Libya’s African Mercenaries: History, Politics, and Controversy

As anti-Qadhafi forces in Libya take control of different parts of the country, I think it is more accurate to call the events there a civil war, rather than simply “protests.” One contentious issue in this civil war is Qadhafi’s use of mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa. As the situation in Libya rapidly evolves, determining who the mercenaries are – and who is not a mercenary – has challenged both observers and the anti-Qadhafi forces. It seems clear that there are foreign mercenaries fighting in Libya, but it also appears that some innocent sub-Saharan African migrants have found themselves in danger over false charges. This post gives some background on the situation.

Historically, Qadhafi has long used mercenaries as advisers and soldiers. African poverty has created a substantial pool of potential mercenaries, and it is likely Qadhafi is now using some of these hired guns against his own people.

Foreign mercenaries are likely to be less squeamish about shooting at local people.

“They are likely to better trained – a small unit that can be relied upon. They might also have experience of fighting battles and therefore be more capable if push comes to shove,” [said author Adam Roberts].

The view was echoed by Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch. “It’s hard to get your own people to shoot your own people,” he said. “In this kind of situation, you can see why mercenaries would be an advantage because it’s easier to get foreigners to shoot at Libyans than to get Libyans to shoot at Libyans.”

Some of the foreign fighters in Libya also seem to come from groups that have long-standing political and financial ties to the Colonel. Qadhafi’s sustained and deep involvement in African politics, especially the affairs of neighboring countries like Sudan, Chad, and Niger, has included “funding and training many fighting groups and rebel organizations in West Africa and other places.” Qadhafi’s relationship with Chad is especially intense. These ties not only affected the trajectory of conflicts outside Libya, but also shaped the composition of Libya’s security forces:

Over the years, says [Thierry] Vircoulon [of International Crisis Group], Libya has welcomed many foreign fighters from Chad, Mali, Niger, and elsewhere to naturalize, and Qaddafi has set up special units entirely composed of foreign fighters.

Other rebels, who stand to suffer if Qadhafi falls, have been willing to join the fighting in Libya:

[Peter] Bouckaert [of Human Rights Watch] described the fighters from Chad as men “who were not mercenaries specifically recruited to defend Gadhafi but members of (a Chadian) rebel movement Gadhafi has been funding and training for many years who would lose that support if he fell.”

That gives us at least three categories of foreign fighters in Libya: foreigners who are part of the formal security forces, foreigners who are fighting for Qadhafi for political reasons, and foreigners who are killing Libyans primarily for money. Let’s add two more: those were coerced into fighting, and innocent persons accused of being mercenaries.

Regarding coercion, here is the account of one young Chadian:

“A man at the bus station in Sabha offered me a job and said I would get a free flight to Tripoli,” said Mohammed, a boy of about 16 who said he had arrived looking for work in the southern Libyan town only two weeks ago from Chad, where he had earned a living as a shepherd.

Instead of Tripoli, he was flown to an airport near the scruffy seaside town of Al-Bayda and had a gun thrust into his hands on the plane.

Gaddafi’s commanders told the ragbag army they had rounded up that rebels had taken over the eastern towns. The colonel would reward them if they killed protesters. If they refused, they would be shot themselves. The result was bloody mayhem.

Finally, we have innocent victims. Reports and speculation have indicated that in some cases anti-Qadhafi Libyans have turned on African migrants that did not participate in the fighting at all.

With mercenaries and suspected mercenaries coming from so many different backgrounds, and with chaos in Libya, what will happen to Africans accused of fighting for Qadhafi? Some, currently held in jails by anti-Qadhafi forces, are “nervously await[ing] their fate.” Others will die in battle, of course, or in lynchings. Still others may escape back across the border.

What will not happen to the mercenaries, apparently, is prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

The US insisted that the UN resolution [on Libya] was worded so that no one from an outside country that is not a member of the ICC could be prosecuted for their actions in Libya.

This means that mercenaries from countries such as Algeria, Ethiopia and Tunisia – which have all been named by rebel Libyan diplomats to the UN as being among the countries involved – would escape prosecution even if they were captured, because their nations are not members of the court.

The move was seen as an attempt to prevent a precedent that could see Americans prosecuted by the ICC for alleged crimes in other conflicts.

Toppling the Colonel is obviously the foremost goal for the anti-Qadhafi forces. But the problem of dealing with captured and accused mercenaries is one the rebels will have to solve if they take power – and, given the US’s stance on the issue, one they will have to deal with primarily at the domestic level. The issue of mercenaries will also affect the tone of Libya’s relations with other African countries in the post-Qadhafi era, if indeed that era comes.

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11 thoughts on “Libya’s African Mercenaries: History, Politics, and Controversy

  1. This is an unrelated topic, but seeing that the Horn falls under your area of expertise, the current border conflict between Somaliland militias and those in the SSC region are worth a look. Its an important conflict in the region, especially with regards to Somaliland’s greater secession aspirations.

    • Thanks for the tip. I’ve been following the story in Somaliland from a distance, but I will try to write something on it soon.

  2. Is there any evidence of whether or not this increases opposition to Qaddafi*?

    *For that matter, does anyone have a definite spelling of his name?

    • Hi Gyre, there does seem to be some backlash against the mercenaries themselves, and I suppose that adds to anti-Qadhafi sentiments.

      There is no standard spelling. I have stuck with Qadhafi, but that’s more or less arbitrary. The AP does Gaddafi I believe.

  3. The folowing comment is very wrong”
    it’s easier to get foreigners to shoot at Libyans than to get Libyans to shoot at Libyans.”
    Yes Libyans kills Libyans
    like Iranians kill Iranians.. thet don’t need mecenerias. they are barbarians themselves

    • It’s true that you can get people to shoot at their countrymen, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Although the exact play of events is still not a bit unclear it seems that the Egyptian and Tunisian generals realized that the common soldiers might very well refuse orders to shoot at the protesters*. The Iranian government had to create a special military group primarily for keeping them in power.
      Additionally, if an article over at Foreign Policy magazine is correct Qaddafi deliberately starved the military of funds and training to keep them from getting ambitious.

      *Well, that and Mubarak seriously damaged his influence in the military by trying to install his son as heir.

  4. Pingback: On Libya and “African Mercenaries” « zunguzungu

  5. I find that way you say African poverty not that sensitive? is there a particular kind of poverty called Africa? I think saying poverty in Africa can be wel understood!
    Also can we really call the 16 year old Chadian boy a mercenary? Who is a mercenary. I think the media has not been responsible enough to really tell us the true story of the so called African mercenaries.

    Otherwise great collection!

    • Thanks for stopping by Rosebell, I’m a big fan of your work. I take your point. What I meant was poverty in Chad, Niger, Mali, and Darfur in particular.

      The Chadian boy, I would say, belongs in the category of “fighters who were coerced.”

  6. Pingback: Sahelian Leaders Look to a Post-Qadhafi Libya « Sahel Blog

  7. Pingback: What Fallout for Mali, Niger, and Chad from Libya’s Civil War? | Sahel Blog

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