Bullets and Borders: Transnational Armed Groups and Violence in the Sahara–Sahel Region

small arms survey
Mar 27 · 8 min read

By: Lubna Allam

Many smugglers think of themselves as transporters, not criminals.[i] For, they argue, isn’t the smuggling of petrol, cigarettes and other goods across largely uncontrolled borders simply a way of making a living? And in terms of moving people, can people who smuggle migrants across borders be seen rather as service providers such as bus companies — as some suggest — rather than as smugglers? But it is the ramifications of human trafficking (migrants drowning, their physical and financial exploitation at transnational borders, and their maltreatment by traffickers, to name a few) that made migrant smuggling, in particular in the Libyan context, evolve and get closer to more pernicious forms of trafficking (drugs, arms).

Before the revolution in Libya the informal economy common to many areas of North Africa and the Sahara–Sahel region resulted in a public perception in the region of the (illicit) movement of goods across borders as a peaceful and transparent livelihood; however, since 2013 the trafficking of both goods and people has become much more problematic.

Since I have been interested in issues of arms trade and smuggling for quite some time, I was keen on reviewing the Survey’s recent work on the topic. While doing so, I came across the Security Assessment in North Africa (SANA) event ‘Bullets and Borders: Transnational Armed Groups and Violence in the Sahara-Sahel region’, organized at Geneva Peace Week in November 2017.

With a central focus on the issue of small arms, independent researcher Jérôme Tubiana, anthropologist and independent researcher Manal Taha, and freelance journalist and field researcher Rebecca Murray — all long-standing Small Arms Survey contributors — discussed transnational trafficking, ungoverned borders, and armed violence in North Africa and the Sahara–Sahel region, under the moderation of former Small Arms Survey associate researcher Farrah Hawana.

Given the increase in the movement of both arms and ammunition as well as migrants in the region, and the ramifications of these movements on security, both are now major points of focus for governments and policy makers.

And what were my thoughts?

Although the discussion illuminated a wide range of the complex issues affecting transnational borders in the region (worthy of at least two or three more blog posts), two main takeaways stood out: the need to rethink the concept of trafficking, and the importance of shifting the main focus to the issue of the recruitment of youth into armed groups.

Migrant cars on the road, Niger, 2019. Source: Jérôme Tubiana

Thoughts on trafficking

Given their complex nature, it is important to revisit and even reconceptualize the concepts of smuggling and trafficking, not only for research purposes, but also to formulate appropriate policy recommendations that effectively address these issues.

Many people — even smugglers themselves — attribute the criminality of trafficking to the type of merchandise being trafficked. For example, some smugglers are willing to transport drugs, but not arms, and vice versa. The reasons behind such positions vary, and can involve personal preferences or even religious ones. Having said that, Jérôme Tubiana noted that he ‘[did not] know of a single person that transports only arms’.

Indeed, the speakers noted, the inclination of migrant smugglers to become drug and arms traffickers — and even become involved in terrorist acts — is often a result of discriminatory policies imposed by government policymakers. Some such policies have equated the illegality of transporting migrants with that of trafficking in drugs. Due to pressure in and from the European Union to block migrants from entering Europe, policymakers cracked down on the movement of people. This resulted in some migrant smugglers who saw their activities as providing a legitimate service feeling likened to drug traffickers — a trade in which many had deliberately chosen not to participate, perceiving it as (far) worse than smuggling migrants.

The result was a situation where if everything is illegal, then nothing is illegal. Some of these smugglers abandoned their former preferences and principles and started to transport a larger variety of goods chosen much less selectively. It should be noted that goods (both licit and illicit) and migrants are transported along similar routes, some of which are also used to transport essential merchandise and services. For example, the road between Darfur and Kufra, although used by traffickers, is essential for the people of Darfur to obtain goods and meet their basic survival needs. It is also seen as an escape route to Europe, where many Darfurians facing a dire humanitarian situation can seek political asylum. Closing such a route to address one issue would therefore give rise to many more.

Guinean man in migrant guest house, Agadez, Niger, 2019. Source: Jérôme Tubiana

Furthermore, traffickers are fully aware of the many routes available to them and alternate between them as the need arises.

As for the Tuareg and Tubu communities, they depend on their ability to transport and obtain goods, so removing this source of supply might lead to their further marginalization and an increased likelihood that they would resort to illegal and criminal activities in order to secure a living.

Thus, increasing security on the roads as a way of monitoring both the merchandise and goods being traded and the actors trading them is likely to be a more effective solution than cutting off the routes and closing the roads completely.

Jérôme Tubiana remarks at SANA Geneva Peace Week event, November 2017

Rethinking the issue of trafficking and smuggling and reconsidering the solutions proposed thus far are crucial to finding a suitable and effective way to deal with the current situation in the region. A thorough understanding of the nature of the activities in which communities in the region engage, as well as locally informed reasons for why they do so, is key. An analysis of the motivations of the members of the armed groups involved in such activities is also important to better understand both the groups themselves and what they do.

