Operation Bayard and the Death of Ansar al-Islam Leader Malam Ibrahim Dicko

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, July 18, 2017

The death of Malam Ibrahim Dicko, the radical Islamist leader of Burkina Faso’s Ansar al-Islam movement, marks a major success for combined French-Burkinabé security operations in the volatile region alongside the northern border with Mali. Dicko’s movement, composed largely of Muslim Fulani and Rimaïbe tribesmen, had created havoc in the area with several fierce assaults on military and police bases in the region in December 2016 and February 2017. [1]

French Mirage 2000 Jets during Operation Bayard  (© Emmanuel Huberdeau)

Dicko’s death appears to be a direct consequence of Frances’s “Operation Bayard.” This operation used intelligence gathered in late March 2017’s “Operation Panga,” a joint French- Burkinabé effort to clear the region of the border with Mali in Soum Province of Islamist militants. Operation Bayard began on April 29 with strikes by French Mirage 2000 jet fighters on suspected Ansar al-Islam bases along the border in the Foulsaré Forest.

Tigre HAD (Hélicoptère Appui Destruction – Helicopter Support Destruction) attack helicopters armed with Hellfire AGM-114 missiles secured the perimeter to inhibit the militants’ escape before French commandos were inserted by NH90 Caïman helicopters. Over April 29-30 the initial team was joined by French para-commandos and combat engineers to defuse the mines the militants were in the habit of deploying to prevent infiltration of their bases (a French military engineer was killed by a mine during Operation Panga). The commandos killed 20 militants and wounded many more before seizing twenty motorcycles (an important element in Ansar al-Islam’s surprise attacks), two vehicles, and a large quantity of arms, ammunition, computer gear and bomb components.

Malam Ibrahim Dicko and his bodyguard were reported to have come under attack from one of the Tigre helicopters before the surviving militants scattered to escape the French commandos (Jeune Afrique, July 12, 2017). Unable to settle in one place for long due to constant pressure from pursuing security forces, Dicko is believed to have died sometime in June from complications due to diabetes.

French Tigre HAD Attack Helicopter

A vague posting on Ansar al-Islam’s little-used Facebook page (no longer available) suggested that Dicko’s “grave circumstances” had led to his replacement as Ansar al-Islam leader by his brother, Jafar Dicko, the “new commander of the believers and guide of Ansar al-Islam” (Fasozine.com, June 28, 2017).

The expiry of the charismatic Ibrahim Dicko and the death of 20 of his fighters (with many more incapacitated out of roughly 150 members) in Operation Bayard may deal a death blow to Ansar al-Islam, which is less than a year old. The group has already lost two of Dicko’s most valued lieutenants. One, Amadou Boly, was assassinated on Dicko’s orders when he objected to the growing extremism of the movement; the other, Harouna Dicko (Dicko is a very common name in the area), was killed in late March by the Burkinabé Groupement des forces anti-terroristes (GFAT), a joint army/gendarmerie anti-terrorist formation. Jafar Dicko, an unknown quantity, will be hard-pressed to revive the movement as an independent military threat. Surviving members are more likely to join one of the other militant groups operating in the region with similar aims, such as Amadou Koufa Diallo’s largely Fulani Force de libération du Macina, now part of the larger Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin (JNIM – Group for the Defense of Islam and Muslims) led by Iyad ag Ghali.

Note

  1. For Dicko’s biography, see Andrew McGregor, “Islamist Insurgency in Burkina Faso: A Profile of Malam Ibrahim Dicko,” Militant Leadership Monitor, April 30, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3908

French Foreign Legion Operation in the Strategic Passe de Salvador

Andrew McGregor

Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, May 2015

The Passe de Salvador runs past the northwest side of north-eastern Niger’s Plateau du Manguéni, near the frontier between Libya, Algeria and the Agadez region of Niger. On the Niger side, the pass connects to the smugglers’ route running across the Ténéré du Tafassâsset desert parallel to the Algerian border in northern Niger, a route used by veteran Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar when he withdrew his forces from northern Mali to southern Libya in early 2013. The Passe de Salvador has traditionally been controlled by Adrar Tuareg centered on the south-western Libyan town of Ubari, unlike the Passe de Toummo on the southern side of the Plateau du Manguéni, which is controlled by the Tuareg’s traditional nomad rivals, the Tubu, who operate on both sides of the Libya-Niger border.

