French forces patrolling near the northern Malian town of Bourem in the Gao region in 2013. (Source)
Two French soldiers were killed today and a third wounded after their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device (IED) near the locale of In-Delimane in the northern Gao region. The fatalities came as French forces renewed pressure on al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) in northern Mali.
French military sources told AFP the troops were conducting a patrol between the towns of Ansongo and Menaka when they contacted the IED. The area, which is close to the borders with Burkina Faso and Niger, recently saw clashes between Malian forces and jihadists from JNIM. Since the beginning of France’s Operation Barkhane in 2014, 12 French soldiers have been killed in combat in Mali.
No terrorist group has claimed credit for the blast.
In-Delimane was the location of a suicide car bomb attack on French troops on Jan. 12, which left three soldiers wounded. No group claimed that assault, but militants linked to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) were suspected. A Mauritanian website which has often published claims by Sahara-based jihadists, ISGS claimed the suicide bombing, but that could not be independently verified and was not supported by additional reporting. JNIM is also known to operate in the area.
Today’s IED attack can just one week after a major French operation which resulted in the killing or capture of over 20 jihadists belonging to JNIM near the borders with Algeria. In that operation, French forces conducted three simultaneous raids, accompanied with airstrikes, on JNIM positions near the towns of Boughessa, Mali, and Tinzaouatene in Algeria. Several senior JNIM leaders were killed in the raids.
Days after the raids, French troops clashed with JNIM militants in Wadi Egharghar near Tessalit in the Kidal region. At least five JNIM militants were killed in those clashes. Prior to the clashes and French raid, JNIM claimed to fire rockets into the French base near Tessalit.
French troops from Operation Barkhane, along with troops from Mauritania, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso (collectively known as the G5 Sahel force), have conducted numerous military operations across Mali since last year. Many of these have been focused near the borders of Burkina Faso, where violence emanating from another al Qaeda-linked organization, Ansaroul Islam, is common. French forces have been conducting raids and airstrikes in northern Mali since intervening in the country in 2013.
However, despite the French operation, the G5 Sahel personnel, and a UN peacekeeping operation in Mali, al Qaeda’s forces have persisted in expanding its insurgency. Al Qaeda still retains the ability to operate openly in Mali and strike in various locations across West Africa. Its violence is also spreading further south in Mali and into neighboring Burkina Faso. Since the beginning of the year, there have been at least 39 al Qaeda-linked attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso, according to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal.