Operation Barkhane is an ongoing anti-insurgent operation started on August 1, 2014 which is led by the French military against Islamist groups in Africa's Sahel region. It consists of a roughly 5,000-strong French force, which is permanently headquartered in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. The operation is led in cooperation with five countries, all former French colonies, that span the Sahel: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. These countries are collectively referred to as the "G5 Sahel". The operation is named after a crescent-shaped dune in the Sahara desert.
The French military initially intervened in Mali in early 2013 as part of Operation Serval which successfully regained the northern half of the country from Islamist groups. Operation Barkhane is intended to act as a follow up to this success and has expanded the French military's operations over a vast area of the Sahel region. The operation has the stated aim of helping these countries' governments to maintain control of their territory while also preventing the region from becoming a safe haven for Islamist terrorist groups planning to attack France and Europe.
As part of the fallout from the Libyan Civil War, instability in northern Mali caused by a Tuareg rebellion against the central Malian government was exploited by Islamist groups who gained control over the northern half of the country. In response, France launched a military operation in January 2013 to stop the Islamist offensive from toppling the Malian government and to re-capture northern Mali. The operation, codenamed Operation Serval, ended in the complete re-capture of all Islamist held territory by the operations conclusion on the 15 July 2014.
Following the end of Operation Serval, France recognised the need to provide stability in the wider Sahel region by helping the region's various governments combat terrorism. The Former French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said that France recognised that “there still is a major risk that jihadists develop in the area that runs from the Horn of Africa to Guinea-Bissau.” Therefore, Operation Barkhane was launched in order to assure the Sahel nations' security, and in effect France's security. The operation is the successor of Operation Serval, the French military mission in Mali, and Operation Epervier, the mission in Chad.
The operation aims "to become the French pillar of counterterrorism in the Sahel region." According to French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the main objective of Operation Barkhane is counter-terrorism: "The aim is to prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffics to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean can rebuild themselves, which would lead to serious consequences for our security." The concept of 'partnership' has been emphasised to explain the deployment of the French troops. The main objective of the French military intervention is the direct support of the G5 Sahel forces, through training and the introduction of new technologies and resources. Former French President, François Hollande, has said the Barkhane force will allow for a "rapid and efficient intervention in the event of a crisis" in the region. The operation will target Islamist extremists in Mali, Chad, and Niger, and will have a mandate to operate across borders.
The French force was initially a 3,000-strong counter-terrorism force, with 1,000 soldiers deployed indefinitely in Mali. These soldiers were to be focused on counter-terrorism operations in northern Mali, with another 1,200 soldiers stationed in Chad, and the remaining soldiers split between a surveillance base in Niger, a bigger permanent base in Ivory Coast, and some special forces in Burkina Faso. According to original plans, the French forces were supplied with 20 helicopters, 200 armored vehicles, 10 transport aircraft, 6 fighter planes, and 3 drones. French Army Aviation currently have two Aérospatiale SA 330 Puma's in Chad.
The division of labor between France and the G5 Sahel has been established by four permanent military bases: (1) headquarters and an air force base in the Chadian capital of N'Djamena (under the leadership of French Général Palasset); (2) a regional base in Gao, north Mali, with at least 1,000 men; (3) a special-forces base in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou; (4) an intelligence base in Niger's capital, Niamey, with over 300 men. The Niamey airbase is strategically important because it hosts drones in charge of gathering intelligence across the entire Sahel-Saharan region. From Niamey, France's troops are supported by two German Transall C-160. In 2020, France stated that it will deploy 600 soldiers in addition to the existing force to fight the Islamist militants in Africa's Sahel.
The aviation support is provided the French Groupement Tactique Désert-Aérocombat.
In March 2016, during the UK-France Summit in Paris, the British government announced that it would consider providing support to Operation Barkhane. British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon then announced that the UK would provide monthly strategic airlift support to French forces in Africa. In July 2018, three RAF Chinook helicopters arrived in Mali to provide logistical and troop movement support to French and other military forces operating in the area. This deployment is in addition to the 90 British troops already deployed in the region. In September 2018, Forces.net reported that to date the RAF Chinooks Mk5s have made 30 sorties, transporting over 700 French troops, supplies and 70 tons of equipment across Mali. In July, 2020, the British Ministry of Defence announced that nearly 250 British Army troops would train and deploy to Mali to serve as a long-range reconnaissance force for United Nations forces.
On March 22, 2018, the Ministry of Defence of Estonia announced its intention to commit up to 50 troops and 5 Pasi XA-188 armoured vehicles to Mali as part of Operation Barkhane, to be based in Gao, pending approval by the Riigikogu. The unit, named ESTPLA-26 and headed by Maj. Kristjan Karist, was detached from the C Infantry Company of the Scouts Battalion on August 6, and arrived in Mali that same week to be stationed at the French military base in Gao. In November 2019, Estonia increased its Operation Barkhane troop deployment to 95 soldiers.