Salvador Pass 2Passe de Salvador, top left; Fort Madama, bottom right.

The 2e Régiment étranger de parachutistes (2e REP) was originally raised from Foreign Legion troops in 1948 for use in the French colonies of Indochina. Few members of the regiment survived the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 (in which the “paras” played a prominent role) and the subsequent imprisonment of the survivors by the Viet Minh. Since then, the rebuilt airborne unit has served on numerous operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and across a host of Middle Eastern and African countries. Now based in Corsica, 2e REP is likely to be the first unit deployed in foreign operations as the lead unit of France’s Rapid Reaction Corps and is kept at a stage of alertness that allows it deploy within 24 hours of receiving orders.

In a world where helicopter-borne air assault operations have largely replaced airborne operations and there is criticism in some Western nations that paratroopers are expensive and little-used, France continues to be an exponent of airborne operations, though it has not carried out such an operation during hostilities for over 35 years (the last being at Kolwezi, Zaïre, in 1978). Since that time, two French airborne divisions have been reduced to a single brigade, the 11e Brigade Parachutiste, consisting of roughly 8500 men organized into eight regiments, only one of which is composed of Legionnaires. Participation in hard fighting in Afghanistan helped sharpen the combat skills of the 11th Brigade and other French military units. [1]

2e REP arrived in northern Mali from a French base in Côte d’Ivoire in dramatic fashion on January 28, 2013 with a parachute drop of a company-size unit into the region just north of Timbuktu to cut off retreating jihadists being pushed north by French armor, marine infantry and Chadian forces during Operation Serval (in the event, no jihadists were encountered by the 2e REP). [2] An unidentified French Special Forces unit (possibly elements of the Commando parachutiste de l’air n°10 (CPA 10 – No. 10 Air Parachute Commando) carried out another drop on northern Mali’s Tessalit Airport on the evening of February 7, 2013 as part of a complex land-air operation involving Chadian troops and helicopter-borne French troops of the 1er régiment de chasseurs parachutistes (1er RCP) and the 21e Régiment d’Infanterie de Marine (21e RIMa – actually a light armored unit despite its name) as well as elements of other units formed into a combined-arms tactical battle group (L’Express, February 21, 2013). [3] Since then, 2e REP has continued operations in northern Mali as part of France’s military strategy for northern Africa, Operation Barkhane.

Operation Kunama II

In mid-April, perhaps as much in an attempt to engage in high-level training in oppressive conditions as from operational concerns, 2e REP made a daring night jump into the unfamiliar terrain of the Salvador Pass linking Libya to Niger, a desolate but strategically important site frequently used by Saharan smugglers, terrorists and insurgents. [4] There are unconfirmed reports that French Special Forces were inserted into the Pass in the early days of Operation Serval and even mounted cross-border operations against jihadists who had fled to the ungoverned regions of south-western Libya.

Rather than drop the paras into the Pass itself, it was decided to land them on the adjacent Manguéni Plateau five kilometers from the Pass. There they were met by their operational partners, 50 men of the much lower-budget Nigerien Army who were forced to drive rather than fly to the rendezvous. Food and water were supplied to the French troops on pallets dropped by C-130 cargo aircraft.

After consolidating control of the Salvador Pass, the French and Nigerien troops left on a long and challenging drive to the old colonial-era Legion fort at Madama on the Djado Plateau, near which French forces set up a forward operating base and airstrip in October 2014.  The fort still has a garrison of Nigerien troops tasked with controlling the smuggling and trafficking routes that run through the area, some of which are used by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the related al-Murabitoun.

Salvador Pass 1French Legionnaires and Nigerien Troops at Fort Madama

The drive to Fort Madama exposed some weaknesses in the six-wheeled Panhard ERC 90 Sagaie armored all-terrain vehicles used by the French in northern Mali, as they began to quickly break down in the harsh conditions and terrain; according to the unit’s colonel, “Our vehicles are designed for Europe. Here, we are left with temperatures rising to 40-45 degrees maybe even 50 degrees. Our tanks are not designed for that and also suffer from the sand. It creeps everywhere and everything deteriorates” (RFI, April 23, 2015).

While no contact was made with jihadist forces or the region’s elusive smugglers during Operation Kunama II, it provided necessary field experience, training opportunities and logistical support practice for French military forces in some of the world’s most hostile terrain. Though jihadist activities were not interrupted by the operation, it nevertheless sent a clear signal to jihadis and smugglers alike that powerful French forces can be deployed in the Niger-Libya border region within hours if the presence of armed groups in the area is detected by French Harfang drones based in the Nigerien capital of Niamey.

