French Cooperation with Tuareg Rebels Risks Arab Rising in Northern Mali

Andrew McGregor

March 8, 2013

The military situation in the Kidal region of northern Mali is growing more complex by the day. France is conducting counterterrorist operations in the region with its Chadian and Nigérien allies while soldiers of the Malian Army remain excluded from the zone at the request of two Tuareg rebel groups Bamako would like to eliminate – the separatist Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Mouvement Islamique de l’Azawad (MIA), recently formed by defectors from Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din. It is France’s military cooperation with the MNLA (and to a lesser extent with the MIA) in securing Kidal that is now threatening to ignite a tribal war in northern Mali.

kidal-fortFrench Colonial-era Fort in Kidal. Built 1917. (Vitka)

For France, cooperation with the Tuareg MNLA is a military necessity. The movement is largely drawn from the local Ifoghas Tuareg and guides with intimate knowledge of the terrain are essential in the campaign to exterminate the well-armed Islamists hidden in the caves, rocks and vegetation of the mountainous Tigharghar region. Likewise, the MIA is seen as useful in tracking down fugitive Tuareg Islamists from Ansar al-Din, including the movement’s leader, Iyad ag Ghali. The Islamists have already proven their ability to launch devastating ambushes on the counterterrorist forces. For northern Mali’s Arab minority, however, the military alliance between intervention forces and the Tuareg rebels has revived the ancient rivalry between the Arab tribes and the Berber Tuareg. With this rivalry now erupting into armed clashes and the Malian Army (largely composed of Black African tribes from the south) now accused of excesses against the lighter-skinned Tuareg and Arabs in Timbuktu and Gao, the French military now faces the danger of being drawn into a new tribal conflict that will inevitably set back efforts to rid northern Mali of jihadis and narco-traffickers.

Arabs form approximately 10% of northern Mali’s population of 1.2 million, while the Tuareg account for roughly 50%. The main Arab groups are the Bérabiche (who worked closely with the French in the original conquest of northern Mali 119 years ago), the “noble” Kunta and the Telemsi. The Arab tribes are not any better known for inter-tribal cooperation than the fractious Tuareg tribes.

The situation in Kidal was described by Muhamad Mahmud al-Oumrany, a former ambassador and the current president of the Arab Community of Mali:

“The whole Arab community, which was residing in Al-Khalil, was forced to evacuate      the town. It is the first time that ethnic cleansing by a community of another. The cause is that the Kidal area is regarded today as a safe haven for the MNLA. There is no Malian army to restore stability, to restore the law. It is only the MNLA that is in the region. It loots and if any protest is made, it runs to the French army to say: “These are Islamists. They are terrorists.” It is an unacceptable situation and it is going to lead definitely to a clash between the Arab and Tuareg communities” (RFI, March 3).

Al-Oumrany is more favorable to the MIA, under the leadership of Algabass ag Intallah, saying that the noble Intallah family is the key to restoring security to the Kidal region (RFI, March 3).

Unfortunately for the Arabs, their community is hardly free of associations with AQIM and its ally, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Many of the Bérabiche Arabs of northern Mali have cooperated with the AQIM presence for several years out of a combination of economic necessity and ethnic solidarity. For some Arabs, it is the ideological appeal of al-Qaeda that has drawn them into their ranks. Omar Ould Hamaha, a Timbuktu Bérabiche Arab, is the leader of MUJWA and recently formed a local Bérabiche version of Ansar al-Shari’a on December 9, 2012 to protect Arab interests and promote jihad in the Arab community.

Kidal Region (BBC)

Kidal Region (BBC/Google)

The Arab community in Timbuktu has warned of retaliatory ethnic violence in the wake of abuses committed by the Malian Army and even other civilians who do not differentiate between Malian Arabs and al-Qaeda jihadists (RFI, February 23). The community has sent representatives to Paris to plead their case and is urging that Colonel Ould Meydou, a Telemsi Arab, be released from Bamako to lead his largely Bérabiche Arab militia into Timbuktu to restore order (RFI, February 23). The colonel is unpopular with the Malian Army putschists, who have refused to allow him to use his considerable desert-fighting skills against the Islamists. The MNLA strongly dislike Meydou – many of them have clashed with him before in earlier Tuareg rebel formations.

Arab refugees in Mauritania have also mounted protests against what they describe as “ethnic cleansing” by the Malian Army, citing a number of massacres, missing people taken by soldiers and other disorders that are difficult to confirm in the tight information regime currently imposed on northern Mali (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], February 20; February 22).  Despite this, a number of Malian officers and men have been recalled to Bamako for investigation into human rights abuses committed in the wake of the French advance.

In response to these abuses, the Arab community of northern Mali has created a secular self-defense militia with an estimated 500 members. The Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad (MAA) was created in February, 2012 as the Front de Libération nationale de l’Azawad (FNLA) and formed from members of earlier Arab militias and Arab soldiers of the Malian Army who defected after the fall of Timbuktu. Since the rebellion began last year, the movement has drawn increasing numbers of young Arab men looking for some form of protection for their community (Sahara Press, January 12, 2012). The MAA has two strongholds in northern Mali, the first at Telemsi near the Mauritanian border and the second at Tinafareg close to the border with Algeria.

MAA secretary general Ahmad Ould Sidi Muhammad has warned of an ethnic conflict between Arabs and Tuareg and has called for Mauritania and Algeria to be aware of “the grave danger of this unholy alliance between France and the MNLA and the dangerous implications for the region’s people” (Sahara Media, March 4).

A large number of Arabs from Timbuktu took refuge from the Malian Army in the border town of al-Khalil (or In Khalil), a small but strategically important town that controls both smuggling and legal trade across the Algerian border. As such, it formed the last base for AQIM Amir Mokhtar Belmokhtar before it was occupied by the French. After the arrival of the French,  the Arab refugees began to complain of rough treatment by the MNLA, including car-theft, looting and ultimately rape (, February 23). The MNLA occupation, according to the movement, was designed to cut off the Islamists in the Adrar des Ifoghas from food, fuel and other supplies brought in by smugglers.

On February 23, a column of up to 30 vehicles attacked the MNLA based at al-Khalil. The MNLA claimed that they were under attack from elements of MUJWA under Ould Hamaha supported by Ansar al-Shari’a and MAA fighters under the command of MAA chief-of-staff Colonel Hussein Ould Ghulam, a defector from the national army (Combat [Bamako], February 23).  The MNLA succeeded in selling this version of events to the French, who launched airstrikes on the MAA, destroying several vehicles. The MAA withdrew from the attack and returned to their base in the In Farah region close to the border with Algeria, furious at the French intervention on behalf of the MNLA (RFI, February 25). MUJWA claimed responsibility for two car bombs that went off in near MNLA checkpoints that killed two Tuareg fighters on February 22, but made no comment on their alleged role in a battle with the MNLA and French units (RFI, February 23).

An MAA leader, Boubacar Ould Talib, suggested that it was “illogical” for the MAA to cooperate with the Islamists: “We came to al-Khalil to ensure the security and safety of the Arab interests and we will never coordinate with the terrorists in that.” Ould Talib also stated that the MAA was ready to coordinate in counterterrorist efforts with the French at any time (al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 27). The day after the attack on al-Khalil there were fresh clashes between the MAA and MNLA near Tessalit, where the Arab movement claimed the MNLA Tuaregs had committed numerous abuses against the Arab residents (RFI, February 24).

