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

A Divided Military Fuels Mali’s Political Crisis

Andrew McGregor

June 13, 2014

Both short and long-term prospects for renewed stability in Mali’s restive northern region took a heavy blow with the May collapse of the Forces Armées du Mali (FAMA) in the face of Tuareg and Arab resistance in the northeastern Kidal region. The collapse reflected long-standing divisions and rivalries within the Malian Army that have gone unresolved despite new efforts at equipping and training the Malian military.

While the international community has pledged over $4 billion in funds intended for reconstruction, patience is beginning to run out with the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who appears to have wasted little time in re-introducing various ills of the previous government, including nepotism, poor governance practices and a lack of fiscal accountability most visibly manifested in the unnecessary purchase of a $40 million Boeing 737 jet for presidential use that has endangered Mali’s eligibility for foreign aid. Funds targeted for military reconstruction have produced new uniforms and a new logo for the army, but little else (Guardian, May 18).

Colonel Didier Dacko

When a small group of Islamist insurgents attacked the city of Gao shortly after its January 2013 liberation by French forces, a much stronger Malian force made an unsuccessful appeal to French forces to intervene. Malian operations chief Colonel Didier Dacko did not find the French refusal surprising: “I do not blame [the French] for not coming immediately. It was the first time that the two armies were facing a common enemy, with no real coordination,” adding that “Our army is the exact image of our country. The coup has accelerated its decay “(L’Indépendant [Bamako], February 19, 2013).

Miscalculation in Kidal

The trouble in Kidal began with a poorly considered visit to the region by Prime Minister Moussa Mara on May 17, intended as a demonstration of Bamako’s sovereignty over the region. Mara insisted on visiting Kidal despite several days of violent protests and runway occupations designed to prevent his plane from landing. Mara eventually arrived at the military base by helicopter, but violence erupted with Tuareg and Arab rebel factions seizing the government house, abducting civil servants as hostages and slaughtering some eight government officials. A Malian military offensive was launched on May 21 to retake Kidal, but faltered in the face of heavy opposition from the Haut Conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad (HCUA – largely Ifoghas Tuareg), the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA – largely Idnan and Taghat Mellit Tuareg) and the Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad (MAA).

Once fighting broke out, Malian troops, many of them recent graduates of EU military training, quickly broke and abandoned their positions across northeastern Mali to take refuge in United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) camps or to flee south or north on the road to Algeria. With Malian forces on the run in most regions of northeastern Mali, MNLA forces easily occupied the towns of Anefis, Aguelhok, Tessalit, Menaka, Ansongo, Anderamboukane and Lere, seizing weapons and vehicles abandoned by the Malian troops without a shot being fired in many cases (Reuters, May 22). Without French intervention, the MNLA and its allies might have easily retaken all of northern Mali.

Malian authorities maintain that the forces opposing them in Kidal were far larger than originally estimated (2,000 as opposed to 700) and were reinforced by elements of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the allied Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA), an unlikely combination in the current political circumstances of northern Mali (Mali Demain [Bamako], June 5; L’Indépendant [Bamako], June 5).

The question of who actually ordered the disastrous offensive on Kidal remains unanswered (the president denies it was his decision), though the resignation of former Minister of Defense and Veterans Affairs and former intelligence chief Soumeylou Boubèye Maiga appears to have served to satisfy the demand for a scapegoat (Le Débat [Bamako], June 9). The new Defense Minister is Ba N’Dao, a retired colonel in the Malian air force.

