CEO of Statoil, Helge Lund, answers questions from reporters, Saturday Jan. 19, 2013, as he arrives to visit the drop-in center in Bergen, Norway, which has been set up for relatives of people taken hostage in Algeria.

Anette Karlsen, Associated Press

Toppling of dictators has come at high price

  • Article by: ROBERT F. WORTH
  • New York Times
  • January 19, 2013 - 6:39 PM


As the uprising closed around him, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi warned that chaos and holy war would overtake North Africa if he fell. "Bin Laden's people would come to impose ransoms by land and sea," he said. "We will go back to the time of ... pirates, of Ottomans imposing ransoms on boats."

That unhinged prophecy recently has acquired a grim currency. In Mali, French troops arrived this month to battle jihadi fighters who already controlled an area twice the size of Germany. In Algeria, a one-eyed Islamist bandit organized the brazen takeover of an international gas facility, taking hostages that included more than 40 Americans and Europeans.

Coming just four months after the U.S. ambassador in Libya was killed by jihadists, those assaults have contributed to a sense that North Africa -- long a backwater for Al-Qaida -- is turning into another zone of dangerous instability, much like Syria, site of an increasingly bloody civil war.

The mayhem in the vast desert region has many roots, but it is also a sobering reminder that the euphoric toppling of dictators in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt has come at a price.

"It's one of the darker sides of the Arab uprisings," said Robert Malley, the Middle East and North Africa director at the nonprofit International Crisis Group. "Their peaceful nature may have damaged Al-Qaida and its allies ideologically, but logistically, in terms of the new porousness of borders, the expansion of ungoverned areas, the proliferation of weapons, the disorganization of police and security services in all these countries -- it's been a real boon to jihadists."

A new test

The crisis in Mali is not likely to end soon, with the militants ensconcing themselves among local people. It could also test the fragile new governments of Libya and its neighbors in a region where any Western military intervention arouses bitter colonial memories and provides a rallying cry for Islamists. And it comes as world powers struggle with civil war in Syria, where another Arab autocrat is warning about the furies that could be unleashed if he falls.

Even as Obama administration officials vowed to hunt down the hostage-takers in Algeria, they faced the added challenge of a dauntingly complex jihadist landscape across North Africa that belies the easy label of "Al-Qaida," with multiple factions operating among overlapping ethnic groups, clans and criminal networks.

Efforts to identify and punish those responsible for the attack in Benghazi, Libya, where Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed in September, have bogged down amid similar confusion. The independent panel investigating that attack faulted U.S. spy agencies for failing to understand the region's "many militias, which are constantly dissolving, splitting apart and reforming."

In a sense, both the hostage crisis in Algeria and the battle in Mali are consequences of the fall of Gadhafi in 2011. Like other strongmen in the region, Gadhafi had mostly kept his country's ethnic and tribal factions in check either by brutally suppressing them or by co-opting them to fight for his government. He acted as a lid, keeping a volatile elements repressed. Once that lid was removed, and the borders that had been enforced by powerful governments became more porous, there was greater freedom for various groups -- whether rebels, jihadists or criminals -- to join up and make common cause.

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