Could British Reaper drones be deployed to the Sahel?

Although British Reaper drones currently continue to operate over Iraq and Syria, the real desire by British political and military leaders to prove that despite Brexit, the UK is willing, ready and able to co-operate in militarily operations with other European nations could potentially see British drones deployed to the Sahel region. No doubt the recent questions about the viability of NATO in light of Trump’s political manoeuvring makes co-operating militarily with European partners seem even more important to the UK government. With France and the US engaged in separate counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel, and other European nations contributing to a peacekeeping mission there, over the past few weeks there have been some signs – including the deployment of UK troops and military helicopters – that the UK may join other Western forces in the area.


The Sahel is a geographical zone that spans the width of Africa, with the Sahara Desert to the north and savannah to the south. Some of the countries comprising the Sahel region, notably, Mail, Niger, Chad and Nigeria, have severe ongoing security problems due to political and economic instability which has opened up space for armed militias, criminal gangs and Islamist militants.

In Mali, in the aftermath of the NATO bombing campaign that ousted Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, hundreds of well-armed Tuaregs mercenaries who had fought for Gaddafi, returned home and joined a separatist campaign in the north calling for independence. Fighting alongside Islamists (who eventually ousted the Tuaregs) in 2012, the campaign drove the army out of the north and then an army coup threw the country into further disarray. As the capital came under threat at the beginning of 2013 French armed forces intervened and, alongside an aerial bombing campaign, French and Malian ground troops pushed the insurgents back from the capital. In 2014 the French setup a long-term counter-terrorism force in the area under the name Operation Barkhane, with the aim of countering terrorism in Mali, Niger and Chad. The force consists of 4,000 French troops, fighter jets, helicopters and unarmed Reaper drones. France has also set up the G5 Sahel Cross-Border Joint Force which consists of 5,000 troops from Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad committed to combating terrorism and securing the countries borders.

Separate but aligned with the French Operation Barkhane is a UN peacekeeping mission with the rather cumbersome name of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MinUSMA). It currently comprises of some 10,000 troops and 2,000 police officers from dozens of different countries, not least Germany and Belgium. Germany operates Heron surveillance drones for the mission and has just ordered a new version which is capable of being armed, ostensible for use by these forces. The UN mission is acknowledged as the most dangerous of peacekeeping operations, with more than 150 peacekeepers killed in Mali since 2013.

Meanwhile US forces are engaged in military operations in the region, including flying Reaper drones from Niamey in Niger. The country hosts the second highest number of DoD personnel after Djibouti (from where US drones launch strikes in Yemen and Somalia). US drones will soon move to to a new base, being built 450 further north at Agadez. In November 2017, Niger’s government approved a long-standing US request to arm the drones it flies out of the country in the aftermath of the killing of four US and four Nigerien troops in an ambush claimed by Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Pentagon officials told the New York Times that armed drones from Niger could reach from Mali to Chad and from southern Libya to Nigeria.

While the US insists publicly that it does not and will not carry out combat operations in Niger, in reality this is a verbal sleight of hand. As Joe Penney points out the distinction between combat operations and counter-terror operations is fuzzy at best.  The President of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, insisted this month that US troops should not be fighting in his country.  It should be noted, however, that in the aftermath of the killing of the US solders in Niger, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said that the US would be expanding its counter-terrorism operations in Africa.

UK keen to prove post-Brexit military intervention credentials

Last September, French President Emmanuel Macron called for closer European military ties and suggested a new European intervention force to work autonomously of NATO and ready to intervene rapidly in a crisis that could affect Europe. Despite Brexit – or perhaps better to say, because of Brexit, the UK has been enthusiastic to embrace the new initiative, particularly as it is likely to also benefit British defence companies who fear being shut out of European defence contracts. As a sign of its support for European military operations, in January the UK offered to send military helicopters to support the French operation in Mali.

