The Tuareg denominator

One tribe’s cooperation with various militant groups will continue to challenge stability in some of Africa’s most vital nations.

A Tuareg nomad  (photo credit: Reuters)
A Tuareg nomad
(photo credit: Reuters)
Since the downfall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya early last year, weapons proliferation throughout the Middle East and North Africa is on the rise and of primary concern. It is now widely known that masses of Libyan weaponry have made their way into the hands of such militant groups as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Somalia’s al- Shabaab. Libyan weaponry has traveled as far as the Gaza Strip and has appeared in hands of militant groups there.
With the recent unrest in Somalia and Nigeria, the above-mentioned groups have been deeply reported on. However, one tribe, heavily active in Africa’s Sahel desert region, is operating under the radar by comparison. The Tuareg tribe, composed of 1.2 million people, is historically nomadic.
They have long roamed northwest Africa, primarily through the nations of Algeria, Libya, Mali and Niger. Today, the group has become sedentary, resulting in the Tuaregs actively engaging these countries, particularly the Malian government, for a stake in power sharing and wealth benefits from the country’s natural resources.
The ongoing battle for the Tuaregs’ perceived rights most recently manifested in the two-year Tuareg Rebellion in Mali and Niger from 2007 to 2009. This rebellion was ended through a series of peace talks and amnesty allowances; however, the conflict persists to this day. The Malian government regularly takes on the Tuareg militants along the Nigerian border.
The Tuareg activity does not end there, however. Since Gaddafi’s ouster, the tribe has capitalized on the nascent Libyan National Transitional Council and its failure to rein in the country’s domestic Misrata and Zintan tribal elements.
The two aforementioned tribes were prominently instrumental in the overthrow of Gaddafi, and because of the NTC’s failure to appease these groups with power sharing Libya’s borders have become porous and permeable.
A tribe’s allegiance is, first and foremost, to itself. After that, it goes to whatever entity has the money and the power.
So when Libya’s borders opened amid a deteriorating security situation, the Tuareg exploited the conditions on the ground to get their hands on Gaddafi-era weaponry that was now in essence up for grabs. To be sure, the Tuareg would keep much of this weaponry for itself. That said, a great amount would then be offloaded to their most attractive customers; al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The relationship between the Tuareg and AQIM is not new.
The cooperation between the two groups could be seen as recently as the Tuareg Rebellion when it was alleged that elements from each group coordinated the abductions of two Canadian diplomats and four European tourists in Niger over the span of a few weeks in late 2008. With a relationship intact, AQIM was a more than willing customer for the now Tuareg-owned Libyan weaponry, as the group is now shepherding other emerging Islamist militant groups in Africa.
The enhanced cooperation between the Tuareg and AQIM caused leaders from Sahel states to come together in recent weeks to discuss how best to combat this threat.
They were joined, however, by a non-Sahel country in Nigeria, which has seen a major breakdown in security throughout its northern Muslim states. Nigeria’s involvement is now of importance as Boko Haram militants, that now, according to findings of the Sahel conference, have confirmed links to AQIM, and therefore to the Tuareg.
AQIM, with Tuareg assistance, is now able to inflate its realm of influence. Such influence is not moving only south from the Sahel and into Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, but is also making its way east towards the Horn of Africa, specifically to al- Shabaab, who continues to control large swaths of Somalia, despite a coordinated African Union mission there.
The United States and its allies in the war on terror have claimed to have all but eliminated the threat from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida. However, it is the group’s offshoots that now pose the greatest threat to security and stability in many of the nations throughout northern and western Africa. The US expressed its desire to aid in the combat of such groups in the region; however, the targeting of al-Qaida subsidiaries will likely not address the problem at its core.
The Tuareg tribe persists as the common denominator that acts as the channel of livelihood for the various militant groups that are now operating throughout Africa’s north. Without the benefit of the Taureg’s unfettered mobility and access to weaponry, Africa’s Islamist militancy will find itself without a significant source of resources.
As previously mentioned, tribal allegiance, beyond to the tribe, goes to whoever has the money and the power. Therefore, any real effort to stem the rise of Islamist militancy in Africa will have to include the recruitment of the Tuareg through promises of support and power – demands the group has made from the onset of its involvement in its ongoing conflicts. Without such enlistment, the abolishment of Islamist militancy in Africa will be an insurmountable task.
The writer is an intelligence manager specializing in sub- Saharan African affairs at Max Security Solutions, a geo-political risk-consulting firm based in the Middle East.