France Targets Islamic Extremists in Africa

CEP Research Analyst


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Recent worldwide attention has focused on France’s domestic counter-extremism efforts. But the country has also been very active in the global fight against extremism, particularly in Africa.

Africa’s Sahel region includes Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), Ansar-Dine, and other jihadist groups operating there have been engaged in terrorist attacks, kidnappings, drug smuggling, and human trafficking. These groups were key in igniting the 2012 Malian civil war.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) led a campaign for independence beginning in January 2012. Ansar-Dine and other Islamist groups capitalized on the fighting, capturing swaths of territory and instituting sharia (Islamic law). In response to a Malian government request for foreign assistance, French forces launched Operation Serval in January 2013. 

From January 2013 to July 2014, France targeted Islamist extremists in Mali in a series of airstrikes in response to AQIM attacks. Mali is a former French colony.

At the conclusion of Operation Serval, France launched an anti-Islamist force in northern Africa in August called Operation Barkhane. Named after a crescent-shaped sand dune in the Sahara, the mission’s main objective is counter-terrorism, according to the French government. The force is made up of about 3,000 French troops working alongside soldiers from Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Chad. France is also contributing fighter jets, helicopters, and drones.

Based in the Chadian capital N’Djamena, Operation Barkhane has the authority to cross borders as it targets Islamist extremism in Mali, Chad, and Niger. It will also create regional military bases in northern Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

In November 2014, French forces killed 24 extremists in northern Mali. The operation, in Mali’s Kidal region also resulted in the seizure of weapons, the destruction of a number of vehicles, and the capture of two extremists. In late December, French troops killed Ahmed al-Tilemsi, a senior leader of al-Qaeda splinter group al-Mourabitoun. In January, French Barkhane forces provided reinforcements after AQIM attacked a Malian army base. Eight Malian troops and 10 militants died in the raid.

Since 2014, French forces have killed or captured over 200 jihadists in the Sahel region. At least 50 have been killed since the start of Operation Barkhane, which has no announced completion date.