Notes

  1. Pp. 38-39, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR700/RR770/RAND_RR770.pdf
  2. Footage of the drop shot from a Harfang drone can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ElySEd8MOw . Footage of an airdrop of heavy equipment the next day at Timbuktu Airport by the 17e Régiment du Génie Parachutiste (17e RGP – 17th Parachute Engineer Regiment) can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8vDElXEMWw
  3. These improvised formations with integrated fire support are known in the French Army as Groupement tactique interarmes (GTIA). French troops typically train and operate in such formations.
  4. Video of 2e REP in the Passe de Salvador can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/user/FORCESFRANCAISES

Operation Barkhane: France’s New Military Approach to Counter-Terrorism in Africa

Andrew McGregor

July 24, 2014

With several military operations underway in the former colonies of French West Africa, Paris has decided to reorganize its deployments with an eye to providing a more mobile and coordinated military response to threats from terrorists, insurgents or other forces intent on disturbing the security of France’s African backyard.

France will redeploy most of its forces in Africa as part of the new Operation Barkhane (the name refers to a sickle-shaped sand dune). Following diplomatic agreements with Chad, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania (the “Sahel G-5”), over 3,000 French troops will be involved in securing the Sahel-Sahara region in cooperative operations involving G-5 troops. Other assets to be deployed in the operation include 20 helicopters, 200 armored vehicles, 200 trucks, six fighter-jets, ten transport aircraft and three drones (Le Figaro [Paris], July 13).

Operation BarkhanePresident Hollande made a tour of Côte d’Ivoire, Niger and Chad between July 17 to 19 to discuss the new security arrangements with political leaders, but also to promote French trade in the face of growing Chinese competition (Economist, July 19). In Niger, Hollande was met by a group protesting French uranium mining operations in that country (AFP, July 18). In a speech given in Abidjan, French president François Hollande declared that the reorganization of French military assets in Africa would enable “quick and effective responses to crisis… Rather than having heavy and unwieldy crisis bases, we prefer to have facilities that can be used for fast and effective interventions” (Nouvel Observateur [Paris], July 19).

The official launch of Operation Barkhane will come in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena on August 1. The operation will be commanded by the highly-experienced Major General Jean-Pierre Palasset, who commanded the 27e Brigade d’Infanterie de Montagne (27th Mountain Infantry Battalion, 2003-2005) before leading Operation Licorne in Côte d’Ivoire (2010-2011) and serving as commander of the Brigade La Fayette, a joint unit comprising most of the French forces serving in Afghanistan (2011-2012).

The initiation of Operation Barkhane brings an end to four existing French operations in Africa; Licorne (Côte d’Ivoire, 2002-2014), Épervier (Chad, 1986-2014), Sabre (Burkina Faso, 2012-2014) and Serval (Mali, 2013-2014). Licorne is coming to an end (though 450 French troops will remain in Abidjan as part of a logistical base for French operations) while the other operations will be folded into Operation Barkhane. Operation Sangaris (Central African Republic, 2013 – present) is classified as a humanitarian rather than counter-terrorism mission and the deployment of some 2,000 French troops will continue until the arrival of a UN force in September (Bloomberg, July 21). Some 1200 French soldiers will remain in northern Mali (Guardian [Lagos], July 15). Existing French military deployments in Djibouti, Dakar (Senegal) and Libreville (Gabon) are expected to be scaled back significantly, a process already underway in Dakar (Jeune Afrique, July 19).

8 RPIMaSoldiers of the 8th Regiment of Marine Infantry Paratroopers (8e RPIMa), deployed in Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire

The force in Chad has been boosted from 950 to 1250 men. Chad will play an important role in Operation Barkhane – N’Djamena’s Kossei airbase will provide the overall command center, with two smaller bases in northern Chad at Faya Largeau and Abéché, both close to the Libyan border. Zouar, a town in the Tubu-dominate Tibesti Masif of northern Chad, has also been mentioned as a possibility (Jeune Afrique, July 19). Kossei will provide a home for three Rafale fighter-jets, Puma helicopters and a variety of transport and fuelling aircraft. Chadian troops fought side-by-side with French forces in northern Mali in 2013 and are regarded as the most effective combat partners for France in North Africa despite a recent mixed performance in the CAR. Four Chadian troops under UN command died in a June 11 suicide bombing in the northern Mali town of Aguelhok (AFP, June 11). Chadian opposition and human rights groups are dismayed by the new agreement, which appears to legitimize and even guarantee the continued rule of President Idriss Déby, who has held power since 1990 (RFI, July 19).

Intelligence operations will be headquartered in Niamey, the capital of Niger and home to French unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations in West Africa. There are currently about 300 French troops stationed in Niger, most of them involved in protecting, maintaining and operating two unarmed General Atomic MQ-9 Reaper drones and an older Israeli-built Harfang drone (Bloomberg, July 21). The French-operated Harfang drones are being gradually phased out in favor of the MQ-9s, though the Harfangs saw extensive service during French operations in northern Mali in 2013. Three Mirage 2000 fighter-jets will be transferred from N’Djamena to Niamey. A French Navy Dassault Atlantique 2 surveillance aircraft has been withdrawn from Niamey with the conclusion of Operation Serval.

Small groups of French Special Forces will continue to be based in Ougadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, and at Atar, a small settlement in northwestern Mauritania. Other small bases are planned for Tessalit in Mali, which controls the road running between the rebellious Kidal region and southern Algeria, and in Madama in Niger, a strategic post near the Malian border that was the site of a French colonial fort. There are reports that French troops have already occupied the nearby Salvador Pass, an important smuggling route between Niger and Libya that appears to have acted as a main transit route for terrorists passing through the region (Libération [Paris], July 16).

French forces in the Sahel-Sahara region will continue to be targeted by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Murabitun group, which claimed responsibility for the death of one Legionnaire and the wounding of six others in a suicide bomb attack in northern Mali on July 15 (al-Akhbar [Nouackchott], July 16; RFI, July 17). Much of the ground element for Operation Barkhane is likely to be drawn from the French Légion étrangère and the Troupes de marine, the successor to the French Colonial Infantry.

The implementation of Operation Barkhane, an apparently permanent defense agreement with five former French colonies, raises a number of important questions, not least of which is what attitude will be adopted by Algeria, the most powerful nation in the Sahara-Sahel region but one that views all French military activities there with great suspicion based on Algeria’s 132-year experience of French occupation. There is also a question of whether the new defense agreements will permit French forces in hot pursuit of terrorists to cross national borders of G-5 nations without obtaining permission first. The permanent deployments also seem to present a challenge to local democracy and sovereignty while preserving French commercial and political interests in the region. For France, Operation Barkhane will enhance French ability to fend off Chinese commercial and trade challenges and allow France to secure its energy supplies while disrupting terrorist networks and containing the threat from southern Libya.

This article first appeared in the July 24, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Al-Qaeda Responds to Sectarian Clashes in the Central African Republic

Andrew McGregor

March 6, 2014

In a statement entitled “Central African Tragedy… Between Crusader Deceit and Muslim Betrayal,” al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has taken note of the ongoing reprisals against Muslims in the Central African Republic (CAR) being carried out by Christian “anti-balaka” militias, referring to the attacks as “a new episode in the series of spiteful crusades against Islam and its people.” [1] Over 15,000 Muslim civilians live in improvised camps where they are surrounded by armed militias intent on killing them for their alleged support of the largely Muslim Séléka rebel movement that briefly seized power last year (Reuters, February 25).

Troops of the French 27th Mountain Infantry Brigade secure Bangui Airport (MilitaryPhotos.net)

AQIM describes the international peacekeeping forces being sent to the CAR as arriving “only to increase the suffering of Muslims.” France comes in for special attention as “a malevolent colonial crusader… [that] continues to play the role of guardian of the African continent” while fueling conflict and looting wealth “in order to preserve their interests and satisfy their arrogant whims.” AQIM concludes by warning France: “Your crimes will not go unpunished and the war between us and you continues.”

The Islamist movement also condemns the “shameful silence” of the Islamic community, “a nation of one billion.” Noting that some conflicts involving Muslims gain the attention of the Muslim world while others do not, AQIM asks: “Why differentiate between a persecutor and a persecutor and a tragedy and a tragedy?”

