Africa File, April 18, 2024: Chad is the Kremlin’s Next Target in the Sahel

Editor's Note: The Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute publishes these updates with support from the Institute for the Study of War.

Africa File, April 18, 2024: Chad is the Kremlin’s Next Target in the Sahel; al Qaeda’s Sahelian Affiliate Weaponizes Drones

Authors: Liam Karr and Matthew Gianitsos

Data Cutoff: April 18, 2024, at 10 a.m.

The Africa File provides regular analysis and assessments of major developments regarding state and nonstate actors’ activities in Africa that undermine regional stability and threaten US personnel and interests.

Key Takeaways:

Chad. The Chadian junta may begin aligning with the Russian-backed Sahelian juntas and Russia itself, which would boost Russia’s long-standing goal of increasing its influence in the country. Chad’s junta faces internal pressure to pivot away from France and the West and will need regime support following upcoming elections in May 2024. The Kremlin faces obstacles such as an acrimonious relationship with Chad in recent years, the West’s continued willingness to cooperate with Chad despite democratic and human rights concerns, and capacity limitations. However, these obstacles have not stopped Russia from slowly forging ties with the other Sahelian regimes. The Kremlin likely seeks to increase its influence in Chad to undermine—and eventually remove from the region—the West, support its operations in neighboring theaters, and mitigate the effects of sanctions for its war in Ukraine.

Mali. Al Qaeda’s Sahelian affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) conducted a complex attack incorporating weaponized drones for the first time. JNIM is the first Salafi-jihadi group in Africa to use a weaponized drone in an attack. Global Salafi-jihadi networks have weaponized drones and routinely share technical knowledge with their African affiliates, increasing the risk that drone weaponization will spread. African security forces are unprepared to effectively and regularly counter such attacks.



Author: Liam Karr

Contributor: Matthew Gianitsos

The Chadian junta may begin increasing cooperation with the Russian-backed Sahelian states and Russia in the coming months. Malian officials claimed in early April that Chad expressed interest in joining the Alliance of Sahel States (AES, l’Alliance des États du Sahel in French), a military alliance comprising the three pro-Russian juntas in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.[1] The Malian officials made the claims after a Chadian delegation visited the Malian president in early April during a tour of the AES countries to discuss bilateral and regional cooperation.[2]

Chadian junta leader Mahamat Deby is also campaigning for upcoming May 2024 elections on promises to improve internal security and has signaled openness to new security partners, such as Russia.[3] Deby repeatedly did not answer whether he would maintain the 1,000 French soldiers and three bases in the country if he was elected during an interview with French media on April 15.[4] He did say, however, that Chad is an “independent, free, and sovereign nation” that wants to work with all nations when asked if he planned to increase cooperation with Russia.[5] The AES juntas have used very similar rhetoric focusing on “sovereignty” to justify their decisions to increase security cooperation with Russia in recent years.[6]

Aligning with the AES could pave the way for the Chadian junta to expand its defense and economic ties with Russia as it faces internal pressure to distance itself from the West. Russia is the AES’s de facto security guarantor, as it is the primary security partner for all three members. Russia also established a military presence in each member country after juntas kicked out their former Western partners.[7] Russia has used these initial defense ties to foster cooperation in numerous other fields, including mineral extraction, nuclear energy, and agriculture.[8] Deby also noted that he also wanted to increase economic and diplomatic cooperation with Russia during his April 15 interview with French media [9]

Deby also faces strong domestic opposition to distance himself and the junta from France. Since 2021, domestic opposition groups have fomented protests including thousands of people on multiple occasions to call for the departure of the roughly 1,000 French troops in the country.[10] The protests are part of a larger regional trend of growing anti-French sentiment across Francophile West Africa in recent years in response to decades of perceived neocolonial and paternalist French policies in the region, including in strong democratic countries.[11] Russian information operations in the region have played on this preexisting and independent current to fuel anti-Western opposition.[12] Russia has also used information operations and diplomatic rhetoric to present itself as a popular non-colonial alternative to the West.[13]

