At the Gates of Hell – Mali

By Paul O’Brien MA – Photos where credited

The old saying ‘from here to Timbuktu’ was used to invoke images of exotic, far-distant lands. However, in recent months the African country of Mali, where the city of Timbuktu is located, has made headlines throughout the world. Two months ago France began military operations in the country at the behest of the Malian government. This intervention, codenamed ‘Operation Serval’, is aimed at halting fighting and restoring government authority in the conflict-torn north of the country.

Mali, a former French colony, and the world’s 24th largest country at 480,000 sq miles is a landlocked nation in West Africa comprising eight regions and is comparable in size to South Africa. The country’s northern border reaches deep into the inhospitable Sahara Desert and its north-eastern border lies in the mountainous terrain of the Adrar des Ifoghas.

The south of the country, where the majority of its inhabitants reside, is tropical and dominated by the Niger and Senegal rivers.

In January 2012, a Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali led to a period of instability in the region. The chaotic situation provided an opportunity for extremist Islamic groups, including Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda, to turn on the Tuaregs and seize control, with the expressed aim of implementing strict Islamic Sharia law in Mali.

Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) teach mounted infantry tactics to soldiers from the Malian Army in Timbuktu, Mali. U.S. Army Special Forces, assigned to Special Operations Command Europe, are training selected military units in Mali and Mauritania on mobility, communications, land navigation, and small unit tactics. (Staff Sgt Edward Braly, USAF)

According to UN estimates, thousands of people subsequently fled south to avoid the fighting. The situation caused Western powers to become increasingly concerned that Mali may be used as a staging area for terrorist attacks throughout the world.

Using the country’s capital, Bamako, as a forward operating base, French forces deployed 2,500 troops to bolster the Malian army. They are also working with 3,000 West African troops who are participating in an UN-approved intervention mission.

A French military armoured vehicle is unloaded from a British C17, plane after it landed at Bamako airport, Mali. French forces led an all-night aerial bombing campaign on Tuesday to wrest control of a small Malian town from armed Islamist extremists who seized the area. (AP Photo/SAC Dek Taylor, MOD)

Responding to the French intervention Oumar Ould Hamaha, a spokesman for MUJWA (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa), which has imposed Sharia law in the north of the country, said: “France has opened the gates of hell … it has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia.”

This threat did not deter the French and in January a column of French Foreign Legion armoured vehicles moved into position at Niono, 190 miles from Bamako. At the same time Malian troops secured an area near the Mauritanian border. This was achieved with French air support, in the form of four Mirage 2000D and four Rafale fighter jets, which bombed and strafed enemy positions, forcing them to fall back.

However, in the nearby town of Diabaly Islamic fighters fought running street battles with French and Malian troops. In an attempt to cut off and encircle the insurgents, French paratroopers were dropped into towns that were considered strategically important. Helicopter gunships provided air support and after a number of gun battles and strategic air strikes, the militants were forced to fall back and vacate their positions.

At the time of writing, fighting is currently taking place in the area along the Algerian border where insurgents have adopted guerrilla tactics and are using the mountainous regions of the Adrar des Ifoghas as their area of operations. In spite of some initial successes, French military sources acknowledged that they faced a long fight against well-equipped and determined militants and appear to be concerned that France may become bogged down in a war of attrition.

However, according to the French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French government is determined to shatter any hold that extremists may have on Mali and is working closely with the United States, which has operated a counter-terrorism training programme in the region.

Defence Forces personnel in pre-Mali training in the Curragh. (Cpl Colum Lawlor, DF Photographer, PR Branch)

France’s call for international support has been answered by a number of countries who have offered logistical and training support. Nigeria will be sending 900 troops as part of the 3,300-strong West African force and others will soon follow suit. The UK has already provided two C-17 transport aircraft and the Pentagon is contributing transport aircraft, air refuelling tankers and on-the-ground intelligence. Belgium is contributing transport aircraft and a medevac helicopter. Canada, Germany and Denmark are also contributing transport aircraft.

In Ireland Minister for Defence Alan Shatter has been granted permission by the government to contribute members of the Defence Forces to a planned EU training mission in Mali.

Defence Forces personnel in pre-Mali training in the Curragh. (Cpl Colum Lawlor, DF Photographer, PR Branch)

Working with members of the British Army in a combined training contingent, they will be responsible for providing Malian armed forces with military training and advice, according to an official EU press release.

In relation to the operation, Minister Shatter said: “Alongside standard infantry training, training will also be provided in international humanitarian law, the protection of civilians and human rights.”

The proposed EU training mission to Mali will be deployed in four teams, each comprising 24 trainers. It is expected that with the inclusion of force protection and administrative elements the overall deployment will consist of an estimated 500 personnel.

Defence Forces personnel deploying to Mali will know they face tough challenges, but their experience and training will contribute greatly to what many believe is going to be a very difficult mission.

This article won the ‘Best Article 2013′, Award by the European Military Press Association’s (EMPA) ‘At the Gates of Hell (Mali)’ – and was published in An Cosantóir: The Defence Forces Magazine in April 2013.