History, Profiles, Reviews, Occasional Meanderings

Monthly Archives: December 2020

Military Adventurers and Modern History, Part Seven.

Seven long months have passed since my last addition to the Military Adventurers and Modern History feature, and this in a section that was meant to continue on a monthly basis. I can offer no meaningful excuse except that of a brief mental breakdown – this coronavirus lockdown can be a trying thing – and that of having been very busy; on a brighter note, I did graduate at long last after a decade spent at university. But the show shall eventually resume, and so I have ended 2020 with three profiles of military adventurers who played an important role in modern history – an African feature this month, whose protagonists hail from Masr, Comoros, and Chad respectively. I begin and end with Allah’s Name with hope of His blessing and protection from the malady that has recently afflicted the world with a considerable force that He is nonetheless entirely Capable of undoing. I reserve my rights, as usual.

Abdel-Monem Abdel-Raouf. A major feature of Masr’s seven decades under praetorian rule has been the tension between the Cairo junta and the oppositional Islamist Muslim Brethren, or Ikhwanul-Muslimin, group. Representing easily the largest and best-organized political group in spite of having been formally banned or otherwise harassed for much of this praetorian period, the Brethren have come under especially ferocious persecution since their one-year rule in was ended by the 2013 coup. Yet when we review the previous successful coup in Masri history – the July 1952 Free Officers’ coup that ended the Pasha monarchy – we find that the Brethren have had a long and complicated history with military interventions that was by no means perennially hostile. This complex history was best epitomized by Lieutenant-Colonel Abdel-Monem Abdel-Raouf, a Free Officer of some influence whose loyalty to the Muslim Brethren eventually put him in the crosshairs of the junta he had helped found.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Sultanate and the direct colonization of much of the Middle Eastern region by Britain and France, Masr – with its rich history, its economic potential, its cultural clout, and its strategic location astride the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and the Mediterranean – seemed the next-best replacement for Muslims who groaned under the colonial yoke. Shakib Arslan, the Lebanese aristocrat and pan-Islamist ideologue, speculated with the idea of a caliphate based in Cairo, as had been the case four centuries earlier. This was by no means restricted to foreign dreamers; within Masr, no less a figure than that best-known modern Arab jurist, Abdel-Razzak Sanhoury believed that some reconstitution of the caliphate was both inevitable and eminently desirable. Sanhoury came to sympathize with the Muslim Brethren, a political-cum-charitable trend founded by the fervent Islamic revivalist Hassan Banna. The Muslim Brethren believed that political revival was attached to moral revivalism, and in spite of their frequent censure they have long enjoyed important influence not only outside but even within some parts of the Masri elite.

The problem was that Masr itself was little more independent than a colony. Since the late nineteenth century, the profligate Pasha khedivate – descended from Muhammad Ali, the ambitious Albanian military adventurer who ruthlessly whipped the country into modernity and regional power – had been a protectorate of Britain, with British officials controlling such economic strongpoints as the Suez Canal – a vital point for their global empire – as well as foreign, military, and to some extent internal affairs. In the 1910s, the Pasha dynasty formally became a client monarchy of the style that Britain was encouraging in other Arab countries. This arrangement was not only resented by the Masri citizenry, but also increasingly within the palace. When he came to the throne a dashing youth in the mid-1930s, Farouk bin Fuad I became a rallying point for the pro-independence sentiments that he himself shared, having no desire to kowtow to a British administrator.

The Second World War’s beginning coincided with protests against the British protectorate and the election of an anti-British prime minister, Aly Maher, in Masr. The protectorate feared that the opposing Axis would be supported by Farouk, Maher, and army commander Aziz Masry. This last figure had already enjoyed a colourful and impactful career. As a young Ottoman officer of Circassian descent, in the storming competition over the sultanate’s composition he had attempted to overcome ethnic divisions – such as between Turk and Arab – in favour of a pan-Islamic and pan-Ottoman union. When this failed and a pan-Turanist junta seized power, a galled Aziz had founded a secret organization – a sort of proto-Free Officer society, as it were – that backed the 1910s Arab Revolt with some six thousand defectors. When that revolt became dominated, and predictably betrayed, by Britain and France, the doubly galled Aziz had joined the Masri army and formed an anti-British Iron Ring of officers.

In 1939-40, confronted by a surging Nazi Germany, Britain was in no mood to risk such independent-minded characters who could join forces with Germany, and so both Maher and Aziz were ousted in 1940. British fears were not unreasonable; in May 1941, their Iraqi protectorate was momentarily lost when anti-British Iraqi officers and Levantine rebels took over with German support, requiring a British reconquest of the country.

In fact German spy Johannes Eppler did arrive in Masr from Italian-occupied Libya, where the German commander Erwin Rommel’s famous campaign was starting. Travelling in disguise, Eppler found ripe ground from a number of anti-British circles – bonafide fascists, nationalists, Muslim Brethren, and others. Among the anti-British junior officers who rankled at Aziz’s dismissal and had founded Iraq-style barracks cells were Hussein Zulfikar and Abdel-Monem Abdel-Raouf, both notable figures in later Masri history. Abdel-Raouf was a Muslim Brother himself, and led the Brethren’s secret recruitment effort in the military. The officers whom he recruited to the Brethren – often informally, but certainly with considerable sympathy – included future Masri dictators Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

Eppler’s plan was to have Aziz smuggled out to Libya where he could rally a mutiny that could threaten Masr; having inadvertently helped the British Empire in the First World War, Aziz could presumably undermine it in the Second. The idea was always a long shot, but the adventure appealed immediately to dissident officers. Zulfikar and Abdel-Raouf were both trained pilots, and tried to fly Aziz out. Unfortunately for them, the flight crashed in the desert; the fugitives scrambled into the countryside to avoid a British sweep, which captured, among others, Sadat.

