The Tuaregs: From African Nomads to Smugglers and Mercenaries

8 MINS READFeb 2, 2012 | 13:00 GMT
Tuaregs on camelback Sept. 25, 2010, during a festival in northern Niger
The Tuaregs, a nomadic tribe in North and West Africa, dominated the caravan trade through the Sahara Desert for thousands of years. Their entire way of life was disrupted, however, by the imposition of borders, natural desertification, urbanization and the rise of maritime trade. In their quest to survive, the Tuaregs have launched several revolts in Mali and Niger, fought as mercenaries in the Libyan civil war and used their expertise to smuggle illicit goods, which brought them into contact with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It is the development of these skills and links to AQIM that have brought the Tuaregs to Western governments' attention.

In late August 2011, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, a Tuareg rebel who led an uprising in Mali in 2007-2009 before fleeing to Libya, re-emerged in northern Mali. He conducted an interview via satellite phone Aug. 26 with Algerian newspaper Al Watan during which he vowed to renew the Tuareg rebellion. Within hours of the interview, Ag Bahanga was killed in a car crash in Mali's Kidal region — an event that was probably not an accident.

Ag Bahanga was among an estimated 800 Tuaregs who fought as mercenaries in the Libyan civil war and had begun returning home in late 2011 as the conflict drew to a close. The Tuaregs' native countries, particularly Mali and Niger, had endured a number of Tuareg uprisings over the past several decades, so they were rightfully concerned about the arrival of hundreds of trained and equipped fighters. Ag Bahanga was designated "enemy No. 1" by the U.S.-trained Malian counterterrorism unit tasked with combating the Tuareg rebellion.

The returning Tuareg fighters are more than just rebels and mercenaries, however. They have also taken up weapon, drug and hostage smuggling in a region with which they are intimately familiar, and they have been accused of having links to AQIM. Their knowledge of the terrain, history of militancy and smuggling, and links to an al Qaeda franchise group have brought the Tuaregs to the attention of Western governments, which are concerned that the Tuaregs could become a source of manpower for transnational terrorism.

Who Are the Tuaregs?

The Tuaregs are a pastoralist, trans-state ethnicity that originated in North Africa. Estimated to number more than 1 million, the Tuaregs are most populous in Mali, Niger and Algeria, though they can also be found in Libya, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

The Tuaregs have not always been fighters and smugglers. For more than two millennia they dominated the caravan trade through the Sahara Desert, surviving on an innate knowledge of the landscape's every protective campsite and water hole from Dori, Burkina Faso, to Tamanrasset, Algeria. Historically, they sold livestock, textiles, salt, small weapons and gems, preserved food and, earlier, slaves and gold. To this day the Tuaregs remain one of the few ethnicities to frequent the Sahara, where water is scarce and temperatures can easily exceed 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit).

In the past century, three trends have upended the Tuaregs' entire way of life: the imposition of borders in North and West Africa, urbanization and natural desertification in the region, and the emergence of new technology and maritime trade.

For thousands of years the Tuaregs roamed the Sahara freely. Even when the French placed West Africa under colonial rule in the late 19th century, there was little change for the Tuaregs (though there was sporadic fighting in the early 20th century as well as a brief rebellion in northern Niger in 1916-1917 when France tried to impose taxes and assert authority over the Tuaregs and their land). But when Mali and Niger declared independence in 1960, they began claiming territory that for thousands of years had belonged to no one — but that was the Tuaregs' domain in practice. With the structure of the outside world thrust upon them for the first time, the Tuaregs launched a guerrilla-style revolt in the mountains of northern Mali from 1961 until the Malian army defeated them in 1964.

In the 1970s and 1980s, overgrazing and a widespread drought resulted in the desertification of large parts of northern Mali and Niger, which forced many Tuaregs to migrate, mostly to Algeria and Libya. Simultaneously, urbanization was changing the landscape of the region. Non-Tuareg farmers gradually claimed land that the Tuaregs had long inhabited or used as trade routes, which put the Tuaregs in constant conflict with modern society.

