In Mountains Of Northern Mali, France Faces Elusive Enemy And Quagmire Risk

French and Chadian troops search for terrorist groups who melt into the landscape and launch suicide attacks in the towns. Initial plans for France's rapid return home have been revised.

French helicopters in Mali
French helicopters in Mali
Jean-Philippe Rémy

KIDAL - If you've ever stepped foot here, you might think the Adrar of Tigharghâr were created by the gods of rebellion. In the rocky mountains, a large stream flows, nourishing the heavy vegetation, something absolutely vital in this dry land where you face death at every corner if you don’t drink water or shield yourself from the elements.

And the rocks seem to have been naturally sculpted just so that you may rest in their shadow. In the past, these mountains were a base for the Tuaregs during their conflict against the Malian army or the French colonial forces. Today, it’s the theater of a crucial battle in the ongoing French military operation against the Islamic rebels affiliated with Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

But how do you fight an enemy that’s constantly in motion, camouflaged in the landscape, using man-to-man communications and avoiding gatherings in large groups? How do you track them down if they hardly ever keep their motors running to escape thermal detection?

These tactics represent a central challenge for “Operation Serval,” the Fren. The prize believed to be hidden in the Adrar of Tigharghâr is the headquarters of this Islamic army of shadows. This is the place where the decisive battle to end this war is now raging. The French are allied with the Chadian army, with the help of some Tuareg units.

AQIM fighters are believed to have chosen these mountains to shelter them against stronger firepower, as they stock ammunition, food supplies, and fuel, the ingredients needed to carry out a long and potentially problematic war.

The area is known for being unassailable, an ideal base from which to launch kamikaze operations and blitz strikes in the northern region. The French ground forces are currently fighting here with air support, but no further information seems to have come about the deployed forces. In order to block the mountains’ exits and outnumber the rebels, the Chadian allies have granted their military assistance. No Malian soldier has been associated with the operation.

The last few days of combat were led by the Chadian army troops, known for their bold charges in open territory, in their “Saharan war.” They pile up on pick-ups, even on the car’s hood, load it with jerrycans and ammunition, aim at the enemy and then start shooting RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) when the enemy comes in sight.

But on Feb. 22, this area turned out to be a trap for France's allies. Sidi Mohammed ag Saghid, aka “Three Three Trois Trois,” security chief of the NMLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the Tuareg allies), remembers: “The Chadians were advancing in a large column of about 200 vehicles when they were ambushed: the column was split in half - -- they lost 27 men. After that, they retaliated fiercely against the Islamists.”

(French declarations last month about their troops pulling out of Mali within weeks have since been revised -- remaining until at least July -- in the face of tough resistance from Islamist rebels)

A trap?

In this region, intelligence-gathering is key. The air strikes target the arms dumps, shelters and camps thanks to the precise information retrieved on the ground. A few days earlier, a young boy from Aguelhok, the closest town, who marked the spots for the air strikes, was caught by the Islamists and executed, according to the local administration representative.

Is Tighârghar becoming a mountain trap where the bulk of the rebel forces are holed up? No external witness could get close enough to the area to get an idea. This decisive battle is going on far from the world’s eyes.

We can only guess that they’re sorting out the skilled warriors who manage to pass through the net, from the inexperienced recruits. A local and reliable source who just came back from a few days on the frontlines next to the Adrar, witnessed some events: “At night, we hear small groups of three or five pick-ups rolling away from the rocks, with their lights off, towards Algeria or Taoudenni” – northwest of Mali.

There are some rebel-controlled areas near Gao, close to Ansongo. As for the forces leaving Tighargâr, they head for the dry lands in the north, their only solution, where the temperatures from March onwards start to climb, which will render the military operations particularly difficult.

The enemy may need to always retreat further and further to survive. It won’t solve the rebel problem in Mali, but it may break the organization of the Northern Mali guerillas.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!