Britain’s eventual victory in the World War left the empire exhausted and untenable in its current form; pro-independence movements, often by soldiers who had fought under the Union Jack, were sprouting across the world, and such prizes as the subcontinent had to be abandoned. Whatever else its sins, Britain could not afford to be overly vindictive, and thus it was easy for malcontents such as Abdel-Raouf and Zulfikar to return quietly to the ranks. At this point, Abdel-Raouf helped found the Free Officers’ circle – a wide-ranging but disciplined set of military dissidents. The Muslim Brethren were subsequently mounting parallel attempts to form cells in the army; Abdel-Raouf’s aim was to unite and coordinate them.

Along with the corruption of the Pasha regime – whose once-promising figurehead, Farouk, had been bullied into sullen surrender by the British protectorate – and the affronts of the protectorate, the Palestine war of the late 1940s popularized anti-colonial sentiment further. Both the Free Officers and the Muslim Brethren’s volunteers were well-represented in this war; Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, a popular officer linked by marriage to the monarchy, was at least a sympathizer of the Free Officers and led an Ikhwan paramilitary force into Palestine during 1948. There they acquitted themselves well enough to impress expeditionary commander Fouad Sadek.

Sadek was forced to testify, unsuccessfully, in the Ikhwan’s favour, because at the war’s end an alleged Brethren member, Abdel-Magid Hassan, murdered prime minister Mahmoud Noukrashy. Though Banna condemned the act, this gave the regime and its British backers a pretext to ban the organization and mount a ferocious crackdown; Banna was murdered only two months after Noukrashy.

The British role in the Palestinian Nakba could hardly be ignored, and this added to the silent furore against the protectorate. By the early 1950s, the anti-British scene was dominated, openly, by the Muslim Brethren, and secretly by the Free Officers; Abdel-Raouf had a role in both, and given his history it is quite remarkable that he escaped British arrest. In addition to their cells in the army, the Brethren had a clandestine and largely autonomous military wing led by Saleh Ashmawy and Youssef Talaat, who mounted hit-and-run attacks on British strongpoints before retreating into the countryside.

Amid increased strains between Cairo and London, in early 1952 a battle ensued at Ismailia when British forces tried to evict Masri police; this especially blatant affront provoked a riot in Cairo, where hundreds of shops were burnt. The Free Officers were of course heartened, though there were disagreements about how exactly they should proceed.

Abdel-Monem Abdel-Raouf urged his colleagues to bring the Free Officers formally under the Muslim Brethren; however, given that the Free Officers included not only Islamists but independents, leftists, and others, this was rejected and Abdel-Raouf lost his place on their council. In retrospect, this marks the start of the break between the Brethren and the officers. However, his colleague Kamaleddin Hussein – among the Brethren-linked officers who had fought with Abdel-Aziz in Palestine – claimed that this episode was simply a cordial disagreement; Abdel-Raouf participated, at any rate, in the coup that took place just six months earlier.

The entire story of the July 1952 coup deserves another article; it suffices here to note that the coup was planned and conducted with consummate efficiency by the Free Officers, in particular their charismatic leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser; and that the cavalry unit that confronted Farouk at his palace was captained by Abdel-Raouf. When Farouk refused to step down, Abdel-Raouf turned his tank barrel at the palace and politely requested him to reconsider, which he did.

Though the downfall of Farouk had become known since as a “revolution”, it is unclear that it was going to be a very revolutionary affair. At first the Free Officers chose a respectable elder general, also noted for his involvement in Palestine, Mohamed Naguib as the junta’s formal leader. Naguib had escorted Farouk to exile, but it wasn’t even clear at first that a radically different regime would succeed him; Farouk’s infant son, six months of age, was crowned Fuad II to succeed him. The regency for the baby boy was somewhat conventional. The first member was a landed prince, Mohamed Abdel-Monem, whose father had been the last khedive ousted by the British protectorate, and the second was Wafd minister Bahaeddin Barakat. The only sign of some radical change was the third regent, a charismatic army officer called Rashad Mehanna who was a member of the Muslim Brethren. Mehanna’s dismissal from the regency – itself a practically powerless institution, since the Free Officers’ junta controlled policy – sparked the first mutiny under the new regime. Within the next year, Fuad II was formally deposed and returned to his father, and Naguib became republican Masr’s first ruler with Nasser as prime minister.

Abdel-Monem Abdel-Raouf did not spend this period idly. Masr had salvaged the Ghazza Strip from the war against Israel, and in the 1950s periodic firefights – whether between ousted Palestinian villagers and Israeli settlers or actual raids by militias – continued. Abdel-Raouf arrived in Ghazza and set up a paramilitary linked to the military regime and organized in part by the Muslim Brethren, continuing the organization’s at that point well-known link to the Palestinian cause. But events in Masr soon overtook this aspiring proto-“fidayin” activity.

In 1954, the Masri junta started to turn in on itself in accordance with a wider conflict in the country, which alternated between a continued military rule or a transition to representative rule. Nasser, whose more ambitious reforms required an iron hand, favoured the former, while Naguib favoured the latter. They first collided in the spring, when Nasser’s aides in the budding Masri security services thwarted another mutiny against a junta itself split on the matter. The charismatic Muslim Brethren lawyer and preacher Abdel-Qader Oudeh rapidly organized mass protests in Naguib’s favour, forcing Nasser to withdraw. Stung, the prime minister patched up his relations with the Muslim Brethren over the summer. But his opportunity soon came.

In October 1954, a Nasser speech was interrupted when an armed worker in the crowd, Mahmoud Abdel-Latif, fired several shots at the prime minister. Remarkably, they each missed from point-blank range, and Nasser delivered a virtuoso performance: “Should Gamal Abdel-Nasser die,” he roared at a rapturous crowd, “each of you shall be Gamal Abdel-Nasser.” The Muslim Brethren were totally unready for what transpired.