Long-standing domestic and transnational security problems that have persisted despite Western support could further incentivize Chad to explore alternatives to Western military partnerships. The West and others have made little progress in ending the civil war in neighboring Sudan that has resulted in large refugee influxes into Chad—causing inflation and disrupting agricultural activity—and resurfaced cross-border tensions, which have historically led to widespread cross-border ethnic violence.[14] Years of Western assistance have not solved Chad’s other security challenges—such as the various rebel groups still active around the country and the Salafi-jihadi insurgency in the Lake Chad Basin.[15]

Similar grievances directly contributed to the rise of the AES juntas and led them to grow ties with Russia. Military leaders used discontent stemming from frustrations with corruption and continued instability to justify their coups.[16] The nascent juntas then linked anti-French and anti-Western sentiment, frustration with the West’s failure to weaken the Salafi-jihadi insurgency in the Sahel after a decade of partnership, and the West’s subsequent postcoup punitive measures to rally popular support for their newly established regimes.[17] This enabled and obliged the juntas to expel Western forces and pursue alternative partnerships with Russia.

Figure 1. Significant Cooperation Between Russia and the Alliance of Sahel States


Source: Liam Karr; https://africaincome dot com/2023/10/mali-russie-un-nouveau-cap-franchi-dans-la-cooperation-bilaterale;; https://en.sputniknews dot africa/20231120/russian-space-agency-to-provide-satellite-to-mali-1063675193.html;;;;;;;;;

The Kremlin has already offered to increase defense ties with Chad as recently as January 2024. Russia has sought to establish military ties with Chad since at least 2017, when the two signed a military-technical cooperation agreement on anti-terrorism cooperation and military joint training exercises at Russia’s Army-2017 forum.[18] The Chadian president attended the first Russia-Africa summit in 2019.[19] Russian President Vladimir Putin again discussed Russian security assistance to “stabilize” Chad during a meeting with Deby in Moscow in January 2024.[20] Putin also said Russia planned to increase political support for Chad in the UN, humanitarian aid, and the number of Chadian students studying in Russia.[21] Russia has made similar offers of military aid and support in international institutions to several of Chad’s authoritarian neighbors, resulting in growing bilateral partnerships and active Russian military deployments in four of the six countries bordering Chad, as well as nearby Burkina Faso and Mali.[22]

Chad’s need for regime support following the upcoming presidential elections in May 2024 could present an opportunity for Russia to follow through on its offers of security assistance. International news outlets expect Deby to remain in power after the already-marred elections.[23] The junta has violently cracked down on opposition protestors since taking power in 2021, amended the constitution to make Deby eligible to run for president, killed a leading opposition figure under suspicious circumstances in March 2024, potentially co-opted another, and barred even more from running.[24] These actions have led numerous international observers to voice concerns about the upcoming elections’ legitimacy, which risks heightening tensions with the West.[25]

Deby also faces internal tensions with Chad’s ruling elite related to his handling of the civil war in neighboring Sudan. Deby decided to cooperate with the United Arab Emirates by letting it use an airport in eastern Chad to support Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in exchange for financial aid.[26] This move angered Chad’s military and political elite, as they are predominantly from the area and view the RSF as a threat due to a history of cross-border ethnic tensions and violence involving militia groups that now compose the RSF.[27] American experts on African politics have warned that these tensions could result in an elite coup.[28]

The Kremlin is willing to provide direct regime security in ways the West is not, such as by sending protective forces and organizing information operations to guard against popular or elite coups.[29] Furthermore, Russian military personnel are supporting the RSF in Sudan, meaning the Kremlin would presumably help Deby continue tacitly supporting the RSF through these regime security efforts.[30] Putin’s comments in January on helping “stabilize” Sudan further indicate Russia’s willingness to support Deby.[31] Similar security factors have contributed to the AES juntas all distancing themselves from France and the West in favor of Russia.[32]

Russia likely seeks to increase its influence in Chad to undermine—and eventually remove—the West from the region, support its operations in neighboring theaters, and mitigate the effects of sanctions for its war in Ukraine. Russia has used its growing partnerships with African countries to advance these long-standing strategic goals of eroding the West’s influence and rivaling it as a global power by cultivating a global military footprint, a sanction-proof economy, and a growing number of allies in international institutions.[33] Increased cooperation between Chad and Russia would not necessarily exclude continued Chadian cooperation with Western partners. However, the West has repeatedly warned partner countries against significant cooperation with Russia, especially with sanctioned entities involved in Russian military deployments on the continent, such as the Wagner Group and its Russian Ministry of Defense–controlled successor—Africa Corps.[34] Security partnerships with Russia tend to accelerate breakdowns between African states and Western partners by worsening democratic and human rights records.[35]

