On the night of Monday 2 November the French armed forces minister, Florence Parly, called a press conference to announce, in the framework of Operation "Barkhane" and "Sabre", that some 50 Jihadists affiliated to al-Qaeda died on Friday 30 October during an operation conducted in Mali near the border with Burkina Faso by the French army.
Little by little, the French authorities are attempting to define their relations with the transitional power in Bamako. To break the military deadlock in the Sahel, Paris is counting on a change in the political situation and a new involvement of local actors.
Following the visit of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, last week, the Minister of the Armed Forces was in Mali on Monday and Tuesday to establish relations with the new transitional power. She met her counterpart, Colonel Sadio Camara, Mali's chief of staff, General Oumar Diarra, the transitional president Bah N'Daou, and also the vice-president, Colonel Assimi Goïta, the strongman of the junta that took power this summer by overthrowing former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on 18 August.
"On 30 October the special forces known as Barkhane conducted an operation to disable over 50 Jihadists, the equivalent of a 'katiba' (combat unit), by confiscating their equipment and weapons," he said after his meeting with the transitional president Bah N'Daou. Four terrorists were captured during this strictly French operation aimed at the group founded by the Burkinabe Ibrahim Malam Dicko, the Ansaroul Islamist group, which has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks against the Burkinabe army. The United States had placed it on its blacklist of terrorist organisations at the beginning of 2018. A group affiliated with al-Qaeda known as the "Groupe de soutien au Islam et aux musulmanes" (GSIM).
"The aim is to ensure the authorities' determination to continue the commitment of the Malian armed forces in the various operations we are carrying out together," Florence Parly told the AFP agency. Since 2013, France has been operating militarily in Mali against "armed terrorist groups" in the north and east of the country. Operation Barkhane, since 2014, has been aimed at enabling the Sahel armed forces, and primarily Mali, to deal with the Jihadist threat. "This determination has not wavered since 18 August, but it is important to have an exchange with the authorities to ensure that this objective is long term, because we have to plan new operations," Parly added.
This operation is a "hard blow" for the Jihadists who are proliferating in the Sahel, according to statements by the army general staff, without revealing many details to Le Monde. It took place in the Boulikessi region 280 kilometres north of the Burkinabé capital, not far from the border with Burkina Faso in an area of friction between the "Groupe de soutien à l'Islam et aux musulmanes" (GSIM) linked to al-Qaeda, on the one hand, and the Islamic State of the Great Sahara (EIGS), on the other, at nightfall last Friday. The fighting continued through the night until morning in a slightly forested and semi-arid area. It involved Mirage 2000 fighters, drones, helicopters and dozens of ground commands. About 50 weapons were seized and about 30 motorbikes were destroyed. The operation was carried out with the participation of the special forces of Operation Sabre.
However, Ansar-ul-Islam attached to the GSIM of Emir Tuareg Iyad Ag-Ghali was not the target of the operation, it was said on Monday in Paris. "For me, as a soldier, he is still enemy number one," a senior military officer recently told Le Monde when the negotiations conducted by Bamako under the watchful eye of Paris had just led to the release of 200 Islamist fighters in exchange for several hostages at the beginning of October.
After the offensive launched in January following the Pau summit to regain the advantage on the ground, which had led to the sending of 600 additional men, Barkhane reached a turning point. "We are approaching the end of the year. It is a crucial time to take stock of the commitments made," said Parly.
Tactically, the French Army is achieving unquestionable success. The Islamic State of the Great Sahara, designated as the main enemy at the Pau summit, suffered serious losses in the first half of the year in the region known as the Three Borders, where it is operating. But the threat is endemic, linked to Mali's political and social fragility, intra-community tensions and the withdrawal of the state. These are all ills that Barkhane cannot overcome.
Within the armed forces, priority is now being given to the "secularisation" of the conflict and the "internationalisation" of its accompaniment. France no longer wants to be alone in the struggle in the Sahel. It is preparing for a "transition" that heralds a gradual reduction in the resources deployed. The military insist: each operation is now carried out jointly with the local armies, within the framework of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The level of coordination has reached an unprecedented level, according to the AFP.
Paris is also committed to European cooperation with the slow but gradual arrival of the elements of the Takuba Task Force. Made up of European special forces, Takuba is to accompany and advise the local forces. Estonian military personnel have been on the ground since July. The Czechs, Swedes and Italians are expected to be ready early next year. Takuba participated in a first operation on the ground: "Wuthering"; this operation mobilised some 3,000 soldiers in total.