Nasser’s lieutenant Zakaria Mohieddin – himself a future prime minister – was in the process of building up a fearful secret police apparatus, the first of its kind in the postcolonial Arab world, that cut its teeth on the Brethren. Thousands were rounded up; a conspiracy to thwart the revolution, it was said, had been foiled. Among the Brethren leaders accused of participation in the plot and executed were Abdel-Qader Oudeh – who had had the temerity to challenge Nasser with streetpower – and Youssef Talaat – the former bane of the British protectorate, now ironically brought down by an anti-British regime.

Abdel-Monem Abdel-Raouf, who had recruited so many of the junta’s members, was also accused of the plot, but he managed to escape the dragnet; he disappeared, allegedly fleeing to Europe, and was never heard from again. Abdel-Raouf’s fidayin in Ghazza were roundly purged and replaced by his successor, Mostafa Hafez, who was giving the twin tasks of keeping out the Muslim Brethren as well as marshalling a new Palestinian response to Israel that would be firmly under Cairo’s control. (Hafez, incidentally, proved sufficiently energetic in the latter task to provoke an Israeli assassination in 1956).

Nasser’s takeover from Naguib – who was given a relatively comfortable house arrest – was a watershed moment. It moved Masr both toward a more radical international position as well as a more dictatorial internal position. It also left a bitter mark on the Islamist movements; the Muslim Brethren, once the vanguard of the anti-imperial effort, felt themselves not only persecuted but usurped. Many were forced to flee to the Levant, where – ironically enough – they were given a more tolerant reception by a British vassal, Hussein bin Talal of Jordan, because of their mutual enmity with Nasser. This also polarized the internal ranks of the Brethren. The main body led by Banna’s successor Hassan Hodaiby became effectively inoffensive, confining themselves to social work rather than politics or militancy; this state would continue until the formation of Hamas thirty years later. A contrary stance was taken by more radical members, who, partly radicalized by their stint in prison, went on to spawn the extremist movements that emerged in Masr during the last quarter of the twentieth century. To this day the Muslim Brethren and other Islamist movements view Nasser with a particular hatred quite disproportionate to his actual record in power; the bitterness is quite understandable, given the treachery and humiliation they suffered.

Yet the crackdown on the Muslim Brethren, ferocious as it was, was not as total as it appeared; the roots within Masri society by the Brethren were simply too strong. Nasser’s colleagues who still sympathized with or had links in the movement – such as Kamaleddin Hussein, the equivalent of a prime minister in the early 1960s, or Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat – remained intact and untouched; military experience and personal links still went some way in placating the anti-Islamist crackdown. In 1952-54, as in 2011-13, the military and the Brethren still enjoyed sufficient common ground to coexist before one cheated the other. A significant proportion of that credit went to the start mounted by the daring, dashing, and disappeared Abdel-Monem Abdel-Raouf.

Mohamed Bakar. A particular historical curiosity, as common in the modern age as any other, is the marriage of popular or apparently principled causes with decisive actors who have no particular attachment to those causes. In particular disputes over identity, autonomy, and territory – ranging from ethnonationalism, separatism, regionalism, irredentism, etatism, and centralism – have found their fair share of examples. The tiny Indian Ocean island federation of the Comoros has had its modern history decisively affected by military adventurers with no particular attachment, especially mercenaries from its former colonial ruler France. But the emergence of separatist tensions in these islands, from the late 1990s to the late 2000s, saw Comorian variants of the militarily decisive but politically undecided adventurer, perhaps most notorious among whom was Colonel Mohamed Bakar from the Comorian island Anjouan and the short-lived ruler of a self-styled separatist emirate therein. When his island of Anjouan tried to claim independence from the Comorian federation, Bakar was the most prominent among several adventurers who alternated tactically between separatism and loyalism.

Despite a total population of less than a million, the Comoros federation – comprising the islands, in ascending size, of Mewali, Anjouan, and Ngazidja – has had a tumultuous history of independence. The archipelago came under French rule, first as a protectorate and soon as a colony, in the late nineteenth century – fifty years after the fourth island in the archipelago, Mayotte, had been colonized by the Quai D’Orsay. Faced with violent revolt elsewhere after the Second World War, France was forced to grant increasing autonomy and political representation in the region from the 1950s onward.

This culminated in an independence movement – led, as is usually the case, by both middle-class activists and aristocrats. Mayotte was the outlier; with a longer colonial history and a sizeable Christian populace compared to the almost entirely Muslim other islands, its own independence referendums were not entirely clear-cut but certainly evinced more support for continued French rule than the other islands. In July 1975, the other islands dispensed with French prevarication over Mayotte and announced their independence as the Comoros, their capital based in the Ngazidja city Moroni, though hope for Mayotte’s entry continued to hold out for decades.

However, independence was a mixed bag and only partial; immediately viewed with misgivings by France and only slowly acknowledged worldwide, the Comoros were meanwhile plunged into a series of power struggles among its small elite in which the decisive actor was not a Comorian citizen but the notorious French mercenary, Bob Denard, already experienced in misadventures across Africa, who led various coups in favour of one faction against another and back again. Backed by apartheid South Africa, Denard’s militia of mercenaries, the so-called Affreux (“terrifiers”), operated with virtual impunity as a praetorian guard and led at least four successful coups before, having outlived his use after twenty years, he was ironically ousted by a military assault from an embarrassed France in autumn 1995. By that point the Comoros, partly because of Denard’s predations and partly corruption in the elite, was in flux: impoverished, unstable, and reliant on handouts from East African and Arab states.

Against this backdrop, the relative stability and prosperity of French-ruled Mayotte looked more tempting. And the idea of a Mayotte-style separatism caught on in the two smaller islands, Mewali and especially Anjouan. Comorian ruler Taki Abdelkarim, who had won the first post-Denard election, plausibly accused France of backing some of these movements, which came in full force only in 1995-96.