Regardless of who ordered the attack on Kidal, the actual assault was directed by operational commander Brigadier Didier Dacko and led by Brigadier Ag Gamou, who was later accused by French sources of “pouring oil on the fire” (L’Opinion [Paris], June 10). Ag Gamou and his Imghad Tuareg militia have been engaged in a lengthy and bitter struggle with the Ifoghas Tuareg elites in Kidal, making Ag Gamou a provocative choice to lead the assault on Kidal. Leading a column of loyalist Tuareg, Red Berets and elements of three battalions of EU-trained Green Berets equipped with light armor, artillery and BM-21 Katyusha rocket launchers, Ag Gamou’s force appears to have encountered a superior force of rebels from the MNLA, HCUA and MAA. The Malian offensive quickly collapsed with the loss of as many as 50 soldiers, including Ag Gamou’s right-hand man, Colonel Ag Kiba. No attempt at intervention was made by the 1200 MINUSMA police and troops from Guinea, Chad and Senegal stationed in Kidal’s Camp 2. France eventually responded to the violence by sending an additional 100 troops from Abidjan to Gao, bringing the French deployment up to 1,700 soldiers (Reuters, May 21).

Return of the Red Berets?

Much of the weakness of the Malian Army is based on distrust between different factions that predates the January 2012 Tuareg/Islamist rising in northern Mali, but which was exacerbated by the March 22, 2012 military coup led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo and the “Green Beret” faction of the Malian army. The coup was opposed by the 33rd Parachute Brigade“Red Beret” airborne units that also formed the presidential guard of Amadou Toumani Touré, himself a former Red Beret. Though unable to prevent the coup, the Red Berets succeeded in spiriting the president to safety before mounting an unsuccessful counter-coup in late April, 2012 (see Terrorism Monitor, February 22, 2013). The failed counter-coup was followed by the brutal torture and murder of roughly 30 captured Red Berets, who subsequently disappeared into mass graves near the Kati military base outside of Bamako that served as Sanogo’s headquarters. 33rd Brigade commander Colonel Abidine Guindo was arrested in July, 2012 for his role in the counter-coup and detained for 16 months. The two factions clashed again on February 8, 2013 (Le Flambeau [Bamako], February 13, 2013).

A reconciliation was effected between the two factions in June, 2013 that allowed the Red Berets to return to active service in northern Mali, with Sanogo describing the fatal conflict within the military as a series of “misunderstandings and differences of view” (Le Progrès [Bamako], June 29, 2013). However, after having failed in his attempt to position himself as a senior statesman in democratic Mali following the election of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in September 2013, Sanogo and twenty of his relatives were charged with “kidnapping, abduction and murder” in connection with the murders of the Red Berets (AFP/MaliActu, June 6). Also charged were former defense minister General Yamoussa Camara, former state security director General Sidi Touré and two of Sanogo’s aides, Captain Amadou Konaré and Lieutenant Tahirou Mariko (L’Aube [Bamako], March 27). Responsibility for guarding the president was eventually passed on to Mali’s Garde Nationale.

It was not only Red Berets who suffered under Sanogo’s command, however, as demonstrated by a September, 2013 mutiny at the Kati military base by soldiers of Sanogo’s Green Beret faction angry at the cancellation of promised promotions (L’Aube [Bamako], March 27). The disturbance was ended by the intervention of Malian Special Forces under Lieutenant Colonel Elisha Daou, which arrested some 30 mutineers. The bodies of five of these soldiers, still in uniform but bound with rope and irons, were found in two bizarre graves alongside the heads of five crocodiles (L’Indépendant [Bamako], February 25). Many other victims of Sanogo’s manhunt for mutineers remain missing.

On June 6, Malian authorities revealed they had disrupted a new military plot against the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta allegedly led by members of the Red Berets. Some officials denied the plot was actually a coup and those detained were officially charged with intending to “destabilize the institutions of the Republic and endangering the security of the State” (22 Septembre [Bamako], June 9).

Lieutenant Muhammad Ouattara    (Jeune Afrique)

Among those arrested were the alleged ring-leader, Lieutenant Muhammad Ouattara, and ten non-commissioned officers, though there were reports authorities believed the plot was sponsored by “some senior military officers” (L’Indépendant [Bamako], June 6; Reuters, June 6). Otherwise, details of the plot remain scarce, and there is wide skepticism in Bamoko over the reality of the alleged coup. Ouattara previously spent 8 months in detention following the Red Beret’s unsuccessful counter-coup in April 2012 and was sent north to the Gao region after his release (L’Aube [Bamako], June 9).