In June, nine European countries including the UK signed up to Macron’s new European Intervention Initiative (EII). French Defence Minister Florence Parly told Le Figaro that the UK was “very keen” to sign the agreement in order to “maintain cooperation with Europe beyond bilateral ties.” The new military alliance “will also participate in UN missions or counter-terrorism coalitions” German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters.

RAF Chinook helicopters arrived in Mali this week to support French counter-terrorism operations. Photo: MoD

At the same time, the first of 100 British troops arrived in Mali. The deployment, along with three Chinook helicopters deepens the UK involvement in the counter-terrorism mission in the Sahel (the UK has previously contributed a C17 troop transporter). Former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Dannett however questioned whether sending three helicopters was enough if Britain wanted to portray itself as a global power. UK forces also have an on-going training mission to support Nigerian counter-terrorism operations with a permanent Defence Staff for West Africa base in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.

France has meanwhile gained approval from the US to purchase six armed Reapers; these are due to be delivered in mid-2019 and no doubt will be deployed soon after to the Sahel.

With UK air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria likely to end over the next few months, it is possible that some of the UK’s armed Reapers could be deployed to the Sahel. From the UK government’s perspective, this would not only signal the UK’s willingness to work with other European counties in military operations post-Brexit (with the advantage that US drones and related communications infrastructure are already present) but would also solve the RAFs difficulty of what to do with what it sees as a key capability. As Reapers are not allowed to fly in the UK they would have to be boxed up and put into storage or deployed elsewhere.

The problem of the simplistic solution

While some will argue that it is in the UK’s interests to undertake military action in West Africa to prevent terrorism in Europe, the reality is that such an intervention would pour petrol on a flame. As Nathaniel Powell writes its “dangerously simplistic” to view the Sahel as “a vast territory of ‘ungoverned space’ prone to the infiltration of global jihad.” He goes on:

“The central cause of conflict in most cases is the behaviour of state actors, not the spontaneous appearance of foreign jihadists. The region’s armed conflicts are direct products of political and economic marginalization and repression of peripheral communities. The jihadist groups that do operate in the region, even those affiliated with international organizations such as al-Qaeda and ISIL, are interwoven with local uprisings against exploitative and alienating state authority…. Expanded counterterrorism operations can do nothing to alter these dynamics.”

Ahead of this month’s Presidential election in Mali, it should be noted, authorities have banned marches by opposition parties and riot police have attacked protesters, and reports of inter-communal violence stoked by anti-terrorism operations continue.

BBC footage from Niamey of French drones

Andrew Lebovitch too argues that local and region tensions underlie violence in the area:

“In the regions of Tahoua and Tillabéri on the border with Mali, which have been under a state of emergency since March, local sources have repeatedly alleged government repression of local nomadic populations — particularly ethnic Fulani — in ongoing counterterrorism operations there. Similar incidents have occurred on the Malian side of the border, where Nigerien-supported groups have allegedly used counterterrorism operations to settle local scores, further fuelling the violence and in some cases pushing communities to align with jihadi forces. While these conflicts have larger regional ramifications and involve groups that claim affiliation with global jihadi brands, they also involve intricate local dynamics that cannot be ignored or reduced to any terrorist group’s global ambitions.”

Rather than expanding military counter-terrorism operations and sending in the drones there is another way. Nathaniel Powell argues that, while reforming the state to ensure good governance and accountability must begin within the countries themselves, outsiders can and should help. This should include international humanitarian efforts, particularly in the Lake Chad region; support for that local and regional peacebuilding entities, such as Niger’s Haute Autorité à la consolidation de la paix (HACP); funding of demobilization programmes; and support for the work of civil-society organisations promoting transparency and independent press outlets.

“There are soldiers from all around the world in Mali, but despite the drones and the resources spent, things are only getting worse,” Cissoko, a 48-year-old counselor at a local school, told reporters. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

While the ‘risk free’ option of sending British drones to the Sahel may win the backing of politicians and defence officials in the UK for a variety of domestic political reasons, the risk of inflaming local and regional conflicts and becoming embroiled in yet another long-term armed conflict will simply increase instability and no doubt sow the seeds of further terrorism.

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