Anjouan had several improvisational groups that called for reforms to decentralize an already rather decentralized federation. One group, led by army officer Ahmed Hazi, simply called for decentralization; others, led by Abdullah Ibrahim and Omar Chamassi, pursued outright secession and independence, which was practically achieved in summer 1997. Emboldened by the Anjouan secessionists, Mewali premier Mohamed Souaif also declared his island’s independence – only to retract since it was obvious that the tiny island could not survive alone. The Anjouan secessionists were similarly indecisive: largely short-term, shifting coalitions between such ambitious individuals as Anjouan constable Mohamed Bakar.

Bakar’s keenness to dismiss notions of French vassalage was possibly sincere; he indignantly dismissed the claim that former Comorian army second-in-command Combo Ayouba, a friend of Denard’s who had served as his figurehead in the 1995 coup, had arrived to take control of Anjouan’s military force. But in this he was contradicted by the separatist movement’s own radio, which proudly announced Ayouba as its commander. More overt was the celebration of a French public holiday in July 1997, and more embarrassing yet was Abdullah’s shameless request the next month that the Anjouan emirate be annexed, Mayotte-style, into French rule. This proved hard to stomach for France itself, especially given indignation in the rest of Africa at the prospect.

If the Anjouan emirate was in embarrassing political water, its military foothold was another matter. Bakar and another separatist officer, Abaid Abderrahmane, were trained fighters and knew how to organize at least a basic garrison. In September 1997 Comorian army commander Moilim Youssouf dispatched a unit to retake the island, but it was surprised and beaten off. The fact that the Comorian government had sent troops against its own professed island added more fuel to the separatist fire, yet the coalitions of this most makeshift emirate were shifting. Former Comorian prime minister Abdou Madi, who had initially rallied to the separatist cause, soon deserted it and fled back to the central government. He returned in February 1998 and attempted to oust Abdullah, but he was beaten off too after a firefight.

By now the Anjouan emirate had realized its legitimation problem. The African Union had condemned the secession, and urged a resolution; until then, they and the Comoros imposed a blockade that, while largely ineffective because Mayotte continued to bypass it, brought home to the separatists their international unpopularity. The first of many referendums was announced to be solidly in favour of independence from the Comoros – no less than ninety-nine percent, if the claim was to be believed; several such referendums materialized over the next few years.

Yet this argument failed to convince even the faltering leadership; Abdullah, who had stoked the secessionist flame, now began to seek a rapprochement, and in the process fell into fighting with the more hardline faction led by Chamassi. At this point – in November 1998 – news emerged that the Comorian ruler Taki Abdelkarim had passed away. With the crisis no closer to resolution, in April 1999 Comorian army commander Azali Assoumani seized power in a coup whose first order of business was to salvage the Comorian union.

The military coup in Ngazidja was followed by a twin coup in Anjouan, when Abaid ousted Abdullah. Whereas his predecessor had dithered on the issue of an African Union-brokered reconciliation, Abaid rushed to the negotiations table – only for Azali, inexplicably, to purge Anjouan natives from the central government that rendered it impossible for Abaid to commit. This diplomatic indecision continued, in spite of several tortuously produced accords, until an exasperated Bakar mounted his own coup against the indecisive Abaid in August 2001.

Four months later, a Comoros-wide referendum proved a changed constitution whereby the islands would each elect their premiers, while the national government’s leader would be elected by rotation between the islands – one election between Ngazidja natives, the next between Anjouan natives, the next between Mewali natives. The agreement seemed to have worked in the short term; the first such election in 2002 was won by Assoumani at the national and by Bakar at the Anjouan level.

The crisis had passed, and under their newly elected rulers – both military men whose election partially tilted on their readiness to make peace – both the Comorian federation and Anjouan island seemed set for a new beginning. In 2006, Assoumani stepped down after the next election – contested between Anjouanis – was won by preacher-cum merchant Ahmed Sambi. Unfortunately, Bakar in Anjouan did not follow Assoumani’s example and thus spelt his downfall.

Scheduled to end his term in spring 2007, Bakar instead refused to hand over power and rejected a number of interim rulers, as well as a small military unit, dispatched by Sambi before an election could be called. One such Moroni appointee, Dhoihirou Halidi, was initially rejected by Bakar, and appears to have joined him – because he was soon put alongside an embargo list with Bakar.

Why Bakar attempted to take over, beyond short-sighted ambition, is not entirely clear, but in order to maintain his rule during summer 2007 Bakar raised the stakes by announcing Anjouan’s independence. This was remarkable considering his pro-Comoros stance in the early 2000s, but not so surprising given his earlier history or the fact that others, such as Abaid Abderrahmane and Abdullah Ibrahim, had attempted the same tactic earlier. Also in classic fashion, Bakar announced an island-wide referendum – widely castigated as unfair – in favour of secession.

Such a move was always swimming against the regional and international tide. Where Taki Abdelkarim had panicked in 1997-98, Ahmed Sambi did not in 2007-08. Denouncing Bakar as a dictator, he steadily assumed support for a multilateral takeover of the island, to be conducted jointly with an African Union always leery of secessionist movements. Nor was it too difficult; military units in the Comoros were always tiny, and it was eminently easy to assemble the requisite force, led jointly by Comorian commander Daouda Mataba and Sudanese officer Yahya Abdullah.

Bakar maintained a defiant stand: “Sambi,” he sneered, “does not know anything concern the military, but if I had to advise him I would say that it’s not the solution. The first time the army came we kicked them out. The second time the army came we kicked them out. That means if they try to come a third time we will kick them out.” This bravado made his summary ouster, in spring 2008, the more satisfying for Sambi. The attack cost three lives, exclusively among Bakar’s troops, and the Anjouan garrison crumbled without a fight.

