Terrorist attacks in Paris and Bamako
In January 2012, Tuareg in northern Mali took up arms against the Malian government in order to create an independent state called “Azawad”.
The rebellion was quickly hi-jacked by three interrelated Islamist groups, supported by the Algerian secret intelligence service, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), with arms, fuel and other logistical supplies. Algeria’s purpose was to sideline the Tuareg rebels who were seen as a threat to its own supposed ‘Tuareg problem’ in southern Algeria.
The three Islamists groups were Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al Din (lead by Iyad ag Ghali) and The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
By May 2012, the rebels had put the Mali army to flight. However within a few weeks of Tuareg declaring an independent state of Azawad, the Islamists, covertly backed by Algeria had seized the military and political initiative and taken control of all of northern Mali.
In January 2013, with Mali in crisis, the UN failing to act and Mali’s capital, Bamako, threatened by the Islamist insurgency, France intervened militarily through an operation known as “Serval”. Its intention was to drive the Islamists out of Mali.
18 months later, on 1 August 2014, with Operation Serval only having partially dislodged the Islamists from Mali, and with the security situation deteriorating across the rest of the Sahel, France expanded its military intervention through “Operation Barkhan” to include the former French colonies of the Sahel (Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad). French troop deployment across the Sahel officially rose to 4,000, but is believed to be much more than that.
In the meantime, a UN peacekeeping force (MINUSMA) of approximately 9,000 was deployed to Mali to try and maintain some semblance of peace in a highly politically unstable and insecure environment. Over 30 UN personnel have lost their lives so far. An imposed peace deal, with little or no input from the rebel Tuareg groups, was cobbled together in May 2015.
On 20 November, one week after the Paris attacks, “terrorists” attacked the Radison Blu Hotel in Bamako. Details of that attack are still unclear. The article below, “The unravelling of French intervention in the Sahel”, was published a few hours before the Mali attack, through a consultancy subscription service. Its concluding sentence was fortuitous. It read: “If France closes its eyes to how and why its intervention in the Sahel is failing both militarily and politically, the catastrophe-in-the-making is likely to be felt as much in the Sahel as in metropolitan France.”
The unravelling of French intervention in the Sahel
19th November 2015. A draft of this article was written before the IS (Islamic State) terrorist attacks on Paris on 13 November. It has not been changed since then, other than to draw attention to the fact that many of the subsequent commentaries on the Paris attacks have made reference to France’s intervention in Syria and Iraq, as if this intervention may have been causally related to the attacks.
In other words, the attacks, as the IS is claiming, may have been revenge for French attacks on IS in Syria and Iraq.
Careful monitoring of BBC English-language radio reporting in the 12 hours following the Paris attacks noted no references to the words ‘Sahel ’or ‘Barkhan’, and only one to Mali. A cursory review of French media over the same period indicates a similar lack of association between the terrorist attacks on Paris and the French presence in the Sahel.
That is most likely because France’s intervention in the Sahel (Operation Barkhan), is of a different order and nature to that in Syria and Iraq. It may also be because French people, as with most other Europeans, are less aware of what is going on in the Sahel than in the Middle East.
It is also because the French authorities have given out very little information about what their troops are doing in the Sahel. This may well be for security reasons, but is also strongly suspected to be linked to a growing deterioration of the political and security situation since the initial flush of military success at the start of the French intervention in January 2013.
Another reason for the lack of public knowledge is that an increasing number of European and other Western countries do not want to draw domestic attention to their deployment of troops to the international, mostly UN-led, forces already in the region. These are known to include the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, and the US.
No French or other Western media appear to have raised questions about possible links between the predominantly French intervention in the Sahel and terrorist attacks in Europe, even though several prominent French newspapers, including Le Monde and La Tribune, directed considerable attention in the two weeks prior to the Paris killings to the failure of France’s intervention in the region.