The African Union peacekeeping mission in the CAR, the Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique sous conduite africaine (MISCA), has some 6,000 troops from Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Cameroon, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  There are an additional 600 police officers from the same countries engaged in training local police forces. Part of MISCA’s difficulty in restoring order to the CAR lies in the fact that the mission is trusted by neither the ex-Séléka rebels nor the anti-balaka militias. It has already become clear that the combined forces of the 2,000 man French deployment (locally referred to as “Sangaris” after the name of the French operation in the CAR) and MISCA are far from sufficient to restore order and security in a large nation with little infrastructure or road systems.

MISCA raided the Boy Rab quarter of Bangui, a base for anti-balaka militias, on February 15, detaining a number of important militia leaders, including Lieutenant Konaté and Lieutenant Ganagi Hervé. Another important anti-balaka leader, Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, managed to evade the operation, though arms and ammunition were recovered from his home (RFI, February 15). The detainees attempted to escape Bangui prison on February 23, but were foiled by alert Rwandan MISCA guards (AFP, February 24).

Rwandan Peacekeepers examine amulets on a detained Anti-Balaka militant

The anti-balaka militias are reported to be divided over the CAR’s future political direction. One faction continues to call for the return of deposed president François Bozizé, while a more moderate faction is seeking to lower the intensity of the conflict and to cooperate with the new government of interim-president Catherine Samba-Panza (RFI, February 16). The anti-balaka rebels depend heavily on charms and amulets designed to ward off bullets and other threats.

Many residents of the CAR view the Chadians as biased towards the republic’s Muslims, who are often referred to by the Christian population as “Chadians” regardless of their origins. The arrival in Bangui of the projected EU force of 1,000 troops with heavy equipment is still believed to be a month away. The formation of a planned UN force of 10,000 peacekeepers (which would probably absorb most of MISCA) is opposed by Chad and is likely still six months away from materializing (VOA, March 3).

Chad traditionally regards the CAR region as its traditional backyard, dating back to the days when the Sultanate of Wadai (in present-day eastern Chad) used the region as a source of wealth in the form of slaves, ivory and other goods. In more recent years, Chadians have figured in the CAR as traders, mercenaries and even presidential bodyguards. N’Djamena’s influence on CAR politics is considerable and growing, considering Chad’s expanding and oil-financed military might. Most of Chad’s oil production is in the south of the country, just north of the unstable CAR.

Both the EU and the UN are calling on Turkey to contribute to the EU deployment, with the UN secretary-general even making a personal call to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for assistance. The likelihood of such a commitment is, however, still uncertain, as Ankara is consumed externally with the Syrian crisis and internally by a corruption scandal and approaching elections (Today’s Zaman [Istanbul], March 2). Turkey is, moreover, heavily involved in the reconstruction of Somalia and may be wary of adding a military role in an unfamiliar area.

French forces currently deployed to the CAR include Alpine troops of the 27th Mountain Infantry Brigade, some of whom are specialists in urban warfare, and troops of the 8th Régiment de Parachutistes d’Infanterie de Marine (8e RPIMa), an airborne unit with experience in French Indo-China, Algeria, Chad and Afghanistan.

The French intervention in the CAR is not the first in that nation’s post-independence period; in September 1979, units from the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (SDECE – France’s external intelligence service until reorganization in 1982) and the 1st RPIMa seized Bangui’s airport, allowing transports carrying 300 troops to land with the purpose of replacing “Emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa with a new president, David Dacko, who helpfully arrived with the French troops.

Notes

1. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, “Central African Tragedy… Between Crusader Deceit and Muslim Betrayal,” February 26, 2014, https://www.ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=47761

This article first appeared in the March 6, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Merger of Northern Mali Rebel Movements Creates Political Distance from Islamist Militants

Andrew McGregor

November 14, 2013

Proclaiming that the move was the only means of securing peace in northern Mali, the three largest rebel movements in the region announced their merger on November 4. The merger brings together the normally hostile members of one Arab militia, the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA), and two Tuareg groups, the secular Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and the Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad (HCUA), which contains many former members of the al-Qaeda-allied Islamist Ansar al-Din movement.  No name has been chosen for the new movement, which will be effective “within 45 days” after approval had been given by the membership of each group (Soir de Bamako, November 4; al-Jazeera, November 5; AFP, November 5). The rebel movements are looking to present a united front after withdrawing from peace talks with the central government on September 26. Reports of a forthcoming decision to merge, undertaken by delegations of the three groups based at the now-suspended peace talks in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou, were given a hostile reception by groups of youths in Kidal (Maliactu.net, November 1).