AGADEZ, Niger — Stragglers on the march to modernity, swords at their sides, the nomadic Tuareg of West Africa, long a footnote in world affairs, may be about to take a more central role in counter-terrorism policy, thanks to the ouster of Libya's former leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Where the Tuareg once manned camel convoys of salt and slaves across the Sahara desert, today they're surfacing as shadowy agents in a global game of drugs and terrorism, in a corner of the world that's suffering from the aftershocks of the war in Libya.
"Without Gadhafi, we wouldn't have any of this," proclaimed Aha Issufa, a Tuareg businessman, as he drove through Agadez, a sandy outpost in Niger, which borders Libya to the south. He pointed out streetlights, paved roads, the town's luxury hotel, an international airport — all financed by Gadhafi, he said, because the Niger government refused to.
Having backed Gadhafi in power, the Tuareg now are paying the penalty, fleeing Libya by the tens of thousands to places such as this, areas with little government control and few jobs outside of illicit drug trafficking that terrorism experts link to an al Qaida offshoot.
What happens next with these indigo-clad desert nomads — who say they're misunderstood victims of political and economic neglect — could have implications that stretch far beyond their parched lands.
The fact that the U.S. no longer trusts the Tuareg is evidenced by its decision to pull its Peace Corps program not only from all of Niger, but also from northern Burkina Faso, an area populated by Tuareg that's yet to be hit with a terrorist act.
Although their population of 1.5 million to 3 million spans five countries — Libya, Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso — the Tuareg are barely represented in any of those countries' capitals. They're often denounced by their own governments as rebels, bandits or worse.
Libya's National Transitional Council even has accused them off possibly protecting Gadhafi somewhere in southwest Libya near the border with Algeria.
To many Tuareg, Gadhafi was the closest thing they had to a friend in a region whose leaders are suspicious of the desert people's fiercely independent and sometimes violent ways.
When Issufa, a jolly middle-aged man with a sprawling compound and modern home on the edge of Agadez, joined the Tuareg rebels' leadership as a financier in 2007 — that's when the Tuareg launched their second armed revolt in 20 years — the move was done in protest of his people's marginalization in society, he said.
Niger is poor and landlocked, and its one major export, uranium, comes from a mine in Tuareg territory, yet hardly any of that revenue finds its way back to their arid lands.
Into that void stepped Gadhafi, in typical grand fashion. He visited Tuareg lands, tossed about his petrodollars, supported the rebels and mediated 2009 peace deals in Niger and Mali.
To some, it was mere opportunism. "I still remember when Gadhafi was a pan-Arabist and banned Tamashek," the Tuareg's Berber dialect, said Mohammed Anako, the highest elected official in Niger's northern Agadez region and a rebel leader in the 1990s. Gadhafi "used" the Tuareg for his own purposes, Anako said.
But here among most common people, there's a strong sense of loyalty to the fallen Libyan icon and anger at the NATO intervention, perceived popularly as an act of Western petro-hunting aggression.