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Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction?
Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction?
Rebel Incursion Exposes Chad’s Weaknesses
Rebel Incursion Exposes Chad’s Weaknesses
Report 92 / Africa

Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction?

The Sahel, a vast region bordering the Sahara Desert and including the countries of Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, is increasingly referred to by the U.S. military as "the new front in the war on terrorism".

The Sahel, a vast region bordering the Sahara Desert and including the countries of Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, is increasingly referred to by the U.S. military as "the new front in the war on terrorism". There are enough indications, from a security perspective, to justify caution and greater Western involvement. However, the Sahel is not a hotbed of terrorist activity. A misconceived and heavy handed approach could tip the scale the wrong way; serious, balanced, and long-term engagement with the four countries should keep the region peaceful. An effective counter-terrorism policy there needs to address the threat in the broadest terms, with more development than military aid and greater U.S.-European collaboration.

There are disparate strands of information out of which a number of observers, including the U.S. military, have read the potential threat of violent Islamist activity in the four Sahelian countries covered by the Americans' Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI). There is some danger in this, but in this region, few things are exactly what they seem at first glance. Mauritania, which calls itself an Islamic republic, harshly suppresses Islamist activities of any kind, while Mali, a star pupil of 1990s neo-liberal democratisation, runs the greatest risk of any West African country other than Nigeria of violent Islamist activity. Those who believe poverty breeds religious fanaticism will be disappointed in Niger, the world's second poorest country, whose government has maintained its tradition of tolerant Sufi Islam by holding to an unambiguous line on separation of religion and the state.

The prospects for growth in Islamist activity in the region -- up to and including terrorism -- are delicately balanced. Muslim populations in West Africa, as elsewhere, express increasing opposition to Western, especially U.S., policy in the Middle East, and there has been a parallel increase in fundamentalist proselytisation. However, these developments should not be overestimated. Fundamentalist Islam has been present in the Sahel for over 60 years without being linked to anti-Western violence. The Algerian Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which lost 43 militants in a battle with Chad's army in 2004 after being chased across borders by PSI-trained troops, has been seriously weakened in Algeria and Mali by the combined efforts of Algerian and Sahelian armed forces.

The U.S. military is a new factor in this delicate balance. Its operations in the four countries are orchestrated by the European Command (EUCOM) headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. In the absence of Congressional willingness to fund a serious engagement by other parts of the government, the Pentagon has become a major player by emphasising the prospect of terrorism, though military planners themselves recognise the inherent dangers in a purely military counter-terrorism program.

With the U.S. heavily committed in other parts of the world, however, Washington is unlikely to devote substantial non-military resources to the Sahel soon, even though Africa is slowly gaining recognition -- not least due to West Africa's oil -- as an area of strategic interest to the West. The resultant equation is laden with risks, including turning the small number of arrested clerics and militants into martyrs, thus giving ammunition to local anti-American or anti-Western figures who claim the PSI (and the proposed, expanded Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) still under consideration in the U.S. government) is part of a larger plan to render Muslim populations servile; and cutting off smuggling networks that have become the economic lifeblood of Saharan peoples whose livestock was devastated by the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, without offering economic alternatives. To avoid creating the kinds of problems the PSI is meant to solve, it needs to be folded into a more balanced approach to the region, one also in which Europeans and Americans work more closely together.

Dakar/Brussels, 31 March 2005

French mirage 2000-D from the Barkhane force lands after a tactical mission in N'Djamena on 22 December 2018. French president is on visit to meet with Chadian president and with soldiers from the Barkhane mission in Africa's Sahel region. Ludovic MARIN / AFP
Q&A / Africa

Rebel Incursion Exposes Chad’s Weaknesses

Une incursion de l’Union des forces de la résistance (UFR) en territoire tchadien depuis la Libye, début février, a été arrêtée par des frappes aériennes françaises, en coordination avec l’armée tchadienne. Cette menace sécuritaire inédite depuis plusieurs années met en relief les fragilités du Tchad et du pouvoir en place.   

What happened?

