The French military turned to drones to aid its fight against terrorists in Mali. Last month, a pair of French helicopters crashed into one another, leaving 13 soldiers. They were on night patrol for enemy combatants when the collision occurred. According to Reuters, it was the largest French military loss since an attack in Beirut in 1983. 

Mali has proven to be more difficult to solve than perhaps Paris thought at the onset of the 6-year-long military operation. If anything has changed, the situation has become worse with the spread of al-Qaeda-lined groups and Islamic State supporters. It has 4,500 soldiers engaged in Mali. 

While drones are not new, France’s use of them has lagged purposely behind America’s use of them, particularly in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Until recently, it had only used unarmed drones. Civilian drone casualties in the Middle East persuaded France to refrain from using armed drones of its own

The French defence ministry announced the drone strike eliminated seven terrorists in central Mali last week. The Ouagadou forest, a popular holdout for the Macina Liberation Front, was the location of the strike.

“Working in a difficult environment, in a densely wooded region, this action was made possible by the action of ground troops supported by the air component,” the ministry said. The drone used was an armed version of the Reaper, which Defence Minister Florence Parly called “protectors for our troops and effective against the enemy.”

The armed drone strike followed another attack during the same day. French troops killed 33 terrorists by using a combination of attack helicopters, ground troops, and reconnaissance drone. The drone was able to guide the forces to the location of the attack. Increased drone usage signals a change in methodology for France as the fight over Mali rages. Extremist militants killed more allied troops this year than the previous two years combined according to data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. 

“Mali remains the epicentre of violence in the Sahel, but it’s also spreading to Burkina Faso and Niger,” says Flore Berger, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Militant groups are well-equipped and in the recent attack in Indelimane, Niger, several hundred militants attacked with artillery shells and kamikaze vehicles, killing 71 Nigerien soldiers.”

In addition to French forces, the UN has 15,000 peacekeepers in the region, but both the French and Mali governments feel that is not sufficient to rout the extremist groups, many of which spill over into neighboring states such as Niger and Burkina Faso. Ambushes in particular are effective tactics the terrorist groups employ to catch allied forces off balance. Over 100 Malian troops have been killed in ambushes since September, according to the BBC.

“The present military approach being pursued by the Sahel armies and their international partners is not working, at least not sufficiently – and France is well aware of the need for a fresh approach,” wrote Paul Melly for the BBC. Drones may be the solution, and perhaps one that should have been implemented sooner. 

With drones, threats can be identified before ground troops walk into an ambush and with the armed Reaper, they can be eliminated too. The Malian government is ineffective at best and seemingly limited in its options as it also grapples with an independence movement. Terrorist groups use the division within Malian politics to turn people to their cause and recruit followers. In April, there were calls for the president to resign due to his inability to control the tribal violence between the Fulani and Dogon tribes. 

In France, 58 percent of citizens continue to support their nation’s mission in the Sahel region, according to an IFOP poll for L’Expansion. After the killing of the 13 soldiers, Parisians turned up in the hundreds to watch hearses pull their coffins down the city streets.

“Too often we forget the sacrifice of these people,” said Alban, a young Parisian mourner whose brother serves in the army. “It’s thanks to their dedication that we are free. It’s for us that they died.”

Amid the conflict in the Middle East which is approaching 2 decades, it can be easy to forget the battle for the Sahel. Paris’ move to use weaponized drones means the defence ministry is getting serious about taking control of the situation. Armed drones are the hallmark of only a few militaries across the globe and now France joins them.

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