The Chad Jihad Threat

A coup attempt against the Deby regime warns of the loss of a second Sahel swath to extremism.

As the world continues to pay the price for allowing a lawless region in Mali, a new danger has appeared in the form of an attempted coup in another unknown and seemingly unimportant Central African state; Chad. In May, Chadian security forces arrested two generals and a member of parliament on suspicion of attempting to organize a coup against President Idriss Deby two days earlier. Despite the precious little international attention afforded to Chad, a coup in this country could be potentially disastrous for the region, though more so for the West in its fight against Islamic terror.

President Deby has been the subtle puppet master of Central Africa for the last decade, manipulating regional conflicts to suit his interests. In the Central African Republic (CAR) for example, Deby sponsored a rebel movement led by now ousted president Francois Bozize to take control of that country in 2003. Deby capitalized on this behind-the-scenes power grab by enabling his forces to operate in the north of the CAR to eliminate Chadian rebel groups using the territory as a staging ground for attacks.

Chad is the key military force in the central African bloc, and has the best-trained and most battle-hardened desert troops on the continent. Currently Chadian troops are engaged in conflicts in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi, while fighting Islamist militants in Somalia and Mali. A successful coup in Chad would likely force the withdrawal of these valuable troops from their various areas of theater and could result in significant destabilization, create a hotbed of militant Islamism and widen key drugs and weapons smuggling corridors throughout the continent.

Islamists are the most likely to benefit from a coup in Chad, as this would likely relieve them from combatting the single most effective African military force in the Sahel. Furthermore, a belligerent regime in Chad may allow for the ease of passage for smuggled goods and militants across the region, in theory allowing for the increased flow of combatants from Somalia and Sudan in the east, to Mali and Nigeria to the west. The Mali conflict demonstrated the ease with which militants were able to move throughout the Sahara. Combatants from Algeria, Libya and even Nigeria were able to travel into northern Mali, engage in combat and then escape back across the borderless region. Chad could thus become a massive staging area in the middle of the continent from which rebel groups could launch salvos unchecked, and replace smuggling routes damaged by French intervention in Mali. Islamists in the region have long financed themselves through smuggling and providing protection to smugglers (protection, essentially, from these militants themselves), bringing drugs, cheap cigarettes and even humans across the continent and into Europe and the Middle East.

Despite his reelection on four separate occasions, Deby has many enemies both at home and abroad. It is possible that his use of forces in foreign conflicts serves not only to aid his control of the region, but also maintain the battle readiness of his forces against possible internal rebellions. Moreover, through consistent deployments of military forces to foreign states, Deby fractures the military and removes significant forces from Chadian territory so that the army remains unconsolidated and unable to launch a rebellion.

Deby had a strong relationship with Muammar el-Qaddafi, who invested in Chad in return for regional support. It is thus of little surprise that last week Deby accused Libya of harboring and training militant groups opposed to his government. Libya’s Ministry of Defense, however, denied the accusations, but it would seem logical that the new regime in Tripoli would feel little if Deby was to fall. It would be conspiratorial to accuse Libya of supporting this coup attempt, but it is clear that there are Islamist groups that would stand to benefit from the removal of Deby.

The fall of Qaddafi in Libya removed the strongman of the region, and resulted in rebel and Islamist movements gaining weapons and a freedom of movement previously denied to them. Deby, while nowhere near as charismatic or influential as Qaddafi, has nevertheless ascended to be the key leader in the region. The West cannot afford for Chad to fall and should continue to support Deby, allowing his control over both the Sahel and Central Africa. Surely the price of his falling would be far costlier than supporting his regime.

Frank Charnas is a senior intelligence analyst specializing in sub-Saharan African affairs at Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in the Middle East.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mark Knobil. CC BY 2.0.