Now it was the government’s turn to sneer, claiming that the “dictator” had fled – in a common but not necessarily truthful accusation attributed by victors over vanquished in Muslim conflicts – disguised as a woman. What Bakar wore on his flight is unclear, but he did flee with two dozen followers into the French-controlled isles – first Mayotte and then Reunion. His application for asylum caused an awkward situation for France, who had formally opposed his takeover and helped the earlier attack on him. Ultimately the Quai D’Orsay refused to extradite the fugitive and satisfied themselves with a small three-month imprisonment.

By that point the Comoros had secured its control of Anjouan. Neither Abdullah Ibrahim, Abaid Abderrahmane, or Mohamed Bakar had ultimately managed to wangle the island’s grievances into a long-term career opportunity; Bakar had come closest but also crashed hardest. Secessionism has often been a thin cover for adventurers, but rarely was the cover so transparently flimsy as in Anjouan.

Abbas Koty. Most of Chad’s modern history has been embroiled in some level or other of warfare. This geographically vast but sparsely populated land, much of it astride the Sahara desert, has only had a few major centres of population and thus relatively modest garrisons. That same modest size, however, has translated into relatively short routes to the top and relatively few military targets to capture. Consequently, Chad has seen a large number of military commanders and officials, each usually representing some separate faction in its diverse populace, try to seize power under some confusingly abbreviated coalition or other. Chad’s current ruler, Idriss Deby, has been the most successful example, but his position has always been uneasy. Another important example of an army commander turned rebel was Colonel Abbas Yacoub Koty, a veterans of Chad’s long war who both helped Deby to power and then challenged him before his sudden murder.

Like its neighbour Sudan, early independent Chad suffered a north-south divide. But where in the Sudan British colonialism had privileged the northlands’ largely Muslim and Arabophone riverine region and neglected the southlands, in Chad French colonialism had neglected the largely desert Muslim northlands and privileged the more fertile southlands. Chad’s founder, the increasingly tyrannical Francois Tombalbaye, had attempted to monopolize power, but where he largely got away with it in the south his repression backfired in the north. A combination of Muslim, ethnic, regional, socioeconomic, and geopolitical factors contributed to revolt of the Chadien north from the mid-1960s onward. The so-called Frolinat coalition – comprising Muslims, Islamists, socialists, regionalists, and opportunists – soon fragmented, so that by the time Tombalbaye was murdered in a military coup in 1975 his successors faced a bewildering array of militias who competed with each other, in a fashion reminiscent of contemporary Lebanon and 1990s Afghanistan and Somalia.

Similarly to these other lands, Chad had a number of identity groups – the Muslim northerners containing such variant ethnicities as the Zaghawa and the Toubou, each with their own clan splits. The Zaghawa, for instance, included the Bidayat confederation to which Deby belongs and the Kobe confederation to which Koty belongs. Chad also featured major geopolitical competition by both the former colonial power, France, and neighbours such as Libya, Nigeria, and Sudan.

Libya, whose quixotic dictator Muammar Qaddafi supported the Muslim revolt but also laid claim to the Aouzou desert region of northern Chad, was an especially involved but also easily vilified actor, such vilification serving to mask the agendas of its rivals and the involvement of other powers. Chad, Libya, and Sudan have had for decades a triangular “Great Game”, conflict spilling over borders between Chad, Libyan Fezzan, and Sudanese Darfur for decades. In the 1970s, Qaddafi enthusiastically supported dissident leaders from both Chad and from Sudan.

After the 1975 coup, the Chadien junta in Ndjamena – led by Felix Malloum, a relatively conciliatory former army commander who had fought in the north – negotiated with the rebels and with France. Optimistic rebel leaders began to return from Libya; these included Ouaddai Wichidimi, the derde or magistrate of the Toubou who had been a major rallying figure for the revolt. Ouaddai’s son Goukouni, elected as the Frolinat coalition’s nominal leader, was a well-meaning but weak, indecisive figure whose leadership was challenged in particular by the ambitious military leader Hissein Habbre, who accused him unfairly as Qaddafi’s puppet.

A brilliant but ruthless adventurer trained, like many other Chadiens, in France, Hissein leapfrogged over Goukouni’s negotiations with Paris and Ndjamena when he abducted French hostages in the mid-1970s and captured the main strongpoints of the north. An exasperated Goukouni expelled Hissein outright from his coalition, but this merely formalized the state of affairs: Hissein’s so-called Nord (North) Army, built compactly around his Gourane clan, was the best-organized and most autonomous rebel faction. Despite his role in destabilization, Hissein was widely admired by France and even by Goukouni’s own father for his military ability and his brooding single-mindedness; he would soon ally with France against what he termed as the Libyan agenda led by Goukouni.

Less notorious equivalents of Hissein Habbre emerged in eastern Chad, whose ethnic groups overlapped in Sudan. These were largely career soldiers whose military training and access to weapons promoted them to lead their in-group. The Hadjerais’ equivalent was Maldoum Abbas; the Arabs’ equivalent was Ahmat Acyl; in the Zaghawa group, Idriss Deby would play an similar role for the Bidayat confederation, while Abbas Koty did the same for his Kobe confederation.

In 1975-77 Hissein had repeatedly undermined Goukouni’s talks with Felix Malloum. After he broke away with the Nord Army, however, he began to negotiate with Malloum in order to win a place for himself. This, in turn, gave Goukouni and his followers an incentive to take over the north; in February 1978, it was Abbas Koty who captained the coalition’s first major conquest, taking over Faya, the main garrison town of the northlands. The attack was purposely mounted on the tenth anniversary of the day that Frolinat founder Brahim Abatcha had been killed in battle, and thus dedicated to Abatcha.

