NORTH AFRICA - Since the first shots were fired in the armed rebellion against Muammar Gadhafi, opposition groups have accused the Libyan strongman of hiring black African mercenaries. These accusations led to public anger in rebel-held cities and brutal attacks by local Arabs against common laborers from sub-Saharan Africa, forcing many to hide indoors rather than risk walking to the borders.
The mysterious dark-complexioned soldiers are with a secret commando unit trained under a Pentagon anti-terrorism project in Libya. Though their nationalities vary, the majority of these desert warriors are Tuaregs from the deep Sahara, including parts of Algeria, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Libya. These nomadic tribesmen, better known as the "blue men," are familiar figures on adventure programs from Discovery Channel and National Geographic, guiding camel caravans or herding sheep through the dunes and stony wastelands. In recent years, they have become the frontline fighters against the fugitive Osama bin Laden and the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
At remote gunnery ranges outside of Sabha, a military town in the southwestern Fezzan region, the Tuareg commandos receive training from American special-forces instructors in automatic-weapons-handling, sniper marksmanship and communications. These masters of desert survival need no outside training in tracking and outmaneuvering the AQIM, who in the Sahara region are called the Salafists. The counter-terrorism cooperation between the U.S. and Libya, two countries with a history of rocky relations, is kept out of media view. Neither is this joint project ever mentioned in the U. S. Africa Command's Trans-Sahara Terrorism Program, which openly includes every other country of the vast arid region.
Though the Libyan Tuaregs' clandestine mission is kept under wraps by the Pentagon, a similar taste of desert warfare can be gained (courtesy of WikiLeaks) from December 2009 diplomatic cables out of the U.S. Embassy in Bamako, Mali, describing a Timbuktu boot camp run by U.S. Army trainers from Fort Carson, Colorado. "The (Malian) colonel called over one rather unimpressive soldier, an older rail-thin man with a scraggly beard and bloodshot eyes who had been lounging against a motorbike, explaining that in spite of appearances this was one of his best men and noting that he had been one of the few survivors of a July 4 ambush of a Malian Army patrol by AQIM. The soldier said the Salafists would never confront the Army head-on, and if the Army engaged, they would flee, but if there is not proper security, they will creep back and murder you in the most cruel, unimaginable ways."
The oldest veterans among the clandestine Libyan unit are re-enlistees from a long-since disbanded unit called the Islamic Pan-African Legion, which fought major battles against French forces in Chad during the 1980s. How these Tuareg fighters were regrouped and bolstered by younger tribesmen goes back to the beginnings of the Afghan War, immediately after the 9/11 attacks.
Bin Laden's Escape from Tora Bora
Early in the Afghan campaign, Al Qaeda chieftain Osama bin Laden took shelter from U.S. bombing raids inside a warren of caves dug into the mountains of Tora Bora, near the Afghan-Pakistan border. As American ground troops tightened the noose, militant commanders decided that their "emir" and his family should leave the battlefield to ensure the spread of the global jihad against infidels and Muslim hypocrites.
A members of the Taliban inner circle told me—inside a borderland tribal area that autumn, just days after the daring escape—Bin Laden's party of 26 aides and family members retreated to "south of Afghanistan," where they were picked up by a jet owned by a longtime business friend. The irony, as the militants put it, was that the airplane was provided by one of Bin Laden's closest business partners, who happened to be Jewish.
"In the world as it really is, not as people believe it to be, business is business and politics is a lesser matter. War, elections, disputes— these last only for a short time, but business is for the rest of your life. A mature businessman knows the difference regardless of his own political beliefs," said a Taliban elder with an aura of gravity.
"So where did he go?" I asked casually, so as not to show any of the eagerness of rookie journalists and war hounds.
"To Africa, to the Sahara."
Rebooting the War for Blood Diamonds
Over several months in the United Arab Emirates, I traced Bin Laden's rescue plane to a Russian arms dealer depicted as the fictional "Yuri Orlov" in the Nicholas Cage movie "Lord of War." Now in federal custody after his extradition from Thailand last year, Victor Bout fit the description to a tee: a Bukharan Jew born in Tajikistan, he was also the owner of Ariana Airlines, the national Afghan carrier under Taliban rule.
