British troops sent to Mali as part of an international force facing an Islamist insurgency have started carrying out missions in an area which has seen extensive jihadist violence and had come under attack recent attacks.
Around 200 troops and 60 armoured cars took part in their first reconnaissance and intelligence gathering patrol in a conflict which has drawn in al-Qaeda and Isis against a background of political turbulence in the country following a military coup.
The 300 British troops, part of a UN peacekeeping force, are operating under a Chinese senior officer in the local chain of command at Gao, in the east of the country. Beijing started sending troops to Mali two years ago to join the UN Minusma mission : it currently has a contingent of around 430 include combat troops guarding the multinational force and also staffing a hospital at the headquarters.
The UK force, from the Light Dragoons and the Royal Anglian Regiment are using armoured cars including Jackals, Foxhounds and Mastiffs for their patrols. The Army’s 77th Brigade, which specialises in information and cyber warfare, are part of the deployment, and medical support includes a mobile operating theatre and battlefield ambulances.
Mali and a swathe of states in the Sahel – from southern Algeria to northern Nigeria, Mauritania, Chad, Cameroon, Niger, South Sudan and Burkina Fasso – have experienced rising Islamist attacks.
The base at Gao, along with those in the cities of Kidal and Menaka, were hit by rocket fire earlier this week. It was the first time international forces several hundred miles apart had been targeted in a coordinated assault.
The attack came after French forces killed Bah ag Moussa – also known as Barmoussa Diarra, a senior jihadi commander and deputy to Iyad ag Ghali, the leader of the al-Qaeda affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin, (JNIM) which has killed large number of civilians as well as soldiers in Mali as well as Burkina Fasso.
Lieutenant Colonel Tom Robinson, Commanding Officer of the Light Dragoons, said the British troops were working alongside alongside contingents from other states including China. “ There is a Chinese hospital and the Chinese are responsible for protecting the integrated UN camp of which we are part. And I work for a Chinese Brigadier, sector commander , who is a professional guy who I very much enjoy working with”, he said.
Lt Col Robinson, who took part in the first long-range patrol which covered around 50 kilometres, said that the force was fully aware of the threat faced, some of it similar to that experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We are a highly trained, very well-equipped and well-armed force. And on top of that we have, just as importantly as equipment, the quality of the people that we have in the task group” he said.“ We are well rehearsed, practised, and I’m more than confident that anyone who decides to ambush us or try and take us on sort of toe to toe is going to come off second best.”
Attacks could range from IEDs ( improvised explosive devices) to ambushes carried out by mobile groups of insurgents sometimes using motorcycles. Effective countermeasures were in place against the dangers as well as medical support which may become necessary to treat casualties said Lt Col Robinson adding “I would not and could not look my soldiers in the eye” if that was not the case.
Gao was captured by the Islamist groups Ansar Dine and MNLA in 2012 before they took Timbuktu. It was bombed by French warplanes a year later after France intervened in the former colony with the Islamists threatening to overrun the capital, Bamako, The city was subsequently captured by French and Malian forces, but has experienced a number of Islamist attacks since, including a truck suicide bombing three years ago on a military camp killing 77 people and injuring 115 others.
Speaking of the wider danger posed by international jihad, Lt Col Robinson stated : “ the big picture is that wherever you have instability in a country, where a country as poor as Mali is and is at the bottom of the global development index you will always be at greater risk of instability and that can lead to terrorism. It is one of the lessons of the last 20 years we’ve seen in both the Middle East and in Afghanistan.
“So our commitment to Mali and the UN operation – if that counters that instability and puts a lid on the problem, stabilising it and allows governance to re-emerge and strengthen, then that will prevent instability spreading through the region and into North Africa. It’s really important we are part of this mission to prevent it becoming an ungoverned space.”
Lt Col Robinson pointed out that the UK force would benefit from a significant number having served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We have a corporate body of experience and some really hard won lessons we were forced to learn in Iraq and Afghanistan and they are standing us in good stead,” he said. “We have studied long and hard what the threat is here and the recent history….The threat to similar to that we had in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a combination of IEDs and small arms ambushes.”
Lt Col Robinson said that the threat was much lower in scale than he had experienced in his last deployment to Afghanistan. But, he continued, “Nonetheless it is a dangerous country and if weren’t a dangerous country we obviously wouldn’t be sending the Army there. But we are really well-trained. We have years of experience from both Iraq and Afghanistan. The senior element of our soldiers have grown up with IEDs and we have some really sophisticated procedures in order to protect ourselves against them.”
The UK force is scheduled to be based in Mali for three years, with each deployment lasting six months as is the standard procedure with UK overseas operations. The UN mission is separate from a French-led counter-terrorist force conducting Operation Barkhana which has a UK contribution of Chinook helicopters and a hundred logistics personnel. The two missions have separate chains of command, but liaise on a number of security issues.
British officials want to stress that the peacekeeping mission is separate in its goals from warfighting . But, in reality, the distinction can be blurred on the ground. As a village elder and militia member near the town of Mopti told The Independent on a previous visit “ the foreign soldiers do not show that they can tell the difference between our clans and our tribes, so why should we know the difference in their tribes?”