Why France is focused on fighting jihadists in Mali

Malian soldiers undergoing training in 2017
Malian soldiers operate in difficult terrain where temperatures can climb to around 50C

As jihadist violence escalates in Mali, analyst Paul Melly considers if France can persuade the rest of Europe to join the deadly fight.

Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly has called on fellow EU governments to despatch special forces to the Sahel, to help curb militant attacks that have killed more than 100 Malian troops in recent weeks.

But France, too, is paying a heavy price for its role in the struggle against Sahel jihadism, with the death of 13 soldiers when two helicopters collided on Monday.

Altogether, it has lost 38 troops in this almost seven-year campaign.

Murderous ambushes

Extremist violence, sometimes intermingled with criminal trafficking or local community tensions, is disrupting everyday life and any hopes of development in this desperately poor region, which fringes the Sahara.

A NH 90 Caiman military helicopter takes-off during the regional anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane in Mali - October 2017
Image captionEuropean allies have been lending the Mali army some support

But the causes are complex and neither negotiations nor military operations have yet managed to restore security.

Indeed, the crisis appears to be getting worse.

Despite Sahelian countries’ creation of a joint force to tackle jihadists, and the presence of 4,500 French soldiers and more than 14,000 UN peacekeepers, this year has seen the jihadist groups step up their war against Mali and its international allies.

Map of Mali and it's neighbours Burkina Faso and Niger

In the central regions jihadist activity is led by the charismatic preacher Amadou Koufa, who is Fulani, a largely Muslim ethnic group of semi-nomadic herders known in Mali as the Peulh.

This has become interwoven with tensions over resources such as land, grazing and water, undermining relations with another local Muslim ethnic group, the Dogon, some of whom have formed their own rival militia.

Further east, dubbed the “three frontiers region” where Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger converge, has seen repeated cross-border attacks by armed groups, one of which claims allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group.

Militants have staged a string of murderous ambushes, extended their activity across much of Burkina Faso and even kidnapped two tourists from a national park in northern Benin, confirming fears that they could soon pose a threat to coastal countries from Ivory Coast and Ghana to Nigeria.

Mali ‘not forgotten’

This is not an African crisis that has been ignored by the rest of the world. Quite the contrary in fact.

It features regularly in discussions of the UN Security Council and the UN operation in Mali (Minusma), includes troops from Asia, Canada and Europe as well as Africa.

A French army patrols in northern Burkina Faso - November 2019
Image captionFrance, which intervened in Mali in 2013 to stop jihadists moving south, now runs an anti-insurgent operation across the Sahel

Moreover, since 2013 the EU has been retraining the Malian army, while the French anti-terrorism force, Operation Barkhane, deployed across the Sahel is supported by British helicopters, other European allies as well as US surveillance drones.

Yet the security crisis continues to deepen.

Minusma is the most dangerous UN mission in the world, having lost 206 personnel over the past six years.

Overseeing the fragile 2015 peace deal between the Mali governments and those groups that are not engaged in jihadist violence, the Blue Helmets force is trying to support local communities.

But with supply lines extending over many hundreds of kilometres to their isolated bases, its troops are highly vulnerable.

A UN soldier walking by a tree in central Mali
Image captionMinusca troops often feel vulnerable

However, it is the armies of the G5 Sahel countries (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad) themselves that bear the brunt of the jihadist campaign.

They are desperate for more international funding and equipment for their own 5,000-strong joint force.

The Malian army in particular is struggling to cope: far from the capital, Bamako, in difficult terrain where temperatures can climb to around 50C in hot months, soldiers are at risk both when they move on patrol and when they barricade themselves into isolated rural garrison bases.

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