Tempting Turmoil in Sudan: How Chadian Rebels in Sudan’s Conflict Would Further Regional Instability

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Two years ago, Mahamat Mahadi Ali, better known as “Mahadi,” the rebel leader of the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, led a 600-mile incursion across the Sahara into Chadian territory from his oasis in southern Libya. Close to a thousand of his fighters braved the Sahara’s scorching sands with weapons and vehicles obtained as soldiers of fortune in Libya before their fateful encounter with the Chadian army. The battle that followed was as fierce as it was costly: hundreds of men died on both sides, including five Chadian generals and longstanding Chadian President Idriss Déby, who had personally joined the battlefield to rally his troops. After 10 grueling days of sporadic fighting and despite the loss of its chief commander, the Chadian military eventually repelled the assault. But the message to everyone watching was resoundingly clear: Chadian rebels were a force to be reckoned with, and they knew how to exploit regional instability to their advantage.

With the war in Sudan still raging, Chadian rebels are presented with a new opportunity to profit from conflict by engaging in the war economy. As these rebels grapple with how best to benefit from Sudan’s unrest, the Sahel faces the potential for even greater instability. The longer the conflict stretches on, the more likely it is these actors will be able to leverage it to their advantage. A peace agreement is urgently needed to avert further regional destabilization and humanitarian crises. 

The Sahel’s Tempestuous Landscape

Sudan, Chad, and Libya share a history of political and social unrest, marked by civil wars and armed conflicts. These countries are all geographically positioned in the Sahel, a semi-arid region south of the Sahara that spans eight African countries from Senegal to Sudan and has become a hotbed for political instability, terrorism, and organized crime due to its harsh environment, porous borders, and weak governance.

 

 

The war that broke out in Sudan on April 15 served as a stark embodiment of this. The ongoing power struggle has seen the Sudanese army, under the command of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who is also the head of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council, fight his deputy, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemeti, who leads the Rapid Support Forces. The disagreement primarily revolves around the integration and leadership structure of the Rapid Support Forces within the army, a challenge rooted in former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s (ultimately failed) strategy of fragmenting security forces to prevent any potential overthrow. 

The Rapid Support Forces originated as a counter-insurgency militia in Darfur and grew out of the predominantly Arab Janjaweed militia, accused of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in the region since the early 2000s. Over time, the paramilitary group grew to become Bashir’s praetorian guard. When Bashir left power, the army and Rapid Support Forces formed a partnership to control the country, but disagreements arose due to Hemeti’s increasing influence. The crisis deepened after a coup in October 2021 and ensuing attempts at negotiating civilian rule. The conflict has now spread across the country, causing a humanitarian crisis and destabilizing the region, with no end in sight. 

As the conflict rages on, the country’s immediate neighbors are also wrestling with instability. Chad, which lies directly to Sudan’s west, houses rebel and terrorist groups, including Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province militants in the Lake Chad region, and Libya has faced ongoing conflict in its post-Qaddafi era, which has helped provide Chadian rebels a base from which to prepare attacks against Chad. 

A fascinating yet often overlooked player straddles the borders of all three countries and the dynamics that bind them: Chadian rebels based in Libya. Throughout their history, these fighters have profited from the refuge and resources offered by instability in the Sahel to further their goals and launch attacks against the Chadian government, initially from war-torn Darfur and later from post-Qaddafi Libya. Now, as a result of the conflict in Sudan, these groups, especially the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, may shift their base from Libya to Darfur, exploiting regional instability to forge new alliances, exploit lucrative illicit markets, and potentially intensify conflict dynamics, thereby straining the fragile peace between Sudan and Chad that has held since 2010. 

A History of Rebellion

Several Chadian rebel groups are active in Libya and the Sahel today, primarily composed of Goran fighters, an ethnic group stretching from western to northeastern Chad, as well as Arab fighters. The Chadian government had limited successes in placating some rebel groups through nationwide talks held last year. These were perceived by many rebels as merely a show, with no genuine commitment from the government to address their underlying grievances.

