Europe’s True Southern Frontier: The General, the Jihadis, and the High-Stakes Contest for Libya’s Fezzan Region

November 27, 2017

Andrew McGregor

AbstractLibya’s relentless post-revolution conflict appears to be heading for a military rather than a civil conclusion. The finale to this struggle may come with an offensive against the United Nations-recognized government in Tripoli by forces led by Libya’s ambitious strongman, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. However, the conflict will continue if Haftar is unable to consolidate control of the southern Fezzan region, the source of much of the oil and water Libya’s coastal majority needs to survive. Contesting control of this vital region is an aggressive assortment of well-armed jihadis, tribal militias, African mercenaries, and neo-Qaddafists. Most importantly, controlling Fezzan means securing 2,500 miles of Libya’s porous southern desert borders, a haven for militants, smugglers, and traffickers. The outcome of this struggle is of enormous importance to the nations of the European Union, who have come to realize Europe’s southern borders lie not at the Mediterranean coast, but in Libya’s southern frontier. 

Libya (Rowan Technology)

As the territory controlled by Libya’s internationally recognized government in Tripoli and its backers shrinks into a coastal enclave, the struggle for Libya appears to be entering into a decisive phase. Libyan strongman Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar claims his forces are now in control of 1,730,000 square kilometers out of Libya’s total of 1,760,000 square kilometers.1 However, to control Tripoli and achieve legitimacy, Haftar must first control its southern approaches through the Fezzan region. Europe and the United Nations recognize the Tripoli-based Presidential Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) as the official government of Libya, but recognition has done nothing to limit migrant flows to Europe. Whoever can control these flows will be the beneficiary of European gratitude and diplomatic approval.

Securing Tripoli means preventing armed elements supporting the PC/GNA from fleeing into the southern desert. Haftar must control water pipelines (the “Man-Made River Project”) and oil pipelines from the south, secure the borders, and prevent Islamic State fighters, pro-Qaddafists, Islamist militias, and foreign mercenaries from turning Fezzan into a generator for continued instability in Libya.

Fezzan is a massive area of over 212,000 square miles with a mostly tribal population of less than 500,000 living in isolated oases or wadi-s (dry riverbeds, often with subsurface water). Hidden by sand seas and rocky desert are the assets that make Fezzan so strategically desirable: vital oil fields, access to massive subterranean freshwater aquifers, and a number of important Qaddafi-era military airbases. A principal concern is the ability of radical Islamists to exploit Fezzan’s lack of security to further aims such as territorial control of areas of the Sahara/Sahel region or the facilitation of potential terrorist strikes on continental Europe. Many European states are closely watching the outcome of this competition due to the political impact of the large number of sub-Saharan African migrants passing through Fezzan’s unsecured borders on their way to eventual refugee claims in Europe.

Competing Governments, Competing Armies 

The security situation in Fezzan and most other parts of Libya became impossibly complicated by the absence of any unifying ideology other than anti-Qaddafism during the 2011 Libyan revolution. Every attempt to create a government of national unity since has been an abject failure.

At the core of this political chaos is the United Nations-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) of December 17, 2015, which called for a tripartite government consisting of a nine-member Presidency Council (PC) to oversee the functions of head-of-state, a Government of National Accord (GNA) as the executive authority, and a House of Representatives (HoR) as the legislative authority with a High Council of State as a consultative body. In practice, most of these bodies are in conflict with each other or enduring high levels of internal dissension, leaving the nation haphazardly governed by scores of well-armed ethnic, tribal, and religious militias, often grouped into unstable coalitions. Contributing to the disorder is Khalifa Ghwell’s Government of National Salvation (GNS), which claims to be the legitimate successor of Libya’s General National Congress government (2014-2016) and makes periodic attempts to seize power in Tripoli, most recently in July 2017.2

The most powerful of the military coalitions is the ambitiously named Libyan National Army (LNA), a coalition of militias nominally under the Tobruk-based HoR and commanded by Khalifa Haftar, a Cyrenaïcan strongman who lived in Virginia after turning against Qaddafi but is now supported largely by Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It is this author’s observation that Haftar has a habit of speaking for the HoR rather than taking direction from it.

The Tripoli-based PC, which has military authority under the LPA, is still trying to organize a national army. In the meantime, it is backed by various militias based in Misrata and Tripoli. Together with the GNA, it forms the internationally recognized government of Libya but still requires a majority vote from the Tobruk-based HoR to be fully legitimate under the terms of the LPA. There are even divisions within the seven-member PC, with three members now opposing PC chairman Fayez Serraj and supporting the HoR and Haftar.3

Fezzan’s Tribal Context 

Fezzan’s human dimension consists of a patchwork of often-overlapping tribal and ethnic entities prone to feuds and shifting alliances. These might broadly be said to belong to one of four groups:

  • Arab and Arab-Berber, consisting of the Awlad Buseif, Hasawna, Magarha, Mahamid, Awlad Sulayman, Qaddadfa, and Warfalla groups. The last three include migrants from the Sahel, descendants of tribal members who fled Ottoman or Italian rule and returned after independence. These are known collectively as Aïdoun (“returnees”);4
  • Berber Tuareg, being the Ajjar Tuareg (a Libyan-Algerian cross-border confederation) and Sahelian Tuareg (typically migrants from Mali and Niger who arrived in the Qaddafi era);
  • Nilo-Saharan Tubu, formed by the indigenous Teda Tubu, with smaller numbers of migrant Teda and Daza Tubu from Chad and Niger. These two main Tubu groups are distinguished by dialect;
  • Arabized sub-Saharans known as Ahali, descendants of slaves brought to Libya with little political influence.

The LNA’s Campaign in Jufra District

The turning point of Haftar’s attempt to bring Libya under his control came with his takeover of the Jufra district of northern Fezzan, a region approximately 300 miles south of Tripoli with three important towns in its northern sector (Hun, Sokna, and Waddan), as well as the Jufra Airbase, possession of which brings Tripoli within easy range of LNA warplanes.

Al-Wahat Hotel in Hun after LNA airstrikes (Libya Observer)

The campaign began with a series of airstrikes by LNA and Egyptian aircraft in May 2017 on targets in Hun and Waddan belonging to Abd al-Rahman Bashir’s 613th Tagreft Brigade (composed of Misratans who had fought the Islamic State in Sirte as part of the Bunyan al-Marsous [“Solid Structure”] coalition)5 and the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB),a the latter allegedly supported by a group of Chadian mercenaries. In early June 2017, the LNA’s 12th Brigade swept into the Jufra airbase with the help of local tribal leaders.6 Opposition was slight after the Misratan 13th Brigade and the BDB pulled out toward Misrata.

This allowed the LNA to take the town of Bani Walid, an important center in Libya’s human trafficking network strategically located 100 kilometers southwest of Misrata and 120 kilometers southeast of Tripoli. The site offers access by road to both cities and will be home to the new 27th Light Infantry Brigade commanded by Abdullah al-Warfali (a member of the Warfala tribe) as part of the LNA’s Gulf of Sidra military zone under General Muhammad Bin Nayel.7 Possession of Bani Walid could allow the LNA to separate the GNA government in Tripoli from its strongest military supporters in Misrata.

An Opening for Islamist Extremists

North African jihadis are likely to use the political chaos in Fezzan to establish strategic depth for operations in Algeria, Niger, and Mali. Those militants loyal to al-Qa`ida united in the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin (JNIM) on March 2, 2017, as a merger of Ansar al-Din, al-Mourabitoun, the Macina Liberation Front, and the Saharan branch of al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The group’s Tuareg leader, Iyad ag Ghali, will look to exploit Libyan connections in Fezzan already established by al-Mourabitoun chief Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who mounted his attack on Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant in 2013 from a base near al-‘Uwaynat in Fezzan.b For now, it appears Ag Ghali can count on only minimal support from the Sahelian Tuareg community in Fezzan, which largely favors Qaddafism over jihadism.c

The rival Islamic State announced the establishment of the wilaya (province) of Fezzan as part of its “caliphate” in November 2014.d Since their expulsion from Sirte last December by al-Bunyan al-Marsous and intensive U.S. airstrikes, Islamic State fighters now range the rough terrain south of the coast, presenting an elusive menace.8 Following the interrogation of a large number of Islamic State detainees, the Attorney General’s office in Tripoli announced that Libyans were a minority in the group, with the largest number having come from Sudan, while others came from Egypt, Tunisia, Mali, Chad, and Algeria.9

Masa’ad al-Sidairah (Sudan Tribune)

Some Sudanese Islamic State fighters are disciples of Sudanese preacher Masa’ad al-Sidairah, whose Jama’at al-I’tisam bil-Quran wa’l-Sunna (Group of Devotion to the Quran and Sunna) publicly supported the Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi until a wave of arrests forced it to pledge to abandon Islamic State recruitment in Sudan for the Libyan and Syrian battlefields.10 Sudanese authorities state that at least 20 Sudanese Islamic State recruits have been killed in Libya.11 Many of these entered Libya via the smugglers’ route passing Jabal ‘Uwaynat at the meeting point of Egypt, Sudan, and Libya.12

Other Islamic State fighters fleeing Sirte headed into Fezzan, where they were reported to have concentrated at the town of al-‘Uwaynat, just north of Ghat and close to the Algerian border. This group was believed responsible for the February 2017 attacks on Great Man-Made River facilities and electricity infrastructure, including the destruction of almost 100 miles of electricity pylons between Jufra and Sabha.13 e On May 6, 2017, Islamic State militants mounted an ambush on a Misratan Third Force convoy on the road between Jufra and Sirte, killing two and wounding three.14 Libyan investigators claim the Islamic State has rebuilt a “desert army” of three brigades under the command of Libyan Islamist al-Mahdi Salem Dangou (aka Abu Barakat).15

Islamic State fighters shattered any thought their Sirte defeat left the group in Libya incapable of mounting operations on August 23, 2017 with an attack on the LNA’s 121st Infantry Battalion at the Fugha oasis (Jufra District). Nine soldiers and two civilians were apparently killed after capture by close range shots to the head or by having their throats slit. Most of the soldiers were former members of Qaddafi’s elite 32nd Mechanized Brigade from Surman and may have been targeted due to the role of Surmani troops in wiping out Islamic State terrorists who had briefly occupied the town of Sabratha, in between Tripoli and the border with Tunisia, in February 2016.16

Securing the Southern Borders

Control of the trade routes entering Fezzan was based on the midi-midi (friend-friend) truce of 1893, which gave the Tuareg exclusive control of all routes entering Fezzan west of the Salvador Pass (on the western side of Niger’s Mangueni plateau), while the Tubu controlled all routes from Niger and Chad east of the Toumou Pass on the eastern side of the plateau.17 The long-standing agreement collapsed during the Tubu-Tuareg struggles of 2014, fueled by clashes over control of smuggling operations and the popular perception of the Tuareg as opponents of the Libyan revolution.

Today, both passes are monitored by American drones operating out of a base north of Niamey and by French Foreign Legion patrols operating from a revived colonial-era fort at Madama, 60 miles south of Toummo.18 Chad closed its portion of the border with Libya in early January 2017 to prevent Islamic State militants fleeing Sirte from infiltrating into north Chad, but has since opened a single crossing.19

On a September 2017 visit to Rome, Haftar insisted the international arms embargo on Libya must be lifted for the LNA, adding that he could provide the manpower to secure Libya’s southern border, but needed to be supplied with “drones, helicopters, night vision goggles, [and] vehicles.”20 Haftar said earlier that preventing illegal migrants from crossing the 2,500-mile southern border would cost $20 billion.21

Some southern militias have proven effective at ‘policing’ the border when it is in their own interest; a recent fuel shortage in southern Fezzan was remedied when the Tubu Sukour al-Shara (“Desert Eagles”) militia, which is based in Qatrun some 200 kilometers south of Sabha, closed the borders with Chad and Niger on September 7, 2017, and began intercepting scores of tanker trucks smuggling fuel and other goods across the border into Niger, where they had been fetching greater prices, but leaving Fezzan with shortages and soaring prices.22

Sukour al-Sahra leader Barka Shedemi

Sukour al-Sahra is led by a veteran Tubu warrior from Niger, Barka Shedemi, and has support from the HoR.23 Equipped with some 200 vehicles ranging over 400 miles of the southern borders, Shedemi is said to have strong animosity toward the Qaddadfa tribe after he was captured by them in the 1980s and turned over to the Qaddafi regime, which punished him as a common brigand by cutting off a hand and a leg.24 Shedemi has reportedly asked for a meeting with Frederica Mogherini, the European Union’s top diplomat, to discuss compensation for his brigade in exchange for halting migrant flows across Libya’s southern border.25

Foreign Fighters in Fezzan 

Since the revolution, there has been a steady stream of reports concerning the presence of Chadian and Darfuri fighters in Libya, especially those belonging to Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). JEM leaders were once harbored by Qaddafi in their struggle against Khartoum, and took refuge in Libya after the revolution as pressure from the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) forced the rebels across the border. Khartoum backs the PC/GNA and has complained of JEM’s presence in Libya to the United Nations’ Libyan envoy.26

Haftar sees the hand of Qatar behind the influx of foreign fighters: “The Libyan army has recorded the arrival in Libya of citizens from Chad, Sudan, and other African and Arab states. They got into Libya because of the lack of border controls. They received money from Qatar, as well as other countries and terrorist groups.”27 Haftar’s statement reflects the deteriorating relations between Qatar and much of the rest of the Arab world as well as Haftar’s own indebtedness to his anti-Qatar sponsors in Egypt and the UAE. Haftar and HoR spokesmen have also claimed Qatar was supporting what it called terrorist groups (including the Muslim Brotherhood, Ansar al-Sharia, and the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) and carrying out a campaign of assassinations that included an unsuccessful attempt on Haftar’s life.28 f

Notwithstanding his complaints about JEM and other foreign fighters, Haftar is accused of employing JEM and Darfuri rebels of the Zaghawa-led Sudan Liberation Army-Minni Minnawi (SLA-MM), which arrived in Fezzan in 2015. Acting as mercenaries, these fighters participated in LNA campaigns in Benghazi and the oil crescent alongside members of SLA-Unity and the SLA-Abd al-Wahid, largely composed of members of the Fur ethnic group for which Darfur is named.29 When the SLA-MM returned to Darfur in May 2017, they were badly defeated by the RSF.30

Foreign fighters are alleged to have played a part in the June 2017 Brak al-Shatti airbase massacre of 140 LNA soldiers and civilians by the BDB and their Hasawna tribal allies, with a spokesman for the LNA’s 166th Brigade asserting the presence of “al-Qa`ida associated” Chadian and Sudanese rebels with the BDB.31 In the days after the Brak al-Shatti combat, the LNA’s 12th Brigade spokesman claimed that his unit had captured Palestinian, Chadian, and Malian al-Qa`ida members, adding that 70 percent of the fighters they had killed or taken prisoner were foreign.32 The claims cannot be verified, but many BDB commanders have ties to factions of al-Qa`ida and/or the Islamic State.