The West is increasingly reliant on Chad after losing relationships with the AES states. Chad hosts France’s largest base on the continent and has received French troops that withdrew from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger after each country’s military authorities kicked them out.[36] French newspaper Le Monde reported in January 2024 that the United States was considering joint bases with France in Africa—presumably Chad—as part of plans to adapt its security posture amid deteriorating relationships with its primary partner, Niger, after a July 2023 coup.[37] Niger has since annulled defense cooperation with the US and asked for a disengagement plan, but US officials have insisted that Nigerien officials are privately trying to keep options open.[38]

Chad’s central location in the Sahel makes it important for all actors in the region, as it serves as a dam against—or potential bridge among—the fighters, weapons, and illicit networks surrounding it. In East Africa, the Sudanese civil war has created what numerous UN officials have labeled one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II and increased concerns that Salafi-jihadi militants could gain a foothold and strengthen links between various al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates operating in East and West Africa.[39] In West Africa, al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates are strengthening, as the AES military regimes have cut ties with Western security partners and adopted callous military-first approaches, which has further exacerbated the regional insurgencies.[40] A reduced Western footprint in Chad would undermine efforts to contain these threats and limit the growing risk to regional partners and Europe.[41] Russia already has several thousand soldiers in each of the neighboring countries of Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, and Sudan and another 100 personnel in Niger, making Chad a potential transit zone and logistics hub.

Figure 2. Russia-Backed Engagement in Northwest and Central Africa


Source: Liam Karr; European Parliament; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute; Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

Chad also has significant gold and oil deposits, resources the Kremlin has sought to acquire to boost its economy and mitigate Western sanctions.[42] The Kremlin has done this primarily through partnerships with African countries that involve military deployments, which gain direct access to the resources; political arrangements, which gain indirect access; or cash payments that come from the government’s rents.[43] Roughly 20 percent of Chad’s gross domestic product comes from natural resource rents, according to the 10-year average and 2021 World Bank statistics.[44] This figure is more than all the other countries where Russia has an active military footprint in Africa except for Libya, which highlights Chad’s high potential to suit this Russian strategy.[45] Some of the oil and gold deposits are also in peripheral conflict-affected areas of the country, which Russia has capitalized on to intertwine military assistance in exchange for direct access to these resources in other theaters.[46]

However, the lack of strong military ties between Russia and Chad and the West’s continued willingness to cooperate with Chad despite democratic and human rights concerns could slow and decrease incentives for Chadian-Russian cooperation. The Kremlin must overcome a contentious relationship with Chad that has developed in recent years, which it has tried to do through increased outreach in 2024. Kremlin-funded Wagner Group fighters established ties with Chadian rebels around 2019, when both fought on the same side in the Libyan civil war.[47] Chadian officials in 2021 warned against Russian interference and accused Wagner of training and supporting rebels in attacks against Chadian forces.[48] US intelligence also revealed in February 2023 that Wagner orchestrated an aborted plot in February 2023 to recruit and train rebels in the neighboring CAR to topple the transitional Chadian government.[49] Russia established ties with Deby’s half-brother to situate him as a potential pro-Russia successor, and he visited Moscow three times between 2022 and 2023 and met with the late Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in July 2022.[50] Russia’s invitation to Deby in January 2024 indicates an effort to reset this relationship after Prigozhin’s death in August 2023.[51]

These tensions have undermined Russian efforts to expand bilateral ties with Chad in recent years and may remain an obstacle to greater cooperation. Chad and Russia seemingly did not implement their 2017 military-technical cooperation agreement, which included Russian training programs for Chadian personnel and arms sales to Chadian forces.[52] Such cooperation was a foundation for growing military support in Mali and, to a lesser extent, Burkina Faso and Niger after the juntas took power.[53]

