Victory remains elusive in France’s drive to quell Sahel insurgency

The killing last week of one of al-Qaeda’s top commanders in Africa was celebrated by France as a significant victory in its war on terrorism in the Sahel. But seven years after it first intervened in Mali to quell an Islamist insurgency, Paris is mired in a seemingly endless campaign.

Despite 5,100 French troops across the region and 14,000 UN peacekeepers in Mali, violence that began in the north of the country has spread, killing thousands and displacing millions in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Frustrated by the rampant insecurity, protesters flooded the streets of Bamako, the Malian capital, in January calling on the French military to leave its former colonies.

“Since then, France has put more effort into letting people know what they are doing, doing more communications so we can see what they’re achieving,” said Mathias Hounkpe, head of the Mali country office for the Open Society Initiative for west Africa. 

But despite attempts to demonstrate progress, such as the killing of Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of the al-Qaeda-linked JNIM, Mr Hounkpe said Malians were not listening.

“It looks like the US killing of [Osama] bin Laden, but [France] will not get the full attention for it because the population right now is focused on something else,” he said.

The French announcement was made as 20,000 people gathered in Bamako on Friday to protest against the government, chanting slogans not just about violence, neglect and corruption. Re-elected in 2018 to a second five-year term, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has presided over soaring unemployment and the government’s retreat from swaths of the country where insecurity is rampant. 

Thousands of people demonstrate in Mali’s capital last Friday to demand the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita © Baba Ahmed/AP

The successful French operation against Droukdel, a 50-year-old Algerian who was directly connected to al-Qaeda leadership in the Middle East, marked a high point for France’s Operation Barkhane.

The campaign followed the French military’s intervention in northern Mali in 2013 and is the main engine of France’s effort to stabilise west Africa’s Sahel region. But the opened-ended deployment has begun to lose public support in France, particularly after setbacks including a helicopter crash that killed 13 French soldiers in Mali last year.

Observers in Mali said there was little evidence that Droukdel’s death would meaningfully constrain the diffuse terrorist networks that still operate with relative impunity, regularly killing soldiers and civilians.

The French counter-insurgency effort faces a complicated, shifting collection of extremist groups and ethnic militias across an area the size of western Europe. The groups include Droukdel’s JNIM and the Isis-aligned Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Fighters move easily across national borders, mobilising quickly on motorbikes to overwhelm targets and disappear into the bush.

In recent months, the Malian government has said it was open to negotiations with extremist groups, something that France and other western allies have long opposed.

French officials have preached an approach that includes governance and development alongside military intervention, emphasising that its troops are operating at the invitation of the regional governments. But France has been criticised in some quarters for failing to understand local dynamics in a region it once ruled.

A French flag is hoisted at a desert camp in Gao, northern Mali, as part of Operation Barkhane © Benoit Tessier/Reuters

As part of Operation Barkhane, the French army has aligned itself at different times with various ethnic militias, some of which have been implicated in the massacre of civilians. Other citizens who have collaborated with Operation Barkhane have found themselves targeted by extremists.

“You need a local approach but through militias it brought more harm than solutions,” said Mohamed Ould Mahmoud, spokesman for CMA, an alliance of rebel groups whose members joined extremists to capture the north in 2012 but signed a peace deal in 2015. “Since then the state of Mali has become weaker and weaker and the terrorists filled that space.”

Dougoukolo Alpha Oumar Ba-Konaré, a lecturer at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris, agreed that the counter-insurgency effort had made limited progress.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere near victory,” Mr Ba-Konaré said. “I know that the French are . . . calling on anthropologists or historians and various specialists of the region. But, again, understanding the people in one area in one region doesn’t mean that you’re actually able to have them join you.”

Nicolas de Rivière, France’s ambassador to the UN, told the Security Council last week that the international community could succeed in stabilising the Sahel “if it acts in a united and determined manner”.

But after years of trying to convince EU neighbours that the Sahel represents a grave threat to Europe from migration and terrorism, France remains by far the biggest contributor of troops and resources.

The French troops work alongside the so-called G5 Sahel joint force, comprising soldiers from Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Chad, that has finally begun operations but remains under-equipped and dependent on international partners.

French troops in Ndaki, Mali: 5,100 French military personnel are operating across the Sahel as part of the operation © Benoit Tessier/Reuters

President Emmanuel Macron summoned leaders from the five Sahel countries in January to the southwestern French town of Pau, to address lingering tensions over the counter-insurgency operations and demand that the heads of state disavow the anti-French protests in the region.

The tone of the summit and the decision to call the African leaders to France, rather than meeting them in the region, had been a mistake, a senior western official in Bamako said.

“If you actually want a concerted effort, if you weren’t just trying to show your strength, why not come here to the region?” the official said, asking not be identified.

“The bottom cause of France’s problems here is they have not found the right formula to digest their colonial history — this Francafrique, this painful decolonisation, this slow progress,” the official added. “There’s this sense that France is continually shooting itself in the foot.”