French troop withdrawal from Mali prompts fresh security fears for the region

This undated photograph handed out by the French military shows Russian mercenaries in northern Mali.
This undated photograph handed out by the French military shows Russian mercenaries in northern Mali. © AP

Mali's relations with Paris deteriorated after a junta took power in an August 2020 coup, eventually triggering the withdrawal of French troops that was completed on Monday. Russian mercenaries may be filling the void left by France's departure amid new fears that jihadists in the Sahel might be expanding their reach into coastal West Africa.

Advertising

Their campaign began in northern Mali a decade ago, advanced into the country's powder-keg centre and from there into neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso. Now, fears are growing that the ruthless jihadists wreaking havoc in the Sahel are heading towards coastal West Africa.

Following multiple incursions including deadly attacks in the northern regions of Benin, Ivory Coast and Togo, governments in the Gulf of Guinea are reviewing their strategy. 

Their chief concerns, say analysts: how to avoid replicating the mistakes of their neighbours in the Sahel, and how best to muster foreign support.

As France ends its almost decade-long mission against jihadists in the country, Russian mercenaries appear to be filling the void. Fighters from the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked private military company, have been supporting the Malian army in its fight against Islamist insurgents since late last year.

Accusations

Mali has requested an emergency UN Security Council meeting to stop what it calls French "acts of aggression", including alleged espionage and violations of sovereignty, and accused France of supporting jihadists.

In a letter seen Wednesday by AFP, Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop told the Chinese presidency of the Security Council that Mali "reserves the right to use self-defence" if French actions persist, in accordance with the UN Charter.

Diop condemned what he called the "repetitive and frequent violations" of Malian airspace by French forces. 

He also said flights by French aircraft were engaged in "activities considered as espionage" and accused France of "intimidation". 

Mali has "several pieces of evidence that these flagrant violations of Malian airspace have been used by France to collect intelligence for the benefit of terrorist groups operating in the Sahel and to drop arms and ammunition to them," Diop said in the letter.

French authorities have not responded to the accusations.

German troops spotted several dozen presumably Russian security forces at Gao airport in northern Mali on Monday, the day the last French soldiers wrapped up their operations and left the town, according to a German military document dated Tuesday.

Berlin’s participation in the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali has been controversial for some time in Germany as the West African country deepens its Soviet-era ties with Russia.

An al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group claimed to have killed four mercenaries from the Russian private security group Wagner in an ambush in central Mali, the SITE Intelligence monitoring group said Monday. The Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), the main jihadist alliance in the Sahel, said it had ambushed a group of Wagner soldiers on Saturday as they rode motorcycles in the Bandiagara region from the village of Djallo towards the mountains, according to a statement by its propaganda arm and authenticated by SITE.

Its fighters killed four of the group while the rest fled, the statement said. Two local elected officials confirmed the incident to AFP. "Four Russians were killed over the weekend by jihadists near Bandiagara," said one of the local officials, who requested anonymity.

After Mali's junta took power in an August 2020 coup, the country's ties with Paris went into a downward spiral, triggering a withdrawal of French troops that was completed on Monday. 

Last month, Benin President Patrice Talon told his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron that his country needed more equipment, especially drones. 

Among coastal states, northern Benin has been the most affected by the expanding jihadist threat, with around 20 attacks against security forces since late 2021.

"What we are going through is terrifying," a Beninese officer deployed at the border with Burkina Faso told AFP, speaking under condition of anonymity. 

"We wake up every morning without knowing if we will survive the day," he added.

Macron has said that France, despite its exit from Mali, is committed to the "fight against terrorism" in West Africa. 

He said he is ready to participate in meetings of the "Accra Initiative" — a body set up in 2017 to boost security cooperation between countries in the region. 

Recruitment

"The deteriorating security situation in Burkina Faso and Mali has made the north of the coastal countries the new front line against armed groups operating in the Sahel," the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German think tank, said in a report in April.

Countries in the region have beefed up security in vulnerable areas, including Ghana, which so far has been spared attacks.

But whether this will work is the big question.

Shoring up border security will be "ineffective, (just) as it was in the Sahel," the Moroccan Policy Center for the New South think tank warned this month. 

Jihadist groups in the Sahel "are not traditional armies," it said. "They spread ideas and exploit the grievances of target populations."

Jeannine Ella Abatan at the pan-African Institute for Security Studies in Senegal described the rash of recent attacks as "the tip of the iceberg."

"Since 2019, studies on the Sahel show that extremist groups were already connected to coastal states, either for logistical or operational support, but also for financing," she told AFP. 

Militants do not occupy territory in the coastal countries but instead infiltrate northern regions where they conduct sophisticated attacks, Abatan said.

Togo first experienced a jihadist attack in May 2021. Benin's first known fatal attack was last December, when two soldiers were killed near the border with Burkina Faso. In Ivory Coast, four members of the security forces died in 2021 after 14 were killed in 2020.

Such attacks, said Abatan, are only possible thanks to good intelligence-gathering capabilities and the "complicity" of locals.

Increased recruitment among border populations is a major threat, she said. 

"The difficult living conditions can easily encourage desperate people into the camps of terrorists," a Beninese police officer in the troubled region told AFP. 

Last week, a widely-shared propaganda video featuring two jihadists speaking Bariba, the local language in northern Benin, called on people to join them and threatening those who collaborate with the state. 

Investment

"The state must urgently respond to the needs of these people — make them feel protected by the presence of security forces instead of letting them seek protection from these groups," Abatan said.

Amnesty International has warned of alleged human rights violations committed by security forces in Benin and Togo, as well as arbitrary detentions. 

Coastal countries seem to have accepted the argument that poverty and other sources of resentment create a potential pool for recruitment.

In Benin, the government has launched development projects, building schools and hospitals in some underdeveloped areas, and millions of dollars have been invested in Ivory Coast.

But much more needs to be done, says the Moroccan think tank, which also gives a specific warning against militarisation of the border areas.

"Without an immediate and dramatic change of approach," it warned, residents in these border areas will "collaborate with extremists to keep themselves alive as best they can."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and Reuters)

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app