France Expands Counterterrorist Mission Across Western Sahel

France’s defense minister says troops will remain “as long as necessary” to check Islamist violence.

French army vehicles operating in Mali, 2013
French army vehicles operating in Mali, 2013 (EMA/Ministère de la Défense)

France will deploy troops across the western Sahel region in what its defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, described on Thursday as a new, “counterterrorism” phase in the nation’s military operations in Africa.

Le Drian said France would reorganize its troops to “pursue counterterrorism” beyond Mali, where it intervened last year to push back an insurgency of radical Islamists and local Tuareg separatists, across the “danger zone” of western Africa.

Despite earlier promises to draw down the French troops presence to 1,000 by the end of last year, around 3,000 soldiers are now to remain in the area indefinitely to check Islamist violence and arms trafficking, Le Drian said in a television interview. “We will stay as long as necessary. There is no fixed date.”

Since the collapse of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, when France, along with several of its NATO allies, intervened to support the uprising in that country, insurgency and smuggling has spread across the Maghreb and Sahel. Most states in the region are too weak to control their borders and put a stop to this criminal and jihadist activity.

Two international peacekeeping missions, one organized by the Economic Community of West African States and another by the United Nations, are deployed to Mali. The European Union has also sent trainers. The BBC’s West Africa analyst Paul Melly points out, however, that the local troops “lack the satellite and drone surveillance capabilities, the attack helicopters and strike aircraft that France can provide; moreover, France has recent combat experience from its time in Afghanistan.”

France 24 reports that the forces will be organized around four base camps. The Chadian capital Ndjamena hosts the mission’s headquarters with more than 1,000 troops. Mirage and Rafale fighter jets as well as tanker aircraft are deployed there also. Another thousand soldiers and Tiger attack helicopters are stationed in Mali’s Gao with a secondary base at Tessalit, near the Algerian border. Elite forces operate out of Burkina Faso while reconnaissance drones fly out of Niamey, the capital of Niger.

Eight French soldiers have been killed in the north of Mali since they were deployed there in January 2013.