April 20, 2021
Warning Update: Crisis in Chad threatens West Africa counterterrorism efforts
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]
Domestic instability will likely disrupt Chadian involvement in regional counterterrorism efforts, benefiting Salafi-jihadi groups that are already on the offensive in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin. Chad faces an unpredictable political and security crisis. The country’s longtime president, Idris Deby, died on April 20 from wounds sustained during clashes with rebel groups north of the Chadian capital, N’Djamena. Rebels had crossed into Chad from Libya and advanced toward N’Djamena on April 18 after election results showed President Deby winning another term after 30 years in office. Chadian forces deployed internally in response and killed at least 300 rebels by April 19. Deby had reportedly traveled to the front line after election results were announced.
A council of military officers established a transitional government and named President Deby’s son, Mahamat Kaka, interim president on April 20. The council promised to govern for the next 18 months. The coup d’état aims to maintain the military’s power as in the Deby administration. It is not yet clear whether the Chadian military will suppress the rebellion and retain control over the country. The Chadian military will likely need to recall troops deployed throughout the Sahel and Lake Chad regions in either case. Chad’s military is the most effective Sahelian force participating in regional counterterrorism efforts, and the withdrawal of Chadian troops will lift pressure from Salafi-jihadi groups in the Lake Chad and Sahel regions.
Instability in Chad will disrupt the UN counterterrorism mission in northern Mali to the benefit of al Qaeda’s Sahel affiliate. President Deby reportedly called for the return of some Chadian troops operating in the Sahel to defend N’Djamena on April 18. Chad is one of the top ten contributors to the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), with a contingent of over 1,400 troops. Chad announced on February 16 it would contribute an additional 1,200 troops. Chadian MINUSMA soldiers have been active recently against al Qaeda–linked Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), including rebuffing a large JNIM attack on a MINUSMA base in northern Mali on April 2.
JNIM militants may conduct attacks in Chad or against remaining Chadian soldiers if Chadian forces return home. JNIM leader Iyad ag Ghaly identified Chad as a target in April 2017 because of Chad’s close ties with France. The group claimed an attack killing 10 Chadian UN peacekeepers in northern Mali in January 2019 in response to Chad renewing ties with Israel. A troop withdrawal paired with security vacuums inside Chad may create opportunities for JNIM to target remaining Chadian soldiers in Mali or pursue a spectacular attack in Chad.
The withdrawal of Chadian forces will also undercut MINUSMA operations in Mali. Chadian forces are located in several areas where JNIM operates in northern and central Mali, including in the Kidal region, where the group conducted the April 2 attack. Their removal would reduce effective resistance to JNIM, which seeks to degrade and replace governance structures in these areas. The weakening of MINUSMA may also help JNIM pursue its broader goals; al Qaeda and JNIM leaders and media have *stated their intent to expand into West African coastal states and have begun using Mali and Burkina Faso as launching pads for this effort.
Chad’s stability is particularly important to France, including the French counterterrorism mission in the Sahel. The French Operation Barkhane is headquartered in N’Djamena. Operation Barkhane supports the G5 Sahel countries, including Chad, with a focus on defeating Salafi-jihadi groups in the region. The French mission also serves to support France’s African partners and protect French economic interests. French forces have protected President Deby from armed challengers, notably conducting airstrikes against Chadian rebels plotting to overthrow Deby near the Libyan border in February 2019. Instability in Chad may affect Barkhane’s operations in the Sahel, including counterterrorism efforts that have temporarily weakened Salafi-jihadi groups. Political instability in Chad may also disrupt US efforts. The US has provided military training and equipment to assist Chad’s Special Anti-Terrorism Group.
Internal unrest also threatens Chad’s border security and may benefit the Islamic State affiliate active on the country’s border with Nigeria. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA) and Boko Haram are active around Lake Chad. Boko Haram militants killed 92 Chadian soldiers in the country’s deadliest attack in March 2020, causing Chadian security forces to intensify their counterterrorism efforts in the following months. ISWA recently accelerated attacks in Chad throughout March and April. The Chadian presence along its Lake Chad border since 2015 has prevented sustained incursions by Boko Haram or ISWA, but a domestic crisis that draws forces away from this region could cede terrain to either group and allow Salafi-jihadi militants to secure a foothold on Chadian terrain.
 SITE Intelligence Group, “ISWAP Claims 16 Chadian Troops Killed in Ambush on Boats on Banks of Lake Chad,” April 10, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; and SITE Intelligence Group, “ISWAP Claims Attack on Chadian Town Near Border with Nigeria, Burning Red Cross Vehicle,” March 23, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.