Indeed, an article in Le Monde on 2 November, entitled L’opération Barkhane, un “permis de tuer au Sahel”, likened the situation in Mali to that in Iraq and Afghanistan. France is accused of marrying the American conception of combating terrorism, at least as it was in the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era, without appreciating the tragic consequences of those interventions.
The more recent Libyan intervention of 2011 can be added to those in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the consequences, more directly comprehensible to France, have probably been more geographically widespread and arguably even more ineffective and disastrous.
How does one measure failure? Le Monde makes the telling point that in Mali alone, security is now more precarious than at the start of Operation Barkhan, some 18 months ago, and possibly also more precarious than before Operation Serval, some two and a half years ago, in spite of the international military presence.
As for the political situation in Bamako, in Le Monde’s view, it is now worse than on the eve of the overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) (2012). Following a military coup, a new President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), was elected in August 2013.
In Mali, the apparent initial military success of “Operation Serval”, launched in January 2013, has looked increasingly questionable as time has gone on. No one doubts that heavy fighting initially took place in the Tigharghar mountains of northern Kidal region and that some 600 or so jihadists may have been killed, according to French military estimates.
But military questions remain. In particular, why were so many jihadists allowed to flee from a region that was relatively easy to surround, and so re-establish themselves in such far away places as Tunisia and Libya?
The Algerian angle
The answer is that Algeria did not secure its borders, allowing al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters to cross through Algerian territory into both Tunisia and Libya.
France may not have felt able to challenge Algeria on that matter. But it certainly could have done much more to stop the fleeing forces of Iyad Ag Ghali from safely crossing the Niger River at Gao and so regrouping to fight another day – as they are still doing.
This reason why has never been satisfactorily answered. With French planes strafing the road from Douentza through Hombori to the river bridge at Gao, why was there no concerted air attack on Iyad’s forces before they crossed the bridge? Nearly three years later, the question has become whether the French deliberately wanted Iyad and his men to escape.
In August, Mondafrique referred to Iyad as a triple agent, as he has been protected and supplied by the Algerian DRS since the early 1990s, as well as having connections with the Mali and Saudi authorities.
With more evidence coming to light that the French military authorities haven’t prioritised his capture, he might now be called a quadruple agent.
What is Operation Barkhan achieving?
Looking across the rest of the Sahel, beyond Mali, it is difficult to gain an accurate assessment of what Operation Barkhan is actually doing. While the reticence of French military authorities to disseminate information for strategic reasons is understandable, the failure to do so to raises questions about the strategy and effectiveness of the intervention.
Since one or two well-publicised successful hits against terrorists and/or traffickers, France has said little about its military achievements in the region.
If people’s sense of security is anything to go by, most anecdotal information from open sources and a regional network of informants strongly suggests that the situation is deteriorating.
Part of that sense of insecurity comes from the fact that Boko Haram, possibly under increasing pressure in Nigeria from Nigerian forces, is now establishing itself and recruiting in both southeastern Niger and Chad. Security in both countries is now best described as a crisis. And while the northwards push of Boko Haram into the Sahel probably has more to do with the situation in Nigeria, there is very little evidence of French troops actually engaging, let alone preventing, the seeming expansion.
The positive picture
An article in the 15 November edition of the New York Times gave the impression that the Boko Haram situation in Nigeria and Cameroon was improving. The report is very one-sided, clearly relying too heavily on military sources wishing to please their foreign trainers and providers.
In Cameroon, for instance, Colonel Didier Badjeck was quoted as saying that ‘the Cameroon military had gained ground [against Boko Haram] in the past couple of months, largely thanks to training from French and American soldiers and their surveillance drones.’ Nigerian officials, he said, had also been more cooperative in sharing much needed intelligence. ‘I am sure that our troops and the multinational forces will defeat Boko Haram very soon.’
A similarly positive impression was given in an article by Agence France Presse (AFP) on 4-5 November. The headline quotes the chief of staff of the Niger army, General Seyni Garba, as saying security in the Sahel has improved.