Thoughts on youth

The second theme to be focused on was youth and their recruitment into armed groups. If we want to have a constructive discussion around demobilizing and dismantling armed groups, it is essential to identify the mechanisms causing young people to join armed groups and subsequently engage in trafficking and smuggling activities.

It was interesting to learn that the belief that youth join rebel groups only due to their identity and prior affiliation is a misconception. In reality, economy and state policies also play a role in their mobilization. For some communities of North Africa and the Sahel–Sahara region a youth is a male who is old enough to fight. In this context, youths quite naturally became a professional resource for armed groups. Due to the pervasive state of insecurity in the region and the constant failure of peace treaties and disarmament agreements, a person who has become a rebel could in many cases remain a rebel for the rest of his life. For example, the main Chadian rebel leader in Libya in 2017 took up arms as part of the liberation front when he was 14 years old, resulting in his having fifty years of rebel experience at the time of the SANA event. In weak states with poor economies that lack infrastructure, employment opportunities, services, and educational systems, joining an armed group is often a promising employment option for youths — and is sometimes the only option.

European policies implemented in the region were also a causal factor. One such policy was the criminalization of the transportation of migrants. As a result, their main source of income was denied Saharan communities, which in turn encouraged them to join armed groups and become involved in organized illicit smuggling and trafficking even further.

There are also examples of people joining armed groups to seek refuge after committing crimes. This has specifically been the case if the rebel group controls a territory where such people can continue with their criminal careers and share part of their income with the group in question.

Rebecca Murray remarks at SANA Geneva Peace Week event, November 2017

Intertwined with the above is the identity factor, which, as Manal Taha stated, can only partly explain the recruitment of youth into armed groups and their involvement in trafficking and smuggling. From Taha’s studies of the Tubu and Tuareg communities, she noted that youth in these settings are surrounded by a comprehensive set of social rules stemming from customary law. Other such rules regulate the functioning of the nuclear family, the wife’s family, the respective parents’ families, the clan, and the tribe. With such multilayered bases for building one’s identity in both the Tuareg and Tubu communities, it would be simplistic to draw a direct link between identity and involvement in armed groups. Instead, Taha suggested we look at the marginalization and lack of opportunities that the youth in these tribes face as a more effective way of understanding the conditions that make these youths vulnerable to recruitment.

Manal Taha remarks at SANA Geneva Peace Week event, November 2017

Identity, economic, and social factors must all be taken into account when explaining why youth are more vulnerable than adults to being recruited by armed groups involved in smuggling and trafficking. By determining the precise reasons for their recruitment, appropriate strategies could be designed and implemented to reduce and ultimately halt the process.

Fighters on the front line in Ubari, Libya, 2015. Source: Mauricio Morales Duarte

Concluding thoughts

The event undoubtedly brought under the spotlight important yet under-studied contradictions underpinning arms trafficking and border security in the Sahel–Sahara region. Current laws and policies on smuggling and trafficking lack the nuancing needed to distinguish between the long-standing informal trade that remains vital for local livelihoods and more dangerous and undesirable forms of trafficking. Criminalizing all smuggling and shutting down traditional trading routes only risks forcing local traders and transporters into further illegality to survive. Closer cooperation between border authorities and local communities in monitoring the trade and identifying the lesser known trafficking routes may therefore have greater potential to curb the most problematic trafficking flows.

Another step would be that of restoring stability in Libya and the countries of the Sahel–Sahara region and rebuilding their infrastructure. The provision of good education and job opportunities is the foundation on which efforts to halt the recruitment of youth into armed groups can be built. Together with this comes a more nuanced exploration of the diverse factors contributing to the recruitment of youths into armed groups, rather than relying solely on identity as the key explanation for this phenomenon. By focusing on the reasons behind youth recruitment into armed groups and the impracticality of cutting trafficking routes, policymakers will have more elements to develop sound, workable arms control policies in the future.


[i] Unless otherwise stated, all information is sourced from the Security Assessment in North Africa (SANA) Geneva Peace Week event entitled ‘Bullets and Borders: Transnational Armed Groups and Violence in the Sahara–Sahel Region’, Geneva, 7 November 2017.


Rebecca Murray, Manal Taha, and Jérôme Tubiana are all consultants for the Small Arms Survey and form part of the SANA project’s expert network.

Rebecca Murray is a freelance journalist and field researcher. She authored the Small Arms Survey’s 2017 Briefing Paper Southern Libya Destabilized: The Case of Ubari.

Manal Taha is an anthropologist and independent researcher. She partook in the Small Arms Survey SANA podcast episode on the role of women during the conflict and subsequent peacebuilding efforts in Libya.

Jérôme Tubiana is an independent researcher. For the Small Arms Survey, he most recently co-authored Lost in Trans-Nation: Tubu and Other Armed Groups and Smugglers along Libya’s Southern Border. He has also written reports for the Clingdael Institute on EU migration policies in the Sahara and migration governance in the Sahel.

Farrah Hawana is a lecturer in International Politics and Security at Aberystwyth University.

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