If you've been following the news in Libya, the geographic flashpoints of the battle between Muammar Qaddafi's forces, rebel fighters, and coalition warplanes probably ring familiar by now: Tripoli, Misrata, Sirte, Ras Lanuf, Brega, Ajdabiya, Benghazi. All these towns and cities, as you can see in the map below, are on Libya's northern coast. Which makes us wonder: What exactly is going on in southern Libya?
Libya is a large country with a small population. According to the State Department, 90 percent of Libyans live in less than 10 percent of the country, primarily in urban centers along the coast and particularly in Libya's two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi. Where the population is sparse, desert prevails. Southern Libya is home, in part, to small nomadic tribal groups like the Tebou and Tuareg.
But while most of the action in Libya is taking place in the north, the south is not without its storylines. Here are the primary ones to keep an eye on:
Ammunition Storage On Monday, British jets bombed ammunition bunkers in the Qaddafi-controlled southern city of Sebha (whose airport is pictured above, in 2010), according to AFP. Qaddafi had been using the bunkers to supply his security forces in the north with firearms, rockets, and artillery.
African Concern Alex de Waal at the Social Science Research Council explains that neighboring countries like Niger, Chad, and Sudan are keeping an eye on southern Libyan towns like Sebha and Kufra "because these towns have served as the rear base for armed rebellions in their countries, and rebel leaders still reside there." Libya's southern neighbors are worried that Qaddafi will arm these rebel leaders as he struggles to maintain power or that the rebels will take advantage of the chaos in Libya to acquire weapons.
Refugee Situation AlertNet reported last week that thousands of sub-Saharan African migrants fleeing the violence in Libya are stranded in towns like Sebha without any way of getting across the Libyan border.
Al Qaeda Threat Catherine Herridge at Fox News asks whether "southern Libya will become a magnet for jihadist groups" like al Qaeda's North African affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). British think tank analyst Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist, tells CNN that AQIM has traditionally been weak in Libya but that as many as 40 Libyans have joined the group in recent years and that two Libyan AQIM members were involved in a shootout with Libyan security forces in the southwestern city of Ghat in January, a claim CNN wasn't able to confirm.
Qaddafi Retreat A Middle East intelligence expert warns Foreign Policy's Tom Ricks that the international community can't allow Qaddafi's forces to "melt into southern Libyan desert leaving us with a broken country" and a "latent desert threat."