Al-Hajj ag Gamou and the Pro-Bamako Tuareg Militia

Brigadier Ag Gamou, the leader of the failed assault on Kidal,  is one of Mali’s most experienced and controversial officers. After joining the Libyan Army at age 16, the future militia leader saw service in Chad, Lebanon and Syria before returning to Mali as a rebel leader in the 1990s before his integration into the Malian Army. Ag Gamou was decorated for his service as an ECOWAS peacekeeper in Sierra Leone before being posted to northern Mali, where he cooperated with Arab militia commander Muhammad Ould Abd al-Rahman Meydou in driving Tuareg rebels under the late Ibrahim ag Bahanga from northern Mali in 2009. Promoted Brigadier in September, 2013, Meydou is a Tilemsi Arab and highly capable desert fighter whose command is composed mostly of Bérabiche Arabs from the Timbuktu region (L’Indépendant [Bamako], September 13).

Finding himself isolated in the Gao region by the 2012 Islamist occupation of northern Mali, Ag Gamou rescued his men by declaring his allegiance to the Islamists before moving them through Islamist lines to the Niger border, which he then crossed with his troops while declaring his change of loyalties was only a subterfuge. While in Niamey, Ag Gamou survived an assassination attempt intended as payback for his trickery. When Chadian and Nigerien forces moved north to join the French-led Operation Serval, Ag Gamou’s troops joined them and played an important role in hunting down Islamists in the rough terrain of the Adrar des Ifoghas.

Despite these successes, Gamou found himself recalled to Bamako in March 2013 after arresting three MNLA rebels in Kidal who were cooperating with French forces involved in Operation Serval. According to sources within the military, Ag Gamou continued to operate independently and without regard for the chain of command, a habit developed during his time under former Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré, who gave the Tuareg militia leader a largely free hand to carry out operations in northern Mali as he saw fit (Procès Verbal [Bamako], April 3, 2013). While in Bamako, elements of MUJWA attacked a home belonging to Ag Gamou’s relatives, killing two (including a four-year-old girl) and severely injuring the child’s mother. Despite his controversial status, Ag Gamou was promoted to Brigadier General on September 18, 2013, a move received with popular acclaim in the Gao region (Le Débat [Bamako], January 3).

In February, a group of Fulani tribesmen attacked Gamou’s home village of Tamkoutat in the latest stage of an ethnic conflict between local Tuareg and Fulani herders. Gamou saw a political motive in the attacks: “They put pressure on me by attacking my family because they accuse us of having acted for various military forces to return the Malian government in the north. They used the same procedure as [the January 2012 MNLA/Ansar al-Din massacre of Malian troops at] Aguel-hoc, tying their victims hands behind their back and slaughtering them one by one” (Nouvelle Libération [Bamako], February 13).

Recently, representatives of the MAA and the Coordination malienne des Forces patriotiques de résistance (CMFPR – largely Songhai and Fulani “loyalist” self-defense militias such as Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso) involved in peace talks in Ouagadougou proposed Ag Gamou as the new Malian chief-of-staff to replace General Mahamane Touré, who resigned following the Kidal affair, suggesting that Ag Gamou was the individual most capable of uniting the badly divided military (L’Indépendant [Bamako], June 4).


The Kidal incident has revived popular anger at the French and the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, with both being accused of working in favor of Tuareg separatists. This perception is a natural development stemming from French cooperation with the MNLA during the Spring 2013 Operation Serval campaign against armed Islamists in northern Mali and subsequent French attempts to slow the reintroduction of central government authority in the Kidal region before a general peace treaty is agreed upon. In the meantime, the Keïta government has announced it will expand its underfunded and underequipped military by introducing mandatory national service for men and women aged 18 to 35 earlier this month (Reuters, June 5). Military training will last for a period of six months, though it was not clear whether this measure would be applied in northern Mali, where it would likely be a non-starter with both Tuareg and Arab groups. There is a sense that Keïta’s new measure is at least in part a response to student protests in Bamako.