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said: “In Kidal, we are living a particular situation and we do our best to be on good terms with the Tuaregs” (RFI, February 23). However, the defense minister has here ignored the fact that French forces are also fighting alongside the Imghad Tuareg militia led by Colonel al-Hajj ag Gamou, bitter enemies of the Ifoghas leadership of the MNLA and the MIA. At some point, all the contradictions of the French campaign in northern Mali will catch up with it, unless the French succeed in pulling out first. In either case, the hastily-planned intervention has consistently ignored the political and sociological aspects of the campaign, likely at a great future cost to the inhabitants of northern Mali.

This article first appeared in the March 8, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor

Chad and Niger: France’s Military Allies in Northern Mali

Andrew McGregor

Aberfoyle International Security Special Report – February 15, 2013

As the long-promised ECOWAS/African Union intervention force cools its hells behind the lines in Mali, experienced desert fighters from Chad and Niger have stepped into the breach, operating side-by-side with the French in retaking northern Mali from the Islamists and now mounting search operations for Islamists hiding in the sun-baked mountains of Kidal region. With a total contribution of nearly 2,500 men (2,000 from Chad), the contingents from Chad and Niger provide a significant boost to combat capability of the French force of 4,000 troops. Back in Bamako, the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) continues to be assembled piecemeal from troops arriving from seven West African countries.

Chadian Troops on the Move in Northern Mali   (BBC)

Chadian Troops on the Move in Northern Mali (BBC)

Some 1800 Chadian troops have been joined in in the northern city of Kidal by several hundred soldiers from neighboring Niger who have been attached to the Chadian group since it passed through Niger to enter northern Mali from the south. These troops are now carrying out search-and-destroy operations to eliminate armed Islamists thought to be hiding in the caves of the Adar des Ifoghas mountains of north-eastern Mali. The Chadians are guided by local Tuareg belonging to al-Hajj ag-Gamou’s pro-government militia or the separatist Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), the group that began the civil war in Mali over a year ago but was displaced by their former Tuareg Islamist allies in Ansar al-Din. Air support is provided by France, which has carried out scores of bombing runs in the region. So far, however, there seem to have been few contacts of any significance with Islamists in the region, many of whom may have already slipped across the international borders into Mauritania, Algeria, Libya or Niger. French reports describe their targets in the mountains as “mostly logistical depots and training centers” (AFP, February 5). The military intelligence chief of the Chadian deployment, Lieutenant Colonel Ibrahim Idriss, has identified the Chadian advantage in pursuing the Islamists: “We are Muslims like them, so we understand their ideology and we don’t fear them” (McClatchy Newspapers, February 8).

Chad-MaliChadian Troops in Mali (Reuters)

The Chadians spent several days in Menaka before heading north to Kidal. On the evening of February 8, Chadian and French forces entered the isolated garrison town of Aguel Hoc, scene of a rebel massacre of government troops in January, 2012.  The next day, the Chadians and French seized Tessalit and entered Kidal, which had already fallen under the control of the MNLA, who successfully demanded that Malian troops be excluded from the occupying force as a condition of turning over control of the city. The Kidal airstrip had already been taken by the French on January 29.

After the French and Malian troops failed to secure the homes of leading Islamists who had fled Gao and Timbuktu, leading to the loss of large quantities of important documents to looters and curious journalists, French and Chadian searches in Kidal are reported to have yielded large quantities of arms as well as a wealth of useful documents such as passports and lists of fighters. Telephone chips and computers found in Kidal have been sent on for analysis (RFI, February 5).

Chadian president Idriss Déby Itno, as then-commander-in-chief of the Chadian military, cooperated closely with French intelligence, Foreign Legion and air support units in the 1986-87 “Toyota War” that forced Libyan forces out of Chad permanently. The highly-mobile tactics developed by Déby and others in that war continue to characterize Chadian operations and have become the model for many insurgent groups and some government forces operating in the Sahara/Sahel region. The Chadian deployment in Mali is under the command of Déby’s son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno.

Déby’s commitment of a substantial number of his best troops to the Mali intervention demonstrates the president’s confidence in his political control of Chad, his elimination of insurgent threats and the steady improvement of relations with neighboring Sudan that followed the 2010 rapprochement. Prior to that, both Khartoum and N’Djamena were engaged in a proxy war in which each side supported rebel movements inside their rival’s territory. Both regimes were nearly toppled in the process, but now there are plans to build a Qatari-financed road to tie the two countries. There is also a small French military base in N’Djamena with a pair of French fighter-jets and some 200 Legionnaires; it is not impossible that some type of guarantees were given by Paris regarding the preservation of the Déby regime in an emergency while his best troops are deployed in Mali.

Nonetheless, the Chadian capital of N’Djamena has been on a war footing since joining the Malian intervention. Dozens of suspects have been arrested as the Mobile Police Intervention Group carries out multiple patrols, identity checks and vehicle searches. A report citing an anonymous diplomatic source claimed 500 members of Nigeria’s Boko Haram had entered the capital, but this report was quickly denied by a Chadian government spokesman (Jeune Afrique, February 13; Radio France Internationale, February 14).

Chadian forces are also present in the Central African Republic (CAR), which they entered in mid-December 2012 to prop up the regime of President François Bozizé against the Seleka coalition of rebels marching on the capital of Bangui.

Niger, which has faced a series of rebellions from Tuareg rebels with loose connections to Tuareg rebels in Mali, has no wish to see the MNLA legitimized for fear separatist success in Mali will revive the relatively dormant Tuareg independence movement in Niger. Nigérien President Mahamadou Issoufou recently stated: “The MNLA is not representative of the Tuareg people in Mali. It represents a tiny minority” (Le Monde, February 4).  There is no doubt Issoufou is uncomfortable seeing his troops working side-by-side with the Tuareg separatists of the MNLA, but he has no more influence on the composition of the counterterrorist force than does Bamako, which has issued arrest warrants for the MNLA leaders that have been ignored by the French and their allies in Kidal.

Chadian Troops in Mali with Armored Personnel Carriers

Chadian Troops in Mali with Armored Personnel Carriers

According to documents said to have been seized by French forces in Mali, Niger was designated to be the site of the second phase of the Islamists’ plan to create an Islamic Emirate in the Sahara/Sahel region (al-Khabar [Algiers], February 13).  Issoufou confirmed that French Special Forces have moved in to protect Niger’s uranium industry facililties from an In Aménas-style attack. Most of the uranium produced in Niger is destined for French energy and military uses. Niger has enormous, largely unguarded borders with northern Mali, and has taken a strategic decision to take the fight to the Islamists even though this commitment will decrease the number of men available to maintain the security of Niger’s 500 mile border with Mali. Niger’s desert units are well-experienced and normally contain a number of former Tuareg rebels who have been re-integrated into Niger’s military, though it is unclear whether such individuals form part of the present deployment. Nonetheless, the Nigérien army is small and underfunded, leaving the president to seek military protection where he can. When a U.S. diplomat asked Issoufou on January 28 if Niger would be willing to host a U.S. surveillance drone base, the offer was accepted immediately (Reuters, January 29).

