Opération Barkhane: A Chronicle of Divorce

1.0 Introduction

On 9 November 2022, President Macron proclaimed the end of Opération Barkhane. After over eight years of deployment, Paris’ decision concluded its biggest opération extérieures (foreign operation, OPEX). It stretched over Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. 

Nevertheless, this cannot be understood as a unilateral withdrawal. On the contrary, Barkhane’s end marks the culmination of a deterioration process between France and its former colonies, with deeper roots and multiple causes. Undoubtedly, the security situation, the multifaced crisis, the conflict’s political economy, and the Russian ambitions are the most important factors that have led to Barkhane’s overall unsuccess. 

It is possible to identify three different periods of French engagement in the Sahel: 

  • Before 2014 
  • Between 2014 and 2017 
  • After 2017 
Opération Barkhane logo [source]

2.0 Before 2014

2.1 Algeria’s jihad

Although Chad has suffered from internal instability since the late 1970s, the current region’s destabilisation has roots in the 1990s. Indeed, in 1991, after the election victory by the radical party Front Islamique du Salut (Islamic Front of Salvation, FIS), part of the Algerian army staged a coup, ousting the Salafist party from power, arresting prominent FIS personalities and constituting an emergency government. Nevertheless, a part of FIS refused the military solution and adopted terrorist means of struggle, thus forming the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA, Armed Islamic Group), marking the beginning of the Algerian Civil War (1991-2002).

2.1.1 Al Qaeda au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI)

The Algerian army, aided by external forces, progressively gained ground. However, in 1998, a splinter group from GIA led by Hassan Hattab founded the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC, Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat).[source] The latter continued the struggle against Algeria while progressively broadening its action area toward Mauritania, Northern Mali, Libya, Niger and Chad [source]. In 2007, the group pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda (AQ) further merging its internationalist shift while changing the name to Al-Qaida au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). [source]

The abductions’ intensification of western tourists and humanitarians perpetrated by AQMI led France to launch Opération Sabre (OS). Through an agreement with the Burkinabé government in 2009, a mission of 400 special forces established its headquarters at the Kamboinsin base. Its primary rationale comprised the hostages’ freeing and the killing of High-Value-Targets (HVTs). Namely, high-ranking terrorists. 

2.2 Gaddafi collapse

2011 marks a watershed in the region’s history. The fall of Gaddafi in Libya significantly undermined Sahel’s relative peace. [source] Indeed, the massive return of Tuareg in Azawad, previously employed in the Libyan army, contributed to the Mouvement National de la Libération de l’Azawad, (MNLA, National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), claiming independence for the Azawad, composed of roughly Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao regions. Additionally, the looting of weapons deposits and the jihadist activities intensification (AQMI, Signatories in Blood, Mujao and Ansar Dine) caused increased insecurity in northern Mali.

2.2.1 Repercussions in Mali

In 2012, following a military coup in Bamako, the Touareg militias temporarily coalesced with the jihadists katibas repeatedly defeated the Forces Armées Maliennes (FAMa). This resulted in the seizing of Mali’s central and northern regions by the insurgent alliance, conquering even Diabaly and Konna. Hence, after Mali’s distress call, France launched the Opèration Serval, deployed in February 2013 approximately 4000 militaries [source]. The French troops, alongside the FAMa and the ECOWAS’ mission (AFISMA), prove highly successful. While internal fractures between Tuareg militias and jihadists progressively weakened the coalition, the operation militarily defeated the insurgents in just over a year.

The 2013 François Hollande discourse in Bamako well illustrates the optimism and promises that characterised those days:

“And France will remain with you the time needed” 

François Hollande, 2013, Bamako

3.0 Between 2014 and 2017

In August 2014, Paris merged Opération Épervier, an OPEX active in Chad since the mid-eighties, with Op. Serval, thus forming Opération Barkhane and widening from Mali to Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. 

3.1 Barkhane Technical aspects 

Op. Barkhane composition has changed several times, swinging between 3000 and 5100 militaries. The annual budget was approximately 800 million euros.  In 2017, the mission had three principal bases in Gao (Mali), Niamey (Niger) and N’Djaména (Chad). Additionally, to have support points during its actions in the peripherical areas, France established six advanced temporary bases: Tessalit and Kidal in Mali, Aguedal and Madama in Niger, Faya and Abéché in Chad.  In that year, it was composed by:

  • approximately 4000 personnel  
  • 5 drones 
  • 8 fighter jets 
  • 17 helicopters 
  • 6-10 tactical and strategic transport aircraft
  • 300 armoured vehicles
  • 360 logistic vehicles 
  • [source]
French armoured vehicle in Bamako [source]

3.2 Barkhane Aims 

Op. Barkhane had several objectives:

  • Prevent Mali’s collapse 
  • Avoid the constitution of terrorist safe-haven. In particular, prevents the formation of a caliphate in the Liptako-Gourma region
  • Weaken Islamic State Sahel Province significantly.  
  • Deprive the terrorist groups of its leadership.
  • Participate in the rise to power and consolidation of the region’s army. 