Rebel groups have played a crucial role in shaping Chad’s political landscape throughout the country’s history. Most of the country’s leadership transitions since it gained independence from France in 1960 were the result of coups or rebel attacks, mostly on Chad’s capital, N’Djamena. Hissène Habré, a key figure in Chadian history who served as president from 1982 to 1990, was himself a former rebel leader. Habré came to power after his forces overthrew the government of his predecessor — another former rebel, Goukouni Oueddei. Habré’s rule, however, was marked by widespread human rights abuses, and he was later convicted for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture. Idriss Déby, who ousted Habré in 1990 and served as president until his death in 2021, was also a former rebel. Déby was a military advisor to Habré but later led a rebellion against him, ultimately landing in power.

These transitions, motivated by not only personal ambition but also grievances against bad governance, nepotism, and widespread poverty, highlight the challenges that Chad continues to face. Despite its substantial natural resources and relatively small population of around 17 million people, Chad persistently ranks among the lowest three countries globally on the United Nations Human Development Index. These socio-economic conditions, which have served as an impetus for Chadian rebels, reflect deep-rooted issues within the country’s socio-political fabric.

Today, Chadian fighters in the Sahel are primarily composed of veterans from the 2005–2010 Chadian rebellion, a turbulent period of armed rebellion and civil unrest in Chad sparked by widespread dissatisfaction with President Idriss Déby’s rule. They also include ex-Chadian army officers and new recruits from Chad and southern Libya who engage in violence in three main ways: as politically motivated rebels against the Chadian government, as members of apolitical armed groups involved in mercenary work or illicit activities, or as paid soldiers of fortune within existing Libyan armed structures. The boundaries between these groups are fluid, with many fighters switching groups based on living conditions and fund distribution within the groups. Their roles can also change, often alternating between combat, smuggling, banditry, and gold mining as a means to self-finance. The fluctuating roles, regular casualties, and ongoing recruitment make it challenging to accurately quantify the number of Chadian fighters. However, multiple sources suggest it to be under 7,000 men, mostly in southern Libya but also scattered across Niger, Chad, and Sudan.

The most active and menacing group today is the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, which Mahadi founded in Libya in 2016 and whose incursion in 2021 was the most serious rebel challenge to Chad’s government in over 13 years. The vehicles and weapons used in the attack were accumulated through years of mercenary work in Libya. Based in Jufra, in central Libya, Mahadi’s rebels fought alongside the Libyan Arab Armed Forces, a military faction led by warlord Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, during his campaign on Tripoli between 2019 and 2020. This affiliation allowed the rebel group to gain training and armament, as well as communication lines — and, potentially, support — from forces affiliated with Haftar. These forces include the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-backed private military company known not only for its operations in Ukraine but also for spearheading Russia’s covert military expansion in Africa, which also had a presence in Jufra. They also include the United Arab Emirates, which has been very active in the war in Libya and supplied armaments to the Jufra military airbase under the control of Mahadi’s forces. A plane belonging to the notorious Blackwater private military company was also spotted in the Chadian rebel-controlled airbase. Blackwater is led by Erik Prince, a prominent supporter of Donald Trump who orchestrated an unsuccessful $80 million military operation for Haftar in Libya.

Since their offensive two years ago, Mahadi and his rebel forces have managed to rearm and regroup into a force of approximately 800–900 fighters, according to sources within the rebellion. A portion of the Chadian fighters are fresh recruits drawn from the region’s goldfields. As many as 150,000 young Chadian men have emigrated from across Chad to the Libyan border in search of gold amid a gold rush that started over a decade ago, fueled by soaring gold prices.  

 

 

While the number of fighters may seem small, groups of this size have represented the most significant threats in Chad’s recent history. The April 2021 incursion culminating in Déby’s death was carried out by a similar number of fighters. Timane Erdimi, the leader of the rebel Union of Resistance Forces, told me, following his own group’s February 2019 incursion into eastern Chad from Libya, that his operation involved fewer than 1,000 men and 40 to 50 pickup trucks. It ultimately took France’s Mirage 2000 aircraft over three days to halt his fighters, 300 miles into Chadian territory, following earlier unsuccessful efforts by the Chadian army. 

