- - Wednesday, December 12, 2018

CAIRO — Israel is moving quickly to fill a security vacuum in Africa as the United States reassigns forces from the terror-plagued continent to focus on rivals such as China and Russia.

President Idriss Deby of the central African nation of Chad paid a visit late last month to Jerusalem, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear Israel’s eagerness to join the fierce wars against al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Arab nations are watching nervously as Israel expands its influence and military footprint, and jihadi groups in the region are pointing to Israel’s involvement as a recruiting tool and reason to escalate the struggle.

Chad is a very important country,” Mr. Netanyahu told Mr. Deby in his welcoming remarks. “It’s an important country in Africa. It’s an important country for Israel.”

Among other topics, the two leaders discussed using Israeli technology and aid to address Chad’s security and economic development challenges. Chad’s army reportedly is already using Israeli satellites to eavesdrop on terrorist groups operating in the north of the country. Reports also say that Chad has purchased armored equipment from Israel, though neither Mr. Deby nor Mr. Netanyahu responded to questions about those arms sales.

The expected collaboration developed shortly after Defense Secretary James Mattis announced a 10 percent cut in troop strength for the U.S. Africa Command. He said the Trump administration’s reoriented security policy means “great-power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”

Chad, like its neighbors South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Niger, consistently ranks near the bottom — 186 out of 189 — in the U.N. Human Development Index, which gauges health, education and income around the world.

Those conditions make the continent ripe for jihad, said African leaders, noting the rise of the Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram in Nigeria. Last year, Chad joined other impoverished African Countries in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

Israel is not a formal member of the coalition because it includes Arab League nations such as Iraq, Tunisia and Lebanon. They don’t recognize the existence of the Jewish state.

Chad severed ties with Israel in 1972 when the Organization of African Unity urged its 53 member states to show solidarity with the Palestinian struggle to reclaim lost lands.

Mr. Deby opted to visit Israel anyway. He said Africa needed to forget anti-colonial rhetoric and focus on the threats of today. “We have a shared struggle, against the sickening evil of this century, which is terrorism,” Mr. Deby said at the Jerusalem press conference.

The Trump administration may appreciate Israel’s role in filling the vacuum in counterterrorism training and technology in Africa, but Arab leaders see Israel’s involvement as an encroachment that might incite Muslim hatred.

“Cooperation between Chad and Israel gives a strong pretext for extremist Islamic groups to align with the Chadian rebels to expand in Africa,” said Abdelsatar Hetieta, an Egyptian author who writes about regional conflicts in nations such as Libya and Yemen. “Israel’s presence will give al Qaeda justification and encourage further action and deployment in the countries of the continent.”

Libyan mess

The issue especially impacts the messy security situation in Libya, analysts said.

Tribal leaders in the south Libyan desert bordering Chad say Mr. Deby is preparing to enlist Israel in exploiting natural resources in disputed border areas where nomadic groups are involved in smuggling arms and illegal migrants.

“It is a rough terrain,” said Easa Abdelmegeed, leader of the Tabu Congress, a council of non-Arab tribes concentrated in southern Libya with branches in Chad and Niger. “But Israeli companies are seeking gold and uranium exploration in northern Chad. It’s likely Israel will be asked to help Chad’s army move out terror groups in the area, and the fear here is that these elements could end up in Libya.”

Jalel Harchaoui, a geopolitics lecturer at the University of Versailles near Paris, said Chad opened to Israel after Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia pressed Mr. Deby to cut ties with Qatar as part of an ongoing feud with the Arab Middle East. With the U.S. pulling back from the region, unstable Chad needed a new patron that could provide military assistance.

“France supports Chad, but that assistance is not going to grow much and, meanwhile, the U.S. military are interested in withdrawing,” Mr. Harchaoui said. “When you look at all those trends taken together, Chad is seeking — perhaps even begging for — new regional sponsorships.”

Chad closed its border with Libya in January in the hope of barring the Islamic State, al Qaeda and anti-government militants from entering. That effort failed to stop the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic from attacking the mining town of Kouri Bougoudi in August.

Chad is under pressure — economically, ecologically and securitywise,” said Mr. Harchaoui. “This year, a Chadian rebel group based in Libya carried out the first significant cross-border attack against Idriss Deby’s government since 2009.”

Mr. Deby’s new ally, Mr. Netanyahu, is not universally embraced even in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena.

Chad should only resume ties with Israel after it stops its aggression against the Palestinians and end its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, especially the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem,” said Mahamat-Ahmad Alhabo, leader of the opposition Freedom and Development Party, a group that has criticized Mr. Deby for human rights abuses.

In its latest report from Chad, the rights monitoring group Amnesty International called out authorities for banning peaceful assemblies and arresting activists and journalists.

Israel is only looking after its own interests and intends to use Chad as a Trojan horse through to use as a forward base to establish ties with other African nations,” Mr. Alhabo said this month.

Officials in neighboring Sudan, though, denied reports by Israeli Channel 10 claiming Israeli officials had met secretly with Khartoum’s top intelligence officers in Istanbul in an effort to establish ties.

“This information is false and fabricated,” said Sudanese Information Minister Bushara Gomaa. “We have deep and ongoing political, ideological and religious disputes with Israel.”

Outside observers tend to downplay Arab denials and objections about the growing Israeli diplomatic and security footprint in Africa.

“The United States is reducing its presence in Africa, [former Libyan strongman Moammar] Gadhafi is dead, and Libya is no longer an influencer in African projects nor politics,” said Frank Corsini, a global energy entrepreneur who served as an economist in the Ford White House. “I can only opine that Israel as the U.S. proxy is better than no one taking charge.”

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