Despite this, the operation could pursue only some tactical goals such as the targeted killing of HVT. For instance, the French mission killed 2020, Abdelmalek Droukdel (AQMI’s leader), and, in 2021, Adnan Abou Walid Al-Sahraoui, the leader of ISGS (now ISSP). [source] [source]

3.3 Insurgents changes

Between 2014 and 2017, the situation throughout Op. Barkhane’s territories remain relatively stable. Nevertheless, in those years, several changes within the insurgent front destabilised the precarious peace. 

The Algeri Accords constitute one of the few positive developments in those years. Indeed, in 2015, the Malian government signed a peace agreement with the Tuareg militias’ majority, temporarily ending hostilities.

However, the jihadist galaxy has launched three successful projects that will cause the region to sink in blood. Firstly, in 2015 al-Mourabitune, led by Mokthar Belmokthar, splits. Some of its dissidents created the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and pledged allegiance to Daesh. Although it remained relatively marginal in the first years, after some internal changes, ISGS progressively gained momentum, being particularly active in the Liptako-Gourma region. Meanwhile, Amadou Koufa found the Macina Liberation Front (MLF) attempting to ethnicize jihad by exploiting the cleavages between the Fulani (mainly herders) and the farmer (Dongon, Mossi) of central Mali and northern Burkina Faso [source]. 

3.3.1 JNIM

Finally, in 2017, a significant part of jihadists militias reorganized themselves under the common framework. They founded Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM, Support Group for Islam and Muslims) constituting a broad coalition between several katibas (AQMI, Ansar Dine, MLF and al-Mourabitoune). Under the leadership of Iyad ag Ghali, a former touareg chief, the group pledges allegiance to AQ. [source]

4.0 Barkhane meltdown, 2017- ongoing

After the jihadist galaxy’s readjustments, the regional security situation increasingly degenerated. Though it was only in 2018 that the violence trend skyrocketed. In that period, while political violent event increased twice, the fatalities registered a three-fold growth. [source]

In 2019, internal strategic changes within ISGS led to competition, beginning with JNIM. This ended the “Sahelian exception”, introducing another complexity layer to the crisis.

ISGS’s aggressive standpoint boosted the integration of Burkinabé terrorist groups in the rivalry between AQ and Daesh. In particular, Ansarul Islam, one of the biggest burkinabé jihadist groups, informally aligns with JNIM contributing to the violent expansion toward Burkina Faso.

In Burkina Faso and Mali, the deteriorating security environment fomented discontent within the national armies. [source] In particular, in Mali, after the second coup in May 2021, Assimi Goïta inaugurated an anti-french line, signing a contract with Wagner Group’s mercenaries (WG) in December 2021 and deepening the military partnership with Russia.[source

4.1 Barkhane 2022

2022 represents yet another negative turn for Barkhane Operation, leading Paris to end it and re-articulate its deployments: 

  • On 24 January, Burkinabé staged a coup bringing general Damiba to power. [source]
  • In march, ISGS becomes a Daesh province (wilaya, ولاية‎) under the name of Islamic State Sahel Province (ISSP). Far from being just a formal change, this underlines a strategic shift toward increased independence of the group and enhanced engagement of Daesh in the Western Sahel. [source] [source]
  • The mounting pressure between Mali and France lead to the end of Opération Barkhane in the country. In mid-August the last. [source]
  • On September 30, a group of junior officials led by captain Ibrahim Traoré took over, festering the critiques against the French presence in the region and remarking on their readiness for new strategic partnerships. The coup supporters waved Russian flags during the Traoré parade in Ouagadougou.  [source] [source]
  • In November 2022, during the presentation of the National Strategic Review, Macron formally declared the end of Opération Barkhane. [source]
  • On December 22, the organisation that brings together the main Tuareg militias,  Cadre Stratégique Permanent (CSP, permanent strategic framework) withdrew from the Algeri peace due to the willingness lack from Bamako to implement the accord.  [source]

5.0 The causes of Barkhane’s unsuccess

While France’s unsuccess is unquestionable, it would be profoundly dishonest to blame only Paris. Indeed, the OPEX presents both internal and external causes.

5.1 Internal 

5.1.1 Paris Neo-colonial attitudes

Firstly, after the formal independence of its colonies, France vigorously tried to keep them under its orbit, intervening more or less directly in their national affairs. This is also true for the Sahelian stripe. For instance, in Burkina Faso, in 1983, l’Élysée unsuccessfully tried to marginalise the burkinabé leader before leveraging on its financial power to undermine the revolutionary program. After 1987 coup, Paris strictly collaborated with the Campaoré regime, keeping several essential dossier secrets, [source] thus protecting it until the 2014 overthrow. These neo-colonial attitudes have been effectively exploited from France opposers, thus constituting the original sin of Opération Barkhane. 

5.1.2 Communicative failure

Additionally, France’s overall passivity failed to counter the mounting anti-french propaganga, failed to counter the growing popular discontent about the foreign presence on the ground. Once again, Mali and Burkina Faso are the two contexts where this phenomenon was more intense. 