The Chadian deployment in Mali comes in stark contrast to that of Nigeria, which leads the AFISMA mission but has so far only managed to field under 300 of the 1,200 man deployment promised by Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan. Many of the men appear to have arrived without arms, preventing their deployment in most tasks, and morale has suffered from food shortages. In their search for provisions, officers and men are reported to be resorting to “courtesy calls” on local leaders who are then expected to “return the call,” usually with a large gift of food (Premium Times [Lagos], February 12).  Despite government claims of a fighting advance into northern Mali, Nigerian troops have yet to move out of Bamako. The deployment is highly unpopular in Nigeria, where many citizens worry the intervention will only provide new opportunities for vast sums of money to be siphoned from the national treasury. There are also critics who suggest that the army should finish dealing with the Boko Haram threat inside Nigeria before it engages in foreign adventures. Nigerian troops are already deployed abroad in Darfur with the African Union/United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (still using the former acronym UNAMID). With AFISMA largely designed to be built around a Nigerian core, there seems little chance that the other West African contingents arriving in Bamako will see the front-lines any time soon. In a way they served as a diversion in the southwest while the real African combat group entered Mali from the southeast.

Chadian Regime and Rebels Alike Welcome Talk of Ending French Military Presence

Andrew McGregor

July 14, 2011

Indications from Paris that France may be ready to bring an end to Opération Épervier, its 25-year-old military mission in Chad, have been welcomed by both the government of President Idriss Déby and General Mahamat Nouri, commander of one of Chad’s leading rebel movements. The French mission has both a land and air component and is based in two places; the airport at the capital of N’Djamena in the west and Abéché (former capital of the Sultanate of Wadai) in the east. Three Mirage 2000 jet fighters form part of the mission as do roughly 1,000 troops, mostly of the French Foreign Legion.

French Foreign Legion Unit in Chad

During talks with Chad in Paris on July 5, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe suggested that there was no longer any reason for France to continue keeping roughly 1,000 French troops in Chad. A senior official of the Chadian Foreign Ministry said N’Djamena had no objections: “Chad is prepared to begin negotiations with French authorities as early as next week… Épervier has been in Chad for 25 years. It is time to review this structure to adapt to the current context” (AFP, July 6).

General Mahamat Nouri, the leader of the rebel Alliance nationale pour le changement démocratique (ANCD) said he was “very pleased” with the remarks of the French Foreign Minister, acknowledging that the rebels “would probably be in power were it not for the French troops.” The general also hailed what he described as the French “determination to pursue a transparent, credible foreign policy in line with its historical and cultural values” (AFP, July 6). Nouri, along with other Chadian rebel leaders living in Sudan, was expelled to Doha last year after the rapprochement between N’Djamena and Khartoum.

Chad was formed as a territory of France after the conquest of a number of small sultanates and the expulsion of the Libyan Sanusis in the early years of the 20th century. The territory eventually gained independence in 1960, though economic and security ties with France remained strong.

  1. Foreign Legion BiltineOperation Épervier: 2e régiment étranger de parachutistes ( 2e REP) at Biltine, Chad

Opération Épervier (Sparrowhawk) began in 1986 to supply French military assistance to the regime of Hissène Habré when the Libyan army tried to seize the uranium-rich Aouzou Strip in northern Chad. When General Déby overthrew the increasingly brutal Habré in 1990 the French mission did not interfere. Habré fled to Senegal where he remained safe since Senegal had no law regarding “crimes against humanity” on its books and also wanted to avoid the considerable cost involved in trying a former head-of-state for the murders of over 40,000 individuals. Senegal recently decided to extradite Habré to Chad but reversed itself at the urging of UN human rights chief Navi Pillay, who warned  Habré could be tortured if returned to Chad. Belgium has now offered to try Habré under its “universal competence” law (Reuters, July 11; AFP, July 11).

Much has changed in Chad since 2008, when Déby and his loyalists fought off a Sudanese-supported rebel invasion in the streets of N’Djamena with intelligence and logistical assistance from the French military. Deby’s new confidence no doubt arises from the pact he signed with Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, in which both sides pledged to end their proxy war along the Chad-Sudan border. Though such pacts have collapsed in the past, this time Sudan is likely to be consumed by its own internal problems for a considerable time following the independence of South Sudan. Déby has also worked to fortify N’Djamena to prevent a repeat of the 2008 rebel assault. A three-meter deep trench has been built around the city to force all traffic to enter through fortified gateways. Many of N’Djamena’s trees have also been cut down to prevent rebels from using them to block roads (Reuters, March 3, 2008; BBC, March 4, 2008).

During last August’s celebration of 50 years of Chadian independence, Déby suggested it was time to begin charging France for maintaining a military presence in Chad. According to the President, Operation Epervier no longer played a role in Chad aside from “providing some healthcare for the sick and logistical support in case of an attack somewhere… We have no defense accord with France. And the presence of Épervier has nothing to do with our independence or our sovereignty. Épervier is not here to help or support a government or a regime.” (Le Figaro, August 26, 2010).

Déby may face new security challenges in northern Chad, where a trade system based on supplies from Libya has broken down, causing severe shortages of many commodities in the region (Le Monde, July 7). There are some 70,000 Chadian workers who have been expelled from Libya due to the civil war as well as fears of arms reaching Chadian insurgents and criminals from uncontrolled weapons depots in Libya.

There is also speculation that Déby is seeking to replace the historical relationship with France with a less intrusive economic partnership with China. Ties with China have been steadily increasing since 2006 and the China National Petroleum Corporation has just started operations at a joint venture oil refinery outside of N’Djamena (Xinhua, July 1).

In a related development, a French court has found four men guilty of “robbery leading to death without intention to kill” in the death of Déby’s son, Brahim Déby. A resident of Paris with previous convictions for drugs and weapons possession, Brahim Déby was attacked with a taser gun and covered in fire extinguisher foam in a 2007 robbery that prosecutors said had no political connection (Le Monde, July 7; Radio France Internationale, July 8).

This article was originally published in the July 14, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Mali-Mauritanian Joint Counter-Terrorist Patrols Begin in Sahara/Sahel

Mali-Mauritanian Joint Counterterrorist Patrols Begin in Sahara/Sahel

Andrew McGregor

November 11, 2010

Malian troops rendezvoused with Mauritanian forces roughly 50 miles north of Timbuktu last week as the two nations began joint counter-terrorism patrols in northern Mali designed to eliminate the presence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s southern command. It is the first time Malian troops have joined their Mauritanian counterparts, who conducted operations with French military support in northern Mali in July and September of this year. The new patrols are expected to cover both sides of the common border in the Sahara/Sahel region.

Mali-MauritaniaMali-Mauritania (BBC) 

According to a Malian officer attached to the new force, “Today we are in the Malian desert. Tomorrow, together we can, we will go into the Mauritanian desert. The problems of Mali are the problems of Mauritania and the problems of Mauritania are those of Mali” (AFP, November 4).

Mali’s army chief of staff, General Gabriel Poudiougou, arrived in Mauritania on November 4 to discuss military cooperation between the two nations, which have had serious differences in the last two years over the appropriate response to AQIM’s growing operations in the Sahara/Sahel region (Sahara Media, November 5; AFP, November 4). Mauritania has been criticized in some quarters for acting as a Western proxy, especially on behalf of France and the United States, both of which have been involved in training Mauritanian troops. Mauritanian President Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz denounced those who “have been echoing the propaganda of the enemies, accusing us of waging war by proxy… All these rumors, all this false propaganda, will only reinforce our determination to defend our country and preserve its independence and sovereignty” (Ennahar [Algiers], October 24).

The patrols start as four AQIM members were reported killed in an attack carried out by Arab tribesmen from the Timbuktu area, allegedly a well-planned response to the AQIM assassination of Lieutenant Colonel Lamana Ould Bou, a Malian intelligence officer and a leader of Mali’s Bérabiche Arabs (AFP, November 4).  The clash would mark an important setback for AQIM, which has worked hard to establish links with the Bérabiche community, though Malian security forces deny the encounter took place. Mauritanian troops have been trying to win over the loyalty of local tribes through the distribution of tea, sugar and medicines (AFP, November 7).