While Arab rivals of the Tubu in southern Libya often delegitimize local Tubu fighters by referring to them as “Chadian mercenaries,” there are actual Tubu fighters from Chad and Niger operating in various parts of Libya. Fezzan’s Tubu and Tuareg ethnic groups often take advantage of their ability to call upon their cross-border kinsmen when needed.33 Tubu leaders in Niger’s Kawar region complain that most of their young men have moved to Libya since 2011.34

Chadian rebels opposing the regime of President Idriss Déby Itno have established themselves near the Fezzan capital of Sabha as they build sufficient strength to operate within Chad.35 In mid-June 2017, artillery of the LNA’s 116th Infantry Battalion shelled Chadian camps outside Sabha (including those belonging to Mahamat Mahdi Ali’s Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad [FACT]) after accusing them of fighting on behalf of the PC/GNA. A U.N. report suggests that FACT fought alongside the BDB during the latter’s operations in the Libyan oil crescent in March 2017, losing a prominent commander in the process.36 A FACT splinter group, the Conseil de Commandement Militaire Pour le Salut de la Republique (CCMSR), also has a base near Sabha, which was attacked by LNA aircraft in April 2016.37

Efforts to Restore Border Security in Fezzan 

Alarmed by the rising numbers of migrants trying to reach Europe from Libya and Libya’s inability to police its own borders, Italy and Germany called in May for the establishment of an E.U. mission to patrol the Libya-Niger border “as quickly as possible.”38 Ignoring its colonial reputation in Libya, Rome suggested deploying the Italian Carabinieri (a national police force under Italy’s Defense Ministry) to train southern security forces and help secure the region from Islamic State terrorists fleeing to Libya from northern Iraq.39

European intervention of this type is a non-starter for the PC/GNA government, which has made it plain it also does not see Libya as a potential holding tank for illegal migrants or have interest in any plan involving their settlement in Libya.40

In Fezzan, migrants are smuggled by traffickers across the southern border and on to towns such as Sabha and to its south Murzuq, ‘Ubari, and Qatrun in return for cash payments to the Tubu and Tuareg armed groups who control these passages. In 2017, the largest groups of migrants were from Nigeria, Bangladesh, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire.41 The main center of the trade is Sabha, where members of the Awlad Sulayman are heavily involved in human smuggling.42 The Tubu and Tuareg also run profitable but dangerous operations smuggling narcotics, tobacco, alcohol, stolen vehicles, state-subsidized products, and other materials across Libya’s borders. Street battles in Sabha are common between competing factions of traffickers.43

Italy has signed a military cooperation agreement with Niger that will allow it to deploy alongside Sahel Group of Five (SG5) forces (an anti-terrorist and economic development coalition of five Sahel nations with support from France and other nations) and French and German contingents with the objective of establishing control over the border with Libya.g On the Fezzan side of the border, Italy will support a border guard composed of Tubu, Tuareg, and Awlad Sulayman tribesmen as called for in a deal negotiated in Rome last April.44 Rome will, in turn, fund development projects in the region. Local leaders in Fezzan complain national leaders have been more interested in border security than the lack of development that fuels border insecurity, not realizing the two go hand-in-hand.45 Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti noted his conviction that “the southern border of Libya is crucial for the southern border of Europe as a whole. So we have built a relationship with the tribes of southern Sahara. They are fundamental to the south, the guardians of the southern border.”46

A Failed Experiment

Proof that the migrant crisis cannot be solved on Libya’s coast came in September/October 2017 in the form of a 15-day battle in the port city of Sabratha (78 kilometers west of Tripoli) that killed 39 and wounded 300. The battle marked the collapse of an Italian experiment in paying militias to prevent migrants from boarding boats for Italy.47

Fighting in Sabratha, September 2017 (Libya Observer)

The Italian decision to select the GNA-aligned Martyr Anas Dibbashi Brigade (aka 48th Infantry Brigade) to cut off migrant flows from Sabratha (which it did with some success) angered the Wadi Brigade (salafist followers of Saudi shaykh Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali who are aligned with the LNA)48 and the (anti) Islamic State-Fighting Operations Room (IFOR, consisting of pro-GNA former army officers, though some have ties to the Wadi Brigade). Like the Anas Dibbashi Brigade, both groups had made great sums of cash from human trafficking. With the southern border still unsecured, migrants continued to pour into Sabratha but could not be sent on to Europe, creating a trafficking bottleneck.49 Suddenly, only Anas Dibbashi was making money (in the form of millions of Euro from Italy),50 leading to a fratricidal struggle to restore the old order as members of Sabratha’s extensive Dibbashi clan fought on both sides of the conflict.h Both LNA and GNA forces claimed victory over the Anas Dibbashi Brigade, with Haftar claiming IFOR was aligned with his LNA.51 Following the battle, migrant flows resumed while Haftar warned his forces in Sabratha to be ready for an advance on Tripoli.52

The Fezzan Qaddafists 

A challenge to Haftar’s efforts (and one he has tried to co-opt) is the strong current of Qaddafism (i.e., support of the Jamahiriya political philosophy conceived by Muammar Qaddafi) in Fezzan, the last loyalist area to be overrun in the 2011 revolution. Support for Qaddafi was especially strong in the Sahelian Tuareg, Qaddadfa, and parts of the Awlad Sulayman communities.

Fezzan’s Qaddafists were no doubt inspired by the release of Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi in early June 2017 after six years of detention.53 Saif, however, is far from being in the clear; he remains subject to a 2015 death sentence issued in absentia in Tripoli and is still wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes committed in 2011.54 On October 17, 2017, the Qaddafi family lawyer announced Saif was already visiting tribal elders as he began his return to politics.55 The announcement followed a statement from the United Nations Special Envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, that Libyan elections must be open to all, including Saif and other unreformed Qaddafists.56

General Ali Kanna Sulayman, a Tuareg Qaddafi loyalist, fled to Niger after the fall of Tripoli in 2011, but was reported to have returned to Fezzan in 2013.57 His former comrade, Qaddafi-era Air Force commander Ali Sharif al-Rifi, also returned from Niger to his Fezzan home of Waddan in June 2017.58 Thirty Qaddafi-era prisoners, mostly military officers, were released in early June 2017 by the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade (TRG) under orders from the HoR.59

General Ali Kanna took control of the massive Sharara oil field in Fezzan after the Misratan 13th Brigade pulled out in the last week of May 2017. As leader of a neo-Qaddafist militia, Ali Kanna has spent his time trying to unite local forces in a “Fezzan Army” that would acknowledge the legitimacy of the Qaddafist Jamahariya.60 In October 2016, there were reports that former Qaddafist officers had appointed Ali Kanna as the leader of the “Libyan Armed Forces in Southern Libya,” a structure apparently independent of both the GNA and Haftar’s LNA.61

The effort to promote armed Qaddafism in Fezzan has faltered under pressure from the LNA’s General Muhammad Bin Nayel.62 LNA spokesman Colonel Ahmad al-Mismari downplayed the threat posed by Ali Kanna, claiming his “pro-Qaddafi” southern army is composed mostly of foreign mercenaries with few professional military officers.63

In mid-October, an armed group of Qaddafists (allegedly including 120 members of the Darfuri JEM) attempted to take control of the major routes in and out of Tripoli before clashing with Islamist Abd al-Rauf’s Rada (Deterrence) force, a semi-autonomous police force operating nominally under the GNA’s Ministry of the Interior.64

Two alleged leaders of the Qaddafist group, Libyan Mabruk Juma Sultan Ahnish (aka Alwadi) and Sudanese Rifqa al-Sudani, were captured and detained by Rada forces.65 Ahnish is a member of the Magraha tribe from Brak al-Shatti, while Rifqa (aka Imam Daoud Muhammad al-Faki) is supposedly a Sudanese member of JEM, though other accounts claim he may be Libyan.66 According to Rada, the rest of the JEM group refused to surrender and presumably remains at large. It was claimed the Darfuri mercenaries were working on behalf of exiled Qaddafists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Libya (PFLL).67 i

The fragility of Tripoli’s water supply became apparent on October 19, 2017, when Mabruk Ahnish’s brother, Khalifa Ahnish, made good on his threat to turn off the Great Man-Made River if Mabruk was not released within 72 hours. Khalifa also threatened “kidnapping and murder,” cutting the Sabha-Tripoli road, and blowing up the southern gas pipeline leading to Italy via the Greenstream pipeline.68 Khalifa claimed to be working under the command of General Ali Kanna, though the general denied having anything to do with Khalifa or his brother.69

Conclusion 

Haftar’s apparent military strategy is to secure the desert airbases south of Tripoli and insert LNA forces on the coast west of Tripoli, cornering his opponents in the capital and Misrata before mounting an air-supported offensive, similar to the tactics that enabled the capture of Jufra.j Haftar is trying to sell the conquest of Tripoli as a necessary (and desirable) step in ending illegal migration from Libyan ports to Europe.70 The strategy has political support; HoR Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni has consistently rejected international proposals for a mediated settlement to the Libyan crisis, insisting, as a former professional soldier, that only a military effort can unite the country.71

The LNA’s prolonged effort to take and secure Benghazi points to both the difficulty of urban warfare and the weakness of the LNA relative to its ambition to bring Libya’s largest cities under its control. The pullback of the PC/GNA-allied Misratan militias from Jufra may be preparation for a consolidated stand against Haftar, but it also weakens security in the south, offering room for new actors. Fezzan remains an attractive and long-term target for regional jihadis who may find opportunities to exploit or even hijack the direction of a protracted resistance in Fezzan to the imposition of rule by a new Libyan strongman. With no single group strong enough to resist Haftar’s LNA (whose ultimate victory is by no means certain), all kinds of anti-Haftar alliances are possible between Qaddafists, Islamists, Misratans, and even jihadis, with the added possibility of eventual foreign intervention by the West or Haftar’s assertive Middle Eastern or Russian partners.

In a study of the 2014-2016 fighting in ‘Ubari (a town in between Sabha and al-‘Uwaynat) released earlier this year, Rebecca Murray noted her Tuareg and Tubu sources “overwhelmingly dismissed the possibility that radical IS [Islamic State] ideology could take root in their communities, which they described as traditional, less religiously conservative, rooted in local culture, and loyal to strong tribal leaders.”72

The perspective of her sources might be optimistic. Unfortunately, the situation strongly resembles that which existed in northern Mali before well-armed Islamist extremists began moving in on existing smuggling networks, using the existence of “militarized, unemployed and marginalized youths” (as Murray describes their Libyan counterparts) to create new networks under their control while simultaneously undermining traditional community and religious leadership. While tribal leaders may still command a certain degree of loyalty, they are nonetheless unable to provide social services, employment, reliable security, or economic infrastructure to their communities, leaving them susceptible to those who claim they can, whether religious radicals or would-be strongmen.     CTC

Dr. Andrew McGregor is the director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in the analysis of security issues in Africa and the Islamic world.

Substantive Notes

[a] The BDB is a coalition of Islamists and former Qaddafi-era army officers, which includes some fighters who were in the now largely defunct Ansar al-Sharia group. See Andrew McGregor, “Libya’s Military Wild Card: The Benghazi Defense Brigades and the Massacre at Brak al-Shatti,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 15:11 (2017).

[b] The town of al-‘Uwaynat in southwest Fezzan is not to be confused with Jabal ‘Uwaynat, a mountain in southeast Cyrenaïca. According to Malian and Mauritanian security sources, Belmokhtar was replaced in early May 2017 by his Algerian deputy, Abd al-Rahman al-Sanhaji, whose name suggests he is a Berber. Belmokhtar’s presence in southern Libya, far away from operations in Mali, was cited as a major reason for the change. Malek Bachir, “Exclusive: Notorious leader of Saharan al-Qaeda group loses power,” Middle East Eye, May 9, 2017.

[c] The ‘Ubari-based Maghawir Brigade, created from Sahelian Tuareg as a Libyan Army unit in 2004, split during the revolution with those favoring the revolution forming the new Ténéré (Tamasheq – “desert”) Brigade, while the Qaddafi loyalists were forced to flee to Mali and Niger. Many of the latter returned after the collapse of the Azawad rebellion in northern Mali (2012-2103) and regrouped around Tuareg General Ali Kanna Sulayman as the Tendé Brigade, though others rallied around Ag Ghali’s cousin, Ahmad Omar al-Ansari, in the Border Guards 315 Brigade. Mathieu Galtier, “Southern borders wide open,” Libya Herald, September 20, 2013; Rebecca Murray, “In a Southern Libya Oasis, a Proxy War Engulfs Two Tribes,” Vice News, June 7, 2015; Nicholas A. Heras, “New Salafist Commander Omar al-Ansari Emerges in Southwest Libya,” Jamestown Foundation Militant Leadership Monitor 5:12 (2014); Rebecca Murray “Southern Libya Destabilized: The Case of Ubari,” Small Arms Survey Briefing Paper, April 2017, fn. 23.

[d] The Islamic State declared the division of Libya into three provinces of its self-proclaimed caliphate on November 10, 2014, based on the pre-2007 administrative divisions of Libya: Wilayah Barqa (Cyrenaïca), Wilayah Tarabulus (Tripolitania), and Wilayah Fezzan. See Geoff D. Porter, “How Realistic Is Libya as an Islamic State ‘Fallback’?” CTC Sentinel 9:3 (2016).

[e] The Great Man-Made River is a Qaddafi-era water project that taps enormous aquifers under the Sahara to supply fresh-water to the cities of the Libyan coast. Cutting the pipelines is a relatively cheap and efficient way of applying pressure to the urban areas on the coast where most of the Libyan population lives.

[f] Military sources in the UAE claimed on October 23, 2017, that Qatar was assisting hundreds of defeated Islamic State fighters to leave Iraq and Syria for Fezzan, where they would create a new base to threaten the security of Europe, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. However, this alarming news must be tempered by recognition of the ongoing propaganda war being waged on Qatar by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Amal Abdullah, “Hamdeen Organization moves hundreds of armed ‘Daesh’ to Libyan territory,” Al-Ittihad, October 22, 2017.

[g] The SG5 is a multilateral response to terrorism and other security issues in the Sahel region. Created in 2014 but only activated in February 2017, the SG5 consists of military and civil forces from Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso, with logistical and financial assistance from France and other Western partners.

[h] The Italian government maintains that the estimated €5 million payment was issued only to the GNA government or Sabratha’s local council and not directly to a militia. However, the route payments took is largely irrelevant to the outcome. Patrick Wintour, “Italy’s Deal to Stem Flow of People from Libya in Danger of Collapse,” Guardian, October 3, 2017.

[i] The founding declaration of the PFLL declares its intent is to build a sovereign state and “liberate the country from the control of terrorist organizations that use religion as a cover and are funded by foreign agencies.” “Founding Declaration of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Libya,” Jamahiriya News Agency, December 25, 2016.

[j] Of concern to Tripoli are reports that Haftar forces have repeatedly struck civilian targets (especially in Hun) as displayed in the LNA’s Jufra air offensive. Abdullah Ben Ibrahim, “A night of airstrikes in Hun town,” Libya Observer, May 24, 2017.

Citations

[1] “Majority of Libya now under national army control, says Haftar,” Al Arabiya, October 14, 2017.

[2] “Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade controls Garabulli after three days of clashes,” Libyan Express, July 11, 2017; Waleed Abdullah, “Cautious calm east of Tripoli after clashes: Official,” Anadolu Agency, July 10, 2017; “Pro-Ghwell forces halt advance on Tripoli after Serraj calls for international allies to attack,” Libya Herald, July 7, 2017.

[3] “Former PC loyalist Majbri joins Gatrani and Aswad in fresh challenge to Serraj,” Libya Herald, September 3, 2017.

[4] Wolfram Lacher, “Libya’s Fractious South and Regional Instability,” Small Arms Survey Dispatch no. 3, February 2014.

[5] “Brigade 613 calls for response to Dignity Operation airstrikes in central Libya,” Libya Observer, May 23, 2017; “A night of airstrikes in Hun town,” Libya Observer, May 24, 2017; “Haftar’s warplanes conduct airstrikes on Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous locations in central Libya,” Libyan Express, May 24, 2017.

[6] “Haftar forces capture strategic Libya airbase after ‘secret deals,’” The New Arab, June 4, 2017; “Operation Dignity seizes Jufra airbase in central Libya,” Libyan Express, June 3, 2017; “Haftar’s forces seize Hun town in Jufra, a dozen killed,” Libyan Express, June 3, 2017; Jamie Prentis, “Waddan taken by LNA in fierce fighting,” Libya Herald, June 2, 2017; “Clashes in Waddan town leave a dozen killed,” Libya Observer, June 3, 2017.

[7] “LNA sets up new force in Bani Walid,” Libya Herald, October 19, 2017.

[8] Lamine Ghanmi, “ISIS regroups in Libya amid jihadist infighting,” Middle East Online, October 15, 2017.

[9] “Islamic State set up Libyan desert army after losing Sirte – prosecutor,” Reuters, September 28, 2017; “IS cameraman involved in 2015 Sirte massacre of Egyptian Christians in custody says Assour,” Libya Herald, September 28, 2017.

[10] “Sudanese Jihadist killed in eastern Libya,” Sudan Tribune, February 10, 2016; “Sudanese security releases three ISIS sympathizers,” Sudan Tribune, January 1, 2016.

[11] “Sudanese twin sisters arrested in Libya over ISIS connections,” Sudan Tribune, February 7, 2017.

[12] “9 Sudanese migrants found dead near Libyan border, 319 rescued: SAF,” Sudan Tribune, May 1, 2014; Andrew McGregor, “Jabal ‘Uwaynat: Mysterious Mountain Becomes a Three Border Security Flashpoint,” AIS Special Report, June 13, 2017.

[13] Aidan Lewis, “Islamic State shifts to Libya’s desert valleys after Sirte defeat,” Reuters, February 10, 2017; John Pearson, “Libya sees new threat from ISIL after defeat at Sirte,” National [Abu Dhabi], February 10, 2017.

[14] “IS slays two in ambush on Third Force convoy,” Libya Herald, May 8, 2017; “Libyan Rivals Rumored to Meet Again in Cairo This Week,” Geopoliticsalert.com, May 10, 2017.

[15] Ahmed Elumami, “Islamic State set up Libyan desert army after losing Sirte – prosecutor,” Reuters, September 28, 2017; “Libya Dismantles Network Involved in Beheading of Copts,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 29, 2017.

[16] See Andrew McGregor, “Islamic State Announces Libyan Return with Slaughter of LNA Personnel in Jufra,” AIS Special Report, August 24, 2017.

[17] Hsain Ilahiane, Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen), 2nd ed., (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), pp. 146-147.

[18] Nick Turse, “The US Is Building a $100 Million Drone Base in Africa,” Intercept, September 29, 2016; “France: The Saharan Policeman,” BBC, March 19, 2015.

[19] “Chad shuts border with Libya, deploys troops amid security concerns,” Reuters, January 5, 2017.

[20] Lorenzo Cremonesi, “Migranti, Haftar: Vi aiutiamo a fermarli, dateci gli elicotteri,” Corriere della Sera, September 28, 2017.

[21] Lorenzo Cremonesi, “Haftar e le minacce alle navi italiane: ‘Senza il nostro accordo, è un’invasione,’” Corriere della Sera, August 11, 2017.