On 3-6 February 2019, at the request of N’Djamena, planes from the French Operation Barkhane proceeded with a series of strikes against a group of Chadian rebels in the north east of the country. According to rebels’ spokesperson Youssouf Hamid Ishagh, the Union of Resistance Forces (Union des forces de la résistance – UFR), a coalition based in Libya, intended to reach the capital N’Djamena in order to overthrow President Idriss Déby and “set up a transitional government uniting all of the country’s forces”. The plan was aborted following the French intervention. Composed mainly of Zaghawa fighters from Déby’s own ethnic community, this rebel movement is directed by Timan Erdimi, the president’s nephew, who lives in Qatar. He first tried to overthrow his uncle in 2008, and again in 2009 after forming the UFR.

According to a statement released by the Chadian army on 9 February 2019, “more than 250 terrorists, including four leaders” were captured, and over forty of their vehicles destroyed. These figures were refuted by Ishagh, who described them as fanciful.

The Chadian political opposition has criticised the French military intervention, the first in Chad since 2008, which it views as new proof of France’s unconditional support for Idriss Déby, while expressing its opposition to any takeover of power by force. These incursions took place as other Chadian armed groups are increasingly active at the country’s borders, and as the president is under pressure from an economic crisis and several years of social unrest.

By asking France’s military forces to intervene on his territory for the first time since 2008, President Déby showed that he took the risk very seriously.

Paris defended its intervention, conducted “in response to a request from Chadian authorities”, and justified it by the need to preserve stability in both Chad and the sub-region. The French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian declared in front of parliament on 12 February that “France intervened militarily to prevent a coup d’Etat”. French authorities added that Chad is a strategic ally whose army is deployed in operations against terrorism in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin.

What is the link with Chad’s domestic context?

By asking France’s military forces to intervene on his territory for the first time since 2008, President Déby showed that he took the risk very seriously. This is due to a domestic situation marked by growing social upheaval, but also to burgeoning dissent within his own ethnic community, which the rebels hope to exploit.

The capture of state resources has long generated tension among the Zaghawa and even within the presidential family. When Déby came to power in 1990, Zaghawa military and political leaders, including the president’s nephews, Timan Erdimi and his brother Tom Erdimi, helped organise a strong autocratic system around a new political party, the Patriotic Salvation Movement (Mouvement patriotique du Salut – MPS). Timan and Tom both served as chief of staff to the president before taking up strategic positions – respectively director of Chad’s cotton parastatal company, at that time a public entity, and head of national oil projects. But in the early 2000s, Déby’s plan to revise the constitution in order to stand for re-election in 2006 led to a break with the Erdimi brothers, who saw themselves as his “natural” successors. This resulted in large-scale defections of Presidential Guard officers and senior administration officials, and the creation of rebel groups in Sudan. Later, the presidential family made unsuccessful attempts to reconcile Idriss Déby and Timan Erdimi.

Other events provoked clashes among the Zaghawa. In 2009, his rapprochement with Sudan caused tension between the president and some of his clan who supported the rebellion in Darfur. Finally, in recent years, the growing influence of Déby’s wife, Hinda, an ethnic Arab from the Ouaddaï region in the east of the country, and the appointment of her relatives to positions of responsibility, has generated new disputes among Idriss Déby’s family members.

The UFR’s recent incursion sought to take advantage of these tensions in order to encourage defections within the army, promote an internal uprising and provoke a reversal of alliances among the president’s entourage.

On 6 February 2019, Timan’s brother Tom Erdimi, living in exile in the U.S., addressed an audio message in Arabic to the Chadian military, calling them to join the UFR and overthrow Déby. “We call on you to join us. We are not far... We do not want to kill you; we do not wish to die either. The blood of Chadians has flowed too much already”, he said. A few days later, he echoed a complaint from soldiers’ families when he added in a further audio message: “[the government] sends Chadian soldiers to die abroad without honour and without money for their families”.

