The air-strikes against Libya by the U.S., France and Britain were touted to the world community as a humanitarian mission to prevent the Qadhafi regime from massacring pro-democracy protesters. Critics of the aggression packaged as a “no-fly zone” are saying, to the contrary, that the NATO intervention is actually motivated by the West’s aim of taking over the petroleum reserves of the North African nation. This cannot be the case since the major energy companies have been drilling and pumping the Libyan oil fields since before the final settlement of the Lockerbie airline-bombing case in 2008.
Unknown to most of the world, the long-planned campaign against Libya is based on a more fundamental strategic concern. In the language of geopolitics, the term “strategic” is synonymous with nuclear weaponry. The Western powers are now fighting the Second Uranium War against forces loyal to Col Muammar Qadhafi.
At stake in this deadly contest is the near-future strategic balance in North Africa and the Middle East, involving regional power Egypt, uranium-supplier Libya and shipment-handler Tunisia. Since the Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008, the Hosni Mubarak government revived its dormant nuclear-power program with the aim of generating electricity for the energy-starved economy – and provide reprocessed uranium for strategic deterrence to checkmate the Israeli nuclear monopoly.
After Moscow and Beijing signed cooperation agreements with Cairo, the CIA counter-proliferation bureau plotted the downfall of Mubarak and his son Gamal, who was leading the effort to build a string of civilian nuclear plants along the Mediterranean coast. Washington’s covert operations led to the Tahrir Square protests that ousted the Mubarak regime.
Egypt, which has no uranium deposits within its borders, had to rely on Libya as a supplier of semi-processed “yellow cake”, needed to make nuclear fuel rods. Tripoli, however, could not directly export the strategic material because of its post-Lockerbie commitment to end production of all weapons of mass destruction. The obvious middleman for a Magreb-region deal was Ben Ali, president of Tunisia, which has several ports on the Mediterranean.
Col. Qadhafi has access two available sources of uranium – to the south in the Aozou Strip, a former disputed zone in Chad; and to the southwest in Niger, which also shares a border with Libya. In recent years, Tripoli has been on good terms with its southern neighbors after Qadhafi helped both countries with peacemaking overtures to ethnic Tuareg rebels. Chad, once an fierce adversary, has moved steadily closer to Libya due to Tripoli’s support for the Idriss Deby regime in the Darfur conflict with Sudan.
The First U-War:
In 1979, Qadhafi ordered his military forces, spearheaded by a Pan-African Legion comprised mainly of ethnic Tuaregs, to seize the Aozou Strip from then French-dominated Chad. For nearly a decade, Libya mined uranium for export and to develop its own nuclear-energy program.
In that First Uranium War, also known as the Toyota War – for the use of “technicals” or Toyota pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine-guns – the Carter administration provided covert support to Qadhafi to counter French expansionism in Africa. CIA arms dealer Edwin Wilson and a team of Green Berets set up a boot camp in Benghazi to train Libyan special forces in demolition and guerrilla-warfare tactics.
Racial tensions between the light-skinned Benghazi Arab officers and dark-complexioned Tuareg infantrymen proved disastrous to Libyan morale. After the World Court voted in Chad’s favor, elite French paratroopers disguised as Chadians launched a massive counterattack in 1989, firing mortars with pinpoint accuracy to drive Qadhafi’s troops back across the border. This account was told to me by a former sergeant in the French Foreign Legion.
France, the most nuclear-dependent economy in the world, was intent on controlling its own sources of uranium. Political instability in northern Chad, however, subsequently limited French production. The population of the Aozou Strip is predominantly Sanussi, an orthodox Muslim sect, headquartered in the eastern Libyan region of Cyrenaica, which includes Benghazi. The tricolor flag of the Libyan rebels is the royal banner of King Idriss, the head of the Sanussi Order, which collaborated with the Italian colonial authorities before World War II. These advocates of strict observance of Muslim practices, are intolerant of the hybrid beliefs of the Tuareg, whose looser interpretation of Islam preserves indigenous matriarchal customs and animist folk beliefs. Sanussi followers also are the predominant group in the Aozou Strip.