[22] Jamal Adel and Hadi Fornaji, “Massive rise in petrol prices in south, but convoys of tankers from Misrata expected to start rolling this weekend,” Libya Herald, September 23, 2017.

[23] Jamal Adel, “Qatrun Tebu brigade clamps down on southern border smuggling,” Libya Herald, September 11, 2017.

[24] “Southern border reported blockaded as Qatrun leader confirms ‘big’ drop in migrants coming from Niger,” Libya Herald, September 7, 2017.

[25] “Barka Shedemi crée la panique à Niamey et maitrise la frontière,” Tchad Convergence/Le Tchadanthropus-Tribune, October 23, 2017.

[26] Jamie Prentis, “Sudan reiterates support for Presidency Council but concerned about Darfuri rebels in Libya,” Libya Herald, May 1, 2017.

[27] “Hafter praises the PC and says Qatar is arming Libyan terrorists,” Libya Herald, May 30, 2017.

[28] “Libya Army Spokesman Says Qatar Involved in Number of Assassinations,” Asharq al-Awsat, June 8, 2017; “Libyan army reveals documents proving Qatar’s interference in Libya,” Al Arabiya, June 8, 2017; “Libyan diplomat reveals Qatari ‘involvement’ in attempt to kill General Haftar,” Al Arabiya, June 6, 2017; “Haftar accuses Qatar of supporting terrorism in Libya,” Al Arabiya, May 29, 2017.

[29] “Sudanese rebel group acknowledges fighting for Khalifa Haftar’s forces in Libya,” Libya Observer, October 10, 2016; “Intelligence Report: Darfur Mercenaries Pose Threat on Peace in the Region,” Sudan Media Center, May 22, 2017; “Darfur Groups Control Oilfields in Libya,” Global Media Services-Sudan, July 27, 2016.

[30] “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), S/2017/466,” June 1, 2017, p. 115; “Sudan: Rebel Commander Killed, Chief Captured in Darfur Battles,” Radio Dabanga, May 23, 2017; “Sudan, rebels resume heavy fighting in North Darfur,” Sudan Tribune, May 29, 2017.

[31] “East-based Libyan army says al-Qaeda attacked airbase,” Channel TV [Amman], May 22, 2017.

[32] Maha Elwatti, “LNA claims many Brak al-Shatti attackers were foreign, says it is fighting al-Qaeda,” Libya Herald, May 20, 2017.

[33] “Letter Dated 4 March 2016 from the Panel of Experts on Libya Established Pursuant to Resolution 1973 (2011), Addressed to the President of the Security Council,’” S/2016/209, United Nations Security Council, March 9, 2016; Rebecca Murray “Southern Libya Destabilized: The Case of Ubari,” Small Arms Survey Briefing Paper, April 2017, fn. 57.

[34] Lacher.

[35] “Libya militia to halt attack on Chadian fighters in south,” Facebook via BBC Monitoring, June 15, 2017; Célian Macé, “Mahamat Mahad Ali, la rose et le glaive,” Libération, May 29, 2017.

[36] “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), S/2017/466,” June 1, 2017, p. 18. See also Andrew McGregor, “Rebel or Mercenary? A Profile of Chad’s General Mahamat Mahdi Ali,” Jamestown Foundation Militant Leadership Monitor, September 2017.

[37] “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), S/2017/466,” June 1, 2017, p. 116.

[38] Beata Stur, “Germany, Italy propose EU patrols along Libya’s border with Niger,” New Europe, May 15, 2017; May 15, 2017; “Italy and Germany call for EU mission on Libyan border,” AFP, May 14, 2017.

[39] Paolo Mastrolilli, “A Plan for Carabinieri in Mosul After Caliph’s Militiamen Take Flight,” La Stampa [Turin], April 21, 2017.

[40] Sami Zaptia, “Libya refused international requests to strike migrant smuggling militias: GNA Foreign Minister Siala,” Libya Herald, April 29, 2017.

[41] Gabriel Harrison, “EU parliament head says Libya should be paid €6 billion to stop migrants,” Libya Herald, August 28, 2017.

[42] “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), S/2017/466,” June 1, 2017, p. 63.

[43] Jamie Prentis, “LNA airstrikes again hit Tamenhint and Jufra,” Libya Herald, April 29, 2017; “Deadly Clashes in Sebha over Car Robbery,” Libya Herald, May 5, 2017.

[44] Francesco Grignetti, “L’Italia studia una missione in Niger per controllare la frontiera con la Libia,” La Stampa [Turin], October 15, 2017.

[45] “Tebu, Tuareg and Awlad Suleiman make peace in Rome,” Libya Herald, March 30, 2017.

[46] Patrick Wintour, “Italian minister defends methods that led to 87% drop in migrants from Libya,” Guardian, September 7, 2017.

[47] “Salafists loyal to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar control Sabratha, declare war on Tripoli,” Libyan Express, October 6, 2017; “Libya pro-GNA force drives rival out of Sabratha,” AFP, October 7, 2017.

[48] Abdullah Ben Ibrahim, “Khalifa Haftar: Libyan Army is launching legitimate war in Sabratha,” Libya Observer, October 3, 2017. See also Andrew McGregor, “Radical Loyalty and the Libyan Crisis: A Profile of Salafist Shaykh Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali,” Jamestown Foundation Militant Leadership Monitor, January 2017.

[49] “ISIS Fighting Operation Room declares victory in Sabratha,” Libya Observer, October 6, 2017.

[50] Francesca Mannocchi, “Guerra di milizie a Sabratha, ecco perché dalla città libica riparte il traffico dei migrant,” L’Espresso, September 19, 2017; Nello Scavo, “Tripoli. Accordo Italia-Libia, è giallo sui fondi per aiutare il Paese,” Avvenire, September 1, 2017.

[51] Khalid Mahmoud, “Libya: Serraj, Haftar Share the ‘Liberation’ of Sabratha,” Asharq al-Awsat, October 7, 2017.

[52] Cremonesi, “Migranti, Haftar: Vi aiutiamo a fermarli, dateci gli elicotteri;” “Salafists loyal to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar control Sabratha, declare war on Tripoli.”

[53] “Saif al-Islam Gaddafi freed from Zintan, arrives in eastern Libya,” Libyan Express, June 10, 2017; Jamie Prentis, “ICC chief prosecutor demands handover of Saif Al-Islam,” Libya Herald, June 14, 2017.

[54] Chris Stephen, “Gaddafi son Saif al-Islam ‘freed after death sentence quashed,” Guardian, July 7, 2016; Raf Sanchez, “Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam at large in Libya after being released from death row, lawyer says,” Telegraph, July 7, 2016.

[55] AMN al-Masdar News, October 18, 2017.

[56] Marc Perelman, “Ghassan Salamé: le processus politique en Libye est ouvert ‘à tout le monde sans exception,’” France 24, September 23, 2017.

[57] Lacher. For General Kanna, see Andrew McGregor, “General Ali Kanna Sulayman and Libya’s Qaddafist Revival,” AIS Special Report, August 8, 2017.

[58] “Qaddafi’s air force chief flies home from exile: report,” Libya Herald, June 18, 2017.

[59] “Tajouri releases Qaddafi people imprisoned for six years,” Libya Herald, June 11, 2017.

[60] Mathieu Galtier, “Libya: Why the Gaddafi loyalists are back,” Middle East Eye, November 11, 2016; Vijay Prashad, “Don’t Look Now, But Gaddafi’s Political Movement could be Making a Comeback in Libya,” AlterNet.org, December 29, 2016; François de Labarre, “Libye, le general Ali Kana veut unifier les tribus du Sud,” Paris Match, May 22, 2016.

[61] Ken Hanly, “Southern army leaders try to change leaders unsuccessfully,” Digital Journal, October 9, 2016; Abdullah Ben Ibrahim, “Armed groups in southern Libya abandon Dignity Operation,” Libya Observer, October 9, 2016.

[62] Jamie Prentis, “LNA resumes airstrikes on Tamenhint as Misratans target Brak Al-Shatti: report,” Libya Herald, April 13, 2017.

[63] “’We are the LNA, we are everywhere in Libya’ says LNA spokesman,” Libya Herald, February 2017.

[64] “Tripoli-based Special Deterrent Force apprehends Gaddafi-loyal armed group,” Libya Observer, October 16, 2017.

[65] “Libya on brink of water crisis as armed group closes main source,” Libyan Express, October 23, 2017; “Water stops in Tripoli as Qaddafi militants now threaten to blow up gas pipeline,” Libya Herald, October 19, 2017.

[66] Hadi Fornaji, “Now Tripoli port as well as Mitiga airport closed as Ghararat fighting continues,” Libya Herald, October 17, 2017.

[67] “Tripoli-based Special Deterrent Force apprehends Gaddafi-loyal armed group;” “Rada says it has broken up Tripoli attack plot,” Libya Herald, October 16, 2017.

[68] “Gunmen block Tripoli-Sebha road in new bid to force release of Mabrouk Ahnish,” Libya Herald, October 23, 2017.

[69] “Armed Group Threatens to Blow Up Pipeline that Transmits Libya’s Gas to Italy,” Asharq al-Awsat, October 19, 2017; “Gaddafis threaten Tripoli residents with water cut,” Libya Observer, October 17, 2017; “Water stops in Tripoli as Qaddafi militants now threaten to blow up gas pipeline.”

[70] “Eastern forces already devised plan to control Tripoli, says spokesman,” Libyan Express, July 11, 2017.

[71] Hadi Fornaji, “Thinni spurns calls for political dialogue, says ‘military solution’ is only answer to Libya crisis,” Libya Herald, April 8, 2017.

[72] Rebecca Murray, “Southern Libya Destabilized: The Case of Ubari,” Small Arms Survey Briefing Paper, April 2017.

 

Rebel or Mercenary? A Profile of Chad’s General Mahamat Mahdi Ali

Andrew McGregor

September 7, 2017

In April 2017, the foreign minister of Libya’s Tripoli-based Presidency Council estimated the number of Chadian mercenaries operating in Libya to be 18,000, with another 6,000 hailing from Sudan (Libya Herald, August 23). The numbers emphasized the growing problem of mercenary activity in Libya as well as other parts of Africa.

FACT commander Mahamat Mahdi Ali (Taha Jawashi/Libération).

The first of the Chadian armed groups began operations in Libya’s lawless southern Fezzan region in 2014. Though most of these groups presented themselves as rebels opposing the regime of Chadian president Idriss Déby Itno (who himself took power in a 1990 coup), they shared the common inability to take on Chad’s formidable military. In the meantime, these groups have obtained arms and funding by renting themselves out as mercenaries in Libya’s internal conflict as well as trafficking in people and narcotics through their knowledge of border smuggling routes.

In 2016, Chadian dissident General Mahamat Mahdi Ali gathered many of these groups together under his leadership in the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT – Front for Alternation and Concord in Chad). Operating out of bases south of the Fezzan capital of Sabha, FACT became allied to the powerful Misratan “Third Force militia” (recently renamed the “13th Brigade”), an Islamist group supporting the UN-recognized Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) administration in Tripoli. In this capacity, FACT became the enemy of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), a coalition of militias supporting the rival House of Representatives (HoR) government in Tripoli. Despite Haftar’s steady stream of anti-mercenary invective directed at the GNA, most of the Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries in Libya operate alongside forces under his command.

Early Career

The 48-year-old Mahamat Mahdi is a Daza Tubu of the Kecherda sub-group from the Bahr-el-Ghazal region of northern Chad. The Tubu are a nomadic group of roughly 550,000 black Africans speaking a Nilo-Saharan language and sharing cultural similarities with their Tuareg neighbors to the west. The Muslim Tubu are divided into two main groups according to dialect — the northern Teda found in southern Libya, northern Chad and Niger, and the much larger Daza group (also known by their Arabic name, Gura’an) found in Chad and Niger. Clan rivalries have traditionally played a negative role in Tubu attempts at political unification.

The Teda Tubu (Joshua Project)

Mahamat Mahdi was a leading member of the rebel Mouvement pour la Democratie et la Justice au Tchad (MDJT – Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad), which operated in Tibesti and other parts of the northern Borku-Ennedi-Tibesti (BET) region of Chad from 1998 to 2003. A ceasefire agreement with N’Djamena provided for positions within the government for leading rebels, and Mahamat Mahdi was accordingly made Inspector of the Ministry of Infrastructure. However, he thought better of remaining in N’Djamena when a wave of assassinations began to strike Déby’s political opponents and joined General Mahamat Nouri’s Sudanese-backed Union des Forces pour la Démocratie et le Developpement (UFDD – Union of Forces for Democracy and Development) (Libération, May 29; PANA, December 16, 2003; Le Visionnaire, June 28, 2016).

The Daza Tubu (Joshua Project)

Nouri, a Daza Tubu of the Anakaza sub-group was the defense minister in the government of President Hissène Habré, a fellow Anakaza who ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990 before being deposed by General Déby (from the Zaghawa, a group closely related to the Tubu). [1] In 2009, Mahamat Mahdi became secretary-general of the group, mainly composed of Daza Tubu from the Tibesti Mountains, with the Anakaza sub-group as Nouri’s core supporters. [2]

In February 2008, the UFDD reached the Chadian capital of N’Djamena from its bases across the border in Darfur, but was repelled in violent street fighting by forces personally led by President Déby, a reminder that political life had not dulled the ex-general’s tactical edge (TchadActuel, February 17, 2008; Jeune Afrique, February 11, 2008; Le Nouvel Observateur, March 6, 2008).

A 2010 rapprochement between Chad and Sudan put an end to their mutual support for cross-border rebel groups such as the UFDD. Mahamat Mahdi eventually joined Mahamat Nouri in French exile (Chad is a former French colony), but Nouri ordered him to Libya in 2015 in an attempt to revive the UFDD.

The Creation of FACT

Most of the prospective fighters for the revived group came from the Kreda and Kecherda sub-groups of the Daza Tubu. Mahamat Mahdi used his influence, particularly among his fellow Kecherda, to bring these fighters under his personal control rather than that of Mahamat Nouri, who could exert little control over the process from his Paris exile. [3] Following a clash between Mahamat Mahdi’s supporters and Nouri’s Anakaza supporters that left 20 of the latter dead, Mahamat Mahdi declared the formation of a new rebel movement, FACT, in March 2016 (VOA/AFP, April 8, 2016). The movement established an operational base inside Chad at Tanoua, a region close to the Libyan border.

Now with a movement of his own behind him, Mahamat Mahdi pointed to the Chadian elections that followed a few weeks later as proof that political change in Chad was impossible through the ballot box:

At the beginning, we hoped that there would be a political change at the end of the presidential election. But it was well known that Déby would not give up power. We saw the result: the real winner was robbed of his victory, the ballot boxes were stuffed, the opposition activists were intimidated… The regime has also tried to divide our movement. Only force will make Déby leave, it is our conviction. Slowly but surely, we are preparing to reach our goal… to put an end to this anarchic regime dominated by a small group of men. We have no personal ambitions. We will not fight to retain power. It is no longer possible nowadays to take power with some 4x4s [as Déby did in 1990] and to keep it (Jeune Afrique, December 21, 2016). [4]

Mercenary Activities

FACT quickly split in June 2016, when its Kreda clan fighters followed former UFDD spokesman Mahamat Hassani Bulmay into a new group, the Conseil de Commandement Militaire pour le Salut de la République (CCMSR – Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic), which later allied itself with the Islamist Libyan militant group Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB).

FACT Fighters in Libya (Tchad Convergence)

Unlike the Chadian armed groups that sold their services to Haftar’s LNA, FACT’s alliance with the Misratan Third Force and the BDB brought it unwanted attention from the LNA air force. The group’s base at Doualki, near Sabha, was attacked by LNA aircraft on April 14, 2016. [5] FACT’s rear base at Jabal Saoudah near the Chadian border was attacked by LNA aircraft in mid-December 2016, a strike the movement blamed on collusion between the HoR government in Tobruk and the administration in N’Djamena (Tchadconvergance/AFP, December 13, 2016).

LNA warplanes also bombed FACT positions in Jufra. Mahamat Mahdi claimed the attack took him by surprise: “We thought it was an error at first, until Haftar’s entourage asserted that the purpose was to annihilate any rebellion that might destabilize a neighboring state” (Jeune Afrique, December 21, 2016).

According to the UN, FACT participated in the BDB’s March 2017 attack on the LNA-held Ras Lanuf and Sidra oil facilities on the Mediterranean coast, losing a senior commander in the process. [6] FACT was also reported to be involved in clashes with the LNA around the important Tamenhint airbase northeast of the Fezzan capital of Sahba in mid-April, though Mahamat Mahdi denied involvement (RFI, April 16). In retaliation, the LNA’s 116th Battalion shelled the Chadian camps south of Sabha in June after driving the Misratans from Tamenhint (Facebook in Arabic, June 15, via BBC Monitoring).

Despite much evidence of involvement, General Mahamat Mahdi maintains that FACT has a neutral stance in the Libyan conflict: “It is a position of principle and common sense: we are Chadian rebels, we have no reason to interfere with the Libyan problems” (Jeune Afrique, December 21, 2016). The General claims Haftar is colluding with Déby against him.