Aside from strong support from part of the Zaghawa, at one time the Erdimi brothers also had good relations with politicians and intellectuals from the rest of the country, including the south. Many Zaghawa fear that their influence and interests will be threatened and that they could be the target of violence once President Déby is replaced or dies. The Erdimi brothers promise, should they come to power, to safeguard their interests while also undertaking to open a transitional period involving non-Zaghawa. But most Chadians are opposed to yet another violent coup d’Etat, and the UFR’s attempts to attract a broader consortium of discontented citizens to their movement did not prove successful.

The incursion started out in Libya, and the UFR has support in the Darfur region of Sudan. How is the situation in these two countries related to recent events in Chad?

This crisis has come about in a particular geopolitical context. In Libya, Marshal Khalifa Haftar is trying to change the strategic picture by leading a major offensive on southern cities, putting pressure on Chadian rebel groups in the area. In Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir, who forged an alliance with Déby in 2009, appears weakened by months of popular uprisings.

Like other Chadian rebel groups, including the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad – FACT), the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic (Conseil de commandement militaire pour le salut de la République – CCMSR) and the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (Union des forces pour la démocratie et le développement – UFDD), the UFR shifted to southern Libya following its expulsion from Darfur in western Sudan by Khartoum in 2010. These groups do not agree on what strategies to adopt, they are divided along ethnic lines and by personal ambitions, and have even competed against each other. Their fighters engage in various forms of trafficking and sometimes work as mercenaries for Libyan militias.

Although Chad’s security situation seems to have stabilised, Déby’s call for help from France shows that the Chadian army, often portrayed as strong, also has its weaknesses.

The UFR’s incursion into Chad was likely precipitated by the offensive launched in mid-January by the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar, seeking to extend his hold over southern Libya. While the UFR spokesperson insists that the incursion of fighters into northern Chad was planned for a long time and has no connection with the LNA’s operation, other members of the group recognise that the pressure exerted by Haftar’s forces pushed them to promptly cross the border.

The LNA’s operation is officially aimed at combating terrorists, criminal gangs and foreign armed groups operating in the region. Although alliances in the Libyan civil war fluctuate constantly, the UFR was at one time close to the Misrata militia and the Benghazi defence brigades, Haftar’s rivals. Close to Paris, and an ally of N’Djamena in the region, Haftar often targeted the positions of Chadian rebels in southern Libya. It is possible that among other objectives, his advance aims to weaken them further.

In the 2000s, armed insurrections against Déby from Darfur, then in the grip of a civil war, twice reached N’Djamena and came close to overthrowing him. Since the signing of a peace agreement between N’Djamena and Khartoum at the end of 2009, al-Bashir ended his support to Chadian rebel groups, including Timan Erdimi’s UFR. Nevertheless, the UFR maintains close ties with Darfuri groups, including the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), and some of its fighters continue to move back and forth between Libya and Sudan. If al-Bashir’s power was to be threatened, so would be the agreement between the two countries, which ultimately relies on the good will of the two presidents. That said, although the situation remains unstable following months of demonstrations, al-Bashir still appears to have the support of his security forces.

What are the prospects and what risks can be identified?

As in 2008, France’s military intervention came in support of the Chadian authorities and President Déby. While most Chadians reject any attempt to grab power by force and condemn the incursions of rebel groups into their territory, many also criticise the support given by France and the international community in general to the country’s current leadership. It is true that international actors have thus far failed to exert enough pressure on Chadian authorities to push them to engage in a truly inclusive political dialogue.

Although Chad’s security situation seems to have stabilised, Déby’s call for help from France shows that the Chadian army, often portrayed as strong, also has its weaknesses. According to several officers interviewed by Crisis Group, the army, present in several theatres of operation (in Mali, in the countries of the Lake Chad region and on several home fronts including Tibesti, at the border with Libya), is overworked and some soldiers are demoralised. The situation is made worse by cuts in soldiers’ allowances implemented in recent years (up to December 2018) to cope with the financial crisis following a fall in oil prices. In this context, groups like the UFR will undoubtedly continue to encourage desertions. More generally, recent events call into question the strength of Déby’s rule, which largely relies on the army, and underline the fragility of a country led by the region’s “strongman”.

Contributors

Project Director, Central Africa
richmoncrieff
Consulting Senior Analyst, Central Africa