A French paratrooper was killed in Northern Mali on Wednesday during a clash with an armed terrorist group. This is the tenth French soldier to be killed since France sent troops into Mali in 2013.
Mali was plunged into chaos in March 2012, after Tuareg rebels from Mali's National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) joined armed Islamist groups like Ansar Dine, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and MUJAO Movement for Unity and Jihad (MUJAO) in West Africa to seize the northern half of Mali after a coup by General Amadou Sanogo.
In January 2013, Islamist forces launched an unprecedented attack on the south of the country, triggering French military intervention. Operation Serval, named after an African wild cat species, successfully halted the jihadist advance, and helped the Malian government regain control of Northern Mali, including the Islamist stronghold of Gao.
In August 2014, Operation Serval was replaced by Operation Barkhane, a counter-terrorism operation in Africa's Sahel region. President Barack Obama announced this past summer that the US would be directing $10 million in aid to bolster the operation, which targets Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso.
With Operation Barkhane splitting its focus between six countries, on April 25 the UN established MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), a peacekeeping mission dedicated to stabilizing Mali in the wake of the Tuareg insurgency. MINUSMA is made up mostly of African troops, and currently comprises 11,200 soldiers and 1,440 police officers.
Speaking on French radio station RFI on October 27, two days before the death of the French paratrooper, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French minister of defense, admitted that there had been a resurgence of terrorist acts in Northern Mali, and stated that, "MINUSMA was not present when it should have been." French authorities allege that MINUSMA deployed only 22 percent of its forces in Northern Mali, a claim disputed by MINUSMA.
This follows a call by Malian foreign affairs minister, Abdoulaye Diop, for the deployment of a "rapid-reaction force" to support UN troops on the ground. Diop's call comes on the heels of a series of lethal attacks, which led to ten MINUSMA fatalities in the month of October.
Diop fears that his country "once again runs the risk of becoming a destination for hordes of terrorists," one year after the jihadist attacks of January 2013 in the South and the ensuing French military intervention.
VICE News spoke to Philippe Hugon, research director at Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), and author of African Geopolitics, published by Armand Colin.
"The difficulty comes from the fact that, on the one hand, you have well-equipped forces, and on the other, [you have] extremely mobile militias, who resort to dramatic actions like suicide bombings, and the laying of land mines, etc," Hugon said. "We are dealing with an asymmetrical war. The problem with this kind of war is that it's hard to see the outcome."
For Hugon, the UN is the only force capable of securing Mali.
"Given the nature of the tensions, reinforcements are needed. But the Barkhane forces have different goals and the European Union is not prepared to recruit [more] men. African countries have reached the limits of their capacity and expertise. All that is left are the UN MINUSMA forces," he explained
The French government announced on October 10 that the army had destroyed an armed convoy transporting three tons of weapons from Libya to Mali, including anti-tank rockets and portable anti-aircraft missiles.
For now, the UN does not plan on sending in additional troops. Speaking to international press agency AFP, however, UN chief of peacekeeping operations, Herve Ladsous, announced that the UN would be taking a harder line following the recent attacks.
"The context is no longer one of peacekeeping. Obviously, this forces us to take a number of measures," he said. "To strengthen our bases, to strengthen our defenses."
In an interview with French newspaper le Figaro, French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, does not rule out an intervention in Libya, whose vast and lightly-monitored borders are fast turning the region into a haven for jihadists.
According to André Bourgeot, research director at the CNRS (National Center of Scientific Research) and a specialist in nomadic societies within the Sahel-Sahara region, while Tuareg rebel movements are not a new phenomenon, the religious nature of their rebellion is.
"Tuareg rebel movements have been around since 1916. [They come] in cycles, every 10 or 12 years, particularly in the Kidal region. Tuaregs are a minority nomadic ethnic group, [and constitute] around 10% of the Malian population. Radical Islam is a new phenomenon that began in the early twentieth century," he told VICE News. "The radicalization of political Islam dates back to 2005-2006, following the defeat of the Salafist GSPC (Salafist Group for Call and Combat) in Algeria. These people sought refuge in Northern Mali, in the Sahel-Sahara region."
Bourgeot also explained that, while French forces had been successful in removing Islamist militants from towns, the rebels had retreated to more remote areas, such as the bush, the desert, or the mountains. "They still haven't been kicked out of their sanctuary in the Adrar des Ifoghas [editor's note: mountains near the Algerian border]," he said, "The French paratrooper who was killed recently died in a raid on this area, and was probably [killed] by the AQIM or the MUJAO. These mountains contain many weapons caches."
Nine members of Niger's security forces were killed on October 30 on the border between Niger and Mali, in an area frequented by jihadists. The attackers were not identified and no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks.
On November 2, 2013, two French journalists, Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon were kidnapped and killed in Kidal, in Northern Mali in a retaliation action by terrorist group AQIM.
For Bourgeot, a return to peace and security in Northern Mali cannot be achieved through military intervention alone.
"From a historical point of view, you can see that military interventions often come to a standstill and don't lead to permanent solutions. If local people are not involved, nothing comes of it," he explained. "As long as there is no systematic policy in place to combat the lucrative drug trafficking that is keeping terrorist groups alive, there will be no peace. We need a strong and present Malian State, we need government institutions to be rebuilt and operational."