Chad closed its border with Libya in early January, fearing infiltration of its borders by Tubu rebels and Libyan Islamic State (IS) fighters fleeing northern Libya after the loss of their stronghold at Sirte (Reuters, January 5). France also imposed financial sanctions on Mahamat Mahdi Ali and his rival Mahamat Nouri on January 19. Nonetheless, Mahamat Mahdi claims that FACT has actually helped prevent the southwards penetration of IS fighters: “We oppose groups like the Islamic State that deny human rights. Our presence is a bulwark to their advance towards Libyan south” (Jeune Afrique, December 21, 2016). Two months later, he emphasized: “Today the only concern is how to contain the Islamic State” (RFI, February 27, 2016).

Chadian Mercenaries and Qatar’s Diplomatic Crisis

Chad announced on August 23 that it was suspending diplomatic relations with Qatar over “the continued involvement of the state of Qatar in attempts to destabilize Chad from Libya” (La Tribune Afrique, August 23; Reuters, August 23). N’Djamena insists it has “irrefutable proof” that Qatar supports and finances Chadian opposition groups based in Libya, despite denials from Doha (RFI, August 26). Chadian Foreign Minister Hissein Brahim Taha stressed that his government’s dispute with Qatar is strictly a bilateral issue and “not the continuation of the diplomatic crisis” in the Gulf region (La Tribune Afrique, August 24).

N’Djamena claims the Qatari financing is funnelled through long-time Chadian rebel leader Timan Erdimi, who has made Doha his home since 2009. (RFI, August 26). [7] Chad has sought Erdimi’s extradition for several months (La Tribune Afrique, August 24). Erdimi is Déby’s nephew and leader of the Union des forces de la résistance (UFR), a Libyan-based Chadian rebel movement that has provided mercenary support for Haftar’s LNA in the battle for Benghazi and was attacked by the Subul al-Salam Brigade for its involvement in criminal activities around Kufra. Subul al-Salam is a Salafist unit affiliated with Haftar’s LNA and composed largely of Zuwaya Arabs, the dominant Arab group in the Kufra region.

A Libyan-based Chadian rebel group was reported to have crossed the border on the weekend of August 19-20, killing a number of Chadian government troops in a surprise attack. UFR spokesman Yusuf Hamid insists his group was not responsible for the attack: “I categorically deny the accusations of the Chadian government. We did not get anything from Qatar, not a single penny, not a small piece of equipment. Nothing.” (RFI, August 24). If true, this leaves the possibility that the strike was undertaken by Mahamat Mahdi’s larger FACT movement (though there remains a chance it could have been the work of one of the lesser Chadian armed groups active in southern Libya).

Two members of the Kufra-based Subul al-Salam Battalion in southeastern Libya were killed during a clash with Chadian gunmen on August 26. The clash occurred in the Hanagar region some 300 kilometers southwest of Kufra, where the same two groups battled last February. Subul al-Salam claimed to have killed seven Chadians, whose identity cards suggested they were mercenaries working for the LNA-affiliated Ali al-Thumin Brigade (Libya Herald, August 26; Libya Observer, August 26; Libya Observer, February 2; Libyan Express, August 26). The Battalion has also engaged several times in the last few years with Darfur rebels now operating in the region as mercenaries or highwaymen.

Conclusion

Mahamat Mahdi Ali is a strong irritation for the Déby regime in Chad but a constant source of destabilization in Libya. Despite Mahamat Mahdi’s frequent assertions that times have changed, it seems difficult to identify any other plan for him to achieve regime change in N’Djamena other than “to take power with some 4x4s.” Beyond his core group of up to 1500 fighters (some of whom may be in it strictly for the money), there is little evidence of popular support for Mahamat Mahdi’s movement within Chad, where both government and opposition continue to be dominated by the Tubu and related groups, a tiny minority of Chad’s total population. In addition, President Déby’s authoritarianism is overlooked by France and the United States, which value him as a partner in the War on Terrorism. Mahamat Mahdi Ali is thus an important example of a new type of African mercenary ready and willing to exploit regional conflicts for profit while using the cover of legitimate political resistance.

Notes

[1] After a long legal odyssey, Habré was sentenced to life in prison on May 30, 2016 by a Special African Tribunal in Senegal for mass-torture, rape and the murder of 40,000 Chadians during his time as president.

[2] Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), United Nations Security Council, S/2017/466, June 1, 2017, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/N1711623.pdf

[3] Jérôme Tubiana and Claudio Gramizzi, “Tubu Trouble: State and Statelessness in the Chad-Sudan-Libya Triangle,” Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2017, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/SAS-CAR-WP43-Chad-Sudan-Libya.pdf

[4] The tactics of using 4×4 trucks equipped with anti-tank missiles and heavy machine guns were perfected by General Hassan Djamous (Bidayat) during the 1987 “Toyota War” between Chad and Libya and have been used in a variety of military campaigns in the Sahara/Sahel region since.

[5] Final Report, op cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] For a profile of Timan Erdimi, see “A Family Affair: The Erdimi Twins and the Zaghawa Battle for Chad,” Militant Leadership Monitor, July 30, 2010, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=2263

This article first appeared in the September 7, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Islamic Kingdom vs. Islamic State: Assessing the Effectiveness of a Saudi-led Counter-Terrorist Army

Andrew McGregor

April 16, 2016

After taking the throne in January, the new Saudi regime of King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud seems determined to shake off the perceived lethargy of the Saudi royals, presenting a more vigorous front against a perceived Shi’a threat in the Gulf with the appointment of former Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef as Crown Prince and Salman’s son Muhammad as Minister of Defense and second in line to the throne. To contain Shiite expansion in the Gulf region, the Saudis created a coalition of Muslim countries last year to combat Yemen’s Zaydi Shiite Houthi movement, which had displaced the existing government and occupied Yemen’s capital in 2014. Assessing the military performance of this coalition is useful in projecting the performance of an even larger Saudi-led “counter-terrorist” coalition designed to intervene in Syria and elsewhere.

Saudi Border PostSaudi Border Post Overlooking Yemen

As a demonstration of the united military will of 20 majority Sunni nations (excluding Bahrain, which has a Shi’a majority but a Sunni royal family), the Saudi-led Operation Northern Thunder military exercise gained wide attention during its run from February 14 to March 10 (Middle East Monitor, March 3, 2016).[1] The massive exercise involved the greatest concentration of troops and military equipment in the Middle East since the Gulf War. However, Saudi ambitions run further to the creation of an anti-terrorism (read anti-Shi’a) coalition of 35 Muslim nations that is unlikely to ever see the light of day as conceived. Questions were raised regarding the true intent of this coalition when it became clear Shi’a-majority Iran and Iraq were deliberately excluded, as was Lebanon’s Shi’a Hezbollah movement.

Coalition Operations in Yemen

A Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen on March 26, 2015 as a means of reversing recent territorial gains by the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi movement, securing the common border and restoring the government of internationally recognized president Abd Rabu Mansur al-Hadi, primarily by means of aerial bombardment.

Nine other nations joined the Saudi-coalition; the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Senegal, the latter being the only non-Arab League member. Senegal’s surprising participation was likely the result of promises of financial aid; Senegal’s parliament was told the 2,100 man mission was aimed at “protecting and securing the holy sites of Islam,” Mecca and Madinah (RFI, March 12, 2015).

Despite having the largest army in the coalition, Egypt’s ground contributions appear to have been minimal, with the nation still wary of entanglement in Yemen after the drubbing its expeditionary force took from Royalist guerrillas in Yemen’s mountains during the 1962-1970 civil war, a campaign that indirectly damaged Egypt’s performance in the 1973 Ramadan War against Israel. The Egyptians have instead focused on contributing naval ships to secure the Bab al-Mandab southern entrance to the Red Sea, a strategic priority for both Egypt and the United States.

With support from the UK and the United States, the Saudi-led intervention was seen by Iran, Russia and Gulf Shiite leaders as a violation of international law; more important, from an operational perspective, was the decision of long-time military ally Pakistan to take a pass on a Saudi invitation to join the conflict (Reuters, April 10, 2015).

Operation Decisive Storm was declared over on April 21, 2015, to be replaced the next day with Operation Restoring Hope. Though the new operation was intended to have a greater political focus and a larger ground component, the aerial and naval bombing campaign and U.S.-supported blockade of rebel-held ports continued.

The failure of airstrikes alone to make significant changes in military facts on the ground was displayed once again in the Saudi-led air campaign. A general unconcern for collateral damage, poor ground-air coordination (despite Western assistance in targeting) and a tendency to strike any movement of armed groups managed to alienate the civilian population as well as keep Yemeni government troops in their barracks rather than risk exposure to friendly fire in the field (BuzzFeed, April 2, 2015).  At times, the airstrikes have dealt massive casualties to non-military targets, including 119 people killed in an attack on a market in Hajja province in March 2016 and a raid on a wedding party in September 2015 that killed 131 people (Guardian, March 17, 2016).

While coalition operations have killed some 3,000 militants, the death of an equal number of civilians, the use of cluster munitions and the destruction of infrastructure, mosques, markets, heritage buildings, residential neighborhoods, health facilities, schools and other non-military targets constitute a serious mistake in counter-insurgency operations. Interruptions to the delivery of food, fuel, water and medical services have left many Yemenis prepared to support whomever is able to provide essential services and a modicum of security.

A Muslim Army or an Army of Mercenaries?

When the population of Germany’s small states began to grow in the late 18th century, the rulers of duchies and principalities such as Hesse, Hanover, Brunswick found it both expedient and profitable to rent out their small but highly-trained armies to Great Britain (whose own army was extremely small) for service in America, India, Austria, Scotland, and Ireland. Similarly, a number of Muslim-majority nations appear to be contributing troops to the Saudi-led coalition in return for substantial financial favors from the Saudi Kingdom.

Khartoum’s severance of long-established military and economic relations with Iran has been followed by a much cozier and financially beneficial relationship with Saudi Arabia (much needed after the loss of South Sudan’s oilfields). Sudan committed 850 troops (out of a pledged 6,000) and four warplanes to the fighting in Yemen; like the leaders of other coalition states, President Omar al-Bashir justified the deployment in locally unchallengeable terms of religious necessity – the need to protect the holy places of Mecca and Madinah, which are nonetheless not under any realistic threat from Houthi forces (Sudan Tribune, March 15, 2016).

Khartoum was reported to have received a $1 billion deposit from Qatar in April 2015 and another billion in August 2015 from Saudi Arabia, followed by pledges of Saudi financing for a number of massive Sudanese infrastructure projects (Gulf News, August 13, 2015; East African [Nairobi], October 31, 2015; Radio Dabanga, October 4, 2015). Sudanese commitment to the Yemen campaign was also rewarded with $5 billion worth of military assistance from Riyadh in February, much of which will be turned against Sudan’s rebel movements and help ensure the survival of President Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity (Sudan Tribune, February 24, 2016). Some Sudanese troops appear to have been deployed against Houthi forces in the highlands of Ta’iz province, presumably using experience gained in fighting rebel movements in Sudan’s Nuba Hills region (South Kordofan) and Darfur’s Jabal Marra mountain range.

The UN’s Somalia-Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) cited “credible information” this year that Eritrean troops were embedded in UAE formations in Yemen, though this was denied by Eritrea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (Geeska Afrika Online [Asmara], February 23). The SEMG also reported that Eritrea was allowing the Arab coalition to use its airspace, land territory and waters in the anti-Houthi campaign in return for fuel and financial compensation. [2] Somalia accepted a similar deal in April 2015 (Guardian, April 7, 2015).

UAE troops, mostly from the elite Republican Guard (commanded by Austrian Mike Hindmarsh) have performed well in Yemen, particularly in last summer’s battle for Aden; according to Brigadier General Ahmad Abdullah Turki, commander of Yemen’s Third Brigade: “Our Emirati brothers surprised us with their high morale and unique combat skills,” (Gulf News, December 5, 2015). The UAE’s military relies on a large number of foreign advisers at senior levels, mostly Australians (Middle East Eye, December 23, 2015). Hundreds of Colombian mercenaries have been reported fighting under UAE command, with the Houthis reporting the death of six plus their Australian commander (Saba News Agency [Sana’a], December 8, 2015; Colombia Reports [Medellin], October 26, 2015; Australian Associated Press, December 8, 2015).

There is actually little to be surprised about in the coalition’s use of mercenaries, a common practice in the post-independence Gulf region. A large portion of Saudi Arabia’s combat strength and officer corps consists of Sunni Pakistanis, while Pakistani pilots play important roles in the air forces of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As well as the Emirates, Oman and Qatar have both relied heavily on mercenaries in their defense forces and European mercenaries played a large role in Royalist operations during North Yemen’s 1962-1970 civil war.

Insurgent Tactics

The Houthis have mounted near-daily attacks on Saudi border defenses, using mortars, Katyusha and SCUD rockets to strike Saudi positions in Najran and Jizan despite Saudi reinforcements of armor, attack helicopters and National Guard units. Little attempt has been made by the Houthis to hold ground on the Saudi side of the border, which would only feed Saudi propaganda that the Shiites are intent on seizing the holy cities of the Hijaz.

When Republican Guard forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh joined the Houthi rebellion, they brought firepower previously unavailable to the Houthis, including the Russian-made OTR-21 mobile missile system. OTR-21 missiles have been used in at least five major strikes on Saudi or coalition bases, causing hundreds of deaths and many more wounded.

Saudi ArtillerySaudi Artillery Fires on Houthi Positions (Faisal al-Nasser, Reuters)

The Islamic State (IS) has been active in Yemen since its local formation in November 2014. Initially active in Sana’a, the movement has switched its focus to Aden and Hadramawt. IS has used familiar asymmetric tactics in Yemen, assassinating security figures and deploying suicide bombers in bomb-laden vehicles against soft targets such as mosques (which AQAP now refrains from) as well as suicide attacks on military checkpoints that are followed by assaults with small arms. With its small numbers, the group has been most effective in urban areas that offer concealment and dispersal opportunities. Nonetheless, part of its inability to expand appears to lie in the carelessness with which Islamic State handles the lives of its own fighters and the wide dislike of the movement’s foreign (largely Saudi) leadership.

War on al-Qaeda

With control of nearly four governorates, a major port (Mukalla, capital of Hadramawt province) and 373 miles of coastline, al-Qaeda has created a financial basis for its administration by looting banks, collecting taxes on trade and selling oil to other parts of fuel-starved Yemen (an unforeseen benefit to AQAP of the naval blockade). The group displayed its new-found confidence by trying (unsuccessfully) to negotiate an oil export deal with Hadi’s government last October (Reuters, April 8, 2016).

Eliminating al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen was not a military priority in the Saudi-led campaign until recently, with an attack by Saudi Apache attack helicopters on AQAP positions near Aden on March 13 and airstrikes against AQAP-held military bases near Mukalla that failed to dislodge the group (Reuters, March 13; Xinhua, April 3, 2016).

Perhaps drawing on lessons learned from al-Qaeda’s failed attempt to hold territory in Mali in 2012-2013, AQAP in Yemen has focused less on draconian punishments and the destruction of Islamic heritage sites than the creation of a working administration that provides new infrastructure, humanitarian assistance, health services and a degree of security not found elsewhere in Yemen (International Business Times, April 7, 2016).

Conclusion: A Saudi-led Coalition in Syria?

The Saudis are now intent on drawing down coalition ground operations while initiating new training programs for Yemeni government troops and engaging in “rebuilding and reconstruction” activities (al-Arabiya, March 17, 2016). A ceasefire took hold in Yemen on April 10 in advance of UN-brokered peace talks in Kuwait to begin on April 18.  Signs that a political solution may be at hand in Yemen include Hadi’s appointment of a new vice-president and prime minister, the presence of a Houthi negotiating team in Riyadh and the exclusion of ex-president Saleh from the process, a signal his future holds political isolation rather than a return to leadership (Ahram Online, April 7, 2016).

If peace negotiations succeed in drawing the Houthis into the Saudi camp the Kingdom will emerge with a significant political, if not military, victory, though the royal family will still have an even stronger AQAP to contend with.  Like the Great War, the end of the current war in Yemen appears to be setting the conditions for a new conflict so long as it remains politically impossible to negotiate with AQAP. However, AQAP is taking the initiative to gain legitimacy by testing new names and consolidating a popular administration in regions under its control. Unless current trends are reversed, AQAP may eventually be the first al-Qaeda affiliate to successfully make the shift from terrorist organization to political party.

The cost to the Saudis in terms of cash and their international reputation has been considerable in Yemen, yet Hadi, recently fled to Riyadh, is no closer to ruling than when the campaign began. Sana’a remains under Houthi control and radical Islamists have taken advantage of the intervention to expand their influence. Perhaps in light of this failure, Saudi foreign minister Adl al-Jubayr has suggested the Kingdom now intends only a smaller Special Forces contribution to the fighting in Syria that would focus not on replacing the Syrian regime but rather on destroying Islamic State forces “in the framework of the international coalition” (Gulf News, February 23, 2016). Introducing a larger Saudi-led coalition to the anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria/Iraq without a clear understanding and set of protocols with other parties involved (Iran, Iraq, Russia, Hezbollah, the Syrian Army) could easily ignite a greater conflict rather than contribute to the elimination of the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia is not a disinterested party in the Syrian struggle; it has been deeply involved in providing financial, military and intelligence support to various religiously-oriented militias that operate at odds with groups supported by other interested parties.

