Turkey's ambitions extend beyond Libya, to Sahel and the Sahara

In a column for the Arab Weekly, Egyptian writer Mohamed Abul Fadhl argues that Turkey’s support for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord in Libya is part of a broader strategy that seeks to extend its influence to sub-Saharan Africa through illegal Islamist groups.

It would be wrong to assume that Turkey's ambitions are limited to Libya or North Africa. It would be even more ill-founded to imagine that Ankara's suspected connections to terror organisations are limited to the Arab world.

The Turkish government paved the way for its Islamic project in Africa years ago, both through soft power ploys and the establishment of links with radical groups.

The first part of the strategy was illustrated by aid granted through the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA). The second part was reflected by Turkey’s involvement with militants across the continent.

Perhaps many did not pay close enough attention to how deep the links are between Turkey and extremists in African countries like Chad, Niger, Mali, Nigeria and Cameroon.

Much of the region surrounding Libya is fertile ground for cooperation and coordination between Ankara and active terrorist organisations, which have increased their activities over the past few weeks as Turkey makes moves in Libya and major powers are distracted with the coroanvirus pandemic.

The Boko Haram Islamist group, which started in Nigeria, has begun to expand extensively in the Chad Basin countries, almost as though it is following specific orders. It has begun to secure major victories at the same time Turkey is making serious military manoeuvres in Libya.

Boko Haram and other radical groups have also clashed with the Chadian Armed Forces, which have reduced pressure on the southern Libyan front where mercenaries are known to be funnelled through to support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).

Chad has become a pivotal target for Boko Haram, and fierce battles have occurred there resulting in many deaths.  Chad has a dark history with extremists that also involves Qatar.

Qatar has tried to sabotage Libya’s relationship with Chad by using the Union of Forces of Resistance (UFR) which is headed by the Chadian president’s nephew and fierce opponent Timane Erdimi.

Eridimi has also been active in Libya’s Fezzan region and has spent time in Doha.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) has accused Qatar of supporting Erdimi, who was arrested by Chadian forces in February last year as he was leading his armed faction in southern Libya, along with dozens of armed rebel movements from Sudan and Chad and extremist groups to attack the army and establish a new terror epicentre in the region.

The Chadian army has been able to track down many extremists. It caught 250 rebels that entered Chad from Libya in January 2018, while destroying more than forty vehicles and confiscating arms and weapons. It will continue its missions in an area in Ennedi (northeastern Chad), which is close to the country‘s border with Libya and Sudan.

In February 2019, French fighters attacked armed rebels backed by Turkey and Qatar after they crossed the southern Libyan border to target the Chadian president. Some 20 minivans were destroyed after Chadian President Idriss Deby asked Paris for help.

The joint force backed by France to fight Boko Haram includes forces from Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria.

Armed brigades, mercenaries and terrorists are focused on southern Libya after having managed to secure Tripoli and the West. The east is still a red line they cannot cross at this stage, knowing that by approaching they will incur the wrath of Egypt. The south remains vital to their plans to fight the LNA, as well as their broader goals of working with Islamist groups in the Sahel and Sahara countries that Turkey continues to rely on.

These organisations maintain a degree of difference, but they are able to join together to fight a strong opponent. Turkey has managed to take advantage of this fact over and over, including in Syria, where it brought together many extremist groups. It is relying on this same strategy in Sahel and Sahara countries.

This was illustrated by Turkish and Qatari efforts to cooperate with various rebel factions in Chad, Sudan, Mali and Nigeria in recent years, sometimes under the pretext of sponsoring peace negotiations.

But the real danger will come when Turkey manages to gather and transfer thousands of Syrian terrorists. Then it will likely aim to create a complex web of interests linking local and regional dimensions.

Reprinted with permission from the Arab Weekly.

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.