How French drone strikes in the Sahel risk losing 'hearts and minds'

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Two French soldiers were killed this weekend in Mali when their vehicle was targeted by an improvised explosive device, in what was a grim reminder of the difficulties the French military face in their campaign to defeat jihadist groups in the Sahel region. To strengthen its operations, France has begun deploying, for the first time anywhere, armed drones. But, as Rémi Carayol reports, while these have apparently reduced the capacity of the jihadists to launch mass attacks, the drone strikes have also made civilians fearful for their own safety, with the potential effect of losing support for the military campaign.

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The deaths of two French soldiers in Mali this weekend, when an improvised explosive device was triggered beside their armoured vehicle, brought the total number of French military personnel killed in counter-jihadist operations in the country and surrounding Sahel region since 2013 to 45.

The deaths of the members of the Tarbes 1st hussar parachute regiment on Saturday also underlined the ongoing capacity of the jihadists in the region to defy French forces and those of its local allies after seven years of military operations.   

In a statement on Saturday announcing the deaths, President Emmanuel Macron’s office, the Elysée Palace, offered his condolences to the families of the victims adding that he “once more salutes the courage and determination of the French military personnel deployed in the Sahel, alongside their brothers in arms from numerous countries engaged in solidarity in this difficult mission”.

The French-led military intervention to counter jihadist groups in the Sahel region of north-west Africa, and notably affiliates of al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, is called Operation Barkhane. It was launched in August 2014 and now involves around 5,100 French military personnel in a coalition with troops from Mali and neighbouring West African countries Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and the north-central Chad – all former French colonies and which, in the framework of the military operations, are called the “G5 Sahel”.

It succeeded Operation Serval, launched in January 2013 when Islamist groups which had captured swathes of northern Mali, and closing in on the capital Bamako, were successfully pushed back.

But Mali has since sunk into serious political instability, and on August 18th its president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, was ousted in an army coup. That followed mass civilian protests against him and his government over corruption, economic conditions and disputed results of parliamentary elections this spring. In the statement issued by the Elysée this Saturday, Macron called for a rapid transition back to civilian rule in Mali, which he said was “a sine qua non condition for an effective fight against the terrorists” – referring to the jihadist groups operating in the north of the country and surrounding Sahel region.

It was following a spike in terrorist attacks that in January this year the French president held a summit with leaders of the G5 Sahel countriesin the south-west French town of Pau. Macron demanded that the G5 gave a clear indication of support for France’s military presence in the region, contested in some quarters as neo-colonial and even as heightening jihadist violence. The summit was officially hailed as a success, described by Macron, who announced further troops would be sent to join Operation Barkhane, as a “turning point in our military strategy”.

A significant turning point in military strategy had in fact occurred the previous month. On December 19th 2019, the French defence ministry announced that testing of armed drones in the region had been a success. Two days later, on December 21st, what is officially France’s first-ever armed drone strike was launched against targets in central Mali, when it was announced that 33 jihadists were killed.

A French Reaper drone parked at its military base in Niamey, Niger, on December 15th 2019. © Daphné Benoit/AFP A French Reaper drone parked at its military base in Niamey, Niger, on December 15th 2019. © Daphné Benoit/AFP

The French army drones, previously used only for surveillance, are operated from a military base in Niger’s capital Niamey, and carry 250-kilo laser-guided bombs. “On top of the permanent pressure exerted upon the enemy, the armed drones present several advantages, notably their discretion, their endurance and the capacity given to our forces to react and decide with greater rapidity and effectiveness,” read the defence ministry statement issued last December 19th. “It is a new capacity, not a change of doctrine. The rules of engagement of the armed drones are exactly the same as those of fighter planes with which they are complimentary.”

Since the introduction of drone strikes, the jihadist groups have had to change their own tactics, and several local sources in Mali have reported that their presence has become much more discreet. “They can no longer group together in tens, or even hundreds as they did before to launch attacks,” said one source with specialist knowledge of the jihadists and the situation in Mali, and who asked not to be named. “They fear being identified and struck by drones.”

But the civilian population is also fearful of the drones, notably those in the zones in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso where France leads military operations. “It is worrying,” said the chief of a village in central Mali, speaking on condition his name was withheld, like most of the inhabitants of the same area which is in part controlled by the jihadists. “The planes, you hear them coming. But the drones, you don’t see them, you don’t hear them. You don’t know where they’ve come from. They represent a permanent threat.”