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen has left one of the poorest nations on earth in crisis, with 2.5 million displaced and millions more without access to basic necessities. With Yemen’s infrastructure and heritage left in ruins and none of the coalition’s strategic objectives achieved, it seems difficult to imagine that the insertion into Syria of another Saudi-led coalition would make any meaningful contribution to bringing that conflict to a successful or sustainable end.

Notes

  1. Besides Saudi Arabia, the other nations involved in the exercise included Egypt, Jordan, Senegal, Sudan, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Pakistan, Chad, Tunisia, Djibouti, Comoro Islands and Peninsula Shield Force partners Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
  2. Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2182 (2014): Eritrea, October 19, 2015, 3/93, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2015/802

 

An edited version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor under the title: “Saudi Arabia’s Intervention in Yemen Suggests a Troubled Future for the Kingdom’s Anti-Terror Coalition,” http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=45324&tx_ttnews[backPid]=26&cHash=e2d5de949e926ff3b5d9228dc4b96af7#.VxfvSkdqnIU

 

Last Hurrah or Sign of the Future? The Performance of South African Mercenaries against Boko Haram

Andrew McGregor

AIS Tips and Trends: The African Security Report

June 30, 2015

Earlier this year, Nigeria’s military fortunes brightened suddenly and unexpectedly in the midst of what at first appeared to be a disastrous campaign against the forces of Boko Haram. Though the arrival of new weapons and equipment played a role in this reversal, it now appears that the three-month deployment of South African mercenaries as military trainers and even participants in the fighting in northeastern Nigeria played a major role in enabling Nigeria’s demoralized army to begin expelling Boko Haram militants from their newly occupied territories. While a change in government in Abuja has brought an end to their mission, the evident success of these private military contractors has raised new questions regarding the utility and desirability of using mercenaries in situations where national militaries have failed to make progress against insurgents and terrorists.[1]

SA Mercs 1

Reva Mark III Armored Personnel Carriers operated by South African military contractors in Maiduguri

Lack of political will at the highest levels of President Goodluck Jonathan’s government was largely responsible for the failure of Nigeria’s security services to contain the Boko Haram threat. With the movement seizing new territory and captured arms almost daily, Jonathan suddenly found himself running out of time before the March 2015 presidential election to deal with a file he had done his best to ignore. Something had to be done about Boko Haram quickly, and the president turned to an almost inconceivable solution; the introduction of white and black mercenaries to reverse the fortunes of the Nigerian military, once considered one of the continent’s strongest, but now apparently unable to crush a local rebellion by religious extremists.

While the participation of Nigeria’s Chadian and Nigerien neighbors in a military campaign against the terrorists could be explained by the regional nature of the Boko Haram threat, formally calling on a foreign power to restore order in northeast Nigeria just prior to elections was out of the question. Even if South Africa was considered as a source of military assistance, Jonathan and his aides would have been well aware of the deteriorating state of South Africa’s own military and its less than stellar performance in the Central African Republic in 2013.[2]

Nigerian authorities did not deny the existence of the foreign contractors, but insisted they were only involved in training Nigerian troops in the use of the new weapons arriving for use in the fight against Boko Haram (BBC, March 13, 2015). Most of the mercenaries engaged by Nigeria appear to have been personnel of Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection (STTEP), a private military company run by Colonel Eeben Barlow, a widely-known private military contractor and former commander of the South African Defense Force’s 32 Battalion.  STTEP recruits experienced soldiers by word of mouth, including “reformed” South Africans or Namibians who may have fought against the South African Defense Force (SADF – South Africa’s apartheid-era army) as communist guerrillas during South Africa’s border wars.

Despite statements of sympathy for Nigeria’s predicament, both the U.S. and British governments remained firm in their position that the atrocious human rights record of the Nigerian military during the Jonathan administration precluded a military partnership on the ground or a resupply of armaments.

Shortly after his election, new President Muhammadu Buhari (a retired Nigerian Army major-general who seized power in a 1983 military coup, serving as head-of-state until 1985) expressed his objections to the use of mercenaries in Nigeria (Pretoria News, May 21, 2015). Buhari’s running mate, Yemi Osinbajo (now vice-president) ignored certain military realities in declaring his emphatic opposition to the South Africans’ deployment in Nigeria: “Because of the way that this government has degraded the army, we now find the need to engage mercenaries… There is absolutely no reason at all why the Nigerian army, which is one of the finest armies in the world, now have to engage mercenaries to come and fight” (VOA, March 20, 2015).

Following reports from major human rights organizations of widespread human rights abuses by the Nigerian military in northeast Nigeria, Buhari pledged to bring an end to such violations, promising in his inaugural speech: “We shall improve operational and legal mechanisms so that disciplinary steps are taken against proven human rights violations by the armed forces” (Reuters, June 4, 2015).

Like many of its West African neighbors, Nigeria has prior experience with mercenaries, who were used by both sides in the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). A large number of Chadian mercenaries and European pilots engaged on the federal side, while a smaller number of Rhodesians and Europeans (mainly British, French, Belgian, Portuguese and German) fought unsuccessfully for Biafran independence.

Who are the Mercenaries?

Most of the South Africans deployed to Nigeria would have served together, black and white, in a select number of South African and South West African military units and paramilitaries of the apartheid era. Others will have served together as private military contractors in the post-apartheid era in organizations such as Executive Outcomes.

SA Mercs 2Koevoet Forces on Patrol in South-West Africa (now Namibia) in the 1980s

Some of the South African contractors are believed to be veterans of Koevoet (“Crowbar”), a white-led, mixed race police paramilitary that operated with great efficiency and brutality in South-West Africa (now Namibia) between 1979 and 1989. Working on a bounty system for killed or captured “terrorists” of the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO), Koevoet scored enormous numbers of kills but took few prisoners. Koevoet bush-craft and tactics were based on the earlier work of the Portuguese Flechas (Arrows) of Angola and Mozambique and Rhodesia’s Selous Scouts. Like these elite formations, Koevet recruited captured fighters who had been “turned,” and occasionally disguised themselves as Marxist guerrillas to carry out ambushes or specific missions.

Other South Africans appear to be veterans of 32 Battalion (a.k.a. the Buffalo Battalion, or “the Terrible Ones”) of the SADF. This white-led unit (recently described by the UK’s Sky News as “a foreign legion of racist mercenaries,” was composed largely of black troops who once belonged to the Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA), an Angolan independence movement that lost a post-independence power struggle with the rival Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) in 1975. 32 Battalion was deployed largely in southern Angola and played an important part in the series of South African operations in Angola in 1987-1988 against Soviet-led Angolan government forces and their Cuban allies known broadly as the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.

32 Battalion was created and led by Commandant Jan Breytenbach, who was once involved in a covert South African training mission for Biafran rebels in Nigeria.[3] Much hated by South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), the unit was disbanded in 1993 and its black members retired to the dusty town of Pomfret, where in the absence of other opportunities many continued to seek employment from former SADF officers who had gone on to form private military firms such as Executive Outcomes (EO – 1989-1998) in post-apartheid South Africa. As in their original units, the private military contractors continued to use white officers and senior NCOs, with the other ranks filled largely by black troops.

The “Buffalos” figured in Executive Outcomes operations in Angola and Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Many were unfortunate enough to allow themselves to be recruited by former SAS member and Sandline International co-founder Simon Mann for a failed coup attempt in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea in 2004. Most endured a nasty stretch in prison in Zimbabwe (where they had been arrested en route to Equatorial Guinea) before being returned to Pomfret.[4] A smaller number in the advance party found themselves doing long stretches in Equatorial Guinea’s notorious Black Beach Prison where they were joined by Simon Mann after his extradition from Zimbabwe.

It is likely that some other South Africans may be veterans of the SADF’s Special Forces, known as “the Recces.” These units were once highly active in covert operations throughout southern Africa.

Eastern Europeans were also hired as military contractors by Nigeria and served alongside the South Africans, but their presence does not carry the same political baggage and no complaints have been made. Information about the East Europeans is in short supply, including whether they have remained in Nigeria under separate contract. Ukrainians have become ubiquitous throughout Africa as contracted civil and military pilots of both aircraft and helicopters. Some reports indicate that they have been joined in Nigeria by Russian and Georgian military contractors.

STTEP’s Nigerian Campaign

According to STTEP chairman Eeben Barlow, the military firm was engaged for work in Nigeria as a sub-contractor for an un-named primary contractor in December 2014. Their original mission was to rescue the over 250 schoolgirls from Chibok kidnapped by Boko Haram, though this soon evolved into the creation of a mobile strike force incorporating Nigerian troops capable of reversing Boko Haram’s offensive momentum. The South Africans established a base in a corner of Maiduguri’s airport, closed for the last two years due to instability, but still capable of providing a base for aerial attacks and helicopter missions.

SA Mercs 3Strike Force 72 Operating in Borno State

The STTEP contractors were eventually attached to Nigeria’s elite 72 Strike Force in January 2015 to create a mobile strike force “with its own organic air support, intelligence, communications, logistics and other relevant combat support elements.”[5] After a period of intense training, the strike force conducted its first successful operation in late February. Since then, the South Africans appear to have played a major role in flushing Boko Haram fighters out of their camps hidden in the thick brush of the Sambisa Forest, though some elements remain due to a failure to complete this operation. There is no evidence that either Barlow or the South Africans in the field coordinated in any way with Chadian or Nigerien troops operating in the same region.

Founded in 2006, STTEP International Ltd. describes itself as “an international, privately-owned military, intelligence and law enforcement training and advisory company.” STTEP’s motto is “Failure is never an option,” and the firm claims to have “never failed in any of its missions, undertakings or projects.” The company’s operational procedure is to align itself with the armed forces of the client government to achieve strategic and operational goals through “military input and advice and support at both the operational and tactical levels.” Areas of claimed expertise include counter-terrorism, offensive counter drug operation, unconventional warfare, semi-conventional warfare and covert/clandestine operations.[6]

In all cases, Barlow emphasizes the “African” character of STTEP, a factor he believes improves relations with client nation militaries in Africa and helps training succeed where foreign military missions fail due to “poor training, bad advice, a lack of strategy, vastly different tribal affiliations, ethnicity, religion, languages, cultures [and] not understanding the conflict and enemy.”[7]

Barlow rejects the common media theme that the (mostly black) South Africans working in Nigeria and elsewhere are apartheid-era holdovers:

Some in the media like to refer to us as ‘racists’ or ‘apartheid soldiers’ with little knowledge of our organization… We are primarily white, black, and brown Africans who reside on this continent and are accepted as such by African governments… Had we been the so-called racists some media whores insist on calling us, do you think any African government would even want to speak to us? I very much doubt it.[8]

The Nigerian contract allowed Barlow to demonstrate the virtues of his tactical approach, which he describes as “relentless offensive action.” According to Barlow:

Troops need to develop their aggression level to such a point that the enemy fears them. Aggressive pursuit is aimed at initiating contact as heavily with the enemy as possible.[9]

Using expert trackers, strike force units pursue enemy forces with armored personnel carriers supported by air assets providing fire support, transportation, reconnaissance and medevac. Wherever possible, strike force personnel use helicopters to “leapfrog” the enemy and prevent his escape from pursuing forces. Superiority in night operations, engagement with maximum forces every time the enemy is encountered and the rotation of strike force frontline units enables the strike force to exhaust and confuse the enemy before completing his destruction. Territory retaken by strike force units is then turned over to conventional troops (in this case the Nigerian Army) for consolidation and occupation.[10]

Strike force ground units and their South African trainers relied on South-African made REVA (reliable, effective, versatile and affordable) armored personnel carriers. Capable of carrying ten passengers, the REVA’s V-shaped hull offers mine resistance, while two light machine guns provide firepower. The REVA is considered to be a low maintenance vehicle capable of operating in difficult conditions. Nigeria, Thailand, Yemen and Iraq are among the major export markets for the REVA.  According to South Africa’s Netwerk24, twenty of the APCs were sold to Nigeria under a contract approved by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (Netwerk24, March 11, 2015).

SA Mercs MapRisky Business

Some of the men who deployed in Nigeria would be known to ex-mercenary pilot Crause Steyl, who played a prominent role in the failed “Wonga Coup.” During the Nigerian deployment, Steyl remarked:

The South African mercenaries are giving Boko Haram a hiding. These guys are in their 50s, but for a pilot or tank driver it doesn’t really matter. There’s going to be no Boko Haram. It boggles the mind that Britain and America promised to help Nigeria but never did. But the South African government doesn’t want [the mercenaries] to exist. They wish them off the planet. When they come back from Nigeria, it will try to prosecute them and put them in jail. Because the colour of these men is white, it makes laws that stop them earning money off shore. How wrong can you be? There is now reverse racism and it’s difficult for white people to get a job (Guardian, April 14, 2015).

Indeed, financial motives appear to inspire these aging warriors more than ideology or racism. Lack of opportunity in the new South Africa is consistently cited by both black and white members of these latter-day mercenary formations and similar motives no doubt lie behind the involvement of the more reticent East European military contractors.

59-year-old Leon Lotz, a former member of Koevoet who was declared persona non grata in Namibia just prior to its independence, was the only South African known to have died by live fire during the deployment. Lotz was killed in a friendly-fire incident that occurred when a Nigerian T-72 tank opened up on a Hilux truck carrying Lotz, an East European (also killed) and a number of black Strike Force members who wer wounded. (VOA, March 20, 2015).  Another South African was reported to have died in Nigeria six weeks previously from a heart attack (Netwerk24, March 11, 2015). South Africa’s Defense Ministry used Lotz’s death to issue a warning “to others who are considering engaging in such activities to really think twice and consider the repercussions” (BBC, March 13, 2015).

South African Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula warned that the South African military contractors were in violation of the nation’s Foreign Military Assistance Act and could face prosecution and a possible six-year prison term on their return (Pretoria News, May 21, 2015; The Star [Johannesburg], May 21, 2015). According to the Defense Minister, herself a prominent figure in the revolutionary ANC: “They are mercenaries, whether they are training, skilling the Nigerian defence force, or scouting for them. The point is they have no business to be there” (The Guardian, April 14, 2015). Otherwise, there was a general silence from South African government figures regarding the private military deployment.

Despite their apparent success, STTEP’s contract was not renewed in March, a situation Barlow acknowledges had to do with the change in government, though the STTEP chairman maintains that much of the responsibility lies with the South African print media’s “racist mercenary” narrative: “The South African government has been fed such a false narrative by the South African media that it is possible they requested the Nigerian government not to extend the contract. The media here has tried very hard to turn this into a racial issue with the intent to create as much suspicion as possible.” Nonetheless, Barlow credits the Nigerian Army for driving back Boko Haram, describing “the strike force we trained” as a “force-multiplier in the area of operations.”[11]

To defeat such an enemy militarily, we must out-think and outsmart him by adopting tactics, techniques, and procedures that are so unexpected and unconventional that he becomes confused and loses his cohesion.[12]

Projections

The participation of South African citizens in the campaign against religious extremists in Nigeria is unlikely to have many repercussions within South Africa, where only 1.5% of the population is Muslim (mainly of ethnic-Indian origins) and few of these could be considered radicalized. Nonetheless, there were reports in May of a letter to South African Islamic scholars purportedly from South Africans who have traveled to Iraq (or possibly Syria) to join Islamic State militants. The letter arrived after public criticism of the Islamic State by prominent South African Islamic scholars and warned fellow Muslims:

You are being deceived and misguided by people claiming to have knowledge of what the Caliphate is and what is happening in the Islamic State. Firstly, let us look at the source of this information and knowledge that you are being fed… Most of it is coming from news channels and media sources that are either funded by or run exclusively by Jewish conglomerates. So a large portion of your opinions about your brothers and your state… is based on information that you attain from the enemy (News24 [Cape Town], June 14, 2015).

Several years ago it became commonly thought that the “problem” of South African mercenary activity in Africa was gradually solving itself as the former SADF members who formed the bulk of such groups were simply becoming too old for military adventuring. Though the Nigerian campaign is undoubtedly an unexpected “last hurrah” for many of these ex-SADF soldiers, their apparent success in reversing Boko Haram’s gains in Borno Province could encourage imitation in other African nations unable to deal with insurgencies.

Surprisingly, what the South African episode reveals is that the Nigerian military is entirely capable of dealing with the Boko Haram threat if provided with leadership, training and equipment. The question is whether Nigeria can sustain an offensive led by Special Forces or bog down due to systemic problems within the Nigerian military that cannot be resolved overnight. The recent counter-strikes by Boko Haram militants suggest that the latter result may be the most likely.

In the meantime, private military contractors continue to seek new battlefields while exploiting the apparent legitimization of their trade in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a recent interview, ex-Executive Outcomes director Simon Mann insisted that a 2000 man private military company could, with air and armor support, deal a decisive blow to Islamic State forces in Iraq. Basing his conclusion on the performance of the South-African trained mobile strike force in Nigeria and the success of his own Executive Outcomes combating insurgents in Angola and Sierra Leone, Mann suggests that Islamic State forces “are probably more terrifying than they are competent, and it all comes down to training and experience at the end of the day. We know that the Iraqi army were not being properly led, paid or equipped and that equates to disaster. How did anyone expect it to end? … Don’t get me wrong, [Islamic State forces] are probably very frightening up front, although I doubt they are as professionally trained as the rebels we came up against in Angola (Telegraph, June 4, 2015).

