UK enters intelligence war in the Sahel as civilian casualties mount amid Islamist attacks

By Tim McNulty

BRITISH military intelligence is set to play a crucial role in the Sahel as UK troops gear up for deployment to the war-torn region.

The UK has promised 250 troops for the United Nation’s MINUSMA counter-insurgency operation in the volatile West African region.

Tasked with shoring up the dire security situation and combating groups like the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, the mission has been labelled by some as unwinnable.

Sahel expert Dr Daniel Eizenga told Redaction Politics: “Militant Islamist violence has spiralled significantly across the Sahel in the last 12 months with attacks by Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara increasing nearly sevenfold.

“In addition to the accelerated pace, violent attacks by militant Islamist groups have also increasingly targeted civilians. Over one-third of all attacks in the Sahel targeted civilians for the period from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020.”

The Africa Center for Strategic Studies research fellow continued: “The nearly one thousand violent episodes over the past year represent the most rapid increase in violent extremist activity of any region in Africa.

“Millions of people have been displaced by these attacks, government officials and traditional leaders have been killed, thousands of schools have been closed, and economic activity has been severely curtailed.

“In short, the regional governments, their international partners, and the UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) are in dire need of assistance.”

Initially deployed for three years as part of a 12,500 strong international force, British soldiers will be based in the strategically important town of Goa in Northern Mali.

Given the dire situation on the ground, Redaction Politics has learnt British forces have been enlisted to bolster one desperately needed area – intelligence gathering.

Dr Eizenga told Redaction: “My understanding is that the planned deployment of 250 UK troops to MINUSMA will be based in Gao, a strategic town situated on the Niger River in northern Mali near the borders with Burkina Faso and Niger.

“It is also in the epicentre of conflict activity for the region serving as one of the principal locations for MINUSMA, Operation Barkhane, and the Malian armed forces. I also understand the UK troops will be tasked with intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance. This is desperately needed.”

“Militant Islamist groups have recently displayed an alarming superiority in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. Military bases in Mali and Niger were caught by surprise and suffered heavy losses at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020.

“Regional forces and governments need to collaborate more closely with local communities towards their shared interests. There is an immediate need for better information about and analysis of what groups comprise JNIM and ISGS and how they operate.

“Improving the ability of counterterrorism forces to gain hard intelligence on the different factions and subgroups could go a long way in helping regional government confront and curb the violence devastating Sahelian communities in this area.

“Additionally, maintaining active reconnaissance could go a long way in providing regional armed forces with early warnings, helping these forces to respond quickly to better protect their communities.”

This patrolling and intelligence-gathering role will be carried out by soldiers from the Light Dragoon Guards and the Royal Anglian Regiment – who form part of the British army’s long range reconnaissance force.

The troops will be initially deployed for three years as part of a 12,500 strong international force which includes units from France, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Mali, the Netherlands, Niger, Portugal, Sweden.

Britain also sees a role in tackling the underlying causes of poverty and conflict in Mali and the wider Sahel region

The UK is one of the largest humanitarian donors to the region and has contributed over £500m in bilateral development and humanitarian assistance since 2015.

With COVID-19 now an additional challenge in the Sahel, a significant part of the UK’s £764m contribution to the global COVID-19 effort will be channelled to the region.

Featured Image: Piqsels

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