Washington, Jan. 20: As the uprising closed in around him, the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi warned that if he fell, chaos and holy war would overtake North Africa. “Bin Laden’s people would come to impose ransoms by land and sea,” he told reporters. “We will go back to the time of Redbeard, of pirates, of Ottomans imposing ransoms on boats.”
In recent days, that unhinged prophecy has acquired a grim new currency. In Mali, French paratroopers arrived this month to battle an advancing force of fighters who already control an area twice the size of Germany. In Algeria, a one-eyed bandit organised the brazen takeover of an international gas facility, taking hostages that included more than 40 Americans and Europeans.
Coming just four months after an American ambassador was killed by jihadists in Libya, those assaults have contributed to a sense that North Africa — long a dormant backwater for Al Qaida — is turning into another zone of dangerous instability, much like Syria, site of an increasingly bloody civil war.
The mayhem in this vast desert region has many roots, but it is also a sobering reminder that the euphoric toppling of dictators in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt has come at a price.
“It’s one of the darker sides of the Arab uprisings,” said Robert Malley, the Middle East and North Africa director at the International Crisis Group.
“Their peaceful nature may have damaged al Qaida and its allies ideologically, but logistically, in terms of the new porousness of borders, the expansion of ungoverned areas, the proliferation of weapons, the disorganisation of police and security services in all these countries — it’s been a real boon to jihadists.”
In a sense, both the hostage crisis in Algeria and the battle raging in Mali are consequences of the fall of Gaddafi in 2011. Like other strongmen in the region, Gaddafi had mostly kept in check his country’s various ethnic and tribal factions, either by brutally suppressing them or by co-opting them.
He acted as a lid, keeping volatile elements repressed. Once that lid was removed, there was greater freedom for various groups — whether rebels, jihadists or criminals -- to join up and make common cause.
In Mali, for instance, there are the Tuaregs, a nomadic people ethnically distinct both from Arabs, who make up the nations to the north, and the Africans who inhabit southern Mali and control the national government.
They fought for Gaddafi in Libya, then streamed back across the border after his fall, banding together with Islamist groups to form a far more formidable fighting force.
They brought with them heavy weapons and a new determination to overthrow the Malian government, which they had battled off and on for decades in a largely secular struggle for greater autonomy.
Yet Gaddafi’s fall was only the tipping point, some analysts say, in a region where chaos has been on the rise for years, and men who fight under the banner of jihad have built up enormous reserves of cash through smuggling and other criminal activities.
If the rhetoric of the Islamic militants now fighting across North Africa is about holy war, the reality is often closer to a battle among competing gangsters in a region where government authority has long been paper-thin.