Suicide attacks on a French-run mine and a military base in northern Niger have shown how an Islamist threat is spreading across the weak nations of the Sahara, meaning France may be tied down there for years to come.
Regional rivalries are aggravating the problem for Paris and its Western allies, with a lack of cooperation between Saharan countries helping militants to melt away when they come under pressure and regroup in quieter parts of the vast desert.
Security officials say lawless southern Libya has become the latest haven for al-Qaeda-linked fighters after French-led forces drove them from strongholds in northern Mali this year, killing hundreds.
“The south of Libya is what the north of Mali was like before,” said a senior adviser to interim Malian President Diouncounda Traore, asking not to be named.
Niger has said that the suicide raids two weeks ago that killed 25 people at the army base and desert uranium mine run by France’s Areva were launched from Libya. Amid growing tensions between the two countries, Libya has denied this.
Chad, which played a leading role in the Mali campaign, said a man was shot dead in an attack on its consulate in the Libyan desert town of Sabha last weekend. Smugglers have long used Libya’s poorly patrolled south — a crossroads of routes to Chad, Niger and Algeria — for trafficking drugs, contraband cigarettes and people to Europe.
However, the overthrow of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 flooded the Sahara with pillaged weapons and ammunition. Tuareg separatists used them to seize power in northern Mali, only to be ousted by even better-armed Islamists who set up training camps and imposed harsh Islamic law until the French forces arrived.
The Islamists have also exploited Libya’s weakness. Veteran al-Qaeda commander Moktar Belmokhtar bought weapons there after Qaddafi’s fall and his fighters passed through southern Libya to carry out a mass hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in January in which 37 foreigners died.
A spokesman for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), a militant group that controlled parts of Mali last year, told Mauritania’s al-Akhbar news site that the Niger attack was not prepared in southern Libya. However, Belmokhtar’s group said it also took part.
With no effective national army, Libya relies on local brigades to police its southern border region where at least 100 people died in ethnic violence last year. Tripoli’s failure to restore security there may be encouraging permanent Islamist camps and weapons stores, security officials say.
France, which relies on neighboring Niger for one-fifth of the uranium powering its nuclear reactors, has urged regional powers to cooperate to tackle the threat from Libya.
“We’re extremely concerned that what’s happening in southern Libya could replicate what happened in Mali,” a French diplomatic source said, adding that French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian had raised the issue on a recent visit to Washington and London. “Dealing with that problem needs to be fast-tracked.”
Paris is keen to cut its troop numbers in the region, but, amid persistent bickering and mistrust among regional powers, French President Francois Hollande admitted recently that French forces may have be used elsewhere in the Sahel.
Alarmed European governments also approved a 110-man mission last week to improve border security by training Libyan police and security forces. Yet Paris feels this is being deployed too slowly, given the urgency of the situation.