France’s Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE – French external intelligence) and various French Special Forces and Air Force units are deeply involved in the ongoing search for five French nationals and two African employees kidnapped from the French uranium works at Arlit in northern Niger. The men were taken by AQIM in mid-September and are believed to be held at AQIM bases in northern Mali. Though the French are ready to act once the hostages are located, Paris also hopes to avoid a direct military confrontation with AQIM. According to French armed forces chief-of-staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud, France, the region’s former colonial power, “should be careful not to provide AQIM with the enemy it needs to exist and prosper” (Le Monde, November 4).

This article first appeared in the November 11, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Mauritanian Defense Minister Discusses Joint Military Operations with France

Andrew McGregor
November 4, 2010

Mauritanian Defense Minister Hamadi Ould Baba Ould Hamadi recently described the new offensive posture his country is taking in regard to the threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in an interview with an Algerian daily (El Watan [Algiers], October 28, 2010). Noting the vast size of Mauritania and the difficulty of securing a territory that is two-thirds desert, Ould Hamadi said authorities now believe that “a defensive and static strategy is not efficient. This is why we have opted for an offensive defense against terrorism, which consists in not allowing the setting up of terrorist operational and logistic bases at our borders.”

Mauritania Defense MinisterMauritanian Defense Minister Hamadi Ould Baba Ould Hamadi

The Defense Minister said the September 17 joint military operation with France that attacked AQIM suspects in neighboring Mali was an example of Mauritania’s new approach:

According to our information, the terrorist groups were regrouping to attack us. We effectively benefited from French logistic support that has enabled us to conduct our offensive attack. We will repeat this sort of operation whenever we can, and we will not wait to be attacked and then retaliate. When we have information about the existence of operational bases, we will do our best to destroy them.

Though the September operation was carried out to muted opposition from Algeria, the most powerful country in the region and a firm opponent of military intervention by “former colonial powers,” Ould Hamadi indicated that Mauritania would address its security concerns in its own way despite the recent creation of a number of multilateral security mechanisms in the Sahel/Sahara region. According to Ould Hamadi, “Consultation does not mean that when you feel that an attack is coming you wait for consultation with other countries. Threat imposes a daily vigilance, and we are obliged to react when we are faced with a threat.”

The Algerian position on foreign intervention was echoed by Jemil Ould Mansour, leader of the Islamist opposition Tewassoul party, when he said, “We all agree to condemn terrorism and fight it vigorously, but we do not agree on coordination with foreign countries, especially when they have a colonial past in the region” (AFP, October 28, 2010). His remarks came during a five day national forum on terrorism held in Nouackchott (October 24-28, 2010). In his opening remarks to the forum, Mauritania’s president, Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, expanded on his government’s new security policy:

We have transferred the battle circle to the strongholds of the aggressors, away from our borders in order to, on the one hand, prevent them from launching their shameful operations in our populated regions and, on the hand, with the aim of carrying out our global development programs in an atmosphere of security and peace (Maliweb, October 27, 2010).

The forum was boycotted by most of the opposition parties, who complained of being invited only at the last minute (PANA Online [Dakar], October 25, 2010).

September’s Franco-Mauritanian operation, which resulted in the death of two Malian women, proved an embarrassment for Mali’s president Amadou Toumani Touré. Malian troops had an almost negligible role in the operation, which was carried out close to the city of Timbuktu. Malian spokesmen at first denied any knowledge of the foreign military intervention, but by late October the president had acknowledged being informed of the operations, even claiming the mission “was largely supported, if not accompanied, by the Malian Army” (Radio France Internationale, October 25; Le Soir de Bamako, October 27, 2010).

Nevertheless, Mauritania is trying to distance itself from being seen as a security proxy for France and the West. Ould Hamadi confirmed that the government was seeking to upgrade Mauritania’s arms and military equipment, but tried to emphasize the limited French military role. He stated, “There is no French base in Mauritania, nor will there be, not for France, nor for other countries.” In an effort to not be seen as the West’s ally in the “War on Terrorism,” President Abdelaziz has explained several times that Mauritania is “not engaged in an open war against al-Qaeda or any other person,” suggesting instead that Mauritanian military operations are directed at “armed criminal bands” (al-Jazeera, October 9, 2010). According to an AQIM statement, however, the president is an “agent of France” and the Mauritanian army is “acting in the way of infidels and crusaders who kill innocent people in Afghanistan and Iraq” (Ennahar [Algiers], September 21, 2010).

This article first appeared in the November 4, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Has al-Qaeda Started a Feud with the Tuareg?

Andrew McGregor

August 19, 2010

Fallout continues in North Africa from the July 22 raid on elements of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The joint operation by French and Mauritanian security forces on Malian territory was intended to free 78-year-old hostage Michel Germaneau. The raid failed and Germaneau was killed in retaliation, but six AQIM operatives were killed by security forces, infuriating AQIM leaders, who continue to hold two Spanish hostages in northern Mali. An AQIM statement described the six dead al-Qaeda members as being three Tuareg, an Algerian, a Mauritanian and a Moroccan (Reuters, August 16).

GermaneauAbd al-Hamid (Hamidu) Abu Zaid, an AQIM commander responsible for a number of kidnappings and for the execution of British tourist Edwin Dyer, is reported to be suspicious that the Tuareg provided the precise information that enabled the joint commando force to locate and kill the six AQIM operatives. Abu Zaid took his revenge by abducting and murdering a Tuareg customs officer named Mirzag Ag al-Housseini, the brother of a senior Malian Army commander, Brahim Ag al-Housseini (El Khabar [Algiers], August 12). No ransom was sought for the captive, who was executed on August 12 (Radio France Internationale, August 13). A soldier abducted at the same time as Mirzag and another abducted civilian were released by AQIM on August 16 (AFP, August 16).

The leader of AQIM in Mauritania, Abu Anas al-Shanqiti, warned that AQIM would carry out reprisals against the “traitorous apostates, children and agents of Christian France” as a result of the raid (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, August 16; AFP, July 24). The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to these “threats uttered by assassins” by announcing that France’s security apparatus was “fully mobilized” (Le Monde, August 17; AFP, August 17).

Reports from Mali claim President Amadou Toumani Touré “is seething” over the Franco-Mauritanian commando operation in northern Mali. The President was apparently not informed of the operation in advance, nor were Malian forces called on to participate (Jeune Afrique, August 16).

Mali is still struggling with a simmering Tuareg insurgency in its vast and poorly controlled northern region. Colonel Hassan Ag Fagaga, a noted Tuareg rebel, has threatened to resume the insurgency if the government does not implement the terms of the 2008 Algiers Accord (El Khabar, July 15).  Colonel Ag Fagaga brought 400 Tuareg fighters in for integration with Mali’s armed forces in 2009. He has already deserted twice to join the Tuareg rebels in the north. Al-Qaeda has tried to ingratiate itself with the disaffected Tuareg of northern Mali but has had only marginal success. Some former rebels have even offered to form Tuareg counterterrorist units to expel the mostly Arab al-Qaeda group from the region.


