In the north-east of Mali, in the Ménaka region, the French force Barkhane has been particularly active for more than a year. In the fight against armed terrorist groups, including those of the Islamic State group in the great Sahara, Barkhane is put to the test, despite its arsenal and the number of terrorists killed or captured.
“In 2018 we were able to neutralize a lot of terrorists. We hit them hard, repelled the threat. We know that the enemy can always do harm but it is not comparable to the situation of two years ago”, said General Blachon, commander of the Barkhane force, on February 25 in Ménaka, during a field visit. While welcoming the achieved results, the Commander of the Counter-Terrorism Force is aware of the resilience of these armed groups in the Sahel.
On Sunday, March 10, 90 kilometers southwest of the city of Ménaka and about three kilometers from the border with Niger, the French forces came under attack by armed terrorist groups. It was in the middle of the day. The incursion left two wounded in the ranks of the French force. The suicide vehicle was stopped some “30 meters from the Barkhane soldiers” by firing, before exploding, causing a resounding noise throughout the area.
Immediately, more than a dozen terrorist fighters supposed to belong to the group Islamic State in the Great Sahara (EIGS) of Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, operating on motorcycles went after the French position with shots. But the soldiers pushed them back before the arrival of some Mirage 2000, just ten minutes after this attack described as a “complex” one.
But in an area that has become their sumptuary, these fighters retreated into nature. It is in fact, to reduce their grip on this porous space that the Barkhane force is implanting itself temporarily in some strategic locations. The spokesman for the army command in fact said a few days ago, this desire to harass these formidable groups. “We go to this area deliberately, to challenge them with the land and prevent them from setting up or resettling there”, said Colonel Patrik Steiger. While the Malian armed forces are resettling in Anderamboukane, a border town to Tchintibaraden of Niger, elements of Abu Walid are increasing attacks to prevent the presence of sovereign and international forces. The MSA / GATIA coalition, an ally of the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) and Barkhane, is also not spared by the deadly incursions of terrorists.
However, the presence of the FAMa, (absent in this region since some few years) is welcomed. “Any force that comes for the security of people and their property is welcome. Because it’s a vast area and we know that no one can claim to be able to secure all these people and their property”, said a member of the MSA / GATIA coalition. “We welcome them with open arms and we hope to do our best to help them in their task”, he adds, without further details. The coverage of this area could have positive effects on the security of populations and their economic incomes. “When the Anderamboukane post will be made, the whole link with Niger will be strengthened and as soon as there is the link, trade will resume and people’s lives will improve”, said the commander the Barkhane force, during a joint press conference with the governor of the Ménaka region in late February.
For Mahamadou Savadogo, a specialist in violent extremism and radicalization issues in the Sahel, the announced strong presence of the Malian army in Anderamboukane would cause some elements of the Islamic State (IS) group to move to Burkina. “This will allow them to make a fallback in the most exposed countries like Burkina Faso. All Burkinabe forces are concentrated in the east of our country, such that the northern border, meaning the Sahel and then on the border with Niger and Mali, there is almost no operation”, said this Burkinabe analyst at the Action Research Center for Development and Democracy (CRADD). According to him, these terrorist groups “are playing with the geography and the strategies put in place by these different forces” that are fighting against them.
An endless struggle?
In this region of the Liptako, elements affiliated to the Islamic State of the Great Sahara (EIGS) are present all along the border between Niger and Mali. This is not the first time they attack with a car bomb, the soldiers of the Barkhane force. On January 11, 2018, a van packed with explosives targeted a Barkhane patrol between Ménaka and Indelimane causing serious injuries to three soldiers of the mission. An attack later claimed by the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), led by Iyad Ag Ghaly.
Bold practices that reveal the resilience of these groups and their commitment to opposing the forces in presence. However, the Force Commander looked galvanized by the blows they had struck to these groups in the course of 2018. “What is important today is that fear has changed sides. When terrorists can come at any time to commit their abuses and know that there will be no price to pay, this gives them confidence, but today, confidence has changed sides”, notes General Blachon. He adds that “the objective is that at first they lay down their weapons, and then that they understand that the fight is useless and that the people yearn for peace”.
A message that these different armed groups do not hear. Their local roots and mastery of the land offer them valuable benefits in these areas where life is difficult. “During the year 2018, they enhanced their skills and have had a lot of confidence. It’s an area they know very well, and even if they attack, they know where to fall back. They show that this territory belongs to them”, analyzes the researcher Mahamadou Savadogo. He underlines the screaming lack of coordination between the various regional forces in the fight against the phenomenon. “And what is even more striking is that there is no coordination between the different forces, no system on the other side of the borders to capture these armed terrorist groups when they make these kinds of attacks”, he regrets.
And to continue: “one wonders if Barkhane is able to reach the heads of these groups or it is the petty criminals or supporters that it targets. Because the IS is becoming more and more powerful”, says Mahamadou Savadogo. In Mali as well as Niger, Burkina Faso and even Chad, terrorist armed groups are growing their ranks with local youth. They invite communities to their causes, all in a teaching of rejection of States and their Western allies.
“We have been talking about community terrorism since 2018, because terrorists rely on communities to convey their message and with the aim of radicalizing them,” says the researcher, who thinks the struggle will take a long time. “Barkhane already knows it. That is why everything is being done to operationalize the G5 Sahel, so that this force is gradually withdrawn”. He goes on to say that “Barkhane is no longer in this logic of destroying terrorism outright, be it in Mali, Niger or Burkina, but it just wants to weaken these terrorist groups and afterwards, the leaders can take the relay, either to finish the job, or to negotiate in some cases”, he reveals. But criticism of the operation is not only local.
In France too, some voices abound in the same direction. “I’m pretty critical about this operation. In principle, Operation Serval in January 2013 was an excellent operation. Meaning that it was necessary to prevent the various united jihadist groups to surge south and eventually to Bamako. The problem is that France believed after to distinguish good and bad armed groups. Some were seen as politicians and others were perceived as terrorists”, said on RFI, the former ambassador of France to Mali, Nicolas Normand, on last March 14.
Security experts and researchers believe that “the all security oriented” could never win wars. This is why the G5 Sahel intends to focus on the fight against terrorism and the implementation of flagship development projects. In the Sahel and Mali in particular, the Barkhane force seems to be falling into a complicated quagmire. “The solution is not military with this new strategy of the groups. What can be done is to go to dialogue or pass the opposite message to what is spreading within communities”, says Savadogo. If some fighters are joining these groups of their own free will, some young people do so because of social problems and lack of real prospects in their country.
For Nicolas Normand, it is no longer a matter of dealing militarily with the issues and then bringing development, but of exploring another approach to strengthening the State and good governance. “We must deal with the problem of the weakness of the State and its tax services. Because, without taxation, obviously, we cannot pay an army, a police, a justice and a national education”, he says. In this war against terrorism, conquering people has become an issue for jihadists as well as for States.
This is why Mahamadou Savadogo invites the consideration of this social community dimension. “We need to make a diagnosis in these communities and really see what problems they are experiencing that lead them to radicalize and then solve them. This is possible in the medium and long term”, suggests the specialist.