Last week’s military coup in Mali brought brief attention from the world’s media to the Sahel. But behind the latest headlines, drones are a growing part of the ongoing conflict in the region.
On 21 December 2019, France carried out a drone strike for the first time, killing seven alleged jihadist fighters in central Mali. In total, 40 terrorists were killed during the weekend-long operations which took place in an area controlled by the group, Katibat Macina. The news of the strike came just two days after Florence Parly, France’s defence minister, said its fleet of MQ-9 Reapers had finished testing with laser-guided missiles at an airbase in Niamey, the capital of Niger.
Until this point, French Reapers in the Sahel-Saharan strip had been used primarily for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Now, the French government argues, the idea is for the military to have an additional strike capability in its missions, supporting states in their fight against terrorist groups and thus bringing stability and security to the region. The reality, however, is a little hazier than that.
As it happens, France is not the only country conducting drone operations in the Sahel. Other European actors have provided intelligence support to the UN mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, since 2014. The Netherlands and Sweden, for example, have deployed small unmanned crafts like the ScanEagle and Puma AE, whereas Germany has sent several leased Heron 1s to Gao. Unsurprisingly, US Predators and Reapers have also participated in counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and counter-crime operations across the region for close to a decade.
These large drone powers, which at times fail to communicate or coordinate on the fight against jihadist organisations, risk saturating small states and adding new layers of insecurity to the Sahel, and other parts of Africa, as more drone-based relationships are entered into. Turkey is the latest player to join the game and their armed UAV capabilities and ambitions have been well-documented.
An important element here is the relationship between the United States and the Nigerien government. Here’s the backstory. In January 2013, the United States signed a military agreement with Niger to allow American forces to legally operate surveillance drones over its territory. A month later, a drone base was established in Niamey and a single Predator aircraft was sent to the capital before making way for faster, more robust Reapers. At the time, US defence officials said the drones were for intelligence-gathering missions only and would not be armed, but stopped short from ruling out equipping them with missiles in the future. (end of excerpt)
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