This article first appeared in the August 19, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Islamists Warn France against Military Role in Somalia

Andrew McGregor

September 10, 2009

With al-Shabaab extremists threatening to try a captured French security advisor in Somalia under their version of Islamic law, the radical Islamist movement appears ready to provoke a French military intervention. The man is one of two Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) agents abducted in a July 14 raid on a Mogadishu hotel (see Terrorism Monitor, July 30). The other agent claims to have escaped his captors on August 26.
France - Somalia 1

DGSE Agent Marc Aubrière after His Escape (NYT)

Shaykh Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal, chairman of the Islamic Council of Amal (Hope), a former leading member of the ICU and al-Shabaab, condemned France’s military and security support for Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) on August 29, adding that any other French officials coming to Somalia will be kidnapped (Daily Nation [Kampala], August 31). On August 28, an al-Shabaab official announced that the remaining French hostage would be sentenced for spying under Islamic law.  Two days later Shaykh Bilal told Iranian TV that al-Shabaab was ready to execute their prisoner (Press TV, August 30).

The agent who escaped, identified as Marc Aubrière (probably not his real name), provided a dramatic but highly improbable account of navigating his way by the stars to Mogadishu’s Presidential Palace after escaping his Hizb al-Islam captors and evading armed gunmen shooting at him for five hours in Shabaab-controlled neighborhoods (Shabelle Media Network, August 26; Somaliland Times, August 29). More likely are reports circulating in Mogadishu that Aubrière was released after the French government agreed to a ransom. The second DGSE agent is being held by al-Shabaab, which has assured reporters that the man is heavily guarded and unlikely to escape (AFP, August 28).

A senior al-Shabaab official described the agent’s tale as absurd and accused the movement’s Hizb al-Islam allies of accepting money for the agent’s release. “Even if he escaped, how was it possible for him to walk all the way to the presidential palace without being noticed by the mujahideen?” (Hillaac, August 26). Al-Shabaab may feel it necessary to deal harshly with the French prisoner to preserve its image in light of their Islamist ally’s alleged perfidy in releasing their prisoner in exchange for a ransom (as is widely believed in Mogadishu).

France - Somalia 2

5e Régiment Interarmes d’Outre-Mer Training in Djibouti (Ministére de la Défense)

150 of an expected 500 TFG soldiers are now in Djibouti receiving military training from the 5e Régiment Interarmes d’Outre-Mer (5e RIAOM), a mixed-arms Marine regiment permanently stationed in Africa. There are reports that some of the TFG recruits were returned to Somalia for being too young (Libération, August 28). The government of Djibouti has also announced its readiness to send an estimated 500 soldiers with French assistance to Somalia to join the badly undermanned African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force (Garowe Online, September 2).

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has indicated France will not be deterred by hostage-takings. “We will mobilize to support Africa faced with the growing threat from al-Qaeda, whether in the Sahel or in Somalia… France will not let al-Qaeda set up a sanctuary on our doorstep in Africa. That message, too, must be clearly heard” (AFP, August 27).


This article first appeared in the September 10, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Somali Extremists Fight over French Intelligence Agents Kidnapped in Mogadishu

Andrew McGregor

July 30, 2009

France’s growing involvement in Somalia suddenly drew attention when two French intelligence agents were kidnapped from a supposedly secure hotel in Mogadishu on July 14. The men, posing as journalists, were eating breakfast at Mogadishu’s Sahafi Hotel when gunmen wearing Somali government uniforms burst into the restaurant and seized them. The success of the operation and the absence of any resistance from security personnel led some to speculate it was an inside job.

Somali Interior MinisterSomali Interior Minister Shaykh Abdulkadir Ali Omar

Among those arrested were a number of hotel staff and bodyguards belonging to the Minister of the Interior, Shaykh Abdulkadir Ali Omar. A former deputy chairman of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) before the Ethiopian invasion of December 2006, and still a leader of his own militia, Abdulkadir’s appointment as Somalia’s new interior minister was controversial. Abdulkadir, however, is loyal to President and former ICU chairman Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad and served as the ICU’s operations commander during the Ethiopian invasion (Reuters, February 21). Shaykh Abdulkadir was wounded and his personal secretary was killed in a targeted IED explosion near Mogadishu’s Bakara market in March (Garowe Online, March 27). No one claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt.

Abdulkadir’s bodyguards were accused of snatching the French agents before turning them over to Somali insurgents, but a government commission of inquiry said a few days later that they had found no evidence for the involvement of government officials (Horseed Media, July 21). The hotel, favored by Transitional Federal Government (TFG) officials, is located in an area tightly controlled by government troops and Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers belonging to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Whether the abducted men were then turned over (or sold) to the Islamist Hizb al-Islam militia of Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys remains uncertain. Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke maintains the two were abducted by Hizb al-Islam operatives (Shabelle Media Network, July 16). At some point during their transportation to a safe location, Hizb al-Islam’s al-Shabaab allies turned up and demanded custody of both prisoners. Hours of heated argument followed, with al-Shabaab eventually being persuaded to take only one of the pair (Shabelle Media Network, July 16; AFP, July 16).

A Somali news site reported receiving information that the two men had been transported to Lower Shabelle in a convoy of battle wagons (armored pick-up trucks) where they were turned over to the forces of Shaykh Hassan Abdullah Hirsi al-Turki for concealment under heavy guard in the forests of the Juba region (AllPuntland, July 20). Al-Turki is an Islamist warlord who has close ties to al-Shabaab.

By some accounts, the agents will be tried for spying under Islamic law, though senior commanders have said the penalty may be a “fine,” suggesting the insurgents are badly in need of funds as American military equipment continues to flow to the TFG (, July 19).

Eventually French officials admitted the two men were not journalists; the secretary-general of the Elysée Palace (office of the French president) declared that the men were provided by the Defense Ministry “under international authority, in the preparation of a security unit for the Somali president… They were the precursors of a training unit for the praetorian guard” (AFP, July 19).

Earlier this month, France’s U.N. representative told the Security Council: “The training of Somali security forces is key to building the country’s military capacity.” [1] France started training an initial force of 150 TFG soldiers at the French military base in Djibouti this month, two months ahead of schedule (AFP, July 21). They are the first of a battalion of 500 men scheduled to receive military training. France has sought the participation of other European nations in training as part of a full-fledged mission under the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), but other European parties have expressed concern about whether the trained troops would remain loyal to the TFG after returning to Somalia (, May 20).

Besides training TFG troops in Djibouti, the French military has made its presence felt in Somalia in other ways. A joint French-Spanish naval mission, “Atalante,” has been providing security against piracy in the Gulf of Aden since December 2008 and France has also provided military training to the Ugandan and Burundian troops of AMISOM, who are now battling al-Shabaab and Hizb al-Islam fighters in Mogadishu.
The choice of the intelligence agents to disguise themselves as journalists has drawn condemnation from Somalia’s much-threatened journalist community. Eight Somali journalists have been murdered in the last two years and scores beaten or imprisoned. The Somalis fear such impersonations will only fuel the popular conception of journalists as agents of foreign powers.


[1] Security Council: Somalia – Statement made by Mr. Jean-Maurice Ripert, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations, July 9, 2009

This article first appeared in the July 30, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Mass Attack on French Paratroopers Heralds New Taliban Tactics

Andrew McGregor

September 2, 2008

Conflicting accounts of a Taliban ambush of an elite French military unit in the Surubi district of Kabul Province on August 18 have raised new concerns about the future of France’s politically unpopular deployment in Afghanistan. Ten soldiers were killed and 21 wounded in one of the largest Taliban operations since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The French troops were part of a fresh group of 700 soldiers committed by French president Nicolas Sarkozy to join over 2,000 French troops under International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) command. When the new French troops arrived they relieved two American battalions in the Kapisa region, a strategically important district near Kabul (France 24, July 25). A French officer described the French troops involved in the ambush as “experienced” and “combat-capable” (Le Figaro, August 20). Nevertheless, the Taliban made a political statement by targeting the new additions to the French ISAF contingent. The proximity of a major Taliban operation to Kabul has alarmed many within the capital, who point out that previous attacks within Kabul’s security belt have heralded the eventual fall of the city to insurgent forces (Cheragh [Kabul], August 21).

