France reports major security operation in central Mali

France reported yesterday that its forces completed a nearly three-week long security operation in central Mali’s Gourma region alongside the Malian military. The campaign targeted constituent groups of al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) and reportedly left at least 30 jihadists dead.

At least 700 French troops and another 150 from the Malian military took part in the mission, while Burkinabe troops reportedly deployed along the border to stop fleeing jihadists.

According to the French statement, the first phase of the offensive began on March 29 when Mirage jets and Tiger helicopters struck targets belonging to the US-designated terrorist group Ansaroul Islam in the Fulsare forest on the borders with Burkina Faso. The Fulsare forest and its surrounding areas have long been utilized as a jihadist hangout.

A ground operation comprised of French and Malian forces then conducted search and destroy and reconnaissance actions in and near the forest. The joint force was reportedly able to recover “small arms, ammunition, RPG’s, explosives, IEDs, and vehicles,” in the operation. No jihadists were reported killed during this phase.

However, it was during this phase that a French soldier, identified as a military doctor, was killed by an IED. JNIM claimed the IED in a later statement, but identified the area in which the attack took place as Menaka and not near the Fulsare.

The second phase of the joint French-Malian campaign began on April 7 in the Serma forest with further airstrikes against JNIM’s Katibat Serma. A Reaper drone and Tiger helicopter also reportedly provided support and cover fire for a subsequent ground operation against the jihadist outfit.

At least 30 jihadists were reportedly killed in this phase, according to the French statement. Additionally, “a dozen motorcycles, weapons and ammunition, a large number of IED components, and numerous resources confirming the strong activity of this terrorist camp and its central role in the functioning of Katibat Serma.”

Katibat Serma, one of JNIM’s battalions that operates in central Mali, is closely allied to Ansaroul Islam, a Burkinabe affiliate of JNIM. Katibat Serma, and the more well-known JNIM battalion, Katibat Macina, have long supported Ansaroul Islam with weapons, support, and training.

France has conducted several important strikes in Mali and Burkina Faso over the past few months. In early January, it said its forces conducted several missions in northern Mali, especially in the Menaka region. In mid-January, it reported it had killed 15 jihadists in central Mali after several airstrikes in coordination with Malian troops.

Later that month, several airstrikes and ground operations were reported to support Malian and Burkinabe troops after being attacked by jihadists.

In February, a French military strike reportedly killed JNIM deputy emir and co-founder Yahya Abu al Hammam in the Timtbuku region. While France claims Al Hammam is indeed dead, JNIM has yet to confirm his demise.

Despite these strikes and the deaths of several key leaders, as well as the presence of troops from the G5 Sahel, and a United Nations peacekeeping force, al Qaeda still retains the ability to operate openly inside Mali and the wider Sahel.

Caleb Weiss is a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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