Exact estimates of pro-Qaddafi forces remaining after military desertions and defections are hard to come by, but press reports typically list his 'official' forces at around 25,000. This is supplemented by various militias directly controlled by his sons, numbering as many as 50,000 - making the efforts of the ragtag rebels difficult without NATO and Arab League air support - but a new report says those forces have a worrisome additional element. Though official European militaries are aligned with the Libyan rebels through the enforcement of a no-fly zone and limited air-to-ground strikes, the embattled dictator of Libya is benefiting from the support for European mercenaries.
This claim comes from Michel Koutouzis, a Greek security analyst familiar with the organized crime syndicates that often feed 'soldiers of fortune' to trouble spots around the world. Unsurprisingly, he says, a large portion of the mercenaries come from former Eastern bloc countries but at least a fair number come from NATO countries directly involved on the opposite side of the conflict, Britain and France in particular. Numbers are difficult to come by, but Mr. Koutouzis suggests at least 300 are in Libya - a small number - but are involved in highly technical positions of concern to NATO forces. If Western involvement in the conflict increases, they will face Western-trained helicopter pilots and heavy weapons specialists, introducing yet another layer of complexity in an already complicated situation.
The European mercenaries command salaries of several thousand US dollars per day, but they are not the only foreign fighters bankrolled by Momar Qaddafi's deep oil riches. Despite many of his overseas bank accounts being frozen, he is also able to pay fighters from many sub-Saharan countries between 1,000 and 2,000 US dollars per day. These fighters come from areas like the Central African Republic and Somalia where civil war has long been a part of life - and thus bring seasoned veterans to the aid of a military already far better equipped than the rebels. Currently, these soldiers arrive through military air bases in the south of the country not yet affected by NATO's air strikes, putting pressure on the countries assisting the rebels to begin striking deep into the heart of Libya.
Another factor not listed in Koutouzis' report which will no doubt come into play if the conflict lingers is that oil companies working on either side of the war's front will feel the need to rely on private military companies for security purposes. With a more organized command-and-control structure than straight 'soldiers of fortune', PMCs have seen wide use in conflicts around the world - including in Afghanistan and Iraq - but are not necessarily less controversial. The idea that NATO forces may need to go up against organized groups of their own nationals is a chilling thought which leaders debating foreign involvement in Libya are surely considering at this very moment.