Tuareg rebels survey a battlefield in northern Niger. With the war in Libya, government officials in neighboring countries worry that weapons could spread throughout the Sahara. Image by Brent Stirton.

As world attention drifts from the Libyan civil war, two of the embattled nation’s neighbors, Mali and Niger, are facing difficult questions about what the future holds when—and if—the besieged regime of Muammar Qaddafi finally falls.

The conflict has displaced more than a million people, according to the United Nations. Most are immigrants from across northern Africa who had come seeking work in oil-rich Libya. Officials in Niger and Mali have noted that their countries—already near the bottom of the UN development rankings—face double crises: the pressure caused by the flood of émigrés returning home after having lost their livelihoods, combined with the loss of revenues those workers had been sending back to their families and communities.

Malian and Niger officials, however, see other forbidding threats to their security looming on the horizon. In the near term, they worry that, in the chaos of the conflict, Libyan weapons are leaking out of the country and are being dispersing throughout the region. Flush with ransom money from kidnapping foreigners, the terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is thought to be among potential buyers. In June the Niger army reported the capture of a truck laden with weapons and explosives en route to the vast desert of northern Mali where AQIM maintains several bases.

Beyond the loose weapons lies a more potent issue: If Qaddafi falls, what happens to the Tuaregs serving in his military? For decades the Libyan leader has recruited Tuaregs, legendary Saharan fighters, from across the region to join special brigades in his military, promising them houses, cars, and better lives for their families. By some estimates there are as many as 10,000 Tuareg men, mostly from Mali and Niger, serving in the Libyan armed forces. A small number are believed to have gone over to the rebel side, but Tuaregs who have served in the Libyan brigades say that many of their kinsmen have remained loyal to Qaddafi, who allowed them to build much more comfortable lives than they could expect in their native countries.

If Qaddafi is deposed, however, those fighters are not likely to remain in Libya, where many Libyans regard them as foreign mercenaries. If they return to Mali and Niger—both still recovering from recently settled Tuareg rebellions—these men will arrive with years of military training to find a much lower standard of living, few available jobs, and limited progress on the issues that have incited Tuareg insurrections for years. And then, officials wonder, what happens next?

Project

In the heart of the Sahara Desert and amidst of some of the world’s biggest uranium reserves, terrorists, smugglers and bandits threaten to seize control of northern parts of Mali and Niger.

Recently

September 17, 2014 /
Peter Gwin, Jon Sawyer
National Geographic Live takes in-depth look at reporting by Pulitzer Center-supported journalists.
January 23, 2013 / National Geographic
Peter Gwin
Peter Gwin has spent months traveling throughout Mali and its neighboring countries since 2005. He explains how history and geography helped create the current crisis.