Notes

[1] Without imparting any ethical connotations to the terminology, private military contractors is probably a more accurate term for these modern “mercenaries” in that it reflects the corporate basis of these formations rather than an image of the individual freebooters that once filled mercenary ranks.

[2] See “South African Military Disaster in The Central African Republic: Part One – The Rebel Offensive,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, Washington DC, April 4, 2015, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=238 ; “South African Military Disaster in The Central African Republic: Part Two – The Political and Strategic Fallout,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, April 4, 2015, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=236 ;  “The South African National Defense Force – A Military In Free-fall,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, January 25, 2013, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=163

[3] See Piet Nortje, 32 Battalion: The Inside Story of South Africa’s Elite Fighting Unit, Zebra, 2006, pp. 8-9. This history of the unit is written from the perspective of a former regimental sergeant-major.

[4] See Adam Roberts: The Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs, and a Ruthless Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa, PublicAffairs, 2007.

[5] Jack Murphy, “Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt. 2): Development of a Nigerian Strike Force,” April 6, 2015, http://sofrep.com/40623/eeben-barlow-speaks-pt-2-development-nigerian-strike-force/

[6] See http://www.sttepi.com/default.aspx ; http://www.sttepi.com/major_projects.aspx ; http://www.sttepi.com/special_tasks.aspx

[7] Jack Murphy, “Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt. 1): PMC and Nigerian Strike Force Devastates Boko Haram,” April 1, 2015, http://sofrep.com/40608/eeben-barlow-south-african-pmc-devestates-boko-haram-pt1/

[8] Jack Murphy, “Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt.4): Rejecting the Racial Narrative,” April 8, 2015, http://sofrep.com/40675/eeben-barlow-speaks-pt-4-rejecting-racial-narrative/

[9] Jack Murphy, “Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt. 3): Tactics Used to Destroy Boko Haram,” April 7, 2015, http://sofrep.com/40633/eeben-barlow-speaks-pt-3-tactics-used-destroy-boko-haram/

[10] Ibid

[11] Jack Murphy: “Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt. 6): South African Contractors Withdrawal from Nigeria,” Sofrep, April 17, 2015, http://sofrep.com/40865/eeben-barlow-speaks-pt-6-south-african-contractors-withdrawal-nigeria/

[12] Ibid

Senegal’s Military Expedition to Yemen: Muslim Solidarity or Rent-an-Army?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Tips and Trends: The African Security Report

July 30, 2015

With Yemen’s Shiite Houthi movement now in control of most of Yemen, a Saudi-led military coalition continues to carry out air attacks on Houthi fighters and installations. Despite the participation of a number of national air forces, the total impact has not been enough to shake Houthi resolve.

Senegal MapThough there is an apparent need to deploy ground forces to restore the administration of president-in-exile Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, most members of the coalition are reluctant to deploy ground forces in any significant number, being well aware of the difficulty of maintaining foreign forces in Yemen’s mountainous and ambush-friendly terrain. It was thus intriguing when Senegal’s foreign minister Mankeur Ndiaye announced on May 4 that the West African nation was sending 2,100 ground troops to Saudi Arabia in response to a request from the Saudi government. Surprisingly, the deployment marks the second time Senegalese troops will have served in Saudi Arabia; 500 Senegalese soldiers were deployed in Saudi Arabia during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. The mission was marred by a deadly plane crash in March 1991 in which 92 soldiers died.

Despite the government’s claim that the jamdars (Wolof – “brave men,” the popular local term for Senegalese troops) will be protecting the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah, it is expected that the Senegalese will join the coalition attempting to secure the Kingdom’s southern border with the Houthi-held regions of northern Yemen. A spokesman for Senegal’s leading opposition party, the Parti démocratique sénégalais (PDS), declared that government suggestions that the deployment was intended to protect the holy cities “were baseless because the geo-strategic role of the Middle East is more complex than the protection of Islamic religious sites” (Xinhua, May 11, 2015).

Social media in Senegal has questioned the deployment and some observers have noted the recent Saudi commitment to provide much of the funding for a broad government development scheme known as Programme Senegal Emergent 2035 (BBC, May 5, 2015). With an estimated cost of over $16 billion, the initiative remained badly underfunded until the Saudis stepped in. Senegalese president Macky Sall is relying on the programme’s success to return him to office. Senegal is a traditional recipient of Saudi aid, which funds many important development projects, but has never signed a defense agreement with Saudi Arabia. France continues to have a military presence in Dakar, but in line with a 2010 defense agreement between France and Senegal, this deployment has been scaled back from 1,200 troops to 300 (RFI, April 18, 2012).[1]

Senegal is not the only African state to join the Saudi-led coalition – Sudan, Egypt and Morocco have also contributed troops – but Senegal is the lone member that is not part of the Arab League. Sudan, a major recipient of Saudi aid and investment, has contributed four Sukhoi SU-24M “Fencer” attack aircraft that have reportedly flown missions against Houthi forces in Yemen (DefenceNews, April 1, 2015).  Other members of the coalition include Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In a surprise decision, the parliament of Pakistan, a Saudi ally, voted against contributing forces to the coalition. Lacking a UN mandate, the Saudi-led coalition remains open to criticism that its intervention in Yemen lacks a legal basis.

NowgassGeneral Mamadou Sow “Nowgass” – Chief of the General Staff of Senegal

While President Sall insists the deployment is intended to “deal with the threat to the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic holy sites to which the kingdom is home” (a fairly obvious effort to enlist the support of Senegal’s powerful Sufi brotherhoods), opposition figures have pointed out that neither the Kingdom nor its holy cities are under threat (The Star [Johannesburg], May 22, 2015). The administration does not appear willing to dissent on this issue; a May protest planned by Bou Jambar Dem (No to Sending Soldiers), a coalition opposed to the deployment, was banned by authorities.

Further government attempts to suggest the deployment will be fighting “terrorism” did not quiet opposition criticism; Yemen’s Houthis are an armed social/political/religious movement rather than a terrorist group like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or the Islamic State movement, neither of which are targets of the coalition despite having a strong presence in Yemen.

Since independence, Senegal has joined military interventions in Zaire (1978), Gambia (1981) and Guinea-Bissau (1998). Senegal’s military has also made significant contributions to peacekeeping missions in Côte d-Ivoire, Darfur, Rwanda and the Central African Republic. Both the United States and France provide equipment and training to the Senegalese military, which has gained a reputation for professionalism reinforced by its traditional reluctance to insert itself into the nation’s political sphere.

A report from the Saudi Press Agency on May 10 claimed that Malaysia had sent military forces to join the Saudi coalition, adding that the Saudi Ministry of Defense was planning to merge the Malaysian and Senegalese forces (al-Arabiya, May 10, 2015). However, Malaysia’s defense minister quickly corrected this report, noting that Malaysia was only sending humanitarian assistance and the personnel and equipment (including two Royal Malaysian Air Force C-130 “Hercules” transport aircraft) necessary to evacuate Malaysians working or studying in the Kingdom (The Star [Kuala Lumpur], May 11, 2015; The Diplomat, May 12, 2015).

Islam in Senegal

While Senegal is over 90% Muslim, its typical form of religious practice differs significantly from the Salafist Islam of Saudi Arabia. Both nations are majority Sunni, but Senegalese Islam is still largely based on membership in Sufi brotherhoods, a form of Islam generally despised by the Salafists, who claim Sufism incorporates pre-Islamic traditions, involves intermediaries in the relationship between God and man (usually in the form of deceased or living Sufi shaykhs whose spiritual power is hereditary) and encourages pilgrimage to shrines other than Mecca and Madinah, thus rendering Sufism a type of Islamic heresy in the eyes of the Salafists.

Senegal Great MosqueGreat Mosque in Touba, Senegal

Senegal’s Sufi brotherhoods include the well-known and internationally-based Tijaniya and Qadiriya brotherhoods, as well as two smaller local brotherhoods, the Muridiya (a.k.a. Mourides) and the Layenes. Both the latter orders originated in the 19th century. The Mourides are common to both Senegal and Gambia and promote pilgrimage to the Senegalese city of Toumba rather than Mecca. The Layene Brotherhood is a particularly unorthodox movement native to Senegal. The Layene’s founder and his successor claimed to be reincarnations of the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ respectively and the group consequently mixes elements of both Islam and Christianity in its rituals.

The Jama’atou Ibadou Rahman (Jama’at Ibad al-Rahman) movement is a Saudi-supported Islamic reformist movement founded in 1979 by Shaykh Touré in which piety is expressed through the veil, Arab-style clothing and close observance of orthodox Islamic ritual. The Ibadou are extremely critical of Sufism and the marabout[2] system in Senegal and of Shi’ism in general, but do not espouse violence in their opposition. On a more general level, the term “Ibadou” is used by Senegalese Sufis “to refer to any veiled woman or bearded man.”[3]

Al-Falah is a Saudi-influenced “apolitical” Salafist movement whose Senegal branch was established in 1967.[4] Salafism and related forms of reformist Islam have a wide following in Senegal’s universities. At lower educational levels, there is a parallel system of government-run French-language, Western-style schools and Arabic-language Koranic schools that have little if any government regulation.[5]

Most notable among Senegal’s small Muslim extremist community is Imam Mamour Fall, leader of the Parti Islamique Sénégalais and a bitter opponent of Senegal’s Sufi brotherhoods. Deported from Italy in 2003 after an 11 year residency following his public support for al-Qaeda and attacks on Italian military personnel, Fall continued to advance extremist views once back in Senegal, claiming to have fought in the Bosnian War and to have been a companion of Osama bin Laden during the latter’s stay in Sudan in the 1990s. The Imam described Bin Laden as “a great man, a great strategist, a great Muslim, and that is what interests us and not the fact that he is accused of killing people” (Reuters, December 8, 2003). The Salafist/reformist view of Senegalese Sufism was summed up by Imam Mamour Fall: “Senegal is the capital of polytheism after India. If Hindus worship cows, Senegalese love the corpses of their marabouts… Here, 99% of people live on magic; they love magicians and they waste all their money to buy ‘talismans’.”[6]

Projections

Any foreign military deployment runs the risk of violent retribution, but in this sense Senegal is relatively fortunate in its choice of an enemy – the Houthi movement does not exist outside of Yemen and its host Zaydi Shiite community has displayed little ability or even interest in mounting attacks outside of Yemen. There is a small community of Lebanese Shiite traders in Senegal and an even smaller number of native Senegalese Shiites, none of whom are likely to have any connections with the Houthi movement, whose Zaydi “Fiver” Shi’ism has more in common with the Shafi’i form of Sunni Islam practiced in Yemen than with the “Twelver” Shi’ism of Iran and Lebanon (the “fiver” and “twelver” distinctions refer to the number of imams each movement believes succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as spiritual and political leaders of the Islamic community). However, Senegal might become a target for Sunni extremists due to its alliance with the Saudi government, which is reviled in turn as an ally and partner of the West by groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Such groups might recall Senegal’s participation in the French-led military coalition that expelled foreign jihadists from northern Mali in 2013, an earlier deployment that had far from universal approval within Senegal. Unpopular military deployments in other parts of the Islamic world could have the unwanted result of encouraging domestic extremism, particularly amongst alienated urban youth.

Renting state troops in Hessian fashion may not be necessary in the future if oil exploration work in Senegal turns out as expected. Scottish oil firm Cairn Energy is embarking on a major drilling operation it believes could result in the discovery of more than a billion barrels after promising results from initial offshore drilling (The Scotsman [Edinburgh], May 12, 2015).[7]

Notes

[1]  For Senegal’s role in France’s Operation Barkhane, see Andrew McGregor, “Operation Barkhane: France’s New Military Approach to Counter-Terrorism in Africa,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, July 24, 2015,  http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=909

[2] Arabic marbut or marubit; used in practice to denote an Islamic scholar of the Maghreb and Sahel regions, usually with personal followings that rely on the marabout for religious instruction, advice and the dispensation of supernatural powers through the production of amulets and talismans, a common practice in Africa, but one that is decidedly unorthodox.

[3] Cleo Cantone: Making and Remaking Mosques in Senegal, Leiden, 2012, p. 261.

[4] See http://alfalah-sn.org/spip/spip.php?page=ar

[5]  “Overview of Religious Radicalism and the Terrorist Threat in Senegal,” ECOWAS Peace and Security Report 3, May 2013, p. 5, http://sahelresearch.africa.ufl.edu/files/ECOWAS-Report-3-ENG.pdf.

[6] Shaykh ‘Abdul Qadir Fadlallah Mamour (Imam Mamour Fall): “Ya Asafa,” February 26, 2009, http://partiislamique.blogspot.ca/.

[7] See http://www.cairnenergy.com/index.asp?pageid=608

Salafist Shaykh Hussein bin Mahmud on the Libyan Uprising

Andrew McGregor

April 7 2011

A Salafist view of the Libyan revolt has been offered in two interviews with a noted militant ideologist and contributor to prominent jihadi forums who uses the pseudonym of Shaykh Hussein bin Mahmud (Dar al-Murabiteen Publications, February 22; February 25).

Shaykh Hussein describes the Libyan insurrection against Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi’s regime as a jihad, saying its aim is to “oust this idiot in order to spare the blood of Muslims and save their dignity.” The shaykh claims that jihad in Libya is now an obligatory duty (fard ‘ayn) for every capable person in Libya as well as Muslims in the neighboring countries of Egypt, Algeria, Chad, Sudan and Niger.

Salafist Libya 2
As well as moving on Sirte and Tarablus (Tripoli), the shaykh urges the rebels to move on the southern desert city of Sabha, a Qaddafi stronghold and a strategic point connecting coastal Libya with the African interior. To succeed in Libya, Shaykh Hussein suggests the rebels take control of all government institutions and media outlets, capture and sentence to death Qaddafi’s sons, form a transitional committee from tribal leaders, scholars and military officers and avoid trusting the West or the rulers of other Arab countries. As for Qaddafi, “I wish they slaughter him in the largest ground of Tripoli publicly in front of the cameras.”

Salafist LibyaYusuf al-Qaradawi

Asked about a fatwa issued by Qatar-based Muslim Brother and TV preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi that permitted Libyans to kill Qaddafi, Shaykh Hussein mocked the influential cleric’s ruling: “I heard the statement of Qaradawi. A few years back, he used to visit [Qaddafi] and smile in his face and now he is giving the fatwa to kill him! He visits many Arab rulers and sits with them and praises them! And we say to him: What if the people of all the [Arab] nations go out against the rulers, will you give fatwa to kill them?”

The shaykh notes that the reputations of Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi have been destroyed in recent months, revealing their true nature as apostates, infidels and blood-spillers. Shaykh Hussein, however, sees the inspiration of Osama bin Laden behind the revolts in the Arab world: “Wasn’t Shaykh Osama saying all this for almost three decades and he was thrown out as a Kharijite [i.e. a heretic] and a takfiri and hypocrite? What is the difference? He incited the people to go out and the people have gone out! What is the difference?” The shaykh maintains that only violent resistance can complete the revolution: “The youth did not die for Hosni to go and his party to stay…”

Shaykh Hussein points out that Libya’s unconventional government structure (the Jamahiriya) has created a problem for the West in trying to identify an appropriate candidate to rule Libya “according to their desires.” Whereas in Egypt and Tunisia the ruler was removed and the government stabilized, there is no government in Libya outside of Qaddafi. In Egypt and Tunisia, this process has resulted in rule now being back in the hands of the former government.

In his second message, Shaykh Hussein elaborated on the theme of Jewish/Israeli support for Qaddafi’s regime, specifically identifying the Israeli security firm Global CST as the contractor responsible for supplying mercenaries to the regime. Now it has become clear that the mercenaries “are working for the Jewish government, so these people should be killed and tortured the severest of tortures in accordance with the sayings of Allah Almighty.”

Shaykh Hussein refers here to unverified reports carried in the Iranian and Arab press that Israeli security firm Global CST received approval from the head of Israeli intelligence and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to provide Qaddafi with 50,000 African mercenaries. The reports allege the Libyan side of the contract was handled by Abdullah al-Sanusi, Libya’s intelligence chief and brother-in-law of Qaddafi (Press TV, March 2). Global CST, or Global Group, was founded in 2005 by Major General Israel Ziv and carries out “security and commercial large-scale projects” in South America, Africa and Eastern Europe, according to its website. No evidence has been provided to support the allegations.

Since the rebellion in Libya began, Qaddafi has asserted al-Qaeda was behind the violent unrest, a claim Shaykh Hussein says is designed to force the rebels to denounce Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, thus ending their hope for Islamic rule in Libya. The al-Qaeda ideologist condemned a double standard that discourages al-Qaeda fighters from entering the fray in Libya: “It is permitted for [Qaddafi] to bring his disbelieving Africans to kill Muslims, and it is prohibited for the Muslims to come with the mujahideen to help them!”

