He knew we weren’t coming back,” Abdullah said of the Tuareg officer.
They took a bus to the south. Some of the men disassembled their Kalashnikovs and took them with them. Once in the southern Libyan town of Awbari, Abdullah burned his uniform and all his identity papers and, with his wife and four children, slipped out of the city to join other Tuareg refugees heading for the Algerian border. Able to bring only their clothes and a few household items, they left everything else.
I asked if he regretted his decision to go to Libya. He hesitated before answering. “The Tuareg say, ‘It is easy to climb into a well and very hard to get out.’”
I checked his story with other Tuareg in Timbuktu, who corroborated parts of it based on what they had heard from other fighters, but many details are unverifiable. An official — not a Tuareg — in the mayor’s office confirmed that some men have arrived from fighting in Libya, though he doesn’t know how many. “I don’t count them,” he said. “No one wants to talk about that.”
A few days later, in Mali’s capital Bamako, I met a Tuareg officer in the Mali army. He was rawboned with thick, leathery hands and heavy lines creasing his forehead and around his eyes. Years of desert fighting have made him look much older than his 42 years. As a young man, he said, he was lured to Libya in the 1980s by radio broadcasts of Qaddafi calling young Tuareg to join his revolution. “I admired the way he wasn’t afraid to stand up to the West, to anybody,” he said.
But after being sent to the Libya-Chad war and seeing how Libya’s Arabs used the Tuareg to do all the “difficult fighting,” he lost his ardor for Qaddafi. He left Libya and joined the Tuareg rebels who were fighting the Mali government in the early 1990s.
I asked about the implications of mercenaries such as Abdullah coming back home to find few economic opportunities. “It is not good,” he said, listing the security threats Mali faces, including a resilient, well-financed branch of al-Qaeda, which in recent years has kidnapped dozens of foreigners, effectively wrecking the country’s tourism industry, and a fragile peace in the restive Tuareg region. “It is like dragging a dead tree on top of two small fires,” he said. “Soon we may have one big fire.”
“If Qaddafi goes, it’s going to be very bad for Mali.” He estimated that roughly 10,000 Tuareg remained in the Libyan army, most of them from Mali. “If Qaddafi is killed or loses power, they will all have to leave. The Arabs won’t let them stay,” he said. “I know many guys there. When they come here, they will fight. I have no doubt. I know them. The revolution is not over.”
• • • • •
Before I left Timbuktu, I encountered a group of boys huddled over their cell phones. Clad in knockoff European soccer jerseys, they periodically whooped with laughter as they passed around a song using Bluetooth.
I asked what it was, and the skinniest boy, draped in an oversize Barcelona jersey, played it for me: A man shouted defiantly in Arabic followed by automatic gunfire, a house beat, and rap lyrics. “It is Qaddafi,” said the boy. “He is calling the people to fight.” “Zenga-zenga,” added the tallest boy in a striped Inter Milan shirt. They played it again and laughed. “What does zenga-zenga mean?” I asked. “Corner by corner,” said Barcelona, “he is telling people he will fight village by village, house by house, room by room, corner by corner — zenga-zenga.”
Do you like Qaddafi? I asked them. They all nod. “He is a warrior, like the Tuareg,” said Barcelona. The others click their tongues in agreement. They disappeared into the darkening alleyways, heading in separate directions. I could hear them each playing the tune, spreading it through the city.
• • • • •
Reuters reported on Saturday that Ibrahim ag Bahanga, the Mali rebel leader turned mercenary, was killed near the Mali-Niger border. Though the circumstances remain unclear, one Mali military official indicated that fellow Tuareg shot him after they had smuggled weapons into the country from Libya. Meanwhile, on Sunday Agence France Press reported large numbers of Tuareg fighters returning to northern Niger with luxury cars and furniture.
This story was reported with support from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and as part of a report for National Geographic on the Tuareg.
Source: The Atlantic