France and the United States have not levied any punitive measures against the Chadian junta or aired substantial doubts about its democratic transition, despite the junta’s authoritarian tendencies and various human rights and democratic violations.[54] The West and regional governments implemented numerous sanctions and punitive measures against the AES juntas after their coups.[55] The AES juntas turned partially to Iran and Russia for economic development and cooperation that alleviated these measures’ effects.[56] They also explicitly linked popular domestic anti-Western sentiment to these postcoup punitive measures to generate popular support for expelling Western and Western-backed forces.[57]

Russia also likely lacks the capacity to significantly expand its military footprint into Chad during at least the next year. Russia has deployed only small contingents of 100 soldiers to Burkina Faso and Niger in 2024, the only two African countries into which it has expanded its military presence since it invaded Ukraine in 2022.[58] Significant recruiting issues delayed the deployment of at least the Niger contingent.[59] Russian sources said the soldiers deployed in Burkina Faso would grow to at least 300, but no new troops have arrived since the first contingent arrived in January.[60] This lull indicates that the process of scaling up the smaller deployments will take at least a months, if not years. Russian insider sources reported that the Russian Ministry of Defense is redeploying unspecified Africa Corps units to the Ukrainian border days after new units deployed to Niger, underscoring that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not yet stopped Africa Corps’ 2024 expansion but risks undermining it in the future if redeployments come from new theaters.[61]

These obstacles have not stopped Russia from slowly growing its defense partnerships with the Sahel’s military regimes, however. Russia deployed contingents to Burkina Faso and Niger even though its ties with both countries’ militaries have historically been much weaker than its ties with Mali’s.[62] Burkina Faso had explicitly avoided contracting Wagner Group mercenaries but was more open to the Africa Corps, which emerged after Prigozhin’s death, due to strong ties with the Kremlin that developed after the junta had taken power.[63] Russia cultivated both deals after only a handful of high-level meetings, despite not having embassies in either country when brokering the deals.[64]

Russia also offers more regime support than the West can provide. Russia’s so-called “regime survival package” comes with some soldiers, allyship in international bodies, and information campaigns that directly strengthen the junta.[65] For authoritarian regimes that prioritize staying in power, this is a more desirable deal than Western support, which comes with scoldings for antidemocratic activity or human rights violations at best and support cuts at worst. Importantly, it also addresses domestic opposition to perceived exploitative ties with the West. The small military deployments and other measures included in this Russian support aim to grow Russian influence over the state and set the foundation for larger future deployments.[66]


Authors: Liam Karr and Matthew Gianitsos

Al Qaeda’s Sahelian affiliate JNIM conducted a complex attack incorporating weaponized drones for the first time on April 14. Local sources claimed the group targeted an ethnic Dozo militia camp with commercial-grade, first-person view (FPV) quadcopter drones carrying modified grenades and mortar rounds near a highway in central Mali.[67] The attack killed 10 militia members, wounded five others, and looted the camp.[68] JNIM has not claimed the attack. Dozo militias have cooperated with Malian security forces to help guide counterterrorism operations.[69]

Weaponizing drones marks a new capability for JNIM that unlocks more sophisticated attack options. Weaponizing drones entails varying levels of technical know-how depending on how sophisticated the drone alterations are. The April 14 attack shows the group has developed the knowledge to at least manufacture a release system to drop explosives, which can sometimes be as crude as a belt.[70] JNIM’s use of drones in a complex ground attack highlights another level of tactical sophistication, although its previous use of drones for in-battle intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) presumably prepared operators for similar weaponized use. Future weaponized drone use would allow JNIM to strike targets that are otherwise difficult or impossible to reach, such as fortified or high-security locations.[71]

JNIM is the first Salafi-jihadi group in Africa to use a weaponized drone in an attack. Most highly active al Qaeda and Islamic State African affiliates have used drones for ISR for years.[72] Salafi-jihadi groups in Africa are increasingly using drones due to the proliferation of relatively inexpensive, commercially available drones that are easily accessible with sufficient networks and funds.[73] Drones equipped with cameras and sensors have enhanced these groups’ abilities to gather information on their targets, monitor movement, and identify vulnerabilities, which facilitates attack planning and coordination.[74] The groups have also used aerial footage in their propaganda and media coverage of attacks and militant gatherings.[75]

Figure 3. Drone Usage by al Qaeda and Islamic State African Affiliates

Source: Liam Karr.