The next year saw frantic realignments; a short-lived French attack halted the Frolinat advance at Salal, while the neighbouring states – Nigeria and Sudan in particular – tried to limit Libya’s influence. Sudan, whose dictator Gafar Numairi was a fierce rival of Qaddafi, arranged the power-sharing accord between Hissein and Malloum in autumn 1978. In turn, Libya’s most favoured militia within the Frolinat umbrella – the umbrella Bourkane militia led by Ahmat Acyl – tried to take over the rebel coalition. In both summer and autumn 1978, Acyl attacked Faya; in both cases he was beaten off by Koty’s troops.

Yet the popular depiction of Acyl as a Libyan puppet was scarcely truer than that of Goukouni as a Libyan puppet; at this particular point he struck a conviviance with Libya, and Qaddafi would slowly come to prefer Arabs in his alliances. Yet the Kobe commander Koty, who led the garrison, was a fervent and long-term admirer of Qaddafi himself. Rather than a binary set of anti-Libyan and pro-Libyan agendas – as claimed by Libya’s rivals in Ndjamena, France, Sudan, Nigeria, and later the United States – it appears that Frolinat militia commanders were weighing their options and responding improvisationally to events.

The Malloum-Hissein coalition formed by Sudan broke down in six months; when their loyalists attacked each other in the capital in February 1979, Frolinat troops rushed to the scene to complete the downfall of the Ndjamena regime, many of whose members fled south to organize their own militias. This ended the southern dominance in Ndjamena – since then, a northerner has always ruled Chad.

But the Frolinat militias and Nord Army soon fell into infighting complicated by regional powers’ agendas. The complex negotiations that ensued are beyond the scope of this article; for our purposes it suffices to note that Goukouni, who emerged as a weak leader in power, posted Abbas Koty to command his native region in eastern Chad, and that his uneasy rapprochement with Hissein Habbre broke down in 1980, when the Nord Army leader fled into the maquis. Goukouni responded by asking Qaddafi to send a Libyan force to safeguard him against the Nord Army, to which the Libyan dictator gleefully assented.

Yet Goukouni’s own discomfort with the indisciplined Libyans soon matched that of Qaddafi’s many enemies; in autumn 1981 he requested the Libyans to leave, in favour of an African Union peacekeeping force led by the Nigerian general Geoffrey Ejiga. Indignant at this ingratitude, Qaddafi decided to remind Goukouni what he had lost; he withdrew his forces before the African Union troops could arrive, and sure enough Goukouni’s archenemy Hissein Habbre pounced.

Now backed by Qaddafi’s archenemy, Sudanese dictator Numairi, Hissein thus attacked from the east, in Abbas Koty’s area of responsibility. Koty was caught off guard and the Nord Army quickly seized the border town Adre. This eastern assault was backed by a northern assault from Hissein’s native northern region, and by summer 1982 the Nord Army led by Hissein’s lieutenant Idriss Deby had captured Ndjamena, Hissein seizing power for himself. The exhausted Goukouni first fled but finally threw in the towel by the mid-1980s, at which point many of the militias under his nominal leadership – among them Koty’s Kobe militia – had reconciled with Hissein.

Though Hissein was a far more capable ruler than Goukouni, he also proved far more ruthless. Experience had taught him that the loose coalitions in Chad were not to be trusted, and he soon began to brutally purge the other factions in his coalition, in favour of his own Gourane group. One by one non-Gourane commanders, such as the Hadjerai Maldoum Abbas and the Kobe Abbas Koty, fled into exile to plot their return.

Yet Hissein also successfully rallied a “patriotic” war against the Libyans, which he was able to do since Qaddafi had reappeared in the northern Aouzou region after Goukouni’s ouster. By this point – the mid-1980s – Qaddafi was opposed not only by France and his African competitors, but also to a fanatical extent by the United States. They flung their weight behind Hissein, who was able to expel the Libyans by 1987.

Yet Qaddafi did score some victories – a popular uprising in Sudan overthrew his longstanding archenemy Numairi, and the resultant election brought to power Sadiq Mahdi – the Sudanese equivalent of Goukouni, a well-meaning but weak scion of privilege who Qaddafi had supported since the 1970s. Like Goukouni, there was little commonality between Sadiq and Qaddafi’s revolutionary “Green Book” ideology – an ideology that in order to mobilize support fo became increasingly Arab supremacist in this period, with long-term consequences for Sudan’s western Darfur region – but beset by a civil war in southern Sudan and heavily dependent on Libya, there was little Sadiq could do.

The convergence of views between Sudan and Libya provided an opportunity for Abbas Koty. His short-lived stint with the vicious Hissein Habbre was over, and he genuinely respected the Libyan dictator; he also had close links to Sadiq Mahdi’s government, especially interior minister Mubarak Fadel and Darfur governor Tigani Tahir, who supervised the camps from which Chadien dissidents attacked.

Several factors changed the environment in 1989. First, Sadiq Mahdi was overthrown in a military coup that installed Omar Bashir at the helm of an Islamist regime. This did not hurt the Chadien dissidents as much as might be expected, because the new regime shared the antipathy toward Hissein Habbre and largely continued Sudanese policy.

Secondly, the dissidents had a windfall when Hissein’s army commander Idriss Deby, having unsuccessfully attempted a coup, fled into Darfur. Koty himself abetted this flight, which brought both confederations of the Zaghawa people – the Kobe and Bidayat – into the revolt. Ironically given the claims that Hissein’s opponents were Libyan clientele, Deby had been preceded by Hissein’s reconciliation with the major Libyan client of the 1980s – the Arab adventurer Acheikh Oumar, who had succeeded Ahmat Acyl as Bourkane militia leader before he reconciled with Hissein. Now, ironically, it was Hissein – who had opportunistically championed himself as an African champion against Qaddafi’s Arab imperialism – who reconciled with Qaddafi’s Arab clientele, and who in turn lost the support of non-Arab adventurers. Along with the Zaghawa, the Hadjerai commander Maldoum Abbas provided the third major faction in the Darfur-based opposition to Hissein.

