Feb 6, 2014 | 01:57 GMT

5 mins read

North Africa: Bearing the Brunt of Libya's Instability

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

North Africa's concerns over the volatility in Libya were voiced Wednesday by Nigerien Interior Minister Massoudou Hassoumi, who referred to southern Libya as "an incubator for terrorist groups" and said that countries involved in ousting former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi — specifically France and the United States — needed to "provide an after-sales service." The statement comes amid reports that the French were preparing to intervene in southern Libya and that Western special operations forces were operating in Tunisia and Libya. Hassoumi's comments reflect not only growing regional concerns over Libya's protracted domestic political troubles, but also the often unintended consequences of foreign interventions.

As one of the key transit routes between southern Libya and northern Mali, northern Niger likewise is an oft-used route for regional militants. When Gadhafi was in power, he often trained and armed the region's pastoral nomads, known as the Tuaregs, and encouraged localized rebellions to keep sub-Saharan African capitals along his southern border distracted and discouraged from directly threatening the Libyan regime and from allowing more credible Western threats such as France from launching attacks from their territories.

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.

The 2011-2012 Malian conflict was spurred in part by the outflow of Tuaregs from southern Libya through Algeria and Niger into northern Mali. Al Qaeda affiliates stoked the instability their exodus created, culminating in a French-led intervention meant to remove a militant threat that had succeeded in supplanting local and regional leadership and declaring a mini-Islamic emirate in northern Mali (a former French colony). After the French intervention, most militants stopped engaging foreign forces in direct combat. However, some spread to neighboring states using routes that pass through Nigerien territory and found sanctuary in Libya, which is now weakly governed. Niger's fears were realized when militants attempted an unsuccessful attack against French economic interests at the Areva uranium mining facility in Arlit in May 2013.

The governments of the Sahel region are concerned that militant uprisings launched from Libya could overwhelm their local defenses. Such was the case in Mali in 2011-2012, when Tuareg and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb forces moving from Libya jointly overwhelmed the Malians — at which point we saw France mobilize to defend Mali. The rebellions in Mali, Niger and Chad are not much of a strategic threat to France, but the remobilization of weapons and fighters in southern Libya cannot be ignored. Bamako, Niamey and Ndjamena cannot go and invade southern Libya on their own, but they can appeal to France and the United States to help them secure their borders and safeguard their own tenuous control over the region's vast and poorly demarcated desert borders.

Interventions in the area, including the initial Western-backed NATO intervention that ousted Gadhafi and the French intervention into a Malian conflict that was directly linked to the fall of Gadhafi, have a history of complicated outcomes. The difficult interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have informed the decisions of U.S. policymakers, who are now much more reticent than they once were, as shown by their hesitation to intervene in Syria and Iran. Still, regional and international concerns over the state of security in Libya are not unfounded.

Surrounded by weak governments and nebulous borders in a region facing rising extremist activity, the sanctuary Libya provides has allowed many militants to regroup, train and avoid detection. Locked into its own contentious negotiations with Paris over the future of uranium mining in northern Niger, Niamey is trying to leverage its concerns over instability in Libya to gain concessions from its former colonizer. The government successfully lobbied the United States to place a drone surveillance facility in Niger and is likely seeking greater cooperation, training and military aid from France.

But Niger is not the only country trying to benefit from the fluctuations in the regional balance of power. Algeria has enhanced its influence over neighboring Tunisia under to guise of increased security cooperation. Similarly, Egypt is trying to expand defense and border security ties with neighboring Sudan, a country that shares its concerns over an ambitious dam project in Ethiopia. Egypt's military will also use the spreading jihadist threat in the region to find common cause with Washington and repair its defense relationship with the United States.

A large-scale military intervention in Libya remains unlikely, but that does not mean France and other Western powers will leave the Libyans to their own devices entirely. Western intelligence agencies are actively monitoring the security situation and tracking militant movements, though direct covert action still carries the risk of further destabilizing the nominal government authority in Tripoli. NATO members have also already begun plans to train some 20,000 Libyan soldiers in Europe through 2014. But persistent concerns remain over what many governments believe might be an inevitable militant attack staged from southern Libya. And for that reason, we will continue to see regular consultations between Western and regional states that bear the brunt of the Libyan quagmire and the West's inaction.

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