Surubi 18e RPMIa in Afghanistan (Arnaud Guerin)

On August 18, 30 soldiers of the 8ème Régiment Parachutiste d’Infanterie de Marine (8th RPIMa – Airborne Infantry) and another 30 from the Régiment de Marche du Tchad (RMT) were tasked with reconnoitering the Uzbeen valley route between the Tagab district of Kapisa and the Surubi district of Kabul provinces. They were joined by two sections of Afghan troops and a unit of American Special Forces. Most of the French were carried in Armored Vanguard Vehicles (Véhicule de l’Avant Blindé – VAB), armored personnel carriers built by GIAT Industries.

Formed in 1951 for service in Indochina, the 8th RPIMa was dissolved after being virtually annihilated in the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, only to be revived in 1956 for service in the Algerian conflict. Since its relocation from Algeria to the French garrison town of Castres in 1963, the 8th RPIMa has been deployed in at least fifteen countries on various missions, including recent deployments in the first Gulf War, Cambodia, Kurdish northern Iraq, the Congo, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. 500 paratroopers of the RPIMa were sent to Afghanistan in June and July.

“Marine” units like the 8th RPIMa are not comparable to the U.S. or British Marines; the name refers rather to the 19th century Ministère de la Marine which was responsible for French armed forces overseas, as opposed to the Metropolitan army, which came under the Ministry of War. The troupes de marine became troupes coloniales as part of the French Colonial Army in 1900 with a consequent change in the titles of the units involved, but the term “marine” was revived after the postwar collapse of the French empire to signify volunteer units designated for overseas service. The all-volunteer troupes de marine include infantry, light cavalry, artillery, and airborne infantry units.

Surubi 2VAB of the Régiment de Marche du Tchad in Afghanistan (Ministére de la Défense)

The Régiment de Marche du Tchad is a mechanized unit of the troupes de marine. Now based in France, the RMT was formed in 1943 from metropolitan soldiers serving in the Régiment des Tirailleurs Sénégalais du Tchad after rallying to the Free French cause during General Philippe Leclerc’s campaign in Chad. 450 members of the RMT were sent to Afghanistan in May; another 150 serve as peacekeepers in Lebanon (Le Parisien, October 20). The French force also included a small number of men from the 35ème Régiment d’Artillerie Parachutiste (35e RAP – Airborne Artillery Regiment).

The multinational force struggled through difficult terrain and extreme heat along a difficult and winding mountainous road in an area known for Taliban activity. Army chief of staff General Jean-Louis Georgelin described the ambush as “a well-organized trap” on “terrain that was extremely favorable to the enemy” (Le Monde, August 21). The ambush was launched at 3:30 PM after the paratroopers left their APCs to reconnoiter a pass on foot. As one survivor pointed out, the pass was nearly three hours out from the column’s starting point; “enough time for the Taliban to be warned by their accomplices of our arrival” (Le Monde, August 21). French General Michel Stollsteiner, ISAF commander in the Kabul region, stated; “In the past two weeks we had largely secured the zone but you have to be frank, we were guilty of overconfidence” (Reuters, August 25).

French press interviews with survivors of the ambush describe a rapid breakdown in command and communications, with Taliban marksmen taking down French soldiers at will. Among the first to be killed were the deputy section leader and the radioman of the advance unit. The warrant officer in command was shot in the shoulder. Soon afterwards the paratroopers’ radio communication with the RMT broke down. Heavily outnumbered, the French remained pinned down and under fire from small arms, machine guns and rocket launchers for four hours without reinforcements. Ammunition for all weapons other than their assault rifles ran out as the soldiers were unable to reach supplies still in their vehicles, although a VAB with a section from the 35e Régiment d’Artillerie Parachutiste in the rear of the column was able to deploy the vehicle’s machine gun and four 120mm mortars in support (La Depeche, August 21).

Some of the wounded alleged that their unit was hit by fire from their Afghan allies and NATO aircraft (Le Monde, August 21; AFP, August 21). Fire from A-10 Thunderbolts was directed by the American Special Forces while a pair of F-15 fighters passed through without using their weapons because the French and Taliban were too closely intertwined. An initial attempt by American helicopters to evacuate the wounded failed due to heavy fire. French EC725 Caracal helicopters arrived to provide fire support – one helicopter brought in a doctor and ten French commandos from the rapid reaction force in Kabul. A group leader from the rapid reaction force who arrived after a 90 minute drive through difficult terrain described the situation on his arrival; “We couldn’t see the enemy and we didn’t know how many of them there were. We started climbing, but after 20 minutes we started coming under fire from the rear. We were surrounded” (AFP, September 1). 81mm mortars also arrived with the reinforcements but helicopters were unable to evacuate the wounded until 8PM. Six hours after the ambush began, Taliban fighters began to break off, though many remained in the area, launching a last attack at 9AM the next day (La Depeche, August 24; Quotidien, August 21; AFP, August 21).

Despite official assurances that nearly all the casualties occurred in the first minutes of the ambush, other accounts suggested that four soldiers were captured before being killed by Taliban fighters (Telegraph, August 19; Independent, August 20). An investigative report by French weekly Le Canard enchainé claimed that the column’s interpreter disappeared only hours before the operation began, suggesting the French troops were betrayed either by the interpreter or by Afghan troops attached to the column. The report repeated the claim four French soldiers were captured and executed by the Taliban shortly after the ambush began (Le Canard enchainé; August 27).

During the rescue of the wounded, an armored car of the RMT overturned when the road collapsed and the vehicle fell into a ravine, killing a Kanak trooper from New Caledonia and injuring four others (Oceania Flash, August 20). A medic from the 2ème Régiment Etranger Parachutiste (Foreign Legion) was also killed after making several forays to bring in wounded comrades from the 8th RPIMa.

Unlike the first-hand accounts carried by the press, French Defense Minister Hervé Morin insisted that reinforcements were sent within 20 minutes and there were no indications of friendly fire (RTL, August 21). Pentagon and NATO spokesmen also denied having any evidence of such incidents. The Afghan Ministry of Defense stated that 13 Taliban fighters, including one Pakistani, were killed in the battle (Cheragh [Kabul], August 21). Some French officers claimed 40 to 70 militants were killed, but acknowledged finding only one body (AFP, September 1). Claude Guéant, general secretary of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, maintained “the majority of the assailants were not Afghans” (Reuters, August 23).

A Taliban statement entitled “New and Interesting Information on the Killing and Wounding of the French Soldiers in Surubi” claimed that hundreds of Taliban fighters using heavy and light weapons had overwhelmed a French infantry battalion of 100 men and 18 tanks (APCs?) and other military vehicles. The statement describes the infliction of “hundreds” of French casualties and the destruction of five tanks and eight other military vehicles before locals descended to loot abandoned French weapons (Sawt al-Jihad, August 22). The region in which the attack took place is considered a stronghold of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i Islami movement, which also issued a claim of responsibility for the attack (Afghan Islamic Press, August 19).