By 1990, it was the increasingly hated Hissein Habbre who was on the back foot. France, in the eventual pattern of every neo-colonial power with native vassals, had tired of him. Qaddafi of course disliked him, while neither dictatorship in Sudan or Nigeria had any taste for him. In November 1990, a major rebel assault thundered from Sudanese Darfur into eastern Chad. It was do or die for Hissein, and – his flaws having never included cowardice – he personally led the majority of his army into the field. The armies collided outside Abeche, and Hissein was routed. Many of his top lieutenants killed, he himself beat a hasty retreat to Ndjamena. He stopped only to loot the treasury and kill some presumably risky prisoners before making a westward beeline for Cameroon.

The triumphant coalition – now led majorly by Chad easterners – sauntered into the capital at their leisure. Deby set about trying to install a regime, striking reconciliations with former opponents – such as Goukouni Ouaddai – and sending off expeditions against those – such as Hissein’s former Gourane entourage but also southern rebels – who refused. Deby was not as ruthless as Hissein, but like his predecessor his conquering regime has essentially personalized power around his core entourage while trying to either coopt or conquer opponents. That he has survived thirty years on this model attests to some skill and no small fortune.

Among the earliest competitors that Deby sized up were his partners in the 1989-90 period. Both Abbases – the Hadjerai Maldoum and the Kobe Koty – had brought their militias with them, over whom Deby had no control. Moreover, with their major arsenals the two Abbases viewed themselves essentially as equals to Deby, holding powerful positions: Maldoum served as interior minister and thus oversaw security, while Koty took over the army as its commander. Finally, because their links with neighbouring powers were at least as strong as Deby’s links, he was apprehensive that they could turn on him as he had turned on Hissein and, indeed, as Hissein had turned on Goukouni. A purge was in order – not as nasty a purge as Hissein’s earlier purges, which Deby made sure to condemn, but a purge the noo.

In October 1991, Deby ordered the arrest of Maldoum Abbas and army second-in-command, a Kaffine Chahidullah. They had, he claimed, been planning a coup. The charge was baseless, and after a short imprisonment Deby restored Maldoum to a less consequential role in his cabinet; Chahidullah was indignant enough to refuse any further role in the regime.

Far more real was the coup that the other Abbas, army commander Koty, attempted in June 1992. Probably deciding to have Deby for breakfast before he was had for lunch, Koty’s mutiny was equally crushed and he escaped west, following Hissein Habbre’s footsteps into Cameroon. Once safely abroad, he announced a new coalition to oust the regime. But there was little interest, and it appears that he could only attract such few Zaghawa followers, such as his family, who shared his apprehension toward Deby.

Qaddafi – by now, ironically, reinvented as the regional voice of reason once French and American interests were no longer at stake – offered to mediate. Koty was invited to Libya in summer 1993 and at its end he signed the sort of high-level accord that could be expected for a formal government. The Libyan team was led by a leading army officer, Abdelrahman Sayed; the Sudanese team by former Darfur governor Tigani Tahir. Idriss Deby took care to send a suitably high-level delegation, including his brother Dawousa and future defence minister Mahamat Nassour. Koty returned to Chad and registered his exile coalition as a legal opposition party.

Yet no sooner had he let his guard down than Koty was eliminated. In October 1993, days after his party’s registration, he was mysteriously murdered. The culprits are unknown, but Koty’s brother Hissein blamed the government and escaped – unsurprisingly, east into Sudan – to plot another revolt.

Like the rebel assault from Sudan in 1990, Abbas Koty’s route has been worn, rinsed, and repeated again and again in Deby’s long regime, with one military adventurer after another taking to the maquis – often, as relations with Bashir worsened in the 2000s, with Sudanese help – and mounting assaults that frequently came from Darfur. Very frequently such mutineers have been either eliminated, or coopted into high-level positions such as army commander. The Chadien state structure remains similar in structure, if somewhat broader, than it was during the 1980s; much as Hissein Habbre relied on his personal entourage, so has Deby. This has not prevented malcontents from attempting to replace Deby, but it has not prevented their reintegration as well as a sort of militarized regional aristocracy. In this respect, Abbas Koty was perhaps unusual only in his ideological certitude – for in contrast to many others, he was reportedly quite fervent in his espousal of revolutionary Muslim nationalism – and the abruptness of his violent downfall.

Ahrarul-Sham between competing currents

Ahrarul-Sham between competing currents

Ibrahim Moiz, rights reserved

7 December 2020

Ahrarul-Sham’s awkward balance between the competing agendas of its external backer Turkey and its controversial local competitor-cum-collaborator Tahrirul-Sham has long threatened the group’s cohesion. A mutiny seeking to win over Tahrirul-Sham at Turkey’s expense has sputtered against a mixture of Tahrirul-Sham’s increasingly controversial governance and Turkey’s enhanced military-diplomatic prowess.

News from the Syrian insurgency has long since faded from the headlines, but tensions between and within the various groups in the north persist even as Turkey attempts to whip into shape a unified army. This autumn’s unsuccessful “coup” within what was once the largest insurgent faction, Ahrarul-Sham, only further underscored this friction. The group’s longstanding emir, Jabir Basha, survived a coup attempt by his military commander Inad Darwaish in apparent cahoots with Basha’s predecessor Hasan Soufan, which aimed at bringing back defectors who had long since broken with Ahrarul-Sham. As of now, Basha appears to have outmaneouvred the mutiny, the latest twist in a series of tensions within an insurgent group still uncertain of its bearing in the contest between the Turkish-backed camp and its rival in Idlib’s dominant Tahrirul-Sham. This article will trace this history and examine the implications for the insurgent scene in northern Syria.

