First the Obamas and now David Cameron have been photographed holding up that ceaselessly tweeted placard saying ‘#BringBackOurGirls’. Now all we need is for Nicolas Sarkozy to come out of retirement and do likewise and then all of the key invaders of Libya in 2011 will have registered their watery-eyed angst with Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based Islamist group that kidnapped 276 girls from a school in Chibok in north-east Nigeria, the ‘our girls’ referred to in that ubiquitous hashtag. Which would be profoundly ironic given that nothing boosted Boko Haram’s fortunes so much as the West’s assault on Libya in 2011. It was that vain bombing war, that Western-led dismantling of a regime that cohered Libya and its border regions for 40-plus years, which created new spaces in West Africa in which Boko Haram could train, get hold of weaponry and, in the words of one Nigerian observer, become more ‘audacious’ than ever. The Western politicians and hacks now expressing heartbreak over Boko Haram’s barbarism are the same ones whose urge to intervene in Libya provided Boko Haram with new forums in which to hone that barbarism.
Reading the media coverage of Boko Haram since the Chibok girls were kidnapped on 15 April, you could be forgiven for thinking that this eccentric and extreme Islamist group exists in a bubble, cut off from the rest of the world, and even from the rest of Africa, in the jungles of Borno State in north-east Nigeria. In truth, Boko Haram has numerous connections with other violent Islamist groups in West Africa, particularly in Mali and Niger. And far from being sealed off from global affairs, Boko Haram has found itself a beneficiary of the terrible fallout from the West’s attack on Libya in 2011. That fallout both created a new warzone, in Mali, in which Nigerian Islamists trained and fought, and it also leaked weapons across the increasingly failed-state territories of West Africa, some of which have ended up in the hands of Boko Haram – allowing it to learn, in the words of one expert, ‘new methods of fighting’.
Among the iPad imperialists who demanded and then cheered the West’s assault on Libya and its ousting of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, there is a palpable reluctance to mention the L-word these days. None of them seems keen to talk about what has happened in Libya itself or in its neighbouring nations over the past three years. In fact, such is the allergy to analysis among these crusaders against evil in Libya that according to friends of David Cameron the PM continues to look upon Libya as his ‘happy place’, the place where, ‘when times are tough and backbenchers uppity’, his mind wanders and he thinks to himself: ‘Well, at last we done good there.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. In Libya itself there is violent turmoil, the country splitting into a patchwork of profoundly opposed tribal territories. And around Libya there is war, the ultimate bloody byproduct of the West’s thoughtless unravelling of the political systems that cohered large swathes of northern Africa for a long period of time.
The greatest victim of the West’s war in Libya has been Mali. It is striking that in 2011, the then government of Mali, alongside the government of Algeria, was implacably opposed to the international bombing campaign against Libya. It argued that such a violent upheaval in a region like north Africa could have potentially catastrophic consequences. The fallout from the bombing is ‘a real source of concern’, said the rulers of Mali in October 2011. In fact, as the BBC reported, they had been arguing since ‘the start of the conflict in Libya’ – that is, since the civil conflict between Benghazi-based militants and Gaddafi began – that ‘the fall of Gaddafi would have a destabilising effect in the region’. Mali’s main concern was that the ethnic Tuareg group, a huge number of whom are based in northern Mali and are hostile to Mali government forces, would be emboldened by the return of Tuareg fighters who had trained with and supported Gaddafi but who could no longer stay in Libya following the coming to power of the post-Gaddafi National Transitional Council. This is precisely what came to pass.
Mali’s troubles started in January 2012, just months after the West’s military assaults and ousting of the Gaddafi regime. As the authors of Libya, the Responsibility to Protect, and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention put it, Mali, previously ‘perceived as the region’s peaceful and democratic exception’, suffered a devastating impact from the ‘spillover’ of the international intervention in Libya, when ‘Malian ethnic Tuareg fighters in [Gaddafi’s] security forces fled home with their weapons and launched a rebellion in their country’s north’ (1). Mali was enveloped in chaos. Later in 2012, Malian officers, frustrated by their losses in the north, carried out a coup against the Malian government. Even worse, the post-Gaddafi instability in the north of Mali acted as a magnet to the region’s Islamist groups. The war in the north was ‘hijacked by Islamists’, as one account puts it, including by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine, and Boko Haram, allowing northern Mali to become a ‘safe haven for radical Islamists’ (2). These forces overthrew the Tuareg militants who had returned from Libya, and they declared large parts of northern Mali a Sharia state. The French military then intervened on the side of the rulers of Mali in the south and launched attacks against the northern Islamists.