Shifting from Libya to Sudan

Like Libya, Sudan also plays a critical role in the complex dynamics of the Chadian rebellion. Rebel groups already have a well-established footprint in Sudan’s western region of Darfur, a conflict-ridden area long plagued by ethnic tensions and violence. Before creating his rebel group, Mahadi was the secretary general of the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development, another rebel group based in Darfur before its relocation to Libya in 2010. In February 2008, with the financial and material support of now-ousted president Omar al-Bashir, this group launched one of the most significant incursions in Chad’s history, reaching the capital, N’Djamena. They were only stopped with French intervention. 

In 2010, Chad and Sudan struck a peace deal that created a joint border force to eliminate rebels from the area. Both countries also agreed to stop funding rebels fighting each other’s governments, which meant that Chadian rebel groups lost their safe haven and funding streams in Sudan. Conveniently, the 2011 Libyan revolution broke out the following year, and the ensuing war in Libya offered these groups opportunities to fight as mercenaries in that conflict. Over the past decade, Chadian rebel groups have made Libya their new home. 

Libya, however, has begun to lose its appeal for these fighters just as the conflict and chaos in Sudan have created the possibility for them to relocate their operations there. Chadian rebels have had reduced incentives to stay in Libya since the October 2020 Libyan cease-fire agreement, which ultimately lowered opportunities for mercenary work. One of the key features of the peace agreement was — in the words of the then-acting head of the UN mission in Libya — “the departure of all mercenaries and foreign fighters from Libyan territory, air, land, and seas.” 

As a result, Chadian fighters have increased their involvement in Sahelian criminal economies, including drugs, arms, and car smuggling. Chadian fighters are often described by locals in southern Libya, where they are now based, as “bandits.” Given the cease-fire agreement and ongoing competition over resources and territorial control, local militias in southern Libya are likely to adopt policing roles to gain legitimacy locally by chasing out Chadian rebel groups.

The Lure of Darfur

Meanwhile, Darfur is becoming ever more attractive for these groups. In Sudan, they could gain a potential new alliance and funding stream, similar to the one that rebels had with former Sudanese president Bashir. Ethnically Goran and Arab Chadian rebels, including those within the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, are likely to align themselves with General Hemeti’s Arab-dominated Rapid Support Forces, one of the two main belligerents in Sudan’s ongoing power struggle. Rebels from the Front for Change and Concord in Chad also have experience fighting alongside Darfurian fighters in Libya, which could also facilitate their relocation. Alliances, however, are never set in stone. In Libya, Chadian fighters crossed battle lines, aligning with rival factions for the right price.

While Hemeti’s current focus is primarily on consolidating his power in Khartoum rather than on supporting his family in Chad — Hemeti’s cousin is a senior Chadian presidential advisor — his interests in Darfur coincide with those of the Goran and Arab Chadian rebels. They have common adversaries, including the Zaghawa rebel groups who share a common ethnicity with Chad’s ruling Déby family and most of the Chadian army. They also share allies, including Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces and the Russian Wagner group. As Hemeti deploys more soldiers from Darfur to Khartoum, Chadian rebels could help secure his operational bases in Darfur and receive financial compensation and battlefield loot, including weapons and armored vehicles, in a similar arrangement to the one they had with Haftar in Libya. Hemeti would make a valuable ally for these groups, and the rebels could potentially permanently relocate to Sudan should he triumph.

Darfur is also particularly attractive due to its proximity to Chad’s capital, N’Djamena — a two-day drive, compared to the five-day drive from Libya. This proximity could facilitate both potential incursions and access to lucrative illicit markets linking Libya, Chad, and Sudan, similar to those Chadian fighters have already exploited in Libya over the past decade. The region is a key transit hub for arms, drugs, fuel, and car smuggling, and El Radoom region in south Darfur is also an important producer of cannabis that is trafficked across the region. Darfur is also home to several important goldfields, which have already been exploited by the Wagner Group and the Rapid Support Forces. Chadian fighters could participate in these economies, either through direct involvement, protection, or by preying upon them, including through hijacking convoys or attacking traffickers. Arms smuggling along well-established corridors linking Sudan to Libya and Chad is especially expected to experience a boon with the intensification of the conflict. The porous nature of the Sahel’s borders means this will be felt not only in Sudan, Libya, and Chad, but also as far as Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Nigeria. These weapons could fall into the hands of violent extremists who are disputing territories in those countries as well.