General Garba was addressing a chiefs of staff meeting of France and the G5 countries – Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad – in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The G5 was created last year to bring together French-speaking countries of the Sahel and around Lake Chad.
The meeting was held in the presence of the chief of staff of the French armed forces, General Pierre de Villiers, and with press coverage from major French news agencies. It is also significant that it took place in Burkina Faso, which until this year had been free from the attacks of jihadist groups operating in the Sahel.
The other picture
Garba no doubt wants to keep his job, as do the region’s other chiefs of staff. It would therefore be surprising if, in such company, he were to give a less than upbeat review of the situation. In the same week, however, three reports carried by AFP on November 6 and November 7; and on Radio France Internationale (RFI) in the first week of November, told a different story.
Citing the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), they reported that 47,000 people had fled their villages in the Diffa area of southeastern Niger since February because of Boko Haram attacks.
In September, 6,000 people fled the single village of Ngourtoua when it came under deadly attack from Boko Haram. By the end the month, the UN had recorded 62 attacks by Boko Haram or combat engagements with the Niger army in the Diffa region.
Since 2013, the region, numbering just 500,000 people, has given shelter to 165,892 refugees from Nigeria, while 460,000 of the indigenous population have required humanitarian aid, and 391,000 have actually received UN assistance.
The loss to the local economy, one of the poorest in the world, has been assessed by the UN at around US$32 million since February 2015.
In addition, according to OCHA, 151 schools are now closed in the Diffa region because of Boko Haram attacks, affecting some 12,000 pupils.
RFI on 4 November reported that several thousand villagers evacuated Baroua after it had been attacked three times by Boko Haram in October. They requested the protection of a permanent military detachment, but it has not yet been provided. Worse, as in other parts of Niger, Boko Haram has been recruiting locals to carry out attacks on these villages.
The picture may show a slight improvement in Nigeria, as the Nigerian army finally moves against Boko Haram, but that initiative seems to be merely pushing Boko Haram fighters farther east and north into Cameroon, Niger, and Chad.
The purpose of the mission
If the purpose of Operation Barkhan has been to protect the Sahel from terrorism, then the increasing Boko Haram attacks in Niger and Chad suggest that it is failed.
Similarly, if it is designed to ensure some control over the region’s vast borders, why does people and drug trafficking appear to be on the increase? Maybe this is just a false impression, stemming from journalists’ preoccupation with the European migrant crisis.
Or perhaps it is because the French, assisted by the US, are monitoring the borders by drones rather than ground forces, and merely looking for terrorists rather than traffickers.
Additional Western forces
Moreover, if France’s military intervention, along with that of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in Mali, is so successful, why are they being bolstered incrementally by more Western forces?
The Netherlands has had a contingent of some 200 in Mali for some months. They are in the process of being joined by similar-sized contingents from Sweden and Germany, while a Belgian contingent of some 200 troops plus logistical support will take over next year from a French company operating in Niger.
In October, the US sent more than 30 troops (‘instructors’) to Agades to help train the Niger army, as well as donating two military aircraft. Statements from Washington focus on the various troops fighting both Islamist militants in the Sahara–Sahel corridor and Boko Haram fighters that are moving into the region from the south.
On 17 November, during a meeting of EU defense ministers in Brussels, the French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian invoked, for the first time in the history of the EU, the “mutual defense clause” enshrined in Article 42.7 of the Treaty of Lisbon. Le Drian asked that EU troops be sent to Mali. An Irish contingent looks likely to be deployed, with other EU countries likely to follow suit.
A politically courageous failure
If France’s military intervention does not yet have much to show for itself militarily, its political contribution is no better.
The November article in Le Monde considers the initial intervention in the Sahel ‘a politically courageous decision.’ Few people would disagree, and yet it soon turned into a political defeat.
The reason, according to the article, is France’s failure to reflect on the causes of terrorism – which in the Sahel stemmed from the use of false-flag terrorist operations in the region to legitimise the launch of a new front in the US’ so-called global war on terror (GWOT) – and from what it calls ‘a disturbing denial of Malian political realities.’
