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

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

Drones Over Africa: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

N-Africa-METhis week the New York Times reported that the US is planning to establish a new base for its drones in north-west Africa.  While the base is to be used initially to fly unarmed surveillance drones, according to the article the US does not rule out the possibility of using the base to launch drone strikes in the future.  One day after the NYT piece, Reuters reported the base would be established in Niger.  According to “a senior government source” says Reuters, “the U.S. ambassador to Niger, Bisa Williams, made the request at a meeting on Monday with President Mahamadou Issoufou, who immediately accepted it.” Read more

Drone Protests Grow

Imran Khan’s drone protest in Pakistan

Public opposition to the growing use of unmanned drones  is being made much more visible this week in protests taking place around the world.

The most high-profile event is taking place in Pakistan as Imran Khan leads thousands on a march against US drone strikes. Dozens of non-Pakistanis have also  joined the protests in solidarity, including Clive Stafford Smith of the Human Rights group, Reprieve, and members of the US campaign group, CodePink Read more

Drone strikes widening? Mystery airstrikes reported in Mali and the Philippines

This week we have seen a US drone strike in Pakistan which was reported to have killed six people (or ‘militants’ as those killed by drones are normally labelled) and a strike in Yemen which was reported to have killed three “suspected al-Qaida militants” on the outskirts of Aden. Such strikes have become almost routine, even though international condemnation is growing with both UN representatives  and former US president Jimmy Carter  speaking out in recent days. Read more