Unhinged but prescient … former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Photo: Reuters
WASHINGTON: As the uprising closed in around him, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi warned that if he fell, chaos and holy war would overtake north Africa.
''Bin Laden's people would come to impose ransoms by land and sea,'' he told reporters. ''We will go back to the time of Redbeard, of pirates, of Ottomans imposing ransoms on boats.''
Recently that unhinged prophecy has acquired a grim currency. In Mali, French paratroopers arrived this month to battle an advancing force of militants who already control an area twice the size of Germany. In Algeria, a one-eyed Islamist bandit organised the brazen takeover of an international gas facility, taking hostages that included more than 40 Americans and Europeans.
Coming just four months after a US ambassador was killed in Libya, those assaults have contributed to a sense that North Africa - long a dormant backwater for al-Qaeda - is turning into another zone of dangerous instability.
The mayhem in this vast desert region has many roots, but it is also a sobering reminder that the 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 International Crisis Group. ''[The uprisings'] peaceful nature may have damaged al-Qaeda and its allies ideologically, but logistically, in terms of the new porousness of borders, the expansion of ungoverned areas, the proliferation of weapons, the disorganisation of police and security services in all these countries - it's been a real boon to jihadists.''
Even as Obama administration officials vowed to hunt down the hostage-takers in Algeria, they faced the added challenge of 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 the ambassador, Christopher Stevens, was killed in September, have bogged down in similar confusion.
The independent review panel investigating the Benghazi attack faulted US spy agencies for failing to understand the region's ''many militias, which are constantly dissolving, splitting apart and reforming''.
Some analysts have called for a more active American role, noting that the hostage-taking in Algeria demonstrated how hard it can be to avoid entanglement. Others warn against too muscular a response.
''It puts a transnational framework on top of what is fundamentally a set of local concerns, and we risk making ourselves more of an enemy than we would otherwise be,'' said Paul Pillar of Georgetown University, a former CIA analyst.
Like other dictators in the region, Gaddafi had mostly kept in check his country's ethnic and tribal factions, either by suppressing them or by co-opting them to fight for his government.
In Mali there are the Tuaregs, a nomadic people ethnically distinct both from Arabs, who make up the nations to the north, and the Africans who inhabit southern Mali and control the national government.
They fought for Gaddafi in Libya, then streamed back across the border after his fall, banding together with Islamist groups to form a far more formidable fighting force.
Yet Gaddafi's fall was only the tipping point, some analysts say, in a region where state authority has long been paper-thin.
Algeria's authoritarian government is now seen as a crucial intermediary by France and other Western countries in dealing with Islamist militants in North Africa. But the Algerians have been reluctant to become too involved in a broad military campaign that could be very risky for them.
International action against the Islamist takeover in northern Mali could push the militants back into southern Algeria, where they started. That would undo years of bloody struggle by Algeria's military forces, which largely succeeded in pushing the jihadists outside their borders.
The Algerians have little patience with what they see as Western naivety about the Arab Spring, analysts say.
''Their attitude was, 'Please don't intervene in Libya or you will create another Iraq on our border','' said Geoff Porter, an Algeria expert and founder of North Africa Risk Consulting. ''And then, 'Please don't intervene in Mali or you will create a mess on our other border'. But they were dismissed as nervous Nellies, and now Algeria says to the West: 'Goddamn it, we told you so'.''
The New York Times