The Swedish contribution to Barkhane via Task Force Takuba arrived in Mali during February 2021. The Swedish troop contribution to Task Force Takuba is a 150 man strong helicopter-borne rapid-response force, centered around an SOG task unit and supported by three UH60M helicopters and one C130, ready to be deployed if something unforeseen occurs. The task force will also be used for other operations, as for example to support other countries that exercise and conduct operations with the Malian army.
2014–2015: Beginning of Barkhane and insurgents regroup
Operations commenced 1 August 2014. French Forces sustained their first casualty during a battle in early November 2014, which also resulted in 24 jihadists dead. On 24 November, a French special forces soldier was killed in a Caracal helicopter crash in Burkina Faso. French forces experienced their first major success of Barkhane in December 2014 with the killing of Ahmed al-Tilemsi, the leader of the Al-Mourabitoun jihadist group, by French special forces during a raid in the deserts of northern Mali.
From 7 to 14 April 2015, French and Nigerien forces carried out an airborne operation in the far north of Niger to search for Jihadists. As part of the operation, 90 French Foreign Legion paratroopers of the 2e REP jumped near the Salvador pass. Two legionnaires were injured during the jump before they were joined by a joint force of Nigerien and French soldiers from the 1st Parachute Hussar Regiment (1er RHP).
On 26 November 2015, a French Air Parachute Commando died in hospital in France as a result of his injuries after being hit by an anti-tank mine on 13 October near Tessalit during a reconnaissance mission.
2016–2017: Insurgency intensifies
French soldiers based in Mali as part of the Army Special Forces Command were rapidly deployed to Burkina Faso on 15 January 2016 after jihadists launched a terrorist attack on Ouagadougou which killed 30 people. In February, French forces killed a number of insurgent fighters in the north of Mali, including a number of high ranking foreign jihadists from AQIM.
On 12 April 2016, three French soldiers were killed when their armored personnel carrier struck a land mine. The convoy of about 60 vehicles was travelling to the northern desert town of Tessalit when it hit the mine. Another French soldier was killed on 4 November 2016 following the explosion of a mine near the town of Abeïbara, which made 2016 the deadliest year up to that point for French forces participating in Barkhane.
On 15 March 2017, French forces arrested eight jihadists in the desert north of Timbuktu. On 5 April 2017, master corporal Julien Barbé, was killed in action near Hombori after an explosive device blew up an armoured vehicle. He was posthumously made a knight of the Legion of Honour. Heavy fighting between French forces and Jihadist groups continued into the summer of 2017, with 8 French soldiers being wounded by a mortar attack on their base in Timbuktu on 1 June. On the night of 17 June, France suffered its tenth soldier killed during an airborne operation in the north-east of Mali.
On 4 October 2017, French forces operating as part of Barkhane were the first to respond to the ambush of American soldiers searching for an Islamic State commander on the Niger-Mali border. French air support was requested by the Americans and two hours later Mirage fighter jets arrived from Niamey. Despite the French pilots being unable to engage ground targets due to the proximity of friendly forces, the jets deterrence was enough to end the ambush. A French special forces team were the first ground forces to reach the scene of the ambush, 3–4 hours after the firefight which resulted in the death of 4 American Green Berets.
On 14 October 2017, an Antonov An-26 aircraft operating in support of Operation Barkhane crashed shortly before landing at Félix Houphouët Boigny International Airport, Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Four Moldovan flight crew were killed. Two Moldovan flight crew and four French Army soldiers were injured.
2018–2020: Increased violence across the Sahel and French troop surge
A French Army convoy was attacked on January 11, 2018 by a suicide car bomb while driving between the towns of Idelimane and Menaka. Three French soldiers were wounded, one seriously, in the attack which was later claimed by Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. On 14 February, a French airstrike killed at least 10 Jihadists at the border between Algeria and Mali. Two French soldiers from the 1st Spahi Regiment were killed and the Colonel-in-chief was wounded on 21 February when the armoured vehicle they were travelling in struck a mine between the towns of Gao and Menaka.
On 14 April 2018, JNIM militants launched an attack on a UN base in Timbuktu, wounding several French soldiers before being repelled by French, Malian and American troops. Four French soldiers were seriously wounded by a suicide car bomb attack against a joint French-Malian patrol in Gao on 1 July 2018. The attack, which heavily damaged a number of French VBCIs, also killed 4 civilians and seriously wounded 27 others.
