New report examines civilian deaths in French drone-instigated air strike in Mali

Stoke White Investigations has examined the reported killing of civilians in a French air strike on a wedding party in Mail in January 2021. The following is adapted from the report’s Executive Summary. The full report can be viewed here.  

On 3 January 2021, France undertook 3 airstrikes as part of its Operation Barkhane mission in Bounti, central Mali. France claimed it had attacked an armed “terrorist group”, but locals reported that a wedding party had been attacked. A subsequent UN report into the strikes  – the first investigating France’s military activities in Mali – concluded that a wedding was indeed taking place, and that 19 civilians had been killed.

What exactly happened on the Sunday afternoon is disputed by the various parties of this civilian casualty allegation, but by the evening of the attack, a local social organisation, the AES Corporation, had already notified its members that a wedding was attacked outside Bounti, killing civilians.  Two days later, French forces told the AFP that its military aircrafts had “neutralised” dozens of fighters in central Mali and that reports of an attack on a wedding “do not match the observations that were made”.

French Armed Forces reported on January 7 that they had targeted members of Katiba Serma, an armed group, loosely connected with Al-Qaeda after they had conducted a multi-day intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission in Douentza, in central Mali’s Mopti region. As part of this, a French Reaper drone had been conducting an ISR mission for one hour when it decided to follow a motorcycle carrying two individuals north of the “NR16” highway.  The motorcycle joined approximately “40 adult men in an isolated area”, one kilometre north of the village of Bounti, in the region of Douentza. The real-time intelligence of the drone had apparently given the French Armed Forces the confidence that it located members of the Katiba Serma. Read more

Drones in the Sahel: in whose interest?

Last week’s military coup in Mali brought brief attention from the world’s media to the Sahel. But behind the latest headlines, drones are a growing part of the ongoing conflict in the region.

French troops guard a Reaper drone

On 21 December 2019, France carried out a drone strike for the first time, killing seven alleged jihadist fighters in central Mali. In total, 40 terrorists were killed during the weekend-long operations which took place in an area controlled by the group, Katibat Macina. The news of the strike came just two days after Florence Parly, France’s defence minister, said its fleet of MQ-9 Reapers had finished testing with laser-guided missiles at an airbase in Niamey, the capital of Niger.

Until this point, French Reapers in the Sahel-Saharan strip had been used primarily for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Now, the French government argues, the idea is for the military to have an additional strike capability in its missions, supporting states in their fight against terrorist groups and thus bringing stability and security to the region. The reality, however, is a little hazier than that.  Read more

Drone Proliferation Update, July 2020

Serbia acquires Chinese CH-92 drones
  • This latest update details new operators and other significant developments around the proliferation of armed drones.  For our complete list of states operating, or close to operating, armed drones see Who Has Armed Drones?

Over the last six months, Libya has continued to be the focus for the use of armed drones. France has increased its activity in the Sahel, and several Asian nations, plus Russia, edge closer to operating armed drones. Turkey and Iran also continue to promote their indigenous developments, and the US appears to have decided to unilaterally reinterpret the MTCR guidelines to allow it to increase its export of armed drones.

Meanwhile, UN Special Rapporteur, Agnes Callamard, has urged action on drone proliferation during her annual report to the UN Human Rights Council, arguing of the need for the international community to  “undertake effective measures to control their proliferation through export and multilateral arms control regimes and/or under international treaties” in order to tackle effectively the many challenges posed by armed drones, particularly for targeted killings. Read more

Armed Drone Proliferation Update, January 2020

The third of our twice-yearly updates details new operators and other significant developments around the proliferation of armed drones.  For our complete list of states operating, or close to operating, armed drones see Who Has Armed Drones?

France undertakes first drone strikes

As has long been expected, the French Reaper fleet started to undergo weaponization in October 2019, with Jane’s reporting that this process will continue to run until Nov 2021 under a contract worth $17.87m.  A mere two days after completing a first test launch with its new missiles, the French air force carried out its first drone strike in Mali.  The strike, on 23 December, was part of an operation that reportedly killed 40 ‘terrorists’. A further drone strike in Mali on 19 January was reported by the French Ministry of Defence, killing five alleged armed militants.  This represents a clear escalation in the use of force. Read more

Tempestuous relations: Brexit and UK future drone developments

Tempest concept image

In May 2017, Chair of BAE Systems, Sir Roger Carr, blithely insisted at the company’s AGM that Brexit would have no impact whatsoever on the on-going development of the new Anglo-French advanced combat drone.  “We will still be working with the EU on defence, certainly in terms of fighting terrorism, and we can preserve our relationship with France in developing the next generation of unmanned aircraft,” he told shareholders.

Just two months later Carr had to eat his words as a major realignment of European Read more

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. Read more