Can African Mercenaries Save the Libyan Regime?

Jamestown Foundation Special Commentary on Libya

Andrew McGregor

February 23, 2011

In recent days there have been reports that the Libyan regime of Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi has resorted to the use of foreign mercenaries to slaughter unarmed civilians protesting over four decades of rule by Qaddafi and his family. The Libyan government has been clear from the start that protestors could expect a “violent” response from the regime (al-Zahf al-Akhdar [Tripoli], February 19). Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s son, Sa’if al-Islam al-Qaddafi, warned viewers of Libyan state TV: “We will fight to the last man and woman and bullet” (al-Sayda TV, February 20).

Khaled al-Ga’aeem, the under-secretary of the Libyan Foreign Ministry, told al-Jazeera interviewers there was no truth to the reports of mercenaries: “I am ready – not only to resign from my post – but also set myself on fire in the Green Square – if it is confirmed that there were mercenaries from African states coming by planes” (al-Jazeera, February 22). However, citing his own reports from inside the country, the Libyan ambassador to India, Ali al-Essawi, has confirmed the use of African mercenaries and the defection of units of Libya’s military in response to their deployment (Reuters, February 22). In New York, defecting Libyan Deputy Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi called on “African nations” to stop sending mercenaries to defend the Qaddafi regime (New York Times, February 21).

Libya 1911Italian Aircraft Drops Grenades on Ottoman and Libyan Troops, 1911

The Libyan Origins of the Modern Jihad

Libya has turned to African fighters in the past. When a massive Italian army arrived on the Libyan coast in 1911 with the intention of seizing the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica for a new Roman Empire, they were met by a small but determined force drawn from all quarters of the Ottoman Empire. [1]

Though Ottoman soldiers were busy with wars in the Balkans and rebellion in Yemen, the defense of Libya became a popular cause in the army, with volunteers from across the empire crossing through the Italian blockade with the help of local people in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. These volunteers, who included Enver Bey (a leading member of the “Young Turks”) and Mustafa Kemal (the founder of modern secular Turkey after the First World War), were largely motivated by patriotism or religion. To the surprise of the Turkish officers and the astonishment of the Italian generals, Libyan tribesmen suddenly began riding into the Turkish camps to offer their services. As the call for jihad spread south, fighters began to arrive from the Tubu tribes of Tibesti and the Tuareg tribes of the Fezzan. The dark-skinned Tubus would later be forced out of Libya into Chad by al-Qaddafi for being inconsistent with Qaddafi’s vision of a purely Arab nation after a member of Libya’s former royal family attempted to recruit Tubu mercenaries for use against Qaddafi in the early 1970s. [2] The Tuareg of Libya were ethnically “reclassified” from Berbers to Arabs.

Many fighters from the African interior had few connections with the Ottomans, but arrived to repel the infidel invaders from a sense of religious obligation, thus setting an example for later jihadis who would travel to the battlegrounds of Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq under a similar sense of obligation.

The Islamic Legion

Qaddafi also turned to a quasi-mercenary force to further his ambitions in Africa in the early days of his rule. The Islamic Legion (al-Failaka al-Islamiya) was a force of largely unwilling mercenaries recruited and deployed by Qaddafi to further his territorial ambitions in the African interior and advance the cause of Arab supremacy. Formed in 1972, the Islamic Legion was drawn mostly from young men from Sahelian countries who had migrated to Libya in search of work. Many were effectively “press-ganged” into service with the Legion. Though the organization worked closely with the Tajammu al-Arabi (Arab Gathering) to advance Arab supremacy in the Sahel and Sudan, the Legion was usually dominated by Tuareg and Zaghawa recruits despite neither group having any Arab heritage.

The Legion was deployed in the frontlines of a series of wars with Chad (supported by French Foreign Legion forces) in the 1980s. The Legion was disbanded in 1987 after Libya’s final defeat in these clashes, but the ongoing depredations of Darfur’s Arab Janjaweed have their origins in the Qaddafi-backed Tajammu al-Arabi. Many of the Tuareg who launched rebellions in Mali and Niger in the 1990s received their military training in the Islamic Legion.

Mercenaries to the Rescue

The current employment of mercenaries to do the “dirty work” usually assigned to Libya’s paramilitary security police speaks volumes about the regime’s rapidly dwindling faith in the willingness of state security forces to “fight to the last man” in defense of the regime. While the evidence of such recruitment is growing through video footage finding its way out of Libya, it is still impossible to tell in what numbers these mercenaries have arrived. Unconfirmed reports suggest the mercenaries arrived on a number of separate flights to both the Tripoli and Benghazi military airports, perhaps indicating a number of different recruitment sites (al-Arabiya, February 19; Jeel-Libya.net, February 19). The recruitment appears to have been undertaken quickly, either without the knowledge of the intelligence agencies and security services of their countries of origin, or with the full knowledge and approval of their originating states. Through a combination of largesse, aggressive diplomacy and military support (in the form of training, presidential protection units and stockpiles of old Soviet armaments), Qaddafi remains an influential figure in many parts of West Africa.

A number of mercenaries appear to have paid a high cost for their intervention in the Libyan uprising. Video has emerged of a number of slain “mercenaries” lying on the street or stretched out across a truck’s hood for display. [3]

Possible national origins for the mercenaries include:

Chad: Chadian mercenaries have been active in the Central African Republic for many years. There are also a large number of anti-government Chadian guerrillas who have recently found themselves unemployed after a peace treaty between N’djamena and Khartoum resulted in their expulsion from bases in Darfur. Many of these gunmen refused offers of repatriation to Chad, leaving them without work. Tensions between Chad and Libya eased after the International Court of Justice awarded the disputed Aouzou Strip to Chad in 1994. Since then, Chad’s President Idriss Déby has cooperated with the Libyan leader on a number of initiatives and agreements. Déby has been away from Chad throughout most of the Libyan crisis, following a state visit to China with meetings in Nouakchott and Abidjan (AFP, February 21).

French-Speaking Sub-Saharan Africa: Tunisians, Nigeriens and Guineans are among those mercenaries who have been captured, some still bearing identification documents.

English-Speaking Sub-Saharan Africa: Some of the mercenaries are reported to speak English (Radio France Internationale, February 20). Reports from Ghana indicate Ghanaians are being offered as much as $2500 per day to defend the Qaddafi regime. Advertisements for mercenaries have also begun to appear in Nigerian newspapers (Ghana Web, February 22).

The Libyan Army

In his televised address to the Libyan people, Mu’ammar’s son, Sa’if al-Islam al-Qaddafi, told Libyans: “The army will play a big role [in defending the regime], it is not the army of Tunisia or Egypt. It will support Qaddafi to the last minute” (al-Sayda (Libyan State TV), February 20; Quryna.com, February 21).

Jabr and KhamisGeneral Abu Bakr Yunis Jabr and General Khamis al-Qaddafi

Bereft of real threats to its territory, whose security is guaranteed both by the strategic importance of Libya’s ample oil reserves and Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s considerable (if somewhat baffling) status in the African Union, Libya’s “Guide” has been able to indulge in periodic purges of his officer corps while keeping most elements of his armed forces under-armed and short of ammunition. The exception to this is the 32nd Brigade, popularly known as the “Khamis Brigade” after its leader, Khamis Abu Minyar al-Qaddafi, one of Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s seven sons. Khamis is a graduate of the Libyan Military Academy in Tripoli and received further training in Moscow at the Frunze Military Academy and the General Staff Academy of the Russian Armed Forces. The Brigade under his command typically receives better arms, equipment and salaries than the rest of the army and serves as a kind of Praetorian Guard to defend the regime. Brigade members have been active in trying to repress the demonstrations.

The Khamis Brigade was supplied with the British-made Bowman tactical communications and data system in a $165 million deal with General Dynamics UK, though the equipment has been modified through the removal of U.S. technology in the system (Defense News, May 8, 2008). [5] The Khamis Brigade has also taken part in joint exercises with the Algerian military (JANA [Tripoli], December 1, 2007).

Since Libya reconciled with the UK in 2008, the latter has become a major supplier of military gear, and even military training, though London has now revoked arms export licenses to Libya (Guardian, February 19). Units of the Special Air Service (SAS) have been involved in training Libyan Special Forces, unpopular duty for SAS veterans who were involved in a deadly decades-long struggle with the Libyan-armed Irish Republican Army (Telegraph, September 11, 2009). A December 2010 U.S. embassy cable released by Wikileaks also shows interest from Khamis al-Qaddafi and Sa’if al-Islam al-Qaddafi in obtaining U.S. made military equipment, including helicopters and parts for armored vehicles. [6]

Aside from the Khamis Brigade, most of the rest of the military has access only to obsolete Soviet-era equipment after enduring years of sanctions. This situation is not necessarily regarded as unfavorable by the regime, as it diminishes the chance rebel officers could mount their own coup similar to Colonel Qaddafi’s 1969 military takeover. Officers are subject to frequent transfers to prevent them from developing personal ties of loyalty with any one command. Though the senior ranks of the military are dominated by the “Guide’s” own Qadhadfa tribe, rivalries within the officer corps tend to be encouraged rather than discouraged to prevent an atmosphere of cooperation that could possibly lead to the creation of a junta.

Another son and prominent military figure is Colonel Mutassim al-Qaddafi. Mutassim received his training at the Cairo Military Academy before being given command of an elite unit in the Libyan army, where he gained a reputation for indiscipline and erratic behavior. At one point he was forced to take refuge in Egypt after reportedly marching on his father’s residence at the Bab al-Azizya barracks in Tripoli with detachments of his artillery. In 2002 he returned to Libya, where he was forgiven and promoted to Colonel (Jeune Afrique, May 19, 2010). In January 2007, Mutassim was made head of the National Security Council (Jeune Afrique, February 7, 2009).

Yet another son, Colonel Sa’adi Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, took to local radio on February 19 to announce he had arrived in Benghazi to direct operations there (apparently after the resignation of Benghazi-based Colonel Abd al-Fatah Yunis), but little has been heard of him since (AP, February 19). First Lieutenant Hannibal Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi is a member of the military, but seems to play a minor role in comparison to his brothers.

As the military’s chief-of-staff and minister of defense, Major-General Abu Bakr Yunis Jaber was, until recently, one of the most powerful men in Libya. However, he appears to have been detained by Qaddafi after refusing to carry out orders for brutal repression of protesters in Libya’s cities (al-Hurra, February 21). Major Abdel-Moneim al-Huni, Libya’s most recent representative to the Arab League, issued a statement on February 22 on behalf of the “Leadership Council of the Libyan Revolution,” demanding that General Abu Bakr Yunis be released to lead an interim government. Apparently intending to emulate the Egyptian model, al-Huni also appealed to serving officers and troops to abandon the regime: “You who know the honor of military service, I urge you to uproot this regime and take over power in order to end the bloodshed and maintain Libya’s strategic interests and the unity of its land and people.” He further described the use of mercenaries as the regime “signing its own death certificate” (Ahram Online, February 22).

Qaddafi relies heavily on two generals from his own tribe, Sayed Qaddaf al-Dam and Ahmad Qaddaf al-Dam. Sayed is the military head of Cyrenaica, which has come largely under the control of protesters, while Ahmad is the “Guide’s” point-man on Egyptian issues. Aside from Qaddafi and General Abu Bakr, Generals Mustapha Kharoubi and Khouildi Hamidi are the last active members of the 12-man 1969 Revolutionary Council, though both have been reduced to performing ceremonial roles.

A Question of Loyalty

Experiments in Green Book-inspired Jamahiriyah (“popular state”) governance and unification with other Arab/African regimes may have worked against the development of a national identity. Loyalty to the Qaddafis also appears to be shallow; in eastern Libya the police are reported to have helped apprehend a number of mercenaries, while senior military officers are reported to have resigned in Benghazi and Sirte (France24.com, February 21).

There have been many reports of low-paid conscripts and even their officers joining the ranks of the protesters in Benghazi, Darna and elsewhere (Telegraph, February 20). While the al-Fadhil Brigade in Benghazi appears to have gone over to the protestors after their headquarters was set on fire, there are reports that the al-Sibyl Brigade continues to be loyal (al-Jazeera, February 20). Benghazi police are reported to have defected to the protestors after witnessing the methods of the mercenaries (AP, February 21).

Officials in Malta were surprised by two Libyan Air Force colonels who flew their Mirage F1 warplanes from Libya’s Okba Ben Nafi airbase to Malta. The pilots said they flew low to evade radar detection and decided to come to Malta rather than carry out orders to bomb civilians. The Maltese military was also reported to be monitoring a Libyan warship said to be carrying defecting Libyan officers (Times of Malta, February 21, February 22).

Conclusion

Though some Libyans might have been persuaded to desist by the regime’s warnings of disaster and promises of imminent decentralization, organizational restructuring and the dismissal of many state officials, the introduction of mercenaries with orders to kill in the streets of Libya’s cities seems likely to be the last straw before the collapse of the Qaddafi regime.  Mercenaries from all quarters have frequently found work defending unpopular African regimes, but at best they have usually only prolonged the inevitable, their very presence an indication that a regime rules only through force rather than popular consensus, regardless of protests to the contrary.

Ironically, it was Qaddafi himself who warned a gathering of Libyan security officials in Tripoli in 2004 to beware of infiltration efforts by “mercenaries, lunatics, infidels and people who pose a threat to security” (Great Jamahiriyah TV, April 14, 2004).

Notes:

1. See GF Abbott, The Holy War in Tripoli, 1912, pp.79-80.

2. See J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, Darfur: The Long Road to Disaster, Princeton N.J., 2008, p. 84.

3. www.youtube.com/watch; www.youtube.com/watch.

4. www.youtube.com/watch.

5. www.generaldynamics.uk.com/news/gduk-secures-new-export-opportunity.

 

Saharan Mercenary Employed by al-Qaeda Freed in Hostage Exchange

Andrew McGregor

September 9, 2010

While mercenaries have played an important role in the war on terrorism from the beginning, the use of private forces has until recently been associated with counter-terrorism efforts. However, since al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) began establishing a Saharan front, they have been compelled to hire local guides and suppliers, much like every other non-native interloper in the region. Many of the AQIM leaders in the Sahara are Arabs or Arabized Berbers from the coastal mountains of Algeria, nearly 2,000 miles from their current zone of operations in the desert near the Mali border.

Sahara MercenaryOmar Sid Ahmed Ould Hamma

Omar al-Sahrawi (the nickname of Omar Sid Ahmed Ould Hamma) is one such employee of al-Qaeda participating in AQIM’s lucrative kidnapping operations without necessarily sharing the same ideology. In late August he was freed from captivity in Mauritania as part of a hostage exchange and ransom deal demanded by AQIM in return for the release of two Spanish captives.

Reports from Spain claim the hostages were released in exchange for between $4.8 million and $12.7 million as well as the release of al-Sahrawi (El Mundo [Madrid], August 23; ABC [Madrid], August 23). The two captives, Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta, were kidnapped in Mauritania on the road from Nouakchott to the coastal town of Nouadhibou (formerly Port Étienne) in November 2009 (Afrique en Ligne, August 29). The men are employees of the Barcelona-based NGO Accio Solidaria. A third Spanish hostage taken at the same time, Alicia Gamez, was released by AQIM in March. It is believed a ransom was paid in this case as well.

In a telephone interview with a French reporter, al-Sahrawi declared, “I have nothing to do with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Me, I do business, and if you sell something to someone who is from AQIM, it does not mean that you are from AQIM. I am a businessman (AFP, August 24). In his homeland of Mali, security sources identified al-Sahrawi as a cigarette smuggler and transporter of illegal immigrants.

Al-Sahrawi had been sentenced by a Mauritanian court to 12 years of hard labor for his role in the abductions. Following his release and extradition to Mali, where the hostages were being held, al-Sahrawi was reported to have been present at the release of the hostages so AQIM could see if he was alive and in good health. Mauritanian TV footage showed al-Sahrawi joking with the hostages (AFP, August 25). On his return, Al-Sahrawi reportedly celebrated his release by declaring, “I have come back free to Mali” (Nouakchott-Info, August 26).

Referring to the failed Mauritanian-French effort to free a French hostage in July that resulted in the death of seven AQIM operatives and later the execution of the hostage, AQIM said the release of the Spanish hostages was a “lesson for the French secret services to take into consideration in the future” (al-Jazeera, August 24). Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said the release marked a “day of celebration.” He made no mention of the ransom (Ennahar [Algiers], August 23).

Algiers is reported to be displeased with the ransom, some of which will likely be used to buy arms for further attacks within Algeria (Ennahar, August 25). Mauritania has also failed to garner AQIM’s good-will through the release; only two days later a would-be suicide bomber was killed by security forces as he tried to ram an explosives-laden truck into the Nema military barracks, 750 miles east of Nouackchott (al-Jazeera, August 25; AFP, August 25).