As my Cameroon colleague Vincent Manzie puts it: “Chad and Libya are fighting basically the same war against extremism.” The regional battle against theocracy, which resulted in 200,000 deaths in next-door Algeria in the 1990s, has become increasingly violent since the start of the Afghan War, when Osama bin Laden shifted his “emirate” from Afghanistan to the Saharan region. Al Qaeda in the Magreb (AQIM) bloomed in the desert, thanks to financing and moral support from local Sanussi leaders and allied Salafi elites in the Arabian Peninsula,
The Uranium War has thus become a three-way struggle between the North African bloc, the Western powers, and Islamic extremists backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia,now temporarily allied with NATO.
As British and American negotiators pushed toward a settlement of the Lockerie bombing case, then French President Jacques Chiraq made a preemptive move in 2006 to corner the Libya-Chad uranium supply. A strong promoter of a renewed presence in Francophone Africa, Chiraq signed a tentative agreement for French nuclear supplier Areva to-build a reactor to power a desalination plant on the Libyan coast. His successor Nicolas Sarkozy sealed the deal by going to Tripoli in 2007 and inviting a reciprocal visit by Qadhafi to the Elysee Palace in Paris the next year.
The Franco-Libyan nuclear deal, however, raised alarms in an Israel wary of potential uranium exports to Egypt. French Minister of Industry Christian Estrosi made an unofficial visit to Tel Aviv in 2008 to explain the French position but failed to convince the Israelis. Estrosi continued to pursue trade agreements with Tripoli, including for purchase of Airbus jetliners, until mid-October 2010, apparently unaware of the West’s covert plans to overthrow the Qadhafi regime.
The Obama administration, caving into Israeli demands to halt the French deal, unleashed a joint State Department-CIA covert operation, which led to the Jasmine Revolution, against the nuclear partnership of Tripoli, Cairo and Tunis. Obama took Sarkozy to task at their March 2010 summit in Washington. Through its intensive signals-intercepts program against France, the CIA was undoubtedly aware of the under-the-table payments by Libya to Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign, which were recently disclosed by Qadhafi’s youngest son Saif al-Islam. The involvement of Cabinet ministers in payoffs were leaked to the world media by yet-unnamed sources, at the very start of the March coup against the Qadhafi clan.
France’s economic intelligence sources inside the Libyan regime were then taken over by the CIA or their French handlers were put under Agency supervision, according to intelligence sources in Beirut. In late November 2010, “defectors” from Qadhafi’s inner circle, including protocol chief Nuri Mesmari, were shepherded to Paris to form a government in exile.
Washington assigned Sarkozy’s secret service the task of preparing a “popular” rebellion against Qadhafi, while the Americans focused on toppling the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes. As the timetable for the Jasmine Revolutions ticked forward like clockwork, Qadhafi made his first grandstand speech in Tripoli, refusing to go down easily like Ben Ali and Mubarak. A civil war was on.
The leading role in the opposition armed struggle of the Islamic Fighting Group, a core part of the Al Qaeda network, has prevented Obama from taking the helm, due to the upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. An open alliance with Al Qaeda in Benghazi simply won’t sell in New York. Sarkozy was, therefore, ordered like a subordinate henchman to initiate the UN-sanctioned “no-fly zone” – a thin cover for a brutal neo-colonialist intervention.
Denouement in Tripoli
Blowback is a mild way of describing the present Western fiasco in North Africa. The Muslim Brotherhood, which ideologically groomed every one of the 9/11 hijackers, has emerged as the best-organized political movement in Egypt and is now just an election away from taking power democratically. Once-banned Muslim extremists are regrouping in Tunisia, as an unstable government tries to weaken the secular trade unions, a positive legacy from the Ben Ali years.
In Libya, even if Qadhafi loyalists triumph, the Islamic Fighting Group and the Muslim Brotherhood have by now amassed a vast arsenal of explosives and automatic weapons to unleash on their next jihad against the West or to suppress nonconformist Muslim movements.
For these reasons and more, the African Union has voiced unconditional support for Col. Qadhafi. Their historical assessment will prove harsh to Western interests: The lesson of the Jasmine Revolution is that African states must increase their vigilance against the West’s attempts to seize their continent’s natural resources and defend their strategic reserves of uranium against the threat of neo-colonialism. Whatever the outcome on the ground, Western prestige has plunged while Qadhafi has made a dramatic comeback from villain to hero.
Author: Yoichi Shimatsu is Editor-at-large with the 4th Media, Hong Kong-based environmental writer and former editor of the Japan Times Weekly. He has reported on North Africa since the early 1990s.