The uprising against the Qaddafi regime in Libya took a turn in favor of the rebels after NATO imposed a no-fly zone and provided them with communications equipment. However, the gradual distribution of conventional weapons to the National Transitional Council may have also inadvertently created a power imbalance in the region.
“Whilst Kalashnikov rifles and other small arms such as rocket-propelled grenades have flooded Libya in their hundreds of thousands,” explains NATO’s website, “there are weapons which although less numerous could cause an even greater threat…It’s feared that man-portable missiles, rocket systems and even chemical weapons could fall into the hands of extremists unless prompt action is taken to secure them.”
Although NATO’s primary objective was to aid Libya’s rebels, one glaring consequence of their action has also been an influx of illegal weapons flow across North Africa. Unless dealt with swiftly, this “Lead Road” will provide devastating weapons to some of the free world’s most dangerous adversaries.
Earlier this year, the MNLA, predominantly made up of Tuareg tribesmen indigenous to North Africa, led a coup against government forces in North Mali. Reports indicate that the weapons used to topple the Qaddafi regime had been instrumental to the separatists’ success. Tuareg control was short-lived; the Ansar Dine, aided by another faction named Mujao, wrested power from the tribesmen in North Mali’s three major cities. They quickly implemented Sharia penal code on the local innocents.
Given the rapid ascension of Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), an affiliate of AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), the conventional wisdom of supplying “just any” rebel group with future arm shipments must be reconsidered. Famed author David Halberstam once wrote, “The essence of good foreign policy is constant reexamination.”
Allowed free reign, the North Mali factions (Ansar Dine, Mujao and AQIM) will each become more powerful. They could eventually consolidate their assets and align with other repressive regimes in Africa, namely al-Shabaab in Somalia and the tyrannical Bashir government in Sudan. Without decisive action, susceptible targets like Egypt’s Sinai Desert, Libya’s emerging democracy, and the refugees in Darfur will continue to be victimized by militants who depend on the Lead Road to sustain their repressive tactics.
Israel is not immune either, many of these weapons can ultimately end up in Gaza. Since the beginning of Syria’s civil war the weapons import spigot from Iran has tightened; Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and others will continue to seek new supply routes.
In March, Malian soldiers revolted against West-friendly President Amadou Toumani Toure in the southern capital Bamako, leaving the country under brief rule of a military junta. Their replacement, an interim government led by National Assembly President Dioncounda Traore is supported by West Africa’s major power broker ECOWAS (Economic Community Of West African States). However, Traore is not a revered domestically nor does his government have the necessary strength to regain control of North Mali, a desert roughly the size of France.
Confronting terrorists who have sowed instability and oppressed the people of North Mali must become the top priority of Africa’s security institutions. Eviscerating Ansar Dine, the MNLA, and Mujao would be a direct blow to the growth of AQIM, and more, to the entire region’s historic weapons trafficking problem. Diplomatic efforts, regional and global, have proven futile insofar. Any mission to combat these terrorists will be a serious test to the virility of the African Union forces and ECOWAS. However, history shows the price of inaction will prove most costly.