This article first appeared in the September 9, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Islamists Accuse Blackwater/Xe in Deadly Bombing of a Shabaab Controlled Mosque

Andrew McGregor

May 13, 2010

At least 45 people were killed and over 80 wounded in a May 1 bombing of the Abdallah Shideye Mosque in Mogadishu’s Bakara market. The mosque and the market are currently controlled by the radical al-Shabaab Islamist movement. The next day a hand grenade was thrown into a Shabaab-controlled mosque in the southern port of Kismayo. One person was killed and seven injured, though the blast missed senior al-Shabaab officials who were still on their way to the mosque (Shabelle Media Network, May 2). Days earlier, a landmine was set off just outside the Shabaab-controlled Abu Hureyra mosque in the Bakara market, killing one and injuring eight (Garowe Online, May 1).

shangoleShaykh Fu’ad Muhammad Qalaf “Shangole”

Two to three explosions occurred simultaneously within the Abdallah Shideye mosque as some 800 worshippers were gathering for noon prayers. Among those injured was a senior al-Shabaab official (and the possible target of the bombing), Shaykh Fu’ad Muhammad Qalaf “Shangole,” who described the incident:

While we were in the middle of our lesson and it was near prayer time, three explosions happened, one after the other went off, and I saw the chair I was sitting on fly across the mosque. I saw my white thawb [an ankle-length cotton garment] was red with blood and I couldn’t tell where the blood was coming from. When I opened my eyes, I saw that many people were in pain and that many others had been martyred (al-Qimmah, May 8).

Al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mahmud Raage (a.k.a. Shaykh Ali Dheere) insisted “foreign mercenaries” were responsible for the attack (Radio Gaalkacyo, May 2). Shaykh Ali Muhammad Husayn, the Shabaab governor of Banadir region (which includes Mogadishu), accused the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of carrying out the bombings, vowing immediate revenge (Voice of Mudug Radio, May 2). The shaykh also said the movement would improve security in mosques and other public places, describing the bombing as “an unforgettable lesson” (Shabelle Media Network, May 2).

Eventually al-Shabaab leaders agreed the explosions were the work of American mercenaries working for private military contractors Blackwater (now Xe Services LLC). According to Shaykh Fu’ad Muhammad Qalaf, Blackwater personnel had arrived in Somalia two weeks earlier and were involved in training “apostate” forces at the Halane military base near Mogadishu airport, currently used by African Union peacekeepers fighting on the side of the TFG (al-Qimmah, May 1; May 8; Garowe Online, May 4). Al-Shabaab leaders alleged that Blackwater operatives had been responsible for similar mosque bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Shaykh Ali Mahmud Raage warned of the arrival of “Blackwater mercenaries” last January. “We have discovered that U.S. agencies are going to launch suicide bombings in public places in Mogadishu. They have tried it in Algeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan… They want to target Bakara Market and mosques, then use that to malign us.” The shaykh told tribal elders that Blackwater/Xe was recruiting locals to help carry out a bombing campaign (Dayniile, January 11; Press TV, January 12). In March, the shaykh claimed private U.S. contractors such as Blackwater/Xe were responsible for a wave of assassinations of Shabaab leaders (al-Jazeera, March 10)  The Shabaab spokesman was quick to remind reporters of his earlier warning after the attack on the Abdallah Shideye Mosque (Garowe Online, May 1).

The introduction of mosque bombings to the Somali conflict has shocked many Somalis, who almost reflexively look beyond their own culture for an explanation of this phenomenon, much as they did with the earlier introduction of suicide bombings by al-Shabaab.  A TFG spokesman described the mosque attacks as a “new foreign barbaric phenomena”; leaders of both al-Shabaab’s rival Hizb al-Islam militia and the pro-government Ahlu Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a (ASJ) militia alleged a foreign origin for the attacks (Garowe Online, May 3). With no claim of responsibility, there is still a wide range of suspects, including the Sufi ASJ, which has suffered from al-Shabaab’s continuing destruction of Sufi shrines and the tombs of revered Sufi shaykhs (see Terrorism Monitor, April 1).

Xe owner Erik Prince urged the U.S. government last January to deploy private military contractors to fight “terrorists” in Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia (The Nation, May 3; Times Online, May 5). Rumors of Blackwater/Xe’s presence and activities are already common currency in Pakistan and now appear to be sweeping Somalia as culprits are sought in a vicious new stage of the continuing transformation of Somalia’s civil war from clan-based warfare to sectarian struggle.

This article first appeared in the May 13, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Last of the Redshanks: The Raid on Thurso, 1649

Dr. Andrew McGregor

November 8, 2007

In the far north of Scotland the Highland mountains grow smaller, eventually leveling out into vast stretches of rolling countryside that end abruptly with rocky cliffs lurching out over the cold northern seas. Before the Celts arrived these lands were ruled by Norsemen, the powerful ‘Sea-Kings of Orkney’. The names of their settlements in Scotland’s northeast county of Caithness reflected their beliefs, like the town of Thurso, named for the Norse god Thor.

Thurso 2Northern Scotland

Though the town still stands after all these centuries, it came perilously close to obliteration one day in 1649. That year’s raid on Thurso by a small group of veteran Irish fighters and a handful of Scottish highlanders is not found on any list of Scotland’s great battles, but the raid was significant largely for one reason – it marked the last gasp of the once powerful Irish brigade (known as ‘Redshanks’) that came to Scotland to aid the Marquis of Montrose and his Royalist forces during the British Civil War.

Combining innovative tactics with somewhat antiquated weapons the Irish won a resounding series of victories for a year after their arrival in Scotland in 1644. Warfare in Britain was in transition during the 17th century. Pikes and muskets dominated the battlefield but there was still a place for men like the Irish who were expert in the use of sword and shield. The matchlock musket was difficult and time-consuming to load and could only be used effectively in battle by highly disciplined troops performing a complicated drill.

In battle the musketeers commonly formed up in six ranks. After the front rank fired in volley they would ‘countermarch’ to the rear to begin reloading while the next rank moved to the front to fire their volley. Inexperienced troops found the maneuver difficult. Nervousness interfered with the dozens of steps involved in reloading the musket, while the men in the front rank tended to discharge their weapons quickly and without aim in order to take their place at the rear again as soon as possible. Many Civil War battles were lost because half-trained musketeers would have been more useful with pikes in their hands rather than firearms. Artillery was often present on the battlefield, but tended to be so poorly served that it had little impact. Unlike the romantic image of charge and counter-charge by valiant swordsmen against resolute defenders, many Scottish battles of the era degenerated into rock-throwing by both sides.

The trained swordsmen of the highland clans had a fearsome reputation, but in reality they were always few in number. Most of the clansmen formed an untrained rabble, useful only for pressing home an advantage already won by the professionals in the first rank. In the impoverished Highlands there were few who could afford the expensive tools of a Celtic warrior – a broadsword, a targe (shield), a dirk (short-sword), a musket and pistols. Each clan maintained a small group of professional fighters who kept close to the chief and led the rest of the clan into battle. Most of the barefoot men brought on campaign had to wait for someone to be killed in order to seize a weapon for themselves. Nevertheless, the highlanders achieved several notable victories serving under Montrose, but their desire to return home immediately with their loot resulted in an unfortunate tendency for the highland ranks to dissolve after a victory as surely as if they had been defeated.

In the end the total numbers brought to the battlefield mattered far less than the number of professional soldiers involved on each side. A small core of men skilled in the use of their weapons and tempered in the continental battlefields of the Thirty Years War could easily rout far larger numbers of inexperienced men. It was in this sense that the largely veteran Irish Brigade (which may have included many MacDonalds from the Western Isles) was able to have an immediate impact in the Scottish campaigns of the Civil War. Under their leader Alistair MacColla (sometimes known as ‘Colkitto’), the Irish perfected a tactic that came to be known as ‘the Highland Charge’ after its adoption by Scottish highlanders. The tactic involved getting in close to the enemy before letting off a single short-range volley from their muskets into the front ranks. The muskets were then tossed aside as the Irish and their highland allies took sword in hand to emerge screaming from the smoke of their musket-fire. With the hard-charging Celts bearing down fast only seasoned regulars could be expected to resist the urge to break and run at this point. Just as important to Montrose as the fearsome reputation of his Irish fighters was their discipline under fire and their willingness to fight defensive actions as well as charge headlong into the enemy. Between battles the brigade remained an organized, armed force while the highlanders came and went according to their needs and whims. To be fair, most of the highlanders had farms to tend to, animals to care for and families who were unlikely to survive long without male providers and defenders. Any booty that could be obtained through battle was desperately needed at home.

In mid-1646 Charles surrendered to the Scottish army campaigning in England. In a bizarre turn of events the King now made an alliance with his bitter foes, the Scottish Covenanters (so-named for their ‘national covenant’ against the King’s attempts to interfere with Scottish Protestantism). The latter insisted the King disband his forces. Many of the surviving Irish fighters in Scotland began to return home in small groups or joined up with armed groups in the Western Isles and Highlands. Alistair MacColla refused to lay down his arms but was soon bottled up in Kintyre with a group of Irish and highlanders (mostly MacDonalds) by the pro-government Campbells. MacColla was driven out the next spring, fleeing to Islay Island and eventually to Ireland. By February 1647 the Covenanters had tired of the King’s prevarications in fulfilling their demands. Charles was turned over to the English Parliamentarians and the Scottish army returned home, ready to mop up the last Royalist resistance. Isolated castles and their Royalist garrisons fell one by one. Captured highlanders were typically paroled, but the Irish were almost always massacred, sometimes by the hundreds. It quickly became routine to hang any Irishman captured in Scotland, encouraging those Irish Redshanks still at large to make their way back to Ireland. Many Catholic highlanders joined them to continue the fight in Ireland, but these groups were soon destroyed in a pair of disastrous battles.

On January 30, 1649, Charles I was executed by the Parliamentarians in London. By this time there were few Irish fighters left in Scotland. Those who remained at first fought on as bands of guerrilla fighters, but they eventually developed a taste for looting, robbery and extortion. One of these bands was led by Donald Macallister Mullich, a “powerful and ferocious” Irishman who fought under Montrose in the Civil War. The band’s activities gained notice after they became involved in a spectacular robbery with Niel MacKay, leader of the Abrach MacKays in Strathnaver (please note, “Niel” is not a misspelling).

In 1648 the Earl of Sutherland sent a large armed party under his chamberlain to collect the rents in Strathnaver. Niel MacKay disputed the Earl’s right to collect rents in parts of Strathnaver and was prepared to enforce his point of view with the sword. MacKay persuaded Donald Macallister’s band of a dozen Irishmen to help him; together they drove off the taxmen and relieved Sutherland’s chamberlain of all the rents he had already collected. The Earl went to Edinburgh to complain before Parliament personally, obtaining there a company of 100 soldiers to help bring Niel MacKay to justice. The government men could not find the fugitive in the forest, nor could they find the cave that became his temporary home. The latter was described by 19th century author Robert MacKay as being “in the side of a mountain, scarcely perceptible, and so narrow at the entry as only to admit of one on all fours, but so roomy within as to contain a great number of men, and admitting air at the top through a cranny in the rock.”

Thurso 1Old St. Peter’s Church (Caithness.org)

A year after the robbery Niel MacKay arrived in Thurso to visit Sir James Sinclair of Murkle. He seems to have been followed there by Macallister, who had added several Highland desperadoes to his band of hell-raisers. As was his habit wherever he went, Macallister sent a message the civic leaders of Thurso demanding coin and provisions. Outraged by their refusal, the Irish captain decided to help himself by raiding the town on a Sunday when everyone would be in St.Peter’s church. Macallister was also determined to wreak his revenge for the townspeople’s defiance by torching the church during services. When one of his ruffians objected to such blasphemy, Macallister replied in bold Gaelic; “In defiance of God and the Sunday, Donald will spill blood”.

At the time, MacKay was living with a handful of retainers in a house at a fair distance from Thurso. When the locals learned of Macallister’s arrival outside the church, they armed themselves and led by Sir James Sinclair (who habitually took his sword to church) they attacked the bandits. Driven from Thurso, Macallister headed to MacKay’s house with the enraged citizens close behind him.Despite being close friends with the Irishman, MacKay may have been unaware of Macallister’s plans for Thurso and was certainly unprepared for battle with only a small group of men at hand. The arrival at MacKay’s home of his recent ally Macallister and his raiding party was enough to convince the people of Thurso of MacKay’s connivance in a scheme to pillage the town and murder its people. It was not long before MacKay and his men were fighting side-by-side with Macallister’s bandits.

The fight was bitter and relentless, with the caterans defending the house falling one by one to the furious attackers. Having survived countless battles, there was a common belief that a lead bullet could not kill the Irish marauder Macallister. One of Sir James Sinclair’s servants cut a silver button from his master’s coat and loaded it into a pistol. Determined to slay Macallister, the would-be killer succeeded only in piercing the Irishman’s ear. Surprised but still on his feet, Macallister coolly exclaimed; “Hoot! The fellow, he’s deafened me!” Eventually steel, not lead or silver, brought down the notorious freebooter. Niel MacKay was killed in the early stages of the fight. Sir James, unaware of his friend’s death (and perhaps uncertain about his role in the attack), ordered his men “Let no man touch Niel MacKay!” When informed that MacKay had already fallen, Sinclair announced gravely; “Then spare none”.

The question of MacKay’s involvement remains open. Was it mere coincidence that Macallister’s men arrived at Thurso just behind him? There seems little reason for MacKay to contemplate such a desperate and despicable act as burning a church with its congregation still inside, particularly in his own region, where retribution would be swift and inevitable. Yet, when the going got rough for the freebooters in Thurso, they headed immediately for the house where MacKay was staying. They may have expected the help of MacKay and his men after aiding them against the Earl of Sutherland the previous year. Having realized that the bandits intended to burn them alive, the seething mob that poured out of Thurso in pursuit was probably not in the mood to listen to explanations of innocence. In any case MacKay and his men were of the professional fighting class, and once under attack would not have failed to respond in kind immediately.

None were spared to answer these questions. Only two of the bandits escaped the massacre, fleeing half a mile along the rocky sea-side cliffs to the village of Scrabster, where they were set upon and killed. In Robert MacKay’s 1829 history of the Clan MacKay, the author recalled seeing the place of their death marked by two large stones. The bodies of the rest were buried at the main entrance of the church (last used for services in 1832 and now a picturesque ruin). The remains of the caterans do not seem to have carried much respect with the locals; Robert MacKay records seeing in the possession of a Thurso merchant a remarkably large molar tooth recently pulled from one of the skulls. Niel MacKay’s mortal remains were another matter. Sir James was grief-stricken at the death of his friend who, moreover, had been his guest in the area. Sinclair ordered MacKay’s body to be interned in his own family plot, with the late chief’s coat-of-arms carved on the gravestone. It being the custom in the north at the time to take revenge for the death of any chief, Niel MacKay’s son, also named Niel, began the hunt for the men who brought down his father. The younger Niel killed a man closely involved, but the actual culprit eventually tired of being hunted and fled abroad.

With their days of victories under Montrose and Alisdair MacColla long behind them, the last of the ‘Redshanks’ met an ignoble death, their bones dumped in a pit outside the very church they intended to burn. In the following year, 1650, Montrose attempted a comeback from the Orkney Islands that lay within sight of Thurso across the northern sea. After crossing to the mainland with his hastily raised force of Orkney natives and Danish mercenaries (a poor substitute for MacColla’s Irish Brigade), Montrose was quickly defeated and sent on to Edinburgh to be hanged and quartered. His brilliant ally Alistair MacColla had already been killed at the 1647 battle of Knocknanuss in Ireland when his men made the fatal mistake of dispersing to loot the enemy’s baggage train after slashing their way through the Parliamentarian infantry. The massacre of Macallister and his men at Thurso brought a brutal end to the Redshanks in Scotland. It was not the end of Irish fighting men in Scotland, however. That would wait another hundred years for the end of Prince Charles Stewart’s failed rising of 1745-46.

Sources

Calder, James T: Sketch of the Civil and Traditional History of Caithness from the 10th Century, Wick, 1887

Gordon, Sir Robert: History of the House of Sutherland, Edinburgh, 1813

Haythornwaite, Philip: The English Civil War 1642-1651: An Illustrated Military History, Poole, Dorset, 1983

Hill, JM: Celtic Warfare 1595-1763, Edinburgh, 1986

Lenihan, Pádraig: “Celtic Warfare in the 1640s,” In John R Young (ed.), Celtic Dimensions of the British Civil Wars, Edinburgh, 1997, pp. 116-140

Lawson, John Parker: Historical Tales of the Wars of Scotland, Vol. I, Edinburgh, c.1850, pp. 326-28

MacKay, Robert: History of the House and Clan of MacKay, Edinburgh, 1829

Ó Ciardha, Éamonn: “Tories and Moss-Troopers in Scotland and Ireland in the Interregnum: a political dimension,” In, John R Young (ed.), Celtic Dimensions of the British Civil Wars, Edinburgh, 1997, pp. 141-163

Reid, Stuart: The Campaigns of Montrose: A Military History of the Civil War in Scotland, 1639 to 1646, Edinburgh, 1990

Reid, Stuart, and Graham Turner: Scots Armies of the English Civil Wars, Oxford, 1999

Stevenson, David: Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates, Belfast, 1981

Stradling, RA: The Spanish Monarchy and Irish Mercenaries, 1618-68, Dublin, 1994

This article was first published by Military History Online, November 8, 2007