A staff member of an NGO who regularly visits the region, who also spoke on condition his name was withheld, said he had witnessed a change in the habits of local inhabitants. “The fear of populations has increased tenfold since the use of armed drones,” he said. “Before, when jihadists arrived in a village, to the market or water wells, they would attract a crowd gathered out of curiosity. Now, civilians avoid them because they know that the drones can strike at any moment. But the jihadists are conscious of this and they go about things so that they are often in contact with the [civilian] populations with the aim that they serve as human shields.”

“Before, when there was a [fighter jet] strike somewhere, the neighbouring population would go there in the hours that followed to bury the dead, according to tradition. They had nothing to fear. But today they don’t go there anymore out of fear that they too fall victim to French bombs. They know that a drone can stay in place after a strike.”

On February 6th and 7th, according to a statement issued by the French defence ministry, the Operation Barkhane forces “carried out an operation of opportunity” west of the Mali region of Gourma and which “resulted in the neutralising of about twenty terrorists as well as the destruction of several vehicles”. The statement added that the operation “mobilised aerial means in very short notice”, and which included a Reaper drone, as well as fighter jets and helicopters.

According to the accounts of witnesses given to Mediapart, numerous civilians were killed in the February 7th strike. That day, the inhabitants in the area had gathered at a nomad camp at Fatawada, not far from the east-central town of Gossi. They had been on the point of collecting the bodies of jihadists killed the previous day to carry out their burials when they too were reportedly targeted by a drone. While information is difficult to authenticate in this isolated region, some local sources spoke of a death toll of several tens of people, including women and children.

Those reports were relayed to the United Nations mission in Mali, MINUSMA. One UN staff member said that the events had made the local population realise the permanent threat of the drones. “On the ground, knowledge of the drones fluctuates a lot, but populations know they are being ‘watched’,” said the UN staffer, based in the Malian capital Bamako.

Questioned in March by Mediapart about the claims of civilian deaths in the February strike at Fatawada, a spokesperson for the French armed forces denied the reports, saying that “according to our assessment and to elements of appreciation, there were no civil victims”.   

In official reports made public in Franne about the use of drones, their effects on the civilian population is never mentioned, and instead they focus with a French perspective of their strategic role, and ethical issues about their employment.

However, the harmful consequences on the civilian population of the deployment by the US of armed drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen has been detailed. In a British academic study published in April 2016 under the auspices of The Oxford Research Group and entitled “Drone Chic”, the authors wrote: “War is never cost-free. But it appears to be in most accounts of contemporary conflict. We term this ‘Drone Chic’.” Drawing on available research into the use of drones, notably in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they wrote that these had “profound consequences for those living under the ever present and seemingly omnipotent machines hovering in the sky above. Drones are, we believe, ‘disheartening’. They change cultural practices and cause psychological damage.” The latter, they wrote, included “anxiety, insomnia and paranoia”.   

French academic Grégoire Chamayou, a philosophy lecturer and member of France’s national scientific research centre, the CNRS, focused on US killer drones in his 2013 book Théorie du drone (published in France by La Fabrique). Citing from published studies and reports on the subject, he wrote: “Drones petrify. They produce mass terror inflicted upon entire populations. It is that, besides the dead and wounded, the ruins, anger and grieving, which is the effect of a permanent lethal surveillance: a psychic confinement in which the perimeter is no longer defined by bars, barriers or walls, but by the invisible circles traced above heads by the endless twirling of flying watchtowers.”

David Rohde, who was a reporter for The New York Times when he was kidnapped along with two Afghan colleagues near Kabul in November 2008 and taken to the tribal region of Waziristan in Pakistan, where he spent seven months in captivity before escaping, wrote about drones and his personal experience of them in a report for news agency Reuters: “The drones were terrifying,” he recalled. “From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death. Drones fire missiles that travel faster than the speed of sound. A drone’s victim never hears the missile that kills him.”

The consequences of deploying drones are not only questionable from a moral point of view, but also over their real strategic worth and long-term effects.

In his book, Chamayou noted that, “the ‘droned’ manhunt represents the practical and doctrinal triumph of anti-terrorism over counter-insurrection. In that logic, the counting of the dead, the list of hunting trophies, substitutes the strategic evaluation of the political effects of armed violence”. While drones, he wrote, excel at “pulverising bodies from a distance”, they are “inept at winning over ‘hearts and minds’”. That notion of winning “hearts and minds”, a key element in counter-insurgency, is also of essential importance to the success of Operation Barkhane.

For several years now, French troops have practiced just that, with projects such as drilling water wells for communities in the Sahel, building structures for their local markets, providing practical equipment and free health treatment. The arrival of armed drones may now destroy those efforts.

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  • The original French version on which this report is based can be found here.

 

English version, with some additional reporting, by Graham Tearse.

 

 

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