Why Chad shut its border with Libya

The threat of terrorism – as well as an interest in impressing the new administration in Washington – are likely factors.

Luc Gnago/Reuters
President Idriss Deby of Chad (r) shakes hand with Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe during the France-Africa summit in Bamako, Mali, Jan. 14.

As Donald Trump takes office, Chad’s recent decision to close its northern border with Libya in order to avoid “imminent terrorism danger” is unlikely to register high on his list of priorities. 

But experts say the country – a longtime US ally in the war on terror, whose territory stretches along the Saharan fault-line of Islamist terrorism in Africa – may be using its foreign policy to maneuver quietly toward the new American president.   

And with good reason. New statistics obtained by The Intercept show that over the past decade, the United States has dramatically increased its high level military presence in Africa to counter a rising tide of Islamist extremism in the region.  

Meanwhile, countries that support the growing US counter-terrorism efforts on the continent – think Chad, Uganda, Ethiopia, Niger – have frequently evaded criticism over their own spotty human rights records and their leaders’ white-knuckled grip on power (Chad’s Idriss Déby, who is regularly feted by high-level American visitors, including former UN Ambassador Samantha Power, has ruled for 27 years). 

Chad’s border machinations began Jan. 6, when Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke announced that the country had closed the frontier with Libya to stop an influx of Islamist militants fleeing south from a US airstrike campaign that started in August and ended in November of last year. 

“Given the threats to the integrity of our nation, the government has decided to close the land border with Libya and also to declare the region a military zone,” he said.

However, many observers noted that the timing of the border closure appeared politically expedient.

“The final battle for Sirte [an ISIS stronghold in Libya] was 10 weeks ago, and as early as July there has been mass movement of IS fighters, so the suggestion you are closing your border [now] because of it is disingenuous,” says Ryan Cummings, director of the South Africa-based risk management firm Signal Risk. He added that he suspected the announcement might have more to do with a desire by African partners to impress the new crowd in Washington rather than because of any pressing security threat in Chad. 

“However," he continues, "the threat of IS fighters leaving Libya is absolutely legitimate because there are IS affiliates in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, and Niger that have not been as active, and the concern is, if IS combatants go into those neighboring countries to prop up the existing groups, you then very suddenly have highly trained, battle-hardened militants operating across the Maghreb.”

The threat of Islamist terrorism creeping southward through Chad into sub-Saharan Africa is of growing concern to both the African Union and United States – which Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn has said is in a “world war” against Islamic militants. In December, AU security chief Smail Chergui warned that 2,000 to 2,500 Islamic State terrorists were regrouping with a view to relocating to the troubled regions of the western Sahel and eastern Horn of Africa and Great Lakes after the fall of their base in Sirte, on Libya's Mediterranean coast.

He added that because some IS elements were of African origin, the continent was more vulnerable to their influence and operations. Home-grown terrorist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria have already pledged allegiance to IS along with a splinter faction of Al Shabab in Somalia, which last April claimed direct responsibility for an attack on the capital, Mogadishu.

'New spice route'

The threat in Africa is also far from limited to IS. West Africa is also plagued by several Al Qaeda affiliates, and as far south as South Africa there have been terror warnings, including one that an Islamic State bomb-maker tried to board a flight to Johannesburg last month with a view to attacking US assets.  

Meanwhile, the US has been quietly establishing what has been described a "new spice route" of military logistical infrastructure and increased personnel counts from Africa's east coast to its west. Figures obtained by US investigative journalist Nick Turse revealed that the US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) carried out 674 operations including drone strikes, individual and joint exercises, and activities such as training, in 2014 – up from 172 in 2008. A total of 70 percent of all US drone strikes ever carried out in Somalia occurred in 2015 and 2016, according to statistics compiled by the US Bureau of Investigative Journalism. 

And figures obtained by Mr. Turse and published in The Intercept show that the number of US special forces troops deployed to Africa has spiraled dramatically over the past decade, from just 1 percent of all those overseas in 2006 to 17.26 percent in 2016. 

At the same time, a US official based in Africa says that while the numbers of personnel remained in the “hundreds” outside of the main base in Djibouti, AFRICOM had been given a mandate to be more proactive in the continent’s hotspots. 

“There has been a ramping up, there are some very serious security questions,” says the official, who remained anonymous because of the question marks regarding all US operations overseas with the change of government this week. “We do have some good partners that we can engage with.”

Among them, historically, has been Chad. In a visit last year with Mr. Déby, US officials warned of growing cooperation between Boko Haram and IS, which, an official claimed, had sent a weapons convoy south from Libya into Chad. That, in turn, may have compelled the border closure this January.

But the Trump Administration’s goals in sub-Saharan Africa remains murky. Last week, The New York Times published excerpts from a questionnaire circulated by the Trump transition team to the State Department about US Africa policy.

The questionnaire revealed Trump staff questioning the effectiveness of the US drone campaign against Al Shabab and the hunt for the Lord’s Resistance Army commander Joseph Kony on the borders of Uganda, the Democratic Republic, and South Sudan, along with free trade deals and funding to combat the spread of AIDS. 

Many analysts saw the questions as pointing to a narrowing of American focus on the continent away from aid and toward security. But any escalation of US military presence in Africa under Trump will be largely a continuation of Obama-era policy.

Late last year, for instance, the commander of the US special operations command in Africa told African Defense that his troops were helping to create "specific tailored training for partner nations to empower military and law enforcement to conduct operations against our mutual threats." 

“We are not at war in Africa — but our African partners certainly are," Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc said.

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