On 22 February 2019, French forces backed by an armed reaper drone and a helicopter attacked a JNIM convoy killing 11 militants including senior leader Yahia Abou el Hamman in the Tombouctou Region of Mali. A militant improvised explosive device struck a French armoured vehicle carrying out an anti-terrorist operation in the Mopti Region on 2 April, killing one French soldier and seriously wounding another. Two French commandos of the Commandos Marine were killed on 9 May in the North of Burkina Faso during a rescue mission which successfully rescued four hostages, included two Frenchmen, and an American and South Korean woman, who had been kidnapped by Islamists.
In mid-June 2019, a French Army Light Aviation Gazelle helicopter crashed in the border region between Mali and Niger after being fired upon by insurgent small arms fire. The two pilots and a special forces sniper were subsequently rescued by another helicopter after destroying the damaged helicopter. The French military base in Gao was assaulted by suicide bombers on 22 July in an attack that wounded 6 Estonian soldiers and a similar number of French personnel. A French soldier was killed on 2 November 2019 when his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device during a patrol near Menaka in eastern Mali. French commandos launched a heli-borne raid later that month on an insurgent camp in Mali's eastern regions, which resulted in five insurgents killed and one French soldier being seriously injured.
On 25 November 2019, 13 French soldiers were killed in northern Mali when two French helicopters, a 'Tigre' and a 'Cougar', collided in mid-air while flying to reinforce soldiers engaged in combat with insurgents. The loss of 13 soldiers was the heaviest loss of life for the French military since the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings.
On 21 December 2019, the French military killed 40 militants in an operation in the Mopti Region of Mali. The area where the operation took place was controlled by Macina Liberation Front and it involved France's first ever use of a drone strike which accounted for 7 of the 40 killed insurgents.
The French Defense Minister Florence Parly announced in February 2020 that France would send an additional 600 troops to the Sahel region, bolstering Operation Barkhanes' force to 5,100 troops. The first contingent of these reinforcements was 200 French Foreign Legion paratroopers from the 2e REP who were transported to Niger and formed a battle group called Desert Tactical Grouping (GTD) "Altor". This battle group operated autonomously and without a base on the ground for over a month, receiving supplies only by airdrop. GTD Altor killed over a dozen insurgents and disrupted their logistics throughout their initial month-long operation.
Two legionnaires from the 1st Foreign Cavalry Regiment (1er REC) were seriously wounded when their vehicle struck an IED during operations against insurgents on 23 April 2020; one of the legionnaires subsequently died from his wounds. On 4 May 2020, a second legionnaire from the 1er REC was killed in action near Gao during a firefight with an insurgent force.
On 3 June, French forces achieved one of their most significant successes of Operation Barkhane with the killing of Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). French and American intelligence sources had identified Droukdel's presence in a group crossing the Algerian-Malian border approximately 80 kilometres east of the town of Tessalit. French special forces subsequently conducted an air assault to intercept the group during which they shot and killed Droukdel and a number of other militants.
A French soldier from the 1st Parachute Hussar Regiment (1er RHP) was killed during combat operations in Mali on 23 July 2020 when an improvised explosive device was triggered next to his armoured vehicle. Two further paratroopers from the 1er RHP were killed on 5 September 2020 by an improvised explosive device which struck their vehicle during an operation in the north of Mali. On 31 October 2020 , French special Forces launched an operation near the town of Boulikessi near the border of Mali and Burkina Faso , 50 jihadist were killed and four were captured.On 10 November 2020, Ba Ag Moussa,Emir of JNIM, along with 4 other militants were killed in an attack carried out by French Special forces.On 12 November 2020 , French Mountains commandos operating under Barkhane killed 30 jihadist in Central Mali  .On 30 November 2020, insurgents launched a coordinated attack on three separate French military bases in Kidal, Menaka and Gao in northern Mali using indirect rocket fire but French forces reported no casualties as a result of the attacks. A French military convoy consisting of the 1er Régiment de Chasseurs (1er RCh) was struck by two IED blasts in quick succession on 28 December 2020 during an operation in the Hombori region in central Mali, resulting in the death of three soldiers.
On 2nd January 2021, two French soldiers from the 2nd Hussar Regiment (2e RH) were killed while taking part in an intelligence gathering mission in northeastern Mali. Six French soldiers were wounded on 10 January when a suicide bomber attacked their convoy during a patrol in the central region near Gourma.  French and Malian forces conducted a joint offensive operation named Operation Eclipse from 2nd January to 20th January in the forests surrounding the town of Boni. Over 100 jihadists were killed and 20 captured by French forces during the course of Operation Eclipse.