In the aftermath of the attack, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner declared, “Nobody is thinking of leaving Afghanistan,” but added a few days later, “We need what is called ‘Afghanization’, that’s to say to pass responsibilities, all responsibilities, as quickly as possible to the Afghans” (AFP, August 21; Reuters, August 25).

The ambush and recent suicide attacks on American outposts reveal an escalation in the violence and effectiveness of Taliban attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan. Added to the steady attrition of NATO, ISAF and U.S. personnel, these new attacks are intended to remind the West that despite seven years of campaigning, the Taliban are as strong as ever. Since the ambush, the French deployment in Afghanistan has come under sharp criticism from the public, the press, and opposition politicians. The French public has never had a taste for involvement in Afghanistan, reflected in a recent Le Parisien opinion poll that showed 55% of respondents believe France should withdraw from Afghanistan. With Prime Minister François Fillon calling for a September vote in parliament on the future of the French military commitment to Afghanistan, President Sarkozy’s efforts to expand France’s role in that country may come at a considerable political cost.


This article first appeared in the September 2, 2008 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus


Oil Industry at the Heart of the Zaghawa Power Struggle in Chad

Andrew McGregor

March 7, 2007

It was only a few years ago when the African nation of Chad was being promoted as a ground-breaking example of a new model of transparent oil revenue distribution that would relieve poverty and initiate development. Tribalism and kleptocratic rule would no longer be part of the familiar equation of vanishing oil wealth in other parts of Africa. Instead, only a few weeks ago, the world witnessed blood running in the streets of the Chadian capital of N’Djamena as rival factions of the minority Zaghawa tribe battled for the right to empty Chad’s ever-growing coffers. This unwelcome instability only adds to a downward spiral of violence in a region already beset by political and ethnic violence in neighboring Darfur and the Central African Republic (CAR).

chad Zaghawa 1Chadian Government Troops

Chad is host to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Darfur and the Central African Republic, as well as Chad’s own internally displaced peoples. Most Chadians live in grinding poverty overseen by a political and administrative structure routinely viewed as one of the most corrupt in the world. Despite this, the February 2-3 attack on N’Djamena by 300 armed pick-up trucks full of rebels had less to do with righting these glaring inequities than with replacing President Idris Déby’s Zaghawa faction with other Zaghawa factions eager to take control of Chad’s sudden oil wealth.

Role of the French

Formed as a territory of France after the conquest of a number of small sultanates and the expulsion of the Libyan Sanusis in the early years of the 20th century, Chad gained independence in 1960. There is a strange relationship between Chad and France that began in 1940 when Chad, through its governor, Felix Aboué—actually from French Guiana—was the first overseas territory of the French empire to declare for Free France. General Leclerc had the first Free French military successes in Chad before marching into southern France, together with thousands of Chadian troops. In the process Chad became inextricably tied with the mythology surrounding the creation of modern, Gaullist, post-war France. In practice this often translates into seemingly inexplicable French support for the government of the day in Chad, regardless of corruption or inefficiency.

The French military presence in Chad is officially referred to as Operation Epervier (Sparrowhawk), which began in 1986 as a means of supplying French military assistance in the form of troops and warplanes to the regime of President Hissène Habré as the Libyan army tried to seize the uranium-rich Aouzou Strip in northern Chad. When General Déby overthrew the increasingly brutal Habré in 1990 the French looked on. Though the dispute with Libya was settled in 1994, the French military mission stayed on as a “deterrent.” Today it includes about 1,200 troops, six Mirage aircraft and three Puma helicopters (Le Figaro, April 19, 2006). Typically the French supply the regime with intelligence and logistical assistance. France has limited commercial interests in Chad and is largely uninvolved in the nation’s oil industry.

Chad Zaghawa 22e Régiment étranger de parachutistes (Foreign Legion) on a training mission north of N’Djamena

Rebel leader Mahamat Nouri notes that Chad and France share a “community of interests in history, religion, blood and culture,” while adding that the French government—and not the people of France—have befriended Déby against the people of Chad (TchadVision, February 27).

Chad’s Oil Industry

Crude oil was first discovered in Chad in the late 1960s, but development of a local industry was delayed due to the remoteness of the land-locked country, lack of infrastructure and political instability. The oil boom changed all that, and today a consortium run by ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and the Malaysian Petronas operate Chad’s oil industry. Three oil fields in the Doba Basin are currently in operation, with estimated reserves of 900 million barrels (Afrol News, December 22, 2004).

A 2000 deal between Chad, the World Bank and a consortium of oil companies called for the construction of a $3.7 billion pipeline from Chad’s oilfields to the Cameroon port of Kribi on the Gulf of Guinea. Three years later 160,000 barrels per day were running through the pipeline, gradually growing to the peak capacity of 225,000 barrels per day. The agreement called for 70% of Chad’s revenues from the project to go toward infrastructure development and poverty relief. Transparency and accountability were to be the key in avoiding the widespread corruption of other oil-rich African countries.

In practice very little of this new affluence trickled through the hands of the regime. Increased spending on weapons began almost immediately while electricity remains unknown outside of the capital. A failed rebel assault on the capital in April 2006 led a shaken President Déby to begin diverting an even greater share of oil revenues toward arms purchases for the army and the Republican Guard. Unfortunately for Déby, the World Bank had already suspended roughly $125 million in grants and loans and payment of an equal amount of royalties in January after the President unilaterally changed the terms of the 2000 agreement. Déby simply threatened to turn off the taps and things suddenly began to swing his way. Under pressure to keep the oil flowing in Chad, the World Bank offered a new deal doubling the amount of oil revenues going directly to the government for unsupervised spending to 30%. With oil having now crashed through the $100 a barrel barrier, there is suddenly enormous and unprecedented wealth available to whatever faction can seize and control it. The Sudanese may be training and supplying the Chadian rebels, but they do not need to give them a reason to fight.

The government is actively encouraging new exploration in the promising Lake Chad Basin as only the existing Doba Basin oil fields are subject to the oversight and supervision terms of the 2000 agreement. The distribution of all new revenues from the industry will be completely unsupervised by outside agencies. Unfortunately the industry has created very little local employment, most of which is menial and low-paying.

The Zaghawa and the Chadian Power Structure

The struggle for Chad and its oil industry is part of the growing commercial and political strength of the non-Arab Zaghawa in Chad and Sudan. The Zaghawa are a small indigenous semi-nomadic tribe that once controlled a string of petty sultanates running across what is now northern Chad and Darfur. Despite their small numbers, they have become politically and economically powerful and are challenging the dominance of Sudan’s Jallaba (Nile-based Arabs) over Darfur. Déby’s support for Zaghawa-dominated rebel groups in Darfur has led to reciprocal Sudanese support for Zaghawa factions seeking to depose Déby.

Traditionally the Zaghawa are divided into several groups, including the Zaghawa Kobe, Zaghawa Tuer and Zaghawa Kabka. They are closely associated with a similar tribe, the Bidayat. Their growing strength in the region does not necessarily imply unity—the Zaghawa are heavily factionalized. The president of Chad, Idris Déby, is a Zaghawa, but his strongest opposition is formed from other groups of Zaghawa, many of them led by his relatives. It is some measure of the growing power of the Zaghawa that, despite comprising only two percent of Chad’s population, they are still able to divide their forces in a struggle for power to the exclusion of every other ethnic group in the nation. Déby is kept in power by the Zaghawa-dominated Armée Nationale Tchadienne and the Garde Républicaine (largely Zaghawa Kobe).

