Gangs of Africa: Story behind French air-strikes in Mali that killed 50 extremists

3 weeks ago 8

French defence minister Florence Parly announced on Monday that airstrikes by France had neutralised over 50 Al-Qaeda-linked extremists in Mali. According to Google Trends data, the topic quickly made it to the top trending searches in India. The curiosity was built on the backdrop of speculations that these strikes could have been directly connected to the recent terror attack in France.

But the French operation in the African region has a long and consistent geo-political history. French forces have previously carried out similar bombings using fighter jets as well as Tiger helicopters in the African region. In February 2019, French fighters struck a column of over three dozen pickup trucks and in July 2019, light aircrafts and attack helicopters targeted suspected insurgents who were hiding under trees.

The French skin in the Sahen (region of Africa extending from Senegal eastward to Sudan) Game is visible by its ongoing operation ‘BARKHANE’ which is the largest French military operation outside France with 4,500 troops.

With the aim to control armed rebellion by various extremist outfits in the region, the operation is in its seventh year with no signs of completion. According to a statement by French Ministry of Defence, “The French armies led the Barkhane in partnership with G5 Sahel countries- Burkina-Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad”.

POSSIBLE AREA OF FRENCH AIRSTRIKE IN MALI/ India Today

Airplanes Chasing Bikes

Unlike conventional global terror outfits and due to their history of local organised crime, the armed in this area easily mingle with the local population and there is often no marked target such as a large training facility for the air force to hit.

In the latest attack, French forces used two Mirage jets and a drone to target a moving caravan of motorbikes belonging to jihadist group Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) or Groupe de soutien à l'islam et aux musulmans (GSIM). Targeting a moving bike caravan is not a new pattern in this region as these terror groups rely heavily on illicit bike trade to survive.

In fact, motorcycle and fuel trafficking is one of the core survival activities of various terrorist groups in this region, where the difference between organized crime groups and IS or Al-Qaeda linked Islamist terrorist groups has blurred fast.

According to a study by Institute for Security Studies, Africa (ISS), “Weapon, drug, motorcycle and fuel trafficking, cattle rustling, artisanal gold mining and poaching are at the heart of terror groups’ survival” in this region. Looting and extorting cattle, bikes and gold is the financial lifeline of these groups, which requires their operatives to travel between the border areas of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The French troops often monitor these movements by drones and target them time to time.

France v/s Gangs of Africa

“On October 30 in Mali, the Barkhane force conducted an operation that neutralised more than 50 jihadists and confiscated arms and material,” French minister Parly said during her first visit to Mali since the coup d'état by the Malian armed forces earlier this year.

The ongoing operation Barkhane is driven on the backdrop of an earlier successful French military maneuver in 2013 known as “Operation Serval”, where French troops successful in eliminated the top leadership of extremist groups and liberated major cities in northern Mali.

Two extremist leaders, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Iyad Ag Ghaly managed to escape the French assault, Ag Ghaly later established JNIM and pledged allegiance to Al-qaeda. Although French troops were successful in pushing the extremist groups, they continue to struggle in their attempts to put a halt on their frequent attacks.

Assisted by several other extremist groups and warlords in the region these groups carry out regular attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso. They thrive in the border region of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso- known as Liptako-Gourma region.

Liptako-Gourma region/ Source: ISS Africa

A report in Africa Defence Forum - a magazine published by US Africa Command - quoted a French Mirage pilot deployed in the Sahel region suspecting that 4,500 soldiers could not reasonably control an area of 5 million square kilometers, which is about 10 times the size of France. “The missions are very long, from four to more than six hours, so we require numerous refueling sessions in air” Lt. Wilfred was quoted by ADF.

Renewed French Offensive

Earlier this year, General Marc Conruyt was appointed the new commander of the Barkhane force. His primary job was to oversee the creation of the elite “Takuba Force” - a group of specially trained European Special Forces to assist the Malian soldiers in the combat operations. French forces have also increased war-gaming exercises focusing on broad utilisation of their air assets in the region.

French Desert Battle Group in Liptako / Source: Ministry of Defence, France

Talios Pod on Rafale F3-R/ Source: French Air Force

The October 30 operation in Mali was one of the first reported operations where Takuba Force was associated. “It took full part in this operation” media reports quoted minister Parle. An intensive effort to leverage the French air superiority is also part of the French game plan in the region. Last month, French government announced the first operational capacity of the Talios pod on Rafale squadrons. Talios is a new generation laser designation pod which helps detect and identify hidden targets on the ground and to deliver weapons with great precision.

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