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.
According to Anako, Gadhafi recruited more 12,000 Tuareg into his military over the years. For tens of thousands more, Gadhafi's Libya was a land of opportunity, a booming getaway from their own communities stagnating in poverty and political malaise.
Modernity hasn't been kind to these desert wanderers. European colonialists drew borders across their traditional lands, and few have the documents required now to traverse those boundaries legally or the willingness to pay the customs fees obstructing their trade routes, which once bridged Africa's Arab north with the black subcontinent.
Some Tuareg have adapted to a more settled village life. Others have turned their backs on the law, which in the desert can seem little more than a distant abstraction. Restless youth learn quickly how to slip across porous borders. Some are simply hunting for work. For others, freebooters of the sand, the turn to illicit activity is too lucrative pass up.
What pays today is no longer the trailing camel caravans of old, but a different sort of trade. Whipping heavily armed Toyotas through invisible desert paths, Tuareg networks now traffic Latin America's cocaine, Morocco's marijuana, the region's arms and West Africa's Europe-bound migrants across the Sahara.
"Criminality is a cultural way of life for the Tuareg," said Col. Maj. Garba Maikido, the appointed military governor for the Agadez region, a non-Tuareg, in an example of an official mindset that angers Tuareg leaders. "Their mentality needs to change."
What the Tuareg will do now is an open question. An estimated 200,000 have returned to Niger and a similar number have gone to Mali, according to government estimates.
"It will be catastrophic economically," said Serge Hilpron, the director of Radio Nomade, a private radio station in Agadez that broadcasts in Tamashek as well as French, Hausa and Arabic.
Fatima, a 34-year-old mother of four who moved to Libya at the age of 12, led her family back on a six-day journey across the Sahara to Agadez in a convoy of 100 cars filled with other returnees.
"In Libya, Tuareg could get everything for free: water, electricity, school, health care," she reminisced while fluffing couscous under a canvas shade held up by wooden poles in the front yard of an Agadez mud home.
"Now we don't know what to do. If the government doesn't help us, things are going to get worse fast. There are many of us," she said. She declined to give her last name out of concern for her security.
Niger's government has appealed for international help, fearing an influx of Libyan weapons, such as Gadhafi's cache of surface-to-air missiles, and a humanitarian crisis. Authorities are also quick to point out that the regional instability could have repercussions outside its own small backyard of the world.
Al Qaida's North Africa offshoot, known as al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb — Maghreb means "west" in Arabic — has moved south of its origins in southern Algeria into Mauritania, northern Mali and northern Niger.
Officials say there are close links between the Tuareg smugglers and the al Qaida group, which derives its Islamist support mainly from the Arabized groups of North Africa. Both groups profit from the collusion, and Tuareg admit that their bandits have kidnapped Westerners and sold them to al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb as hostages.
The kidnappings have halted a brief economic surge from foreign tourism. Some fear that the flood of youth, the destabilization of Libya and anger against the West could give al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb an opportunity to make more inroads south into Mali and Niger and east into Libya.
Regardless, the expected influx of weapons and likely entry of some Tuareg returnees into the smuggling activities probably will prove a short-term boon for the al Qaida offshoot, which sent fighters to Iraq and Afghanistan but has yet to prove capable of striking on its own beyond its base.
There are also fears of another Tuareg rebellion or even a protracted Gadhafi-led insurgency in Libya that sucks in the wider region.
"As long as he is alive, people will fight for him," warned Aghaly ag Alambo, who led the Niger Movement for Justice, a rebel group, in 2007.
After the 2009 peace deal, Alambo moved to Tripoli at Gadhafi's invitation. He returned to Niger in early September in a convoy that also carried Abdullah Mansour Dhao, Gadhafi's personal security chief, and other senior Libyan officials.
"From what I'm hearing, the guy is determined to die in Libya," Alambo said of Gadhafi. "He had the opportunity and means to flee, and he did not."
Even if Gadhafi is captured or killed, one idea of his that could live on is the creation of a Tuareg state carved out of the Sahara.
For those disenchanted youth, many armed, streaming back to countries to which they have little connection, Tuareg nationalism could prove a powerful rallying cry and a unifying cause.
"That Tuareg state won't happen, but just the idea of it could make a big mess in the region," said Anako, the Tuareg politician and former rebel.
Alambo, who wore frameless spectacles and a white turban when he was interviewed at his home in Niger's capital, Niamey, warned that al Qaida and criminal elements are strengthening from the instability. "It's not hard to see what is happening," he said.
"Nothing has changed," he said, since the 2009 peace deal, which he characterized as "nothing but empty promises."
He advised the Niger government to quickly find a way to secure the nation's borders and offer social programs to occupy the youth.
And what if Niger's poor and nascent administration, still struggling to right itself after a February 2010 pro-democracy coup, fails to meet its returning citizens' demands?
"At that point, the seed the West has planted will grow," the former rebel leader replied with an amused look of I-told-you-so.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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