Habré first came to international attention when a group under his command attacked the town of Bardaï in Tibesti, on 21 April 1974, and took three Europeans hostage, with the intention of ransoming them for money and arms. The captives were a German doctor, Christophe Staewen (whose wife was killed in the attack), and two French citizens, Françoise Claustre, an archeologist, and Marc Combe, a development worker. Marc Combe escaped in 1975 but, despite the intervention of the French Government, Madame Claustre (whose husband was a senior French government official) was not released until 1 February 1977.
Habré split with Goukouni Oueddei, partly over this hostage-taking incident (which became known as the "Claustre affair" in France), but retained the designation "FAN" for his rebel army.
Habré deposed Oueddei on 7 June, 1982 and the FAN leader became president; the post of prime minister was abolished. There followed a period of turmoil. Habré created the secret police force, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DSD) and many opponents of Habré were executed. It also is believed that thousands of people from tribes Habré thought hostile to the regime were killed. It is estimated that Habré's government carried out 40,000 politically-motivated killings and over 200,000 cases of torture, leading Human Rights Watch to dub him "Africa's Pinochet.
Libya invaded Chad on July 1975 in an attempt to drive out Habré, occupying and annexing the Aozou Strip. France and the United States responded by aiding Chad in an attempt to contain Libya's regional ambitions under Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi.
Civil war deepened. On 15 December, 1980, Libya occupied all of northern Chad, but Habré defeated Libyan troops and drove them out in November 1981. In 1983, Libyan troops occupied all of the country north of Koro Toro. The United States used a clandestine base in Chad to train captured Libyan soldiers whom it was organizing into an anti-Gaddafi force. The USA provided military aid and gave support to the DSD.
Habré's aid from the USA and France helped him to win the war against Gaddafi's Libya. The Libyan occupation of the north of Koro Toro ended when Habré defeated him in 1987. By that time, the war was beginning to end, and had ended by 1988.
Despite this victory, Habré's government was weak, and strongly opposed by members of the Zaghawa ethnic group. A rebel offensive in November 1990, which was led by Idriss Déby, a Zaghawa former army commander who had participated in a plot against Habré in 1989 and subsequently fled to Sudan, defeated Habré's forces. The French chose not to assist Habré on this occasion, allowing him to be ousted; it is possible that they actively aided Déby. Explanation and speculation regarding the reasons for France's abandonment of Habré include the adoption of a policy of non-interference in intra-Chadian conflicts, dissatisfaction with Habré's unwillingness to move towards multiparty democracy, and favoritism by Habré towards American rather than French companies with regard to oil development. Habré fled to Cameroon, and the rebels entered N'Djamena on December 2 1990; Habré subsequently went into exile in Senegal.
Between 1993 and 2003, Belgium had universal jurisdiction legislation allowing the most serious violations of human rights to be tried in national as well as international courts, without any direct connection to the country of the alleged perpetrator, victims or where the crimes took place. Despite the repeal of the legislation, investigations against Habré went ahead and in September 2005 he was indicted for crimes against humanity, torture, war crimes and other human rights violations. Senegal, where Habré has been in exile for 17 years, has Habré under nominal house arrest in Dakar.
On March 17 2006, the European Parliament demanded that Senegal turn over Habré to Belgium to be tried. Senegal did not comply, and it at first refused extradition demands from the African Union which arose after Belgium asked to try Habré. The ATDPH has expressed its approval of the decision. If he were to be turned over, he would have become the first former dictator to be extradited by a third-party country to stand trial for human rights abuses. In 2007, Senegal set up its own special war-crimes court to try Habré under pressure from the African Union. On April 8 2008, the National Assembly of Senegal voted to amend the constitution to clear the way for Habré to be prosecuted in Senegal; Ibrahima Gueye was appointed as trial coordinator in May 2008. A joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate voted in July 2008 to approve a bill empowering Senegalese courts to try people for crimes committed in other countries and for crimes that were committed more than ten years beforehand; this made it constitutionally possible to try Habré. Senegalese Minister of Justice Madicke Niang appointed four investigative judges on this occasion.
On August 15 2008, a Chadian court sentenced Habré to death in absentia for war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with allegations that he had worked with rebels inside Chad to oust Déby. François Serres, a lawyer for Habré, criticized this trial on August 22 for unfairness and secrecy. According to Serres, the accusation on which the trial was based was previously unknown and Habré had not received any notification of the trial.