Inside France’s War on Terror in West Africa

In the dying days of a major French counterterrorism mission in Mali, under-resourced and over-stretched local troops prepare to go it mostly alone.
July 21, 2021, 9:31am
Inside France’s War on Terror in West Africa
Members of the Dogon self-defence group, Da Na Ambassagou, which roughly translates to "hunters who trust in God," riding through Dogon country in central Mali. All photos: Michael Anthony Adams

SEVARE, Mali – 14-year old Aminata Barry was sleeping next to her mother when gunmen stormed their village in Ogossagou and began shooting. As they tried to escape, the militiamen fired at both of them. Aminata survived the gunshot to her leg. But her mother didn’t. 

“It was terrifying,” Aminata said, “what should we feel, they came in and attacked us.” After, she fled and now lives with her older brother and his wife and kids in a UN-run camp for internally displaced people in central Mali, about 400 miles northeast of the capital, Bamako. 

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Officials say at least 134 herders – all from the Fulani ethnic group, one of the largest in West Africa – were killed that day on the 23rd of March, 2019. It was one of the deadliest attacks in recent years, but still just one of many incidents across the Sahel, a million-square-mile belt of desert stretching through sub-Saharan Africa. 

When asked who raided her village, Aminata said, “tribal people,” referring to the Da Na Ambassagou militia, all members of the Dogon ethnic group, “we don't know how they got into the village and why they would do this.” 

This armed self-defence group was formed in 2016 in response to an increased threat posed by Islamist militants coming from the north. Da Na Ambassagou, which roughly translates as “hunters who trust in God,” claims it’s only targeting Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups that have threatened people living in Dogon country in central Mali. But experts say groups like Da Na have capitalised on the extremist threat that is encroaching on Mali and the rest of the Sahel to squash out tensions with other ethnic groups. The Dogon and Fulani once lived side by side, raising crops and herding cattle. But as resources have dwindled, they’ve become direct competitors. And Al-Qaeda-linked groups have capitalised on this, recruiting from amongst the majority-Muslim Fulani, inflaming more fighting between the two groups. Both the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have been spreading through Mali and the rest of the Sahel. At least 20,000 people have been killed in Mali, and neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger since 2012, according to ACLED, a conflict data, and crisis analysis group. 

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After weeks of negotiating, Da Na Ambassagou agreed to meet with VICE World News. We travelled for two days across Mali to meet its head, Youssouf Toloba. He denied any involvement in the massacre that killed Aminata’s mother. “I didn't send [anyone] to go and attack Ogossagou,” Toloba told us, “I don't know about it. And nobody from our group went to do that. They've set fire in many Dogon villages. But you're only mentioning Ogossagou.”

The Da Na Ambassagou militia group is accused by the government of killing at least 134 Fulani people in 2019.

The Da Na Ambassagou militia group is accused by the government of killing at least 134 Fulani people in 2019.

When questioned further, he said “Da Na didn't kill anyone. If someone comes and kills your people then flees to hide, will you follow him or not.” But Malian officials and human rights monitors have accused Toloba and his men of carrying out the massacre in Ogousagou and at least another mass killing of civilians. 

In 2012, a coup forced Mali’s third president, Amadou Toumani Touré, out of office, a mere month before presidential elections were scheduled. The Malian Army had pushed him out because they saw his response to a Tuareg rebellion earlier that year as inadequate. The Tuareg, a nomadic ethnic minority, had attempted to gain independence in the north of the country. In the process, they had allied themselves with Al-Qaeda-linked groups but the two turned against each other when they disagreed on how to handle the northern cities they’d overtaken from government forces. Underlining the ongoing security issues in Mali, this week interim President Assimi Goita survived an attempted knife attack at the Grand Mosque in Bamako.

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As extremist groups started to push closer to the centre of the country, the Malian government called on its former coloniser, France, to intervene. Francois Hollande, French president at the time, sent troops to help dislodge terrorist groups in major cities in the north – Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao. Madame Keita, who lived in Gao when militants stormed her city, remembers those dark days. “Jihadists were cutting off arms and hands. They even attacked women,” she said during a routine patrol of Gao with the French Army.

By many accounts, this first operation was able to dislodge these militant groups from these major cities, subdue the threat and force militants into hiding. The French quickly renewed their mandate to fight Islamic extremism in West Africa. But that was eight years ago. 

Sgt. Barry, a fighter pilot prepares to fly on a mission out of the French airbase in Niamey, Niger.

Sgt. Barry, a fighter pilot prepares to fly on a mission out of the French airbase in Niamey, Niger.

The militants they set out to fight are hardly defeated. We witnessed one military flight transporting Malian soldiers who’d just been injured after driving over an IED while on patrol in the North. Three of the five soldiers on that patrol died that day according to the Malian Army. 

In June this year, French President Emmanuel Macron finally declared the end of the nine-year operation a few weeks after Mali's second coup in nine months and its fifth since 1960. Macron decried the coup in May, calling it a “coup within an unacceptable coup.” When he announced Operation Barkhane would be replaced by a joint international effort, he said it would help “to allow for an operation of support and cooperation with armies in the countries of the region that ask for it.” Ahead of an election year, where French popular opinion about the war is at an all-time low, Macron is keen to distance himself from a war he’s been unable to win. 

 French soldiers during a routine combing operation in Gossi, Mali. The unit was searching for a weapons cache left behind by members of militants.

French soldiers during a routine combing operation in Gossi, Mali. The unit was searching for a weapons cache left behind by members of militants.

As France’s 5,100 soldiers prepare to leave Mali, it’s unclear what the future holds for the Malian Army, a notoriously ill-equipped force suffering from attrition. On one routine joint mission between the French and Malian Armies, Sgt. Ousmane Ag said, “although we don’t have forces and resources to secure [the area], we’re obliged to fight until the end.”

The country’s problems are not limited to security though. And many experts said as long as the Malian population outside of the capital lacks basic resources, the extremist threat will just continue to grow, nearly unabated.  

During another routine patrol in the city of Gao, one man stopped French Warrant Officer Tateo leading the unit to say, “As long as there's no social justice, there won't be peace. What you're doing with your weapons, it will only make things worse.” 

Mamadou Tapily contributed to this reporting. Video piece shot by Phil Pendlebury, edited by Joe Matoske and Rob Cosentino.