The Russian smuggler had earlier teamed up with Bin Laden's Sunni fighters—along with Israeli intelligence agents—to wrestle away the blood diamond trade from Lebanese Shiite merchants in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso. The Israelis allied with the Sunni radicals because their secret service "could not tolerate the fact that Jewish diamond merchants in Antwerp were financing suicide bombings in Gaza," an Afghan middleman for the Taliban in the gem trade told me.
The escape plane landed in Sharjah, U.A.E, where Bin Laden parted company with his family and took a second flight with his aides to an undisclosed point in East Africa—most likely Mogadishu, Somalia. From there, with the assistance of lieutenants from the blood diamond wars, his party crossed into the Sahel, the semi-arid borderlands of the Sahara, where he vanished from sight.
My 2002 article, "Bin Laden Escaped to Africa," was published in the Hong Kong-based newsmagazine Yazhou Zhoukan to a skeptical readership. It took several years for the Pentagon to catch up, after the Defense Intelligence Agency came to recognize the accuracy of the details —an eternity when considering the priority put on capturing America's most-wanted "dead or alive."
By 2006, when the Pentagon drew up plans for a new Africa Command (AFRICOM), Bin Laden's team was running a recruitment program and setting up bases across the Sahara, a region nearly as large as the United States, adding onto that a third more space in the Sahel, plus the Horn of Africa as their backyard. The Salafists had by then formed a network of alliances with regional drug-smuggling rings, which were moving Colombian contraband into Europe.
By the time AFRICOM, under its first commander General William "Kip" Ward, opened its headquarters in Morocco in 2008 and got American boots onto the sand, the militants were demanding ransoms for Western hostages and infiltrating dozens of cells into urban centers across Northern Africa, including major cities in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.
Blue Men and Their Strong Women
The only staunch force that stood between the religious extremists and their goal was the Tuareg, the men in indigo blue robes, but at the time they were waging their own rebellions in Mali and Niger. Gadhafi had to personally intervene to urge the Tuareg to end their guerrilla war. The Libyan leader had earned the respect of the Tuareg in the 1980s by designating their ethnic status as Arabs instead of second-class Berbers. Jobless Tuareg fighters from Mali and Niger eagerly joined the new American-trained Libyan unit headquartered at Sabha's Fort Elena, built during the Italian colonial era (when it was called Fortezza Margherita). The oasis town was a hospitable place for these desert dwellers, having served as a caravanserai for many centuries.
The traditional friction between the blue men and the Salafists is based on religion, culture, ecology and race. In contrast to the purist orthodox believers, with their veneration of patriarchy and fundamentalism, the Tuareg retain much of their ancient matriarchal culture. By Tuareg tradition, only women—not men—are allowed to read and write; and men —not women—are required to wear a veil. Their version of Islam is intermixed with pre-conversion shamanism.
The only trait that dark-complexioned Tuareg share in common with the light-skinned Salafists is the glorification of combat, making the two sides as natural of enemies as venomous adders and sharp-clawed falcons.
Their cultural differences proved to be a serious impediment to discipline in the Pentagon's earlier covert demolition-training program in Libya during the late 1970s and early 1980s, run by "rogue" CIA agent Edwin Wilson and his band of Green Berets. The boot camp was located in Benghazi, which like the rest of eastern Libya, is a stronghold of the orthodox Sanusi sect affiliated with the Salafi movement on the Saudi Peninsula. In the Libyan attack on Chad, the combination of Arab officers and Tuareg infantrymen proved disastrous. Washington's covert campaign to roll back France's expansionism in Africa was routed, as explained to me by a veteran of the French Foreign Legion, due to the order from Paris to send in elite paratroopers disguised as Chadians.
The very existence of a new Tuareg brigade came into the spotlight when dozens were killed or captured by the Al Qaeda–linked Islamic Fighting Group rebels in Libya's east. Inside the labyrinths of coastal cities, these desert warriors are at a tactical disadvantage against battle-hardened infiltrators from Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Gaza and as far away as Iraq and Afghanistan. Western diplomats watch in horror and confusion at the reported atrocities committed by "black mercenaries," forgetting as if in a haze of hashish smoke that their own forces are waging merciless combat against Al Qaeda in Iraq, Afghanistan and New York City.
Between the Mediterranean and the Sahara, what the falcon seizes at dawn is retaken by the adder before dusk. For villains or heroes, however one chooses to define them, victory and glory are yet to be decided.