Originally appeared in The Daily.
Libyan refugees and opposition groups say the most feared presence on the streets of Tripoli are mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa who drive around in tan-colored military jeeps and shoot anything that moves.
The country remains a swirl of rumors, but a constant theme is trigger-happy, non-Arabic-speaking foreigners who try to spread fear and persuade protesters to return to their homes. “We don’t know where they’re coming from,” one man told a Reuters TV crew after fleeing across the Egyptian border. “They’re African mercenaries. They’re shooting people randomly.”
On Saturday, two days after Libya erupted into civil war, the first videos showed corpses of the foreign fighters, sent by Moammar Gadhafi to recapture Benghazi, Libya’s rebellious second-largest city. The videos showed a man with a dark complexion and grievous wounds to the head and chest. Other videos are furtive shots of men in uniform, their blurry faces looking dark enough to be black African.
But it’s not clear what the images prove. Many Libyans have dark skin, and race has been hugely divisive in Libya throughout Gadhafi’s rule. Gadhafi has zealously pursued ties with sub-Saharan Africa, sometimes at the expense of ties to the Arab world. As a result, Arab Libyans have been distrustful of black Africans (and often call them “abd,” or “slave,” which is only slightly less derogatory in Arabic than in English). These Libyans are now afraid that Gadhafi’s black friends are repaying his loyalty in blood.
Gadhafi has a history of cultivating mercenary groups, both overseas and inside Libya itself. Al Jazeera broadcast images of foreign passports, allegedly taken by rebels from Gadhafi-supporting foreign fighters. Citizens of Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia were among them, and Al Arabiya reports that in Ghana and Nigeria, Gadhafi is posting ads for $2,000-per-day work as soldiers in Libya. Videos have circulated of soldiers, allegedly from French-speaking West Africa, where Gadhafi began trying to start an Islamic state in the early 1970s. The French-speaking killers are said to wear yellow hats.
What still isn’t clear is why Gadhafi would trust foreign mercenaries more than his own soldiers, who have served him much longer and have more to lose if the revolution succeeds.
Gadhafi has links to non-Libyan African fighters but will have a hard time buying real loyalty, according to Marielle Debos, a political scientist who studies soldiers and mercenaries from Chad, Libya’s southern neighbor. Many Chadians lived in Libya under Gadhafi’s protection after backing the losing, Libyan-backed side in Chad’s civil war.
“Gadhafi supported some of them, but for them it was just strategic,” Debos said. “If I were Gadhafi, I wouldn’t trust them.”
Gerard Prunier, an historian who knew Gadhafi-funded mercenaries in Sudan’s Darfur province in the 1980s, guessed that if Gadhafi has succeeded in drawing in African mercenaries, they are likely from the same groups he funded decades ago, called the “Islamic Legion.” A pan-African paramilitary force, they were eventually humiliated in battle and disbanded.
“Like for any mercenary, white or otherwise, you just pay. The question is how good they are,” Prunier said. For now, as long as they continue to face resistance from normal Libyans, and not whole military units that switch sides, these mercenaries could remain deadly and effective.
But already, there are many reports from mutinies among the Libyan military. The rebels are arming themselves and preparing for the mercenary threat. If the mercenaries are the type Prunier meant, the Gadhafi-backed Africans may melt away.
“They’d kill their own grandmother for a price,” Prunier said. “But show them a gun, and they tend to run and hide.”