What are mercenaries doing in Libya and what is their connection to Moammar Gadhafi?
Given the near media blackout in cities like Tripoli, reports are hard to confirm, but eyewitnesses say they have seen black, French-speaking mercenaries reportedly from countries as diverse as Chad, Niger, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Suhaib Salem / Reuters
Suspected African mercenaries held by anti-government protesters stand in a room at a courthouse in Benghazi on Friday.
Ali Al-Essawi, the former Libyan ambassador to India who resigned in protest over the reported violence, told Al Jazeera English about reports he heard about the use of mercenaries. “They are black Africans and they don't speak Arabic. They are foreigners, doing terrible things. They are going to houses where there are children and women and killing them.” Al-Essawi spoke to Al Jazeera in New Delhi and said he could not possibly return to Libya at the moment, out of fears for his safety.
Jose Luis Gomez del Prado, chairman of the U.N. Working Group on the use of mercenaries, said he has received reports from both journalists and non-governmental organizations in Libya that “mercenaries – foreign private forces – have been recruited by Col. Gadhafi to repress the peaceful demonstrations of the people in Libya.”
But how does one go about employing a small army of mercenaries?
Given Gadhafi’s 40-year rule of Libya and his history of pan-Africanism, he has longstanding relationships with the continent’s leaders, rebels, and would likely have ready access to a deep pool of would-be mercenaries.
Listening to his recent ramblings on state radio about how al-Qaida was spiking teenagers’ Nescafe, it’s hard to remember that at one time Gadhafi won acclaim in the region for his efforts toward closer co-operation between the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa. For several years, he proposed a “United States of Africa” (which would have conveniently shared the U.S.A. abbreviation with the United States).
His idea was for a continent-wide government with a single currency, a single passport for Africans that would allow them to move around more freely, and even a single military, an African Legion, based on the idea of the French Foreign Legion. The idea never took off, but given his nation’s oil wealth, he remained highly influential.
“You have to understand something: Gadhafi is the only Arabic leader who had an African policy. So he spent over 30 years getting involved in African affairs, being in touch with all the African governments and all the Africa rebels,” said Thierry Vircoulon, Central African project director for the International Crisis Group based in Nairobi.
Vircoulon explained Gadhafi long history of supporting of foreign militaries. “The Libyan regime used to be a training area for a lot of rebel groups in the Sahel region,” referring to the geographic region in North Africa.
“He has got a huge network of contacts across the continent…so that’s the reason why you have all these people who were actually very used to flying to Libya to get a bit of money and [go] back to their country. Even Nelson Mandela flew to Libya to get money in 1994.”
Vircoulon said that the idea of mercenaries from Chad, Mali, Niger would seem, “geographically and politically normal and explainable.” But he called the idea of Congolese mercenaries in Libya “far-fetched.”
Patrick Kovarik / AFP - Getty Images
Click on the photo above to see a slideshow of the life and times of Libya's mercurial and flamboyant leader Moammar Gadhafi.
“Congolese are not known to be very efficient soldiers or fighters. I’m not even sure there is such a thing as Congolese mercenaries on the market.”
Big market for mercenaries
Del Prado, from the U.N. committee on mercenaries, explained that the world market for “guns for hire” is robust – particularly given the privatization of warfare.
“You have plenty of ex-combatants…former military, former paramilitaries, former employees of private military and security companies that are unemployed, and ready to go anywhere,” del Prado explained. “You have a lot of people who are ready to go and fight for money.”
Del Prado noted that mercenaries are easy to come by via shady, fictitious companies on the Internet. But Vircoulon did not think that Gadhafi would have to rely on outside companies to hire the foreign fighters.
“I think it’s all the contacts that he had and that his security services had with those African rebel groups. That’s enough actually,” said Vircoulon, adding, “it shows clearly the very deep link between the Libyan government and indeed the rest of Africa.”
Del Prado noted that South Africans are a big contingent of the mercenary market. “After the apartheid regime finished, they dumped to the market many foreign military and policemen – and they are still there. They are still fighting in different private security companies in Iraq, or everywhere.”
While South Africans mercenaries had not been mentioned among the litany of foreign fighters in Libya, Vircoulon doubted they would be there given Gadhafi’s past support of the anti-apartheid movement.
“It would be very weird that a Muslim leader like him would link up with some white Christian South African mercenaries,” said Vircoulon. “It doesn’t seem very natural. The other African people seem very natural. But some white, former South African Special Forces in Libya? Well it seems unlikely.”
Of course, the fear of foreign mercenaries in any conflict situation is that they would be extremely harsh and show no mercy toward civilians. They would also be less likely to hesitate shooting on people with whom they share no cultural or tribal affiliation.
“It’s creepy,” said John Campbell, the Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies. “If you talk about using mercenaries, at least I tend to assume, that they are going to show less restraint firing on people than say the Egyptian forces did with respect to Egyptians.”
Del Prado said that one of main problems with mercenaries is the fact that there is “no accountability,” their only goal is profit. He speculated that Gadhafi is probably down to a core group of foreign fighters defending him.
“There are some army forces who have just abandoned Gadhafi because it is very hard to kill your brothers,” said del Prado. “Whereas if you are a foreigner and you have been recruited as a private soldier, you don’t have anything to lose. Except if Gadhafi doesn’t win, you will lose your job and your money.”