By: Alicia Chavy, columnist
In 2013, France was hailed for its successful military intervention in Mali, called Operation Serval. However, since 2014 local criminals and extremist groups have established alliances with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), and there has been an increase in drug trafficking and spillover effects from unstable neighboring nations. At present, France and G5 force operations in Mali and the Sahel are not sufficient to secure the region against these threats. Amid a rapidly unstable environment, France and the G5 countries must focus on enhancing African forces’ operational capacity and autonomy to respond rapidly to local threats and conditions. Further, the international community must provide greater support to enhance ongoing counterterrorism efforts.
At the end of 2011, Malian Tuareg tribesmen sought the independence of Azawad (Northern Mali) and created the National Movement for Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). By January 2012, a wave of Tuaregs who had previously served in the Libyan military joined the MNLA, bringing an influx of weapons to Mali. Newly armed MNLA forces—aided by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in the West Africa (MUJAO)—launched a rebellion against the Malian military forces in January 2012. While the MNLA and its allies completed their conquest in spring 2012, the MNLA was soon plagued by intergroup disputes and rivalries. By the end of June 2012, the Islamist groups had pushed out the MNLA and Northern Mali was under the Islamist militants’ control.[i]
As a result, France launched Operation Serval on January 11, 2013, deploying 200 men, air support, and five long-range reconnaissance aircraft to help Malian military forces retake control of northern Mali, and defeat the Islamist insurgents. By February 2013, France had deployed a total of 4,000 men who, with the assistance of Chadian troops, launched offensives in Northern Mali. To assist the French operation and provide peacekeeping forces, the United Nations established the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in April 2013. In July 2014, Operation Serval ended and France began to reduce its forces in Mali. Many countries hailed the operation a success, as French and Malian forces retook cities controlled by Islamist militants and reduced the militant forces’ presence across the country.
Thereafter, France transitioned its kinetic operations in Mali to a permanent counterterrorism mission, code named Operation Barkhane, with the ultimate goal of turning these operations over to an all-African force. [ii] Through Operation Barkhane, France has deployed a 4,000 strong-counterterrorism force to help the G5 countries—Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Mauritania—with critical air, intelligence, and operational support. In July 2017, France and the five countries formed a separate 5,000 strong cross-border force, known as the G5 Sahel Cross Border Joint Force, to improve regional coordination and cooperation on kinetic operations, with France’s Operation Barkhane forces training and assisting the new joint force.[iii], The G5 Sahel Joint Force launched its first regional operation in November 2017 and has received substantial financial support from France, individual European countries, the European Union, and as several African nations.[iv] During a December 2017 summit hosted to boost support for the five-nation effort, French President Emanuel Macron claimed that these multilateral efforts would yield victories in the first half of 2018.[v]
Despite France’s initial success undermining militants’ presence in Northern Mali through Operations Serval and Barkhane, the terrorist threat has rapidly evolved in Mali and the Sahel region and an array of security concerns have metastasized since 2014. After Operation Serval, a growing extremism spawned new jihadi groups, some of which claimed affiliation with the Islamic State (IS).[vi] While French officials estimated the number of extremists in Sahel region in 2017 to amount to no more than 1,000—significantly fewer than the several thousands in Northern Mali in 2013 when France intervened—this number is deceptive.[vii] Since Islamist extremist factions in the Sahel do not have fixed bases and are scattered across borders, it is markedly more difficult for French and G5 Sahel forces to track the whereabouts and evolution of individual militant groups than when these groups were concentrated in Northern Mali.[viii]
Moreover, these militant groups “have become highly flexible, mobile units moving frequently,” and are responsible for several deadly attacks across the Sahel.[ix] By the end of 2017, local security forces and the 12,000 strong UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA have emerged as prime targets for jihadist attacks, with recent strikes occurring in the border regions of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.[x] For instance, on February 28, 2018, four UN peacekeepers were killed and four were seriously injured when their vehicle hit a mine in central Mali. Six Malian soldiers were killed in a similar incident the day before.[xi] In October 2017, four US soldiers and five Nigerian soldiers were killed in an ambush led by IS-affiliated militants.[xii] In January 2018 security worsened in Mali; within a single month unidentified gunmen killed at least 14 soldiers in an assault on a military camp in Gao[xiii] and militants launched a series of attacks “on hotels used by westerners and local elites.”[xiv]
In response to this surge in Islamist militant violence, in February 2018 MINUSMA indicated that it would reinforce its security presence in central Mali.[xv] Similarly, in response to the October 2017 attacks against US soldiers, the United States Government announced it would contribute USD 60 million to help the G5 joint forces, although it opposed the UN sending resources to assist these operations.[xvi]
Despite these recent financial and military contributions, the G5 joint forces and France’s efforts in Mali require greater multilateral support. France and the UN must ensure that the cross-border force reaches full operational capacity. To do so, there is a need to enhance coalition efforts in the region and develop more effective reconnaissance and intelligence assets along borders to undercut the militants’ cross-border operations.[xvii] Further, neither MINUSMA forces nor US Special Forces in Niger to train and assist local soldiers are currently authorized to launch offensive operations against militants.[xviii] Western and African military forces must have significant autonomy to respond rapidly to local and cross-border threats and conditions.[xix] Additionally, French Defense Minister Florence Parly stated in a December 2017 interview that the G5 joint forces’ require an additional EUR 400 million to continue operations down the road. [xx] Along with the financial resources, the G5 joint forces also require material resources, including “additional infrastructure, information and communication technology, anti-IED technology, medical training and medical evacuation capability on land and in the air.”[xxi]
This additional financial and material support could help fill some of the gaps in the G5 joint forces’ structural and operational capacities, namely the forces’ capacity to detect militants and effectively launch kinetic cross-border operations. Without enhanced intelligence-sharing, logistical support, and kinetic coordination between Western and African troops, the G5 and French efforts will likely become increasingly ineffective, and France could become stuck in an intractable war in Mali.