5.1.3 Overly militaristic approach

Finally, the lack of a comprehensive approach probably constitutes the primary shortcoming. While the militaristic stance has been effective against the 2012 insurgency, the OPEX remained concerned about tackling kinetic threats, neglecting the key drivers of insecurity and radicalisation.[source]

5.2 External  

Despite the operation’s deficiencies, a considerable extent of Barkahne unsuccess derives from external factors. 

5.2.1 Sahel multidimensional crisis

First, the Sahel multidimensional crisis is unquestionably one of the most prominent. Indeed, the interplay between environmental degradation, demographic pressure, the economic system and internal displacement generated a positive feedback loop that strengthened detrimental trends. In particular, the primary sector occupies more than half of the population, rendering their livelihood heavily dependent on seasonal cycles and water. [source] However, climate change is striking the Sahelian region above average, resulting in increased evapotranspiration and altered precipitation patterns. [source] This combination has adverse consequences on the primary sector, which is already under pressure due to the rising demography.[source]

These interactions result in increased food insecurity, climatic displacement and resource competition, enhancing the incentives to join armed groups that often perform a decisive role in resource access and allocation. In other words, climate change act as a threat multiplier,[source] exacerbating the competition for resource access and contributing to the rise of communal violence (herders vs farmers), giving opportunities to armed group to exploit these cleavages. [source

Food Insecuity across the Sahel [source]

5.2.2 Terrorist nebula’s strengthening

Although the traditional security aspects do not explain the whole picture, neglecting them would lead to incomplete conclusions. Indeed, the involvement of Daesh in 2015 and the 2017’s convergence of several katibas towards JNIM framework, along with the emergence of the Sahel as a primary area for international jihadist terrorism, posed growing challenges to Sahel’s security. This trend is evident from the quantitative analysis. In the last year, JNIM activities registered a more than two-fold rise. Besides, the reported number of deaths related to political violence grew by 150 percent in Mali and 77 percent in Burkina Faso. [source]

5.2.3 International dimension

Thirdly, the international dimension of the conflict. Whereas some authors have criticised France for its multilateral reluctance. In the Sahelian context, this framework seems unsuitable. Over the years, Paris advocated for Opération Barkhane’s transformation toward a more multilateral effort several times. Among others, the creation of G5 Sahel, the Takuba Task Force and the EU Training Mission in Mali testify to this attitude. Nevertheless, the G5 Sahel revealed widely dysfunctional, and European involvement remained limited. [source] Besides, the growing Russian interest in sub-Saharan Africa expressed through informational (e.g. social network propaganda), muscular (e.g. WG) and extractive (e.g. Lobaye Invest) means contributed to hampering the local perception of France’s performance. [source]

5.2.4 The fall of Campaoré regime

Eventually, the Campaoré regime’s collapse and the conflict’s political economy is certainly cardinal. [source] Indeed the fall of the twenty-seven-year rule in Burkina Faso, broke down clientelist networks and power relations, significantly contributing to the overall destabilisation. [source] The mines’ management constitutes a paradigmatic case. Indeed, whereas during the previous regime, mining concessions were allocated by the central power, after its 2014 collapse, multiple Non-State Actors started competing around them. For instance, the exploitation of mineral resources constitutes a cardinal element in the economic outlook of non-statal militias (e.g. Dozons, Kogwléogo).

Similarly, JNIM’s rising success is widely due to a long-term strategy based on solid economic foundations. In fact, this “strategic criminal actor” differentiated its revenue sources, articulating its involvement in criminal activities through direct participation (kidnapping, vehicle theft), occasional partnership with Transnational Organised Crime (arms trafficking, illicit oil trade, counterfeit goods) and facilitating illegal activities (artisanal mining and gold smuggling). [source] [source]

6.0 Future perspectives 

Despite Barkhane’s end, the contestation of France’s military presence in the Sahel has not stopped, and the anti-french sentiment is growing across the region [source]. In January 2023, Burkina Faso requested the exit of the remaining French troops within a delay of one month. This underlines that the legitimacy issue did not regard Opération Barkhane as such but the whole French engagement in the area. [source]

In this hostile environment, the current partners are more precious than ever. Consequently, Paris’ partnership with Niger and Chad has fundamental prominence to counter both terrorism spread and the growing Kremlin influence. 

7.0 Conclusion 

Opération Barkhane has been France’s biggest foreign operation. Despite the nine-year-long engagement, hundred of millions spent annually and relevant tactical achievements, the OPEX was not successful. Several factors have contributed to this overall failure. Among others, the lack of a communicative strategy, the Sahel’s multidimensional crisis, jihadist readjustments, Russian ambitions and conflict political economy are the principal ones. 

While the violence rise will highly likely persist over the next year, Niger and Chad are increasingly more relevant partners to counter-terrorism and the Kremlin ambitions in the Sahel. 

If you are interested to know more about Opération Barkhane and its unsuccess reasons, I warmly recommend this documentary focused on the french intervention in Mali. Unfortunately, the reportage is only in French, but the automatic translation is available. 

Intelligence Cut-Off Date: 15  February 2022

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