A large Libyan military convoy of dozens of vehicles crossed the southern border into Niger Tuesday, Sept. 6, escorted by hundreds of well-armed Touareg tribal fighters. It started a fresh round of rumors about the whereabouts of the deposed Libyan ruler.
The convoy reportedly carried high-placed loyalists from Muammar Qaddafi's camp, including Gen. Mansour Daw, head of the Revolutionary Guard with responsibility for the security of Qaddafi and his family.
The next day, Sept. 7, Qaddafi mocked those rumors by declaring in a phone call to a Syrian television station that he was still in Libya. He acted surprised at the interest in this convoy, saying, “How many times do convoys transporting smugglers, traders and people cross the border every day for Sudan, Chad, Mali and Algeria? As if this was the first time a convoy was headed towards Niger.”
He promised more convoys would be crossing Libyan borders into African countries.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources say that Qaddafi was clearly aware of the three problems preying on the efforts of NATO and the Libyan rebels to extend their rule outside Tripoli, the capital, and Benghazi, the rebel center, for as long as Qaddafi and his sons are alive and at large.
Outside Tripoli and Benghazi, Qaddafi has free rein
1. In his phone call Wednesday, Qaddafi sarcastically highlighted the implications of his ability to send more than a hundred trucks in convoy, accompanied by a large number of guards, drivers, technicians and passengers, along 900 kilometers of Libyan highways all the way to the Niger border without interference. Their journey called for precise planning and logistics, if only to keep the vehicles fueled all the way.
This was Qaddafi's way of demonstrating that he and his sons, though driven out of Tripoli, still command military resources and terrain in extensive regions of the country.
2. The presence in the convoy of Gen. Mansour Daw, the Qaddafi clan's head of security would, if confirmed, offer some answers to the two-week mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Qaddafi's top political, military and intelligence officials after they vanished ahead of the NATO-led rebel capture of Tripoli on August 21.
Aside from two or three defectors to the rebel side, most of the regime heads followed Qaddafi into hiding.
Our military sources note that 7,000-9,000 members of the army brigades commanded by Qaddafi's sons have also vanished without a trace – especially Moatassem-Billah Qaddafi's outfit.
Wednesday, Sept. 7, debkafile’s intelligence sources reported in an exclusive scoop that Muammar Qaddafi and his sons, along with several thousand fighters, had gone to ground at the Targan oasis in the Sahara desert, several hundred kilometers southwest of the Libyan oasis city of Jiffra, which lies 1,500 kilometers from Tripoli.
This information was still true Thursday.
Qaddafi wins over the Tuareg tribes as a valuable tactical asset
By demonstrating Qaddafi's freedom of movement across Libya, the convoy to Niger indicates that his loyal officials and troops have resumed operations from scattered hiding places. Finding them in a country of 679,358 square miles is an impossible mission especially when they are sheltered by hundreds of Libyan tribes and sub-tribes.
3. The fact that Tuareq tribal fighters guarded the convoy to Niger presents NATO and Libyan rebels with a formidable problem. Qaddafi was obviously able to buy the allegiance and services of this mysterious people quite early on in the rebellion, thereby gaining two important tactical advantages over NATO and the rebels.
In the first place, this nomadic Berber tribe – whose numbers can only be estimated as 2.5-3 million – roam freely through the Sahara between the five African countries bordering on Libya.
Their territory covers southwestern Libya, all of eastern Algeria, eastern Mali, where they command more than half of the country, western Niger and northern Burkina Faso.
No army in any of these countries has ever been able to control or influence the Tuareg. These tribesmen guard their independence fiercely and take pride in their prowess as warriors, boasting the attributes of the finest special operations combatants in the world of desert warfare.
They subsist on a handful of dates a day while covering 60 miles
At an earlier stage of their history, as Berbers in the Atlas Mountains, the Tuaregs practiced Animism. After the Arab conquest of North Africa, they integrated Islamic elements into their indigenous creed.
(Animism holds there is no separation between the spiritual and physical worlds, and souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in all other animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, and geographic features such as mountains and rivers.)
A Tuareg fighter can subsist for 24 hours on 100 grams of dried dates and a half-liter of water while covering 60 miles a day on foot. He doesn't need to carry water because he is familiar with every deeply hidden water source in the Sahara.
With the Touareg on their side, Qaddafi and his top supporters have gained the freedom to move around vast territories in five African states.
In the second place, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counterterrorism sources report that six years ago, in late 2005, Western intelligence, especially the American CIA and British MI6, tried to establish ties with the Tuaregs, but failed.
This attempt happened right after the Al Qaida suicide attacks on the London transit system in July 2005, in which 53 people were killed and more than 700 injured.
That was when Western undercover agencies learned that Al Qaida had planted its Zone No. 9 among the Tuareg tribes as a logistical base from which to smuggle explosives into Europe
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 214 of July 15, 2005: Al Qaida’s Zone 9: The Blue-Faced Men of the Sahara).
Since then, the Tuareg have spurned every Western effort to cultivate them – most recently by the US Africa Command-AFRICOM.
The Libyan War has made the entire region into a powder keg
Through the operational relationship he established with the skittish Tuareg, Qaddafi has gained a strategic advantage over NATO and the rebels. His forces are not only enabled to pounce on his enemies without warning, but he also has easy access to hidden arms caches.
Wednesday, Sept. 7, the Niger foreign minister, Mahomed Bazoum, said glumly that the entire region had become a powder keg as a result of the Libyan conflict and its feet were set on the path to war. Too many stolen weapons are in circulation and Al Qaeda's influence is on the rise.
NATO and the rebels have major woes to overcome before they are free to grapple with the countless tribes of western, southern and central Libya who deny them access to their lands. Because they are all loaded with weapons which Qaddafi's forces left behind, NATO and the rebel administration have only two options for gaining control of the country outside Tripoli and Benghazi:
One is to divert the country’s multiple armed groups into a new conflict against the last chain of Qaddafi garrisons running from Sirte on the coast to Sabha and up to the Niger and Chad borders in the south. That way, the pro- and anti-Qaddafi forces would kill each other off and use up the mountains of ammo left by the war.
The other option would be to start laying out good cash for buying off one tribal chief after another.
However, neither America, Britain, France nor any other NATO country are exactly awash with surplus funds or the time to spare for pursuing this lengthy and agonizing process.