French forces carried out a controversial airstrike during the course of Operation Eclipse which locals claimed targeted a wedding ceremony in the village of Kikara on 3rd January. The French military denied these claims and asserted that the strike had successfully targeted a group of jihadist fighters.
Prior to the beginning of Operation Barkhane, 10 French troops had been killed in Mali as part of Operation Serval. Since the launch of Operation Barkhane in August 2014, the French Ministère de la Défense listed 38 servicemen were reported killed in Mali, 2 in Burkina Faso and one in Chad., The vast distances of Operation Barkhane force's area of operations across the Sahel pose a significant challenge in dealing with French casualties, with wounded troops being possibly up to 1,100 kilometres (680 mi) from advanced medical aid. To overcome these challenges, the French military created helicopter-mobile medical teams which can rapidly carry out MEDEVAC missions and transport casualties to more advanced medical care. Between 2013 and 2016, it was reported that French forces sustained 1,272 casualties which required MEDEVAC; of these casualties, 18.2% were wounded in action, 27.4% suffered trauma injuries and 46.6% were suffering from disease or sickness.
After the first year of operations, the French Army claimed that approximately 125 insurgents had been neutralized by French forces. In late 2015, French army representatives indicated that over 150 ammunition and explosive depositories had been discovered and 25 vehicles and 80 electronic device (GPS, computers, satellite phones and radio stations) had been destroyed. This represented 20 tons of ammunition, including 2,000 shells, 680 grenades, guided missiles, 25 IEDs and mines, 210 detonators, 30 mortars, machine guns and rocket launchers. The army also seized 3,500 kg (7,700 lb) of various drugs. French forces continued to inflict significant casualties in 2016, with nearly 150 insurgents killed or captured in that year. By July 2017, the French Forces estimated that over 400 insurgents had been killed since the start of Operation Barkhane.
In February 2018, the French Defense Minister, Florence Parly, indicated that 450 jihadists have been neutralized, amongst which 120 have been killed and 150 held as prisoners by Malian authorities. In July 2018, General Bruno Guibert, head of the Barkhane force, confirmed that 120 terrorists had been killed since the beginning of the year. In February 2019, Parly announced that over 600 jihadists had been "neutralized" since the beginning of the operation in 2014.
Opinions and opposition
Since 2013 and the beginning of the Operation Serval, replaced by Operation Barkhane in 2014, opinions in Mali have been divided as to the legitimacy of the French intervention. According to Mission head for Peace in Mali for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Aurélien Tobie, "Between 2013 and 2015, we quickly realised, after the peace agreements in Ouagadougou and Algiers for Mali that the Malian opinion towards the French presence was changing. People were supporting the Serval Operation, but did not understand why the French presence was being prolonged with the Barkhane Operation".
In 2017, the study "Mali-Meter", conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Mali, polled the level of satisfaction with Operation Barkhane amongst the Malian population. Less than half of the respondents were satisfied with the French intervention. The study also showed geographical disparities in approbation of Operation Barkhane.
According to Aurélien Tobie, the differences of opinion between the North and the South of the country can be explained by the difference in proximity of the population with the operations: "People in contact with the forces of Barkhane in the North of the country approve of it much more because they see changes in their daily lives. Conversely, people interviewed in Southern Mali, who are generally higher educated but also further away from the conflict zone, are much more critical of the French presence".
Demonstrations against the French presence have been taking place since 2013 in Mali, on a regular basis. Patriotic groups have been emerging. These groups strive for an end of the French presence and some call for a Russian intervention.
In June 2019, a former Malian minister anonymously declared to French newspaper Libération that anti-French sentiment is at its peak in Mali: "Conspiracy theories are flourishing everywhere. Soon, France will be accused of being responsible for the floods. The inertia of our own leaders is the primary cause of the problem".
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita also strongly criticised anti-French demonstrations. He stated in December 2019 that: "the foreign forces in our country are our allies in this tragic war imposed on us. We will not win this war by misunderstanding who our true enemy is and by falling into the trap of the terrorist groups".
French President Emmanuel Macron has denounced a "disinformation campaign" led by a rival power, implying it was Russia, although he did not explicitly name it.
Many of the critics on the French intervention are revolving around the concept of Françafrique, a pejorative term used to describe the alleged neocolonial practices of France in its former African colonies.
The Sahel is France's principal source of uranium. Niger, Mali's closest neighbour, is the fifth largest uranium producer in the world. The uranium mines owned by the French company Areva in Niger are located only two hundred kilometres (120 mi) away from Jihadist bastions in Mali. As security of the border between Mali and Niger is supposedly poor, there is a perception that the rise of ISIS in the region threatens these uranium mines; some critics[who?] argue that this is the true purpose of the French intervention.
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