Task Force Takuba: European Special Forces in the Sahel

1.0. Importance of Task Force Takuba

Task Force Takuba (TFT) was an example of the new geopolitical scenario relevant to European states. Takuba increased the share of the military burden against insurgents in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

France continues to be the leading force in the Sahel. The drawdown of Barkhane and increasing participation of non-European states is likely not enough to compensate for a 9-year-long mission.

The focus of TFT on Counter Insurgency (COIN) and Counter-Terrorism (CT) operations provides both advantages and disadvantages. A majority of SOF personnel increase the COIN capabilities of Task Force Takuba. On the other hand, the insurgent nature of the conflict means that limited success in targeting militants is likely expected unless non-military efforts are made effective.

2.0. Timeline

  • In 2012, Tuareg militias entered Mali from Southern Algeria and triggered a coup d’état. By 2014, actors like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine, Al-Mourabitoun and the Macina Liberation Front increased French contribution under Operation Barkhane.

  • By 2017, a combination of insurgent groups formed Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and established in Mali. Simultaneously, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) formed in 2016 from defected factions of JNIM. By 2018, the insurgent threat expanded into different ethnicities and countries.

  • Since 2020, 2 coup d’états have changed the government and head of state. Militants increased the degree of support amongst specific ethnic local populations. Losing 55 military personnel and reaching a 5,100-strong presence, France proposed the idea of Task Force Takuba. The group is focusing on a-solely SOF approach under Operation Barkhane to successfully target insurgents.

3.0. Task Force Takuba: The Sahel and Special Operations nature

3.1. Tri-Border Area

Similar to the doctrine of insurgents, the concept of borders is non-existent for Task Force Takuba. The conflict originating in the Sahel started with Mali in 2012, while it entered Burkina Faso in 2016 and Niger in 2017. The operators targeting insurgents should not be limited by geographical boundaries. The area on which Takuba is focusing crosses state and ethnic boundaries. Below, highlighted.

3.2. Structure

For operational purposes, dividing Task Force Takuba into three bases is necessary. The bases are an evolution of the structure of Barkhane, reducing bases to three locations in the epicentre of the conflict. Menaka acts as the headquarters, holding both liaison officers and operational personnel. Another section of personnel is stationed in Gao. Meanwhile, Ansongo acting as a middle-ground hosts the third base.

4.0. Task Force Takuba Bases

Taskforce Takuba Organogram, organization and size

Operations Bourrasque in November 2020 and Eclipse in January 2021 included the participation of Task Force Takuba.  Bourrasque included the participation of French-Estonian Special Forces, attached to a Malian intervention unit and Nigerien forces. In addition, targeting special forces operators is already underway. On the 21st of April, 3 Swedish SOG operators suffered an injury in Menaka due to an IED.

5.0. French SOF in Menaka and Gao:

As Task Force Takuba operates under Barkhane, French elite units present in Mali since 2012 likely reinforced the Menaka and Gao bases in 2020. The French are the largest contingent in the force and prove it with experienced SOF operators. Takuba is reportedly working to prevent scenarios of indiscipline and corruption seen in Barkhane.

5.1. 3 SOF components

Given the presence in Barkhane, the French contribution includes three special forces components including one being aerial support. SOF operators are likely armed with FN SCARS and HK 416 assault rifles and number around 300 personnel. In other words, half of Task Force Takuba. Nevertheless, given the specialisation of each unit, long-range precision rifles like PGM may be used

5.2. Descendants of the SAS

The 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment (1er RPIMA) is the direct descendant of the SAS, with the crest showing significant similarities. Within the 1er RPIMA, the 2nd Company is deploying in Takuba. The company is suited for extreme environments and operates normally in the Sahel. Technically, the unit specialises in extreme cold, mountain or jungle environments.

1er RPIMA during a demo

5.3. Reconnaissance Marine Commandos

The Penfentenyo Commando represents the Marine Commandos, the French Navy’s special forces. Within the 6 commandos in the Marine, the Penfentenyo is responsible for Surveillance and Objective Neutralisation Teams (ESNO). The Penfentenyo Commando serves as support to motorised or aerial routes, particularly with sharp-shooting. The ESNO team acts as the eyes of the task groups hunting insurgents in Menaka and Gao, training requires yearly procedures and examinations to determine the capability of operators.

5.4. “Nulle Part Sans Nous”

France supports its 1st RPIMA with the 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment. The ‘4e RHFS’ offers unique and autonomous support to special force units, developing unconventional cooperation and strategies with operators. The material capability of the unit includes Gazelle, Caracar, Cougar and Tiger helicopters. Along with the UK and the US, only France is able to uniquely support SOF operators with a helicopter regiment specialised in unconventional scenarios. The unit allegedly joined Barkhane in 2014. Out of its 500 personnel and 6 divisions, the air combat division with most experienced units in Barkhane will likely be chosen to provide aerial support to Task Force Takuba.

4e RHFS member with a 1er RPIMA operator installing a .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifle on a Gazelle helicopter

6.0. Malian SOF in Takuba

The Light and Rapid Intervention Units (ULRI) are the Malian representative in Task Force Takuba. ULRI’s emerged in 2020 as a response to a worsening insurgency and a domestic military incapable of reducing insurgent activity. The Malian units in Takuba are characterised by the need to have rapid reaction forces capable of operating outside conventional scenarios.

Member of ULRI in Takuba

The ULRI play a protagonist role in Takuba as the Malian units are tasked with acquiring special capabilities. European units in Gao and Menaka train the Malian components in degrees of basic training (1 year) and advanced training (2 years) to achieve operational autonomy. As the long-term objective is to replace foreign operators with local counterparts, groups are specialised in rapid reaction, IED disposal and insurgent environments.

6.1. Characteristics and Division

Motorcycles are the operational symbol of the ULRIs in Task Force Takuba. The vehicle shows the significance of the importance of geographical mobility in environments with insurgents like Gao and Menaka. The relevance and need of ULRIs are seen in the formation of units that continue to be created in order to expand the Malian footprint in the task force. Takuba continued inaugurating ULRI nº5 and nº6 in October and November of 2021, both intended to operate in Menaka.

ULRI nº4 operates along with Estonian and French units in Gao, with reportedly positive operational feedback as recent as the 15th of November against insurgents in In Delimane. Also in Gao, ULRI nº3 is undergoing a process of developing the necessary operational skills. In Menaka, ULRI nº2 is likely in phase 2, or advanced training level. Apart from understanding the vehicle and environment, training is focusing on geolocation capabilities and the use of communication devices.

7.0. Estonian SOF in Gao:

Estonian forces, including a mechanised infantry division and special operators, arrived in 2018 in Mali under a French invitation. The units included members of special operations already stationed in Gao along with French troops. The added experience during Barkhane, particularly with SOF forces in Gao, is a likely reason to continue cooperation and change the framework to Takuba.

ESTSOF Estonian special operations forces
Estonian operator on combined patrol with Malian ULRI operators

ESTSOF operators offer multiple operations of experience in collaboration with French forces. Estonia participated in the EUFOR CAR operation along with French units. ESTFOR, for example, offers experience in Helmand during ISAF along with NATO SOF.

7.1. ESTSOF Contributions to Task Force Takuba

Estonia is reinforcing the mechanised infantry division stationed to Barkhane which numbered 45 military personnel. The additional Estonian units arrived in Gao in July 2020, including special operators from ESTFOR. Contributions include:

  • To contribute, Estonia is sending British-donated Supacat Jackal armoured vehicles.

  • The THEMIS unnamed ground combat system, after successfully operating in battle, is participating in Barkhane.

  • In July, the parliament approved an increase to 95 personnel in total, including special operators.

  • The parliament approved in July a €7 million budget to expand special operations within Niger and potentially a resource and personnel expansion.

8.0. Czech SOF in Menaka

The Czech presence in Task Force Takuba falls under one of the significant operational contributions to the task force. While compared to the French or Italian contribution the capacity is limited, the Czech SOF provided Takuba with Initial Operating Capabilities (IOC) by October 2020.

8.1. The chosen: Group General Moravec

The 601st Special Forces Group (601 SkSS) is the designated contribution to cooperate with allies in the Menaka base. Group 601, also known as ‘General Moravec’, is named after the WWII Czechoslovakian chief of intelligence. The unit was designated within the special forces of the Czech Republic in 2003. In 1948, the unit emerges as a paratrooper brigade.

The unit conducts rapid reaction and long-term operations hunting insurgent members in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. General Moravec is based in Menaka and forms part of Task Group 1 (TG1). As a curiosity, it is the first time the unit is deployed to the African continent. The 601 SkSS contingent includes 60 operators and is expected to stay in Menaka, at least, until December 2022.

8.2. Previous Cooperation

The group participated in Operations Enduring Freedom and KFOR. In Afghanistan, the 2nd Task Force saw its deployment to Bagram Airbase. Battles like Tora Bora or Helmand included the participation of the 601st SFG. Again, Task Force Takuba reinforces the similarities between the Afghan approach at building local capabilities using SOF with the previous history of cooperation. 601st Group in Logar Province, 2009

9.0. Swedish SOF in Menaka

The Swedish contribution is currently crucial to the Takuba mission, especially for operational capabilities. Sweden is taking the command role of Task Force Takuba from November 2021 to February 2022. The role of Sweden, additionally, provides the needed capabilities to conduct operations in difficult terrain like the Sahel.

9.1. The Aerial Component

Task Force Takuba is majorly dependent on Sweden for aerial transport as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF). Sweden is deploying black hawk helicopters in Menaka and a C-130 Hercules in Niamey to support the operations. Above all, the Swedish responsibility adds significant capabilities to the mission due to the geographic spread of Takuba, which includes regions of Northern Mali.

9.2. The Särskilda Operationsgruppen

Sweden is sending 150 operators from the SOG, or Särskilda Operationsgruppen (Special Operations Group). Additional to the operators are assistant and operational staff, with an optional 100 additional personnel to Task Force Takuba. The expertise of the unit in risk environments and unconventional scenarios match the necessary skills in an environment like the tri-border area in Mali.

9.3. History and experience

The group originates from SIG and SSG, special forces units dedicated to rescue, direct action and reconnaissance missions. SOG operators deployed with ISAF until 2014, although several operators participated in the Kabul evacuation in August 2021. In 2015, 30 SOG members advised, trained, instructed and cooperated with Peshmerga forces.

10.0. Italian SOF in Menaka

Together with Sweden, the Italian contribution provides significant capabilities to Task Force Takuba, only outmatched by the French due to Barkhane. The Italian contingent contributing units from 5 different special operation groups, additionally, provides operational material to the reinforcement.

10.1. Sea and Land

The Italian contribution reinforces the Swedish aerial support, as well as the French-established capabilities. The following additions provide capabilities to extend the geographic reach in simultaneous missions:

  • LMV Iveco or ‘Lynx’ armoured vehicles

  • 4×4 Flyer Light Strike Vehicle

  • UH-90 Helicopters

  • CH-47x Helicopters

  • Agusta A129 Helicopters

10.2. Contribution: Combining Elite Units

The base of Task Force Takuba is holding 5 different special forces groups, commonly armed with HK416/HK417 assault rifles. Additionally from the transport provided, 200 operators are joining the base in September 2021. Apart from cooperating with allied and Malian SOF, the role of the Italian contingent is reported of MEDEVAC duties.

10.3. Col Moschin Regiment

The Italian Army is contributing the 9th Assault Regiment ‘Col Moschin’ based in Livorno. The origin is the 9th assault regiment in WWI known as ‘arditi’, or ‘daring’. With a required 75 weeks in training and formation, 55 weeks are spent developing amphibious, direct-action and reconnaissance capabilities.

An operational detachment unit reportedly includes:

  • Medic
  • Breacher
  • Improvised Explosive Device Disposal (IEDD)
  • Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) controller
  • Human Intelligence (HUMINT) Operator
  • Sniper
Col Moschin Operators during and exercise with simunition

10.4. Gruppo Operativo Incursori (GOI)

COMBUSIN, the elite unit of the Italian Navy, is deploying the Gruppo Operativo Incursori (GOI) to Task Force Takuba. COMBUSIN divides itself into sub-aquatic and raid operations. The GOI is responsible for the latter. The ‘Incursori’ specialise in hostage environments, territory infiltration, and counter-terrorism operations.

10.5. Gruppo di Intervento Speciale (GIS)

Task Force Takuba hosts the special forces of the carabinieri, as the third unit of the Italian Forces. The group specialises in counter-terrorism, direct action, and reconnaissance, becoming a special force unit in 2004. Members of the GIS, likewise, originate from the 1st Paratrooper Tuscania regiment. The Tuscania regiment is considered an elite-like unit operating along with the GIS.

GIS & 1st Rgt. “Tuscania” during the exercise Ex Watan in Doha, in preparation of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022

10.6. 17º Stormo Incursori

The youngest special forces within the Italian Forces likely represent a crucial component of the contribution to Takuba. The 17th Raiders Wing, created in 2008, operates as a Combat Search and Rescue (C-SAR) and Forward Air Controller (FAC). Dependent on the 1st Special Operations Air Brigade, for example, the unit provided aerial support to ISAF deployments in Afghanistan. Along with the following helicopter regiment, the 17th Wing will likely provide the aerial capabilities needed in the Sahel.

10.7. Aldebaran Helicopter Regiment

The 3rd Helicopter Regiment for Special Operations will be reportedly participating within Task Force Takuba. The department was specifically delegated to provide aerial capabilities and support to Italian Special Forces, particularly SAR and MEDEVAC operations.

10.8. ‘Monte Cervino’ Rangers

The 4th Parachute Alpine Regiment ‘Monte Cervino’ comes as likely support to the 9th Col Moschin regiment. The 4th regiment was created as a supporting unit of the Col Moschin. Due to this, all training occurs within the Col Moschin regiment in Livorno. In particular, the unit focuses on direct action and support to special operations in any environment.

11.0. Romanian SOF in Task Force Takuba

The Romanian contribution is arriving by the end of 2021, likely in December. While it is not specified what unit is being deployed, the location of the unit will likely be Ansongo or Gao. All other SOF forces are either in Gao and Menaka, in particular with the latter being more populated. The expansion of forward bases is crucial.

11.1. 6th Special Operations Brigade ‘Mihai Viteazul’

It is almost certain that the Mihai Viteazul brigade is deploying within the Task Force Takuba framework. The government approved the contingent to number 45 special forces operators. The 610th “Vulturii” and the 620th ‘Bâneasa-Otopeni” Special Operations Battalions are the primary direct-action operating SOF force. Commonly using an M4 or HK-G36, the majority of members of the 610th Vulturii battalion trained in the US Army’s Special Warfare Centre School. While paratrooper and support battalions exist, either the 610th or 620th are candidates to join the other European special forces.

The Vultures 51st Battalion in Afghanistan

11.2. Demands and Secrecy

With an average entry failure rate of 95%, Romanian SOF including the Vulturii battalion are reportedly considered a Tier 1 unit. All applicants are highly likely to have served previously in extreme environments or high-risk operations, commonly Iraq or Afghanistan.

Until 2006, all information about the Vulturii unit was clandestine and not recognised. The secrecy reached a degree of secrecy, which significantly forced the Romanian Ministry of Defence to block and suspend any online user mentioning the existence of the unit.

11.3. Norwegian SOF in Menaka

The Norwegian parliament rejected a contribution to Task Force Takuba. It argued that the foreign presence of troops should be through an international body like MINUSMA or EUTM Mali. The Norwegian contribution to Takuba, allegedly, comes after an invitation by Sweden to contribute. Together with Denmark, there will be a Scandinavian contribution in Mali.

11.4. Forsvarets Spesialkommando

The Forsvarets Spesialkommando (FSK) of Norway are the primary operating land-based unit of the Norwegian special operations command (NORSOCOM). Commonly armed with HK417M and C8-CQB rifles, operators from FSK are the likely choice to accompany the Swedish in Task Force Takuba.

Forsvarets Spesialkommando in Jordan

The commandos proved the capability to adapt to all scenarios. 78 FSK operators participated in Task Force K-BAR with coalition of special forces hunting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001. Originating as a response to terrorism and organised crime, the unit is specialised in the protection and combat in oil rig environments.

11.5. Inclusion within the Swedish contribution

Apart from declaring a political statement, the Norwegian SOF contribution will form part of the Swedish contingent in Takuba. It is described as a ‘small number of soldiers’ along with 2 officers, making the contribution less significant to capabilities than other contributors. The contribution is more symbolic to European cooperation and Scandinavian efforts than to a need to participate in Takuba.  

12.0. Withdrawal

In 2020, a coup was led by the Malian Armed Forces, which successfully ousted the former Malian government. Just nine months later, a further coup undertaken, led by Vice President Assimi Goïta. Once again, this coup was successful. Since his acquisition of power, Goïta has been reluctant to hold elections, which has initially been agreed to be held in February 2022. The transitional government has indicated that it looks to delay elections by up to five years.

Following almost a full decade in of operations within the country, in February 2022, France announced the withdrawal of Task Force Takuba from Mali. Following the coups in 2020 and 2021, France has been unable to come to an agreement on democratic elections with the transitional military government, ultimately leading to the withdrawal order. As a result, Takuba will be stationed in Niger. In a joint statement with European Nations operating in Task Force Takuba, the force stated that “the political, operational and legal conditions are no longer met to effectively continue their current military engagement in the fight against terrorism in Mali”.

This article was first published in November 2021, but updated and republished due to recent developments by Abbi Clarck

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