In their heyday during the mid-2010s, such constant tensions would have seemed unthinkable in Ahrarul-Sham. It emerged nearly without a ripple as Syria’s biggest and easily most disciplined insurgent group by summer 2013, a phenomenon that stemmed from its leadership’s ability to quietly bind together different Islamist fronts under a common agenda. Ahrarul-Sham’s founding emir, Hamawi schoolteacher Hassan Abboud (Abu Abdullah), was a first-among-equals in a collegial core of commanders mainly drawn from a similar social background in the northern countryside at Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib provinces. As such, Ahrarul-Sham was able to draw several important fronts under its wing, a process that continued as late as 2017. This contrasted with the approach of Nusra Front, the forerunner to Tahrirul-Sham. Though they shared similar social roots and often collaborated, Nusra’s leadership adopted a far more centralist approach around its shadowy founder Ahmad Sharaa (Abu Muhammad), who dispatched aides to set up different fronts across Syria, as opposed to the more “federalist” organization of Ahrarul-Sham who drew preexistent fronts under their banner.

Ahrarul-Sham’s collegial leadership initially served it well; while Abboud and most of the early command were killed in a meeting during 2014, the group rebounded quickly. Remarkably it continued its policy of alternating emirs on a yearly basis, underlining the discipline within the leadership. But it was also able to rebound partly through collaboration with Nusra. The Nusra-Ahrar collaboration proved among the war’s most successful partnerships: in 2013 they had already captured Raqqah city, and six months after Abboud’s death they captured Idlib city. But Nusra’s designation as the Syrian front for the Qaida network was a liability at a point when the Syrian insurgency was fast losing sympathy as international attention focused instead on Daaish, whose local sympathizers also began to attack the rebels. This coupled with Sharaa’s reluctance to deal with the only remaining state invested in the insurgency, Turkey, left Ahrarul-Sham at a crossroads over which the group began to split.

In 2015-16, as Russia entered the war and rebel advances began to brake, Ahrarul-Sham started to fragment at the leadership level. The two breakaway groups were led by veterans who had managed the group’s transition after Abboud’s death: the first by Ayman Abul-Tout, favoured cooperation with Turkey; and the second by Abboud’s successor Hashim Shaikh (Abu Jabir) and his military commander Muhammad Tahhan (Abu Saleh), who favoured continued cooperation with Nusra. These tensions intensified during the climax of the battle for Aleppo city, where Farouq Ayyub (Abu-Bakr) – a member of the pro-Turkish camp who wanted to cut the rebels’ losses – negotiated the withdrawal into Idlib. Farouq’s second-in-command in the battle, a former Ahrarul-Sham commander called Abdul-Muin Ashidda (Abul-Abed), bitterly criticized Turkey for not stopping the Russian campaign. Ashidda’s remarks foreshadowed and were exploited by Sharaa, who the very next month set up a new group called Tahrirul-Sham that disavowed the Turkish link. In this group, Nusra was joined by embittered former Ahrarul-Sham commanders such as Shaikh, Tahhan, and Ashidda as well as by the Zanki emir Taufiq Shihabuddin. Here Ahrarul-Sham’s “federal” structure proved a weakness, as many units broke away. Meanwhile, Ahrarul-Sham negotiated the release from regime captivity of Hasan Soufan (Abul-Baraa), a widely respected preacher who was quickly promoted within the movement. In summer 2017, when Tahrirul-Sham suddenly attacked and captured most of Idlib, it was Soufan who negotiated Ahrarul-Sham’s withdrawal and soon became Ahrarul-Sham emir.

Sharaa’s aggression in Idlib alienated Shihabuddin and Tahhan, who broke away to reduce the group largely to its Nusra core; though this core remained, the centralist policy of Sharaa was as unable as Ahrarul-Sham federalism to prevent fragmentation. Shihabuddin’s Zanki group formed a cooperation pact with Soufan the following spring, by which point Sharaa was already facing a mutiny by Qaida loyalists embittered at his break with the parent organization; however, Tahhan’s group remained separate. Soufan, who was replaced as Ahrarul-Sham emir by Jabir Basha in 2018, continued trying to reconcile Tahhan as well as potential defectors from Tahrirul-Sham. It was apparently to support such a move that Ahrarul-Sham military commander Darwaish (Abul-Mundhir) mounted his attempted coup this past month, whereby he and Soufan captured the Ahrarul-Sham base in Salqin.

Darwaish occupies an interesting role in this tale. A professional soldier, he not only became Ahrarul-Sham military commander in 2018 but served on the general command of the Syrian National Army, a putative attempt to form a unified army that has been strongly backed by Turkey. Thus it would be expected that he would be part of the pro-Turkish camp within Ahrarul-Sham, and so it was startling when he did quite the opposite in attempting a coup against Basha. He was quickly outmaneouvred by Basha; most of the relevant Ahrarul-Sham officers backed their current emir, and Basha quickly reorganized the Ahrarul-Sham structure and replaced Darwaish with a loyalist, Abu Faisal Ansari.

There is good reason to expect that Basha’s camp will prevail. Since 2016, Ahrarul-Sham has been buffeted between the competing currents of Turkey, with its aim to promote a rebel army that can gain international support, and Nusra/Tahrirul-Sham, who promised power on the ground in Idlib. In the past couple of years Tahrirul-Sham has been weakened considerably, not only by Qaida loyalists who opposed Sharaa’s split but by such defectors as Ashidda who attacked Sharaa’s unaccountable regime in Idlib. Tahrirul-Sham’s governance in Idlib has fallen well short of early expectations; battlefield prowess does not equate administrative capability. Meanwhile Turkey has proven its worth not only politically but from a military viewpoint – not only did Turkish firepower repel a major regime attack in spring 2020, but Ankara’s innovative military tactics have played a decisive role in Libya and the South Caucasus. The current trend of fragmentation in Tahrirul-Sham and assertiveness by Turkey seems to suggest that Ahrarul-Sham will ultimately opt for the latter.