Islamist Militants Making Southern Libya Home

Posted: 29th May 2013

Algerian terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar claims to have planned the two deadly suicide attacks last week in Niger. One of the recent targets was a uranium mine owned by the French company Areva, which makes it the second foreign energy facility in African to be hit this year by Belmokhtar-organized forces. It’s also the former AQIM man’s first appearance since his alleged death in March.

One notable claim made by Niger’s president in the aftermath was that the suicide bombers came from Libya. It’s not the first time that Belmokhtar has been linked to the country – he reportedly visited to conduct weapons deals as far back as 2011 – but the connection leads us to investigate whether Southern Libya, which borders Algeria, Chad, Niger, and Sudan, is becoming the preferred no man’s land for militant Islamist groups.

The Recorded Future timeline, drawing on information reported prior to the Niger attack , shows a dramatic uptick in reporting on militant activity in southern Libya since late last year. Called out are references to militant groups in the region – “Southern Libya” – as well as to the notable cities and towns in the area including Sebha, Ghat, Kufra, Ubari, and Murzuk. Several of the key events are detailed below:

  • Reports link Belmokhtar to Libya back to late 2011 when he reportedly “met a Libyan veteran of jihad in Afghanistan who had set up camps near Sabha in southern Libya providing training for jihadists from Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and Mali as well as Libyans and ethnic Tuaregs.”
  • From the Economist: “In neighbouring Niger, a severe drought and resulting food shortages have created an ideal breeding ground for extremists. For al-Qaeda this is a vital link to southern Libya, which has become lawless after the fall of Colonel Qaddafi.”
  • The Daily Telegraph reported on December 4th that AQIM leaders “regularly travel to Ghat, a desert town in south-western Libya near the border with Niger.”
  • On Feb 8 from the Globe & Mail, “a border clash late last week, reported by a Tuareg activist in southern Libya with sources at the remote border posts, is part of the growing evidence that the retreating Islamist radicals of northern Mali are now migrating across a vast region of the Sahara.”
  • Further reports suggest that “armed Islamists driven out of northern Mali by Operation Serval had shifted operations to Libya’s lightly-governed southwest, presumably by passing through northern Niger… Veteran Nigérien Tubu militant Barka Wardougou also appears to have shifted his base of operations across the border into southern Libya, which has a substantial Tubu population."

The power vacuum left in the wake of Gaddafi’s death has been well covered. But we’re seeing now that interests in stabilizing the far more populous northern part of the country have left unchecked rogue power structures in the south. Since mid-2012, the region has been brutally divided by militias, and attention to the consequences has been sharply raised by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s attacks.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that this is the end. Several days after the latest bombings, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou continued to break news about the implications of these attacks and the source of the perpetrators. He warned further attacks were being planned on Chad, saying:

“For Niger in particular, the main threat has moved from the Malian border to the Libyan border. I confirm in effect that the enemy who attacked us comes from the (Libyan) south, where another attack is being prepared against Chad.”

Now is clearly the time for companies and military units with Western, and particularly French, ties to shore up their security apparatus. We’ll be closely tracking the issue of Islamist activity in southern Libya in an effort to detect signals of future attacks.