A Troubled Road Ahead

Chadian rebel involvement in Sudan would also likely result in an intensification of the conflict in Darfur, which could have dire humanitarian consequences. An increase in flows of asylum seekers and refugees into neighboring countries, including Chad, Niger, and Libya, would further exacerbate the existing refugee crisis in the Sahel region, which would in turn strain resources, create tensions between host communities and refugees, and pose challenges to the countries receiving the displaced populations. With millions of people already displaced across the region, further displacement could exacerbate an already volatile situation.

The intensified conflict in Sudan is also complicating the relatively peaceful coexistence between Sudan and Chad since 2010. Hemeti and General Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, president of Chad’s Transitional Military Council — the governing body established following his father’s death — are likely to approach their alliances with caution given the potential for conflict reescalation. They must form effective alliances that maximize available war actors, including these rebel groups, without sparking a larger-scale conflict, as any alliance with the other’s adversaries could be seen as a declaration of war. Despite having ties to both sides of the conflict in Sudan, Déby’s government has chosen not to declare allegiance to either one. Instead, the Chadian government is attempting to position itself as a mediator in the conflict — at least officially.

However, the conflict in Sudan could lead Hemeti into alliances that could challenge his relationship with the Chadian leader, Déby. Recently leaked U.S. intelligence documents alleged that the Wagner Group, suspected of collaborating with Hemeti, also attempted to recruit Chadian rebels and create a training facility in the neighboring Central African Republic, with the objective of overthrowing the Chadian government. If true, the Wagner Group could similarly attempt to exploit the Front for Change and Concord in Chad or another rebel group to promote an incursion into Chad from the eastern flank, as part of its regional strategy of destabilizing Sahelian countries. Hemeti’s alliance with the paramilitary organization could be seen as a direct threat to Deby’s government.

It is important to consider, however, the role of the Chadian authorities in this complex landscape. Historically, N’Djamena has a track record of leveraging security threats to attract increased Western support. This strategy helps to bolster their international position, despite their shortcomings in governance and human rights practices. Any international assistance in combating rebel and foreign influences in Chad, therefore, should not be an open-ended commitment, but should happen under clearly defined conditions.

A sustainable peace process is critical to stopping the conflict in Sudan from spilling throughout the region, and international partners should step in and act decisively to help achieve this. There are several tools that can be used — in addition to diplomacy — to deny the legitimacy of key military figures like Hemeti and Burhan, whose roles and actions are destabilizing the country. First, concerted efforts to disrupt war financing are vital. The United States, the European Union, and its member states should leverage their knowledge of the financial systems in play to target the networks and structures that fund the warring factions. Imposing targeted sanctions and freezing assets are crucial to dismantling the economic networks that fuel the war effort, both now and in the future. Moreover, these partners should use influence held over the generals’ regional allies — including in Libya, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia — to take tangible actions, like cutting weapons and fuel supplies, which could compel these generals’ forces to retreat. The longer the international community fails to act, and the longer the conflict in Sudan is allowed to drag on, the more likely it is that actors like the Chadian rebels and Russian mercenaries will benefit from it. By employing these strategic measures, the international community can change the military factions’ calculus and bring about a genuine negotiation for peace to help slow the renewed humanitarian crisis already unfolding.

 

 

Alexandre Bish has followed security dynamics in Chad and the Sahel for the past seven years. He is the author of several publications on the Chadian rebellion, including Soldiers of Fortune: The Future of Chadian Fighters After the Libyan Ceasefire. He is currently a visiting scholar at Yale University and an PhD candidate at University College London. He has worked for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, the European Union and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Image: Voice of America

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