[i] Michael Shurkin, “France’s War in Mali,” RAND Corporation, 2014, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR770.html.
[ii] Mike Ciandella, “US Now Searching in Mali for Terrorists who Killed Americans in Niger,” The Blaze, February 27, 2018, https://www.theblaze.com/news/2018/02/27/u-s-now-searching-in-mali-for-terrorists-who-killed-americans-in-niger.
[iii] The Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “The G5 Sahel Joint Force Gains Traction,” February 9, 2018, https://africacenter.org/spotlight/g5-sahel-joint-force-gains-traction/; Azad Essa, “G5 Sahel Counterterrorism Force Explained,” Al Jazeera, November 3, 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/11/g5-sahel-counterterrorism-force-explained-171102071159524.html.
[v] Silvie Corbet and Elaine Ganley, “African Anti-jihadi Force Gets USD 130 million at French Meet,” US News, December 13, 2017, https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2017-12-13/france-seeks-ways-to-boost-anti-jihadi-force-in-africa.
[vi] Jason Burke, “US Special Forces Deaths in Niger Lift Veil on Shadow War against Islamists in Sahel,” The Guardian, October 15, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/15/sahel-niger-us-special-forces-islamists.
[vii] Corbet and Ganley, “African Anti-jihadi Force Gets USD 130 million at French Meet.”
[viii] Burke, “US Special Forces Deaths in Niger Lift Veil on Shadow War Against Islamists in Sahel.”
[x] Agence France Presse, “Jihadist Group Claim Mali Attack that Killed Two French Soldiers,” The Local, February 24, 2018, https://www.thelocal.fr/20180224/jihadist-group-claim-mali-attack-that-killed-two-french-soldiers.
[xi] Reuters, “Four UN Peacekeepers Killed in Roadside Explosion in Mali,” US News, February 28, 2018, https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2018-02-28/four-un-peacekeepers-killed-in-roadside-explosion-in-mali.
[xii] Ciandella, “US Now Searching in Mali for Terrorists who Killed Americans in Niger.”
[xiii] Philippe Desmazes, “Gunmen Launch Deadly Attack on Malian Army Base,” France24, January 28, 2018, http://www.france24.com/en/20180127-gunman-launch-deadly-attack-mali-army-base-soldiers-killed-soumpi.
[xiv] Burke, “US Special Forces Deaths in Niger Lift Veil on Shadow War Against Islamists in Sahel.”
[xv] Reuters, “Four UN Peacekeepers Killed in Roadside Explosion in Mali.”
[xvi] Karen DeYoung, “US Pledges USD 60 Million to Build New African Counterterrorism Force,” The Washington Post, October 30, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-pledges-60-million-to-build-new-african-counterterrorism-force/2017/10/30/87a6e9c2-bdc4-11e7-8444-a0d4f04b89eb_story.html?utm_term=.08073d9ee947
[xvii] Ciandella, “US Now Searching in Mali for Terrorists who Killed Americans in Niger.”
[xviii] DeYoung, “US Pledges USD 60 Million to Build New African Counterterrorism Force.”
[xix] Burke, “US Special Forces Deaths in Niger Lift Veil on Shadow War Against Islamists in Sahel.”
[xx] Corbet and Ganley, “African Anti-jihadi Force Gets USD 130 million at French Meet.”
[xxi] Ciandella, “US Now Searching in Mali for Terrorists who Killed Americans in Niger.”