Nine UN peacekeepers were killed early Friday morning during a brazen ambush carried out by suspected al Qaeda-linked militants in northeast Mali near the border with Niger.
The attack was the deadliest on peacekeepers in Mali since the UN's mission in the country launched in July 2013. Heavily armed militants riding motorcycles attacked a UN logistical convoy — including a fuel truck — guarded by 40 Nigerien troops along the road between Ansongo and Menaka, in the Gao Region. A spokesman for the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) said there were no casualties beyond the nine peacekeepers.
"They were ambushed by terrorists with heavy weapons," Olivier Salgado, spokesman for MINUSMA, told VICE News. "As soon as the incident occurred, we sent attack helicopters to secure the area as well as Chinook [helicopters] from the Dutch contingent to evacuate the soldiers."
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said in a statement he was "shocked and outraged" by the attack. Ban's spokeswoman Stephane Dujarric pointed out that, by attacking the fuel truck, the militants knew they "would cause an even greater number of casualties, which adds to the horrendous nature of the crime."
In a statement, the UN Security Council said the targeting of peacekeepers may "constitute war crimes under international law."
Salgado said the UN was still gathering information on the identity of the attackers, but observers suspect the assault, like several recent roadside bombings, was the work of jihadist militants with links to al Qaeda. He gave no word on casualties among the militants.
A series of IED attacks in September left 10 Chadian peacekeepers dead and raised questions about the ability of the UN and nearby French troops to protect peacekeepers. Countries contributing troops have been slow to devote soldiers to the mission, leaving it still nearly 3,000 short of the 12,000 peacekeepers mandated over a year ago.
'There has always been an assumption that terrorist attacks would continue for a long time, for years.'
The Dutch contingent that assisted in rescuing the troops from Niger arrived in Mali with a system of handheld drones used to survey nearby areas for signs of enemy activity. Though they may make use of information shared among peacekeepers, African battalions do not have drones of their own.
A total of 40 peacekeepers have died — 30 in hostilities and 10 from accidents or illness — since last July, and an additional 106 have been injured.
In December 2012, after Islamist militants, including the group Ansar Dine, captured territory in the north of Mali from Tuareg rebels (who had just taken it from Malian forces), the UN Security Council authorized a French intervention in the country. That mission, dubbed Operation Serval, was concluded in July of 2013. However, many of the troops transitioned to a larger, region-wide anti-terrorist force called Operation Barkhane. The French now have some 3,000 troops and a number of fighter jets deployed mainly at bases in Niger and Chad, as well as Mali. Both the US and France maintain drones in the region.
The UN mission, like most of its deployments, is focused on the protection of civilians rather than seeking out and confronting militants. There have been discussions about creating an attack-minded contingent similar to the successful Force Intervention Brigade used in 2013 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but those plans have yet to materialize.
With the Malian army still in disarray after its embarrassing defeat to Tuareg rebels in 2012, the task of controlling areas like Gao has fallen largely on foreign troops. Chaos in southern Libya has also provide a sort of rear operating base for some militants.
"The anti-terrorist capability lies with the French forces and is backed up internationally by American logistics and surveillance," Paul Melly, associate fellow at Chatham House's Africa Program and an expert on Mali, told VICE News. "The peacekeeping mission is not equipped for what you'd call aggressive anti-terrorism warfare."
Though the French and the Americans ostensibly share information with the UN mission, there appears to be no indication that surveillance drones or intelligence gathering by their forces detected the presence of the militants.
While negotiations taking place in Algeria between Tuareg leaders and the Malian government trudged along, the threat of Islamists in the vacuous North remains a stubborn presence. Initially pushed back by French troops, the Islamists have taken to traditional terrorist attacks rather than attempts to control territory, as they briefly did in 2012. The fight against the jihadists, many of which have few ties to the region, has been subsumed in the US and France's quiet expansion of its war on terror in the Sahara.
"There has always been an assumption that terrorist attacks would continue for a long time, for years," said Melly. "No one is under any illusions that this is a problem that could be fixed in the short term."
Though some armed individuals have reportedly crossed back and forth between the Islamists and more secular minded Tuareg groups with longstanding ties to the region, there is little today to suggest they are coordinating. Last month, suspected members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) beheaded a Tuareg man they believed to be a spy.
"Salafist jihadist Islam does not command substantial support from people in the far North of Mali," Melly said. "It's completely in variance with the normal social code, which essentially are in line with West African Islam: relatively liberal and where you see a substantial role for women in society."
"You cannot see this as equivalent to the Sunni belt of Iraq or parts of Afghanistan where the Taliban have a lot of support," Melly added.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford
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