Global Salafi-jihadi networks have weaponized drones and routinely share technical knowledge with their African affiliates, increasing the risk that drone weaponization will spread. Salafi-jihadi groups in the Middle East and Southeast Asia have weaponized drones.[76] Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Pakistan planned an attack using several drones in 2013, but local law enforcement interdicted the group before the attack took place.[77] ISIS conducted several attacks using both commercial-grade and military drones in Iraq and Syria in 2014–20, and it modified FPV quadcopter drones to drop munitions or conduct one-way attacks in 2015–17.[78] ISIS also claimed to attack Russian and Syrian forces in Syria using kamikaze drones in 2017 and 2018.[79] An IS cell in Indonesia planned to attack police officers using a weaponized drone in Jakarta in 2020 before police arrested the plotters.[80]

Researchers have said al Qaeda– and Islamic State–linked individuals regularly share technological knowledge with affiliates via online chat rooms and messaging platforms.[81] The American-based Soufan Center assessed that IS central had likely transferred its knowledge on drone use to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) by direct exchanges between members of IS central and fighters in Africa or through online communications.[82] An IS defector claimed that ISWAP militants received technical instructions on how to use drones from the organization’s members in Syria after finding an unarmed drone and reaching out for guidance.[83] The prevalence of various illicit networks that take advantage of the porous borders and ungoverned space in North Africa and the Sahel further increases the risk that militants can transfer drones or technological advisers in the region.[84]

African security forces are unequipped and unprepared to effectively and regularly counter drone attacks. African air force leaders met in Senegal in October 2023 to develop responses to drone attacks after sounding the alarm that counter-drone strategies were severely underdeveloped.[85] Security forces ideally need systems to detect and jam or otherwise disrupt a drone’s communication or navigation system.[86] Security forces can also use less sophisticated measures, such as shooting or capturing drones with electronic or kinetic anti-drone weapons, net launchers, or conventional firearms.[87] Somali security forces have shot down several surveillance drones from the Somali al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab, for example.[88] However, these options have a lower success rate in disrupting an attack and would be useful only in close range. Disseminating this technology to the militias fighting Salafi-jihadi militants in the Sahel and training the militia members to use it creates another challenge, particularly for Sahelian governments.


[1] https://www.maliweb dot net/contributions/les-trois-pays-de-lalliance-du-sahel-donnent-le-feu-vert-au-tchad-pour-rejoindre-lalliance-3059822.html;

[2] https://www.maliweb dot net/contributions/les-trois-pays-de-lalliance-du-sahel-donnent-le-feu-vert-au-tchad-pour-rejoindre-lalliance-3059822.html;




[6]; https://www.africanews dot com/2022/10/31/burkina-faso-not-ruling-out-reviewing-its-relations-with-russia;


[8] https://africaincome dot com/2023/10/mali-russie-un-nouveau-cap-franchi-dans-la-cooperation-bilaterale;;;;










[18] ; dot ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12139347@egNews;

[19] https://tass dot com/politics/1736643




[23];; dot ke/tea/rest-of-africa/deby-s-rivals-pale-in-comparison-ahead-of-chad-elections-4577500



[26] https://www.middleeasteye dot net/news/sudan-uae-war-arms-trade-rsf;;










[36];; https://www.aljazeera dot com/news/2022/4/22/niger-debates-hosting-more-european-forces-withdrawing-from-mali



[39];;;;;; https://www.thenationalnews dot com/world/africa/2023/07/28/sudan-conflict-allowing-terrorist-groups-to-find-foothold-says-kenyan-security-official













[52] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfers Database, available at










[62];; SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, available at

[63];; http://en.kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/71838; http://en.kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/71838



[66]; https://www.aljazeera dot com/features/2024/3/15/russian-time-how-burkina-faso-fell-for-the-charms-of-moscow






















[88] https://www.somalidispatch dot com/latest-news/somali-national-army-intercepted-drone-used-by-al-shabaab; https://www.caasimada dot net/galmudug-oo-gacanta-ku-dhigtay-diyaarad-drone-ah-kadib-howlgal-ka-dhacay-magaalada