President Keïta has lost the confidence of the international community – the IMF, World Bank and EU have frozen aid and development programs in the face of unanswered accountability questions.  Within Mali, the president has lost credibility and must now enter negotiations with rebels in Ouagadougou in a position of weakness. While there are serious questions regarding the reality of Ouattara’s Red Beret coup attempt, the conditions nevertheless exist in Mali that would encourage another military coup – corruption, military collapse, plummeting morale, internal challenges to sovereignty, international isolation, ineffective governance and loss of confidence.

This article was first published in the June 13, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Coalition of the People of Azawad: New Rebel Movement Declared in Northern Mali

Andrew McGregor

April 3, 2014

On March 18, a statement issued from the “military base of Hassi Labiad” in the name of the political and military cadres of the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), notables and the religious and traditional leaders of Azawad (i.e. northern Mali) proclaimed the establishment of the Coalition du Peuple pour l’Azawad (CPA). [1] The self-described “politico-military” organization claims a strength of “nearly 8,000 veteran fighters” and pledges the group’s commitment to negotiations with the Malian government and “the fight against terrorism in the Azawad and transnational crime.” Ag Assaleh was one of four Turareg rebels to have Bamako lift a warrant for his arrest in October, 2013 in the interests of furthering national reconciliation (Jeune Afrique/AFP, October 29, 2013).

Ibrahim ag Muhammad Assaleh

The new movement is led by its chairman, Ibrahim ag Muhammad Assaleh, the former external affairs representative of the MNLA, and a bureau of 32 members, overwhelmingly consisting of Tuareg leaders despite the movement’s claims to represent a broad spectrum of individuals from the Tuareg, Arab, Fulani and Songhai communities of northern Mali. CPA leader Ag Assaleh has made reference to fighters joining the CPA from the “tribes of Ansongo Cercle,” likely a suggestion the movement was being joined by Songhai fighters from that region, which straddles the Niger River south of Gao (Koaci.com, March 20). However, one of the individuals named as an executive member of the CPA, Baye ag Diknane (a founding member of the MNLA), issued an open letter expressing his surprise at being named a top official of the CPA while reaffirming his commitment to the MNLA (Azawad24.com, March 25).

Ag Assaleh was not present at the proclamation in Hassi Labiad, a village 350 kilometers northwest of Timbuktu, as he was in Niamey for talks with various representatives from northern Mali. The announcement was presided over by the CPA’s external relations official, Muhammad Ousmane ag Mohamedoun, in front of 700 attendees, including the Defense Attaché of the Algerian Embassy in Burkina Faso and the first adviser of the Algerian ambassador to Burkina Faso (Le Quotidien [Bamako], March 23). Ag Assaleh maintained that the event was also attended by representatives of the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA) and the largely Tuareg Haut Conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad (HCUA) as well as various representatives of the Songhai and Peul/Fulani peoples (Jeune Afrique, March 19; Journaldumali.com, March 19).

The CPA has divided northern Mali (or Azawad) into four military zones, with a commander appointed for each. Tahha ag Alfaki is responsible for military affairs in the western zone, Assaleh ag Muhammad Rabah (a former MNLA negotiator in the Ouagadougou peace talks) is responsible for the southern zone, Mossa ag Ahmedou (former MNLA communications director) is responsible for the eastern zone and Issouf ag Erfal is responsible for the northern zone.

Negotiations appeared promising last summer, when the Tuareg rebels signed the Ouagadougou agreement with Malian authorities on June 18 to allow the July general elections to proceed. However, after the elections, Bamako lost interest in meeting other provisions of the agreement, leading the rebels to suspend negotiations with the government on September 26, 2013 (AFP, October 6, 2013). Insisting that direct negotiations with Bamako are impossible, Ag Assaleh says he has sent requests to the government requesting new talks through mediators from Algeria, Burkina Faso and the Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Mali (MINUSMA), the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali (Reuters, March 25).