Such criticism applies to all Western powers, not just France.
A ready trigger
The danger for France, however, especially in terms of possible blowback against both metropolitan France and French interests in the region, is that it appears to regard Operation Barkhan as what Le Monde calls ‘a licence to kill.’
Although France abolished the death penalty in 1981 and has subsequently promoted its abolition everywhere in the world, the French army in the Sahel administers the death penalty against suspected terrorists without any due legal process.
The suspects are lumped together into some form of little-understood regional terrorism or Islamist militancy, whose origins are rooted in levels of collusion between regional intelligence services and armed groups that are known by most local people, or at least their intelligentsia, if not by the French Defence Ministry and its Western allies.
A neo-colonialist policy
As for denying Malian political realities, France must take a large amount of the blame for pushing and rushing the candidacy of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta for president, simply because he was deemed ideal for its highly contentious neo-colonialist African policy.
Local knowledge of the causes of regional terrorism, French readiness to administer the death penalty, and the pursuit of neo-colonialism are together fomenting rising anti-French sentiment across the region – and making Operation Barkhan an inevitable political failure.
Propping up presidents
Similar deterioration in the political climate is now readily apparent in both Niger and Chad. At the onset of the Sahel crisis, following Muammar Qadhafi’s overthrow, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou was regarded as the epitome of wisdom and the region’s safest pair of hands.
Four years later, feeling an increasing domestic chill because of his too-close friendship with President François Hollande and his embrace of Operation Barkhan, he faces a difficult presidential election and risks being toppled either in the polls or through another of Niger’s all-too-frequent but relatively bloodless coup d’états.
In Chad, where Idriss Déby’s presidency has long been shored up by France, the Boko Haram insurgency is making the regime more jittery.
Nor is France’s misunderstanding of the regional situation limited to the band of the Sahel. Its mishandling of the Tuareg–Tebu situation along the Niger–Libya border is impeding rather than contributing to the easing of ethnic tension on the Libyan side of the border.
In all three countries – Mali, Niger, and Chad – a noticeable worsening of the political and security situation has coincided with French military intervention. The danger about cause and effect arguments is that they depend on how people perceive the situation.
In the Sahel, one senses that an increasing number of people, especially among the political classes, are beginning to see more than just coincidence between this deterioration and French intervention.
In Bamako especially, but also increasingly in Niger and Chad, Western calls for democracy are falling on deaf ears. People now see how local versions of democracy merely serve the predatory interests of small political elites that enrich themselves with impunity and with the complicity of the international community.
Not surprisingly, and as Le Monde warns, the presence of the French and international military contingents – along with the billions of euros now regularly announced and re-announced at international conferences, are of little comfort or credibility to those beyond the presidential circles.
The mess that is now the Sahel is too politically and militarily precarious to last. At the moment, French attention is focused on the Islamic State (IS) group and Syria.
If France closes its eyes to how and why its intervention in the Sahel is failing both militarily and politically, the catastrophe-in-the-making is likely to be felt as much in the Sahel as in metropolitan France.
A few hours after this article was written, the luxury Radison Blu hotel in Bamako was attacked by “terrorists”. The number of people killed has still not been determined, but is thought to be more than 20.
Al Jazeera received a call claiming responsibility for the attack. The call is alleged to have come from Al-Murabitoun, a group reportedly formed around August 2013 and allegedly linked to Al Qa’ida. This has not been verified. Such verification, requires verification of the verifiers, which, because of state collusion, is not easy. This is particularly so in this case, as Mokhtar ben Mokhtar is thought to be dead, having been reported killed on at least ten occasions in the last dozen or so years. Also, both he and his group are known to have had links with Algeria’s DRS.
Further details of Mokhtar ben Mokhtar’s operations and his alleged involvement in the “terrorist” attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria in January 2013 are being made available in a major report on the In Amenas attack. It will be published on the ISCI website early in 2016.