In Libya, some of the Tuaregs who had left their former homeland were recruited into Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's Islamic Legion, a special military regiment created in 1972 to help unify the region in preparation for Gadhafi's envisioned "United States of Africa." But the Islamic Legion was disbanded in 1987 after its defeat in Chad. With promises of assistance from the Malian and Nigerien governments, Tuareg fighters — trained, armed and funded — began to return to Mali and Niger. Tensions quickly rose as Tuaregs clashed with non-Tuareg farmers in Mali. As time passed and the governments' promised aid failed to materialize, frustration among the Tuaregs boiled over.

Hundreds of Tuaregs were arrested in Niger in the spring of 1990 and were accused of attacking Nigerien government buildings. A full-scale revolt erupted months later when Tuareg rebels in Mali attacked a police station near the Nigerien border that reportedly was holding Tuaregs from Niger. Violence between the Tuaregs and the Malian and Nigerien governments engulfed both countries and lasted until French- and U.S.-mediated talks brought about peace agreements in Mali in 1992 and in Niger in 1995. The agreements called for the decentralization of government and more even distribution of benefits. The agreements also promised to integrate former Tuareg rebels into the countries' respective national armies.

Though the governments had promised aid to the Tuaregs, they tended instead to dedicate their limited resources to developing their respective southern regions, where the majority of their populations live. Impoverished and underdeveloped, the Tuaregs' traditional territories became potential havens for Islamist militants to operate, and links began to form between the Tuaregs and AQIM. It was at this time in the mid-to-late 1990s that France and the United States launched anti-terrorism initiatives to train the Tuaregs to combat Islamist militants, including al Qaeda. The results of this training, and of the time spent with the Libyan military, were evident in 2007, when two Tuareg groups — the Mali-based Alliance for Democratic Change, co-led by Ag Bahanga and Iyad Ag Ghali, and the Niger-based Niger Movement for Justice, led by Aghaly Ag Alambo — separately but simultaneously rebelled against the Malian and Nigerien governments. The uprising was more sophisticated than any by the Tuaregs that had come before, and the peace that was achieved in 2009 would prove to be fragile.

On Jan. 16, Tuareg rebels began a series of assaults on multiple military targets in northeastern Mali. A spokesman for the rebels said the uprising was in response to the collapse of negotiations with the Malian government. The attacks are ongoing and have continued for more than two weeks, leaving at least 47 dead and causing thousands to flee the attacked cities. The attacks are similar in targeting, including the order in which the cities are attacked, to the 2007 revolt, but they have covered a much wider area, stretching from the Kidal region to Lere, just southwest of Timbuktu.

The Terrorism Threat

The third trend that disturbed the Tuaregs' way of life was the development of new technologies that increased the use of maritime trade. For thousands of years the Tuaregs had been the vehicle for trade in North and West Africa. Today, the vast majority of world trade is seaborne. This significantly reduced the value of the Tuaregs' trade routes, which eventually led them to resort to moving illicit goods such as drugs, weapons and hostages. According to open-source reports since 2008, one of the Tuaregs' main partners in this illicit trade network has been AQIM.

In 2009, a Tuareg man from Mauritania, Omar Sid Ahmed Ould Hamma, was apprehended in connection with at least two kidnappings later claimed by AQIM. During his interrogation, Hamma insisted that he was not a member of AQIM but that he had transferred the hostages to the group for money. Additionally, the chamber of commerce president in Kidal region has expressed concern that young Tuaregs may regard kidnapping Westerners and handing them over to AQIM as a lucrative business.

It is important to note that the Tuaregs' interaction with AQIM is likely based more on economic interests, not ideological similarities. This is evidenced by the role of Tuareg mercenaries in the Libyan civil war. An unnamed security source told AFP that some 800 Tuaregs fought alongside Gadhafi's forces in that conflict, but they reportedly stopped fighting before the Gadhafi regime fell when it became clear that the payments would soon stop. 

In less than a century the entire way of life of the Tuaregs has been indelibly altered. The strategies that they have taken to adjust to this new reality — smuggling illicit goods, trading with an al Qaeda franchise group, fighting regional governments to secure patronage and working as guns for hire — have captured the attention of Western security agencies. With the Libyan conflict over, there has been an influx in Niger and Mali of trained fighters who know the terrain, have smuggling expertise and have connections to AQIM. The West will be closely watching the purported links between the Tuaregs and AQIM.

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