In neighboring Darfur, the strongest of the anti-Khartoum rebel groups is the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The leadership is strongly Zaghawa and is supported by Chad, though there have been disputes over JEM recruiting from the ranks of the Chadian army. Sudanese sources claim that a leading JEM commander was killed while assisting Chadian troops against the rebels in N’Djamena (Sudan News Agency, February 4). Darfur’s National Movement for Reformation and Development (NMRD) is drawn mostly from the Zaghawa Kabka and includes former leading members of Chad’s Garde Républicaine and the state intelligence service. The National Redemption Front (NRF) is another Zaghawa-dominated rebel movement that receives military support from N’Djamena.

Chadian Opposition

The Chadian opposition takes the form of a bewildering array of acronym movements that shift, merge and realign almost daily. The rebel movements are largely defined by tribal rather than ideological differences and operate from bases inside Sudan (AFP, January 8). Sudanese support for the rebels has been an effective way to delay the undesired deployment of the European Union peacekeeping mission to Chad and the Central African Republic

The leading rebel groups have developed a unified military command. These groups include the Union des forces pour la démocratie et le développement (UFDD), the Rassemblement des forces démocratiques (RAFD), and the UFDD-Fondamentale. The UFDD are mostly Gura’an (or Goran) from the Tibesti region—the tribe of Déby’s predecessor, Hissène Habré—and are led by Mahamat Nouri, the former Chadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia. The RAFD is a coalition led by twin brothers Tom and Timane Erdimi, who also happen to be Déby’s nephews and former cabinet ministers in his government. Most RAFD fighters are Zaghawa defectors from the Garde Républicaine. The UFDD-Fondamentale is led by a Misseriya Arab, Abdul-Wahid Makaye.

The Rebel Assault

Like an earlier assault on N’Djamena in April 2006, the rebels were eventually driven off, but only after severe fighting in the streets of the capital. Rebel tactics typically draw on the highly mobile land cruiser-based tactics perfected in the 1980s by Zaghawa and Tubu fighters against Libyan troops in northern Chad. There are reports that the 300 Toyota Land Cruisers used in the assault were purchased by Khartoum, while the entire operation was planned by Salah Gosh—head of Sudan’s National Security and Intelligence Service—and the Sudanese defense minister, Lt. General Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Hussein (Al-Sudani, February 7; Sudan Tribune, February 7).

Chad often refers to the rebels as radical Islamists in an effort to garner international support and has accused Saudi Arabia of recruiting mercenaries associated with al-Qaeda to fight alongside the rebels, going so far as to make an official complaint to the UN Security Council (Al-Wihda, May 5, 2007; AFP, November 30, 2006; Reuters, December 1, 2006). As one rebel spokesman has noted: “We have no Islamist ideology… It is now a fashion in the world to call one’s enemy an Islamist or a terrorist” (Al-Wihda, November 26, 2006). After the assault on N’Djamena, the Chadian Interior Ministry put over 100 prisoners on display for the press, describing them as “Sudanese mercenaries, Islamic militants and members of al-Qaeda” (Reuters, February 13).

The defeat of the rebel attack even as it reached the presidential palace in N’Djamena was more likely due to poor training and coordination on the part of the rebels than to French intervention. The timing of the assault reflected Khartoum’s urgency in deposing Déby and ending Chadian support for Darfur’s rebels before the arrival of the European Union peacekeeping force made this a practical impossibility.

France provided logistical and intelligence support to the president’s forces during the fighting. The French Defense Ministry confirmed that it arranged for ammunition for Chad’s Russian-built T-55 tanks to be flown in from Libya for use against the rebel offensive (Reuters, February 14). Oddly enough, the Chadian prime minister accused Libya of supporting the rebel attack (Sudan Tribune, February 7). Other reports that French Special Forces participated in the fighting in N’Djamena have been denied by Paris (La Croix, February 8; L’Humanité, February 9).

Chadian Reaction

Following the assault, President Déby instituted a State of Emergency, set to last until March 15. Déby’s forces are fortifying the capital to deter similar attacks. Armed vehicles will no longer be able to strike across the savanna into N’Djamena with the construction of a three-meter deep trench around the city that will force all traffic to go through fortified gateways. The trees that offer the only refuge from N’Djamena’s blistering heat are also being cut down after rebels used some cut trees to block roads during the raid (Reuters, March 3; BBC, March 4). The regime is also seeking to buy half a dozen helicopter gunships from Russia or other East European sources.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Chad in late February in a show of support for President Déby that included a call for a more effective democratization process (TchadVision, February 28; African Press Agency, February 27). Earlier, Sarkozy had declared his intention to make a clean break with French neo-colonialism in Africa, but his quick reversal on Chad demonstrates the deep roots of the French government’s “FrançAfrique” network that seeks to preserve commercial and strategic interests in the former colonies. Despite Sarkozy’s visit, France may already be preparing for the post-Déby era by granting asylum to Chadian opposition leader Ngarlejy Yorongar. Full details are lacking, but Yorongar is reported to have been arrested on February 3, held in a secret N’Djamena prison—probably in the headquarters of the state intelligence service, the Direction des Renseignements Generaux—and finally dumped in a cemetery on February 21 before finding his way to Cameroon. Another opposition leader, Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, was arrested at the same time but has not been seen since (AFP, March 4; Al-Wihda, March 6). Former Chadian President Lol Mahamat Choua was also detained, but was later released.

European Union Peacekeeping Force in Chad (EUFOR)

A 14-nation EU peacekeeping force began deploying in February but is not expected to be fully operational until the end of March. The majority of the 3,700 troops will be French, with the second largest contingent of 450 troops coming from Ireland. EUFOR is commanded from France by Irish Major General Pat Nash and in Chad/CAR by French Brigadier Jean-Philippe Ganascia.

EUFOR deployment was delayed by the rebel strike into N’Djamena which came at precisely the same time deployment was set to begin. EUFOR allows the French to expand France’s military presence in traditional overseas areas of influence like Chad and the CAR in a way that would raise eyebrows if done unilaterally. Though it has said little publicly, France is worried about the growing U.S. military encroachment into Africa through the establishment of AFRICOM and various counter-terrorism training programs, including one in Chad. The spokesman for the rebels’ unified military command, Abderahman Koulamallah, describes the EUFOR deployment as “a low maneuver by the French government to try and rescue Déby” (Al-Wihda, March 7). Other rebels speak of EUFOR as a French commitment to “liquidate” the opposition (TchadVision, February 16).


Following mediation from Senegal, Chad and Sudan have agreed to sign another in a series of peace agreements on March 12 at the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in Dakar (AFP, March 6). There is little reason to hope that this agreement will be any more effective than those that have preceded it. Rebel leader Mahamat Nouri has denied reports of negotiations with the Déby regime, claiming the president “treated us as nobodies. He has no intention at all to negotiate while we have been demanding national dialogue, round-table meetings, etc., for 20 months in order to resolve our problems permanently. But we never received any response” (Radio France Internationale, February 21).

In an effort to retain power, President Déby has purged the general staff several times in the last few years and has lost many of his most powerful supporters in the military. The president is seriously ill and would like to be succeeded in the presidency by his son Brahim, but this is unlikely to happen. Far from becoming the hoped for example of a way out of the factionalism and corruption that has tended to accompany the discovery of oil reserves in Africa, Chad has developed a bloody intra-tribal struggle for control of oil revenues with little hope for stability and progress in sight.

This article first appeared in the March 7, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor