Giant cranes are dismantling prefab tents at a French military base in the Malian capital of Bamako.
More than a year after it was launched to oust Islamist militants from northern Mali, Operation Serval is packing up.
In a month's time, everything will be gone – including the French forces who have been based here since January 2013.
But the French army isn't leaving Mali altogether. In a massive reorganisation – or what critics call a case of “mission creep” – French forces are being redeployed across the Sahel, the inhospitable buffer zone between the Sahara and the African Savanna, which includes the border regions of Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Niger.
Operation Serval is giving way to Operation Barkhane. Named after a crescent-shaped sand dune, Operation Barkhane comprises a 3,000-strong French force spread across five countries in the most wide-ranging French military deployment since World War II.
In partnership with Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, the mission aims to fight the jihadist threat in one of the world’s most dangerous zones.
Operation Serval may have succeeded in wresting control of northern Mali, but the new, expanded military mission in the Sahel faces new challenges.
''The enemy is much more discreet than before. He used to confront us face-to-face. Now he's more diffuse. In other words, the enemy has changed his strategy. He has become much more mobile: small groups, using one or two pick-up trucks, or motorbikes. This makes our mission even more difficult,'' explained Commandant Attaher Maiga, head of the 33rd paratroopers regiment in the Malian army.
Operation Barkhane relies on regional militaries – including newly EU-trained Malian military officials.
Gathering intelligence on the ground and from the skies
In the forbidding scrubland of north-eastern Mali’s Gao province, a column of French and Malian troops winds its way toward a nomadic settlement as French helicopter gunships hover overhead, providing air cover.
It's a confidence-building operation aimed at remote communities – as well as to gather information about jihadists in the area.
A group of nomadic herdsmen from the settlement gather around French and Malian soldiers under the scorching sun. Dressed in the flowing robes of desert tribesmen, the men shake their heads when asked if they have seen any jihadists recently.
Apparently, they haven’t seen anything suspicions lately. But the most recent rebel rocket attacks were launched from this sector just a few weeks ago. ''We're in a zone that's really typical of a rocket launch site: it’s close to the road, there’s vegetation all around, and there’s a small elevation allowing the rocket launcher to be easily set up,” explains Lieutenant Clement, a French platoon leader.
To succeed across this vast landscape, Operation Barkhane has to rely not just on human intelligence on the ground, but also air power in the skies.
At an Operation Barkhane base in Niamey, Niger’s capital, four drones, tasked with observing millions of square kilometres of desert, are ready for mission. This area is a major operating zone for al Qaeda’s North African branch AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and its affiliates.
The nerve centre of Operation Barkhane lies thousands of miles away, in the Chadian capital of N'Djamena. That’s where senior French military officials, in partnership with their regional allies, coordinate the ongoing missions across this vast terrain.
Operation Barkhane is also gearing up for the next stage in the war against jihadists in this corner of the world: the Jihadist rearbases in southern Libya that are feeding the worldwide terror threat.
Professor at the Combating Terrorism Center, Founder of North Africa Risk Consulting