AGADEZ, Niger — On the southern edge of the Sahara desert, 600 miles from the Libyan border, residents of this dusty town are worrying that they're about to become another wartime lesson in the law of unintended consequences.
Truckloads of soldiers and workers from Libya are flooding into this town, a hub of the often-rebellious, semi-nomadic Tuareg ethnic group, many of whose leaders found shelter in Moammar Gadhafi's army and now are returning home. Weaponry is on the loose, and loyalties are uncertain.
Authorities and residents fear that the sea of heavy arms, combined with the swarm of for-hire youth and the likelihood of an unstable Libya next door, will prove a major boon for the region's terrorist and criminal networks, which operate across the porous Saharan borders of Niger, Mali, Algeria and Libya.
Such a turn of events would be a major setback for the regional interests of the United States and Europe, whose intervention in Libya helped drive Gadhafi from power. The shadowy al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Saharan drug smugglers are considered among the top threats to the West on the continent.
"We are sure that they are hiding weapons in the northern deserts," said police commissioner Baika Boudjamaha, who heads Niger's anti-drug efforts, referring to the tens of thousands of people who are pouring into Niger from Libya.
"These people will have to live somehow. They will want to sell their weapons," he said. "Al Qaida is the best buyer."
Even hundreds of miles from Libya, Gadhafi's larger-than-life presidency at times felt more real here than this country's own government, a full day's bumpy bus ride away in the capital, Niamey. Residents talk of the ousted Libyan leader's visits to Agadez, where he's credited with renovating the airport, building a mosque, starting a bank and paving roads.
Libya's oil economy, and Gadhafi's open arms, drew tens of thousands of Nigeriens to Libya looking for steady work.
Now they're returning in droves.
Jibril, who declined to give his full name because he was worried about his safety, was just 7 years old when his family took him to the southern Libyan city of Sabha, which is still a Gadhafi stronghold. He became a truck driver, and he said that he and other migrants were treated well by the Libyan authorities.
He fled Libya a month ago with roughly 1,000 others in the backs of heavy trucks, crossing the Sahara to Agadez. He said life in Sabha, now under siege by Libyan revolutionary forces, had become too difficult after the town lost water and electricity.
"I am looking for a job, but there is nothing here," said the 26-year-old, draped in the loose, blue traditional garment of the nomadic Tuaregs. "This economy is too small for so many people to come back. It won't be good."
Jibril said he had many Nigerien friends who fought in the war, most of them for Gadhafi, but some on the side of the National Transitional Council, the Western-backed rebel council that's now the closest thing Libya has to a government.
Gadhafi's close ties with Tuareg rebel groups in Niger and Mali led several former prominent rebels to move to Libya as commanders in his army after peace deals in their own countries. Several of these former leaders have since returned home, and officials doubt that they returned empty-handed.
The Nigerien government estimates that more than 210,000 have fled into Niger because of the Libyan conflict, although the real number could be much lower. Last Friday, Niger appealed to the international community for aerial surveillance and other support along its northern borders, saying it feared an influx of Libyan weapons.
Over the past decade, the cross-Saharan route from West Africa to Egypt has emerged as a major smuggling route for cocaine from Latin America that's on its way to Europe.
The al Qaida group operates in the same corridor, West Africa's loosely governed belt of desert cutting across several weak states. The two forces — terrorist and criminal — appear to work hand-in-hand, with al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb taxing the lucrative trade and providing it with protection.
The al Qaida group's murky rise, marked by several high-profile European hostage situations, has been especially hard on Agadez, which was a growing tourist destination in the early 2000s, with some European charter companies offering direct flights.
Then in 2007, the Tuareg nomads rebelled in Niger and neighboring Mali over complaints that the governments of those countries hadn't lived up to the terms of earlier peace deals. In Niger, the rebellion shut down the country's lucrative uranium-mining industry in the desert north, much of which became a combat zone under Tuareg control until Gadhafi brokered a peace deal in 2009.
After the rebellion ended, tourism never picked back up amid fears about al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which was blamed for the kidnapping last September of seven French workers at Arlit, a French-built uranium mining town 100 miles north of here; four of them remain hostages, according to the U.S. State Department, which strictly controls its diplomats' travel outside the capital.
The al Qaida group also was blamed for the kidnapping in January of two French citizens in Niamey. They were found dead the next day, after French and Nigerien troops attempted to rescue them.
Agadez is now a dry shell of what officials had hoped would become a booming destination. Vacant tourist hotels and shuttered travel agencies line its streets, and residents seem united in the opinion that the events in Libya are bad news for their remote desert corner, deepening its economic isolation and strewing lawlessness.
"Libya is causing disorder. Terrorists will make everything harder now," predicted one resident, who asked not to be named for fear he'd be singled out for reprisals.
"This al Qaida is the biggest problem facing our country. If they get those weapons ... ," The resident said, letting the sentence dangle unfinished with a nervous chuckle.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.