French Defense Minister Florence Parly announced earlier this week that French forces had conducted airstrikes in central Mali that killed more than 50 jihadists of the Ansarul Islam group that is aligned to al-Qaeda. The announcement came after his meeting with members of Mali’s transitional government

The operation took place on October 30 in the lawless “three borders” area of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. It is an area where Malian troops are struggling to combat a growing Islamic insurgency.

Parly added that 30 motorcycles, a preferred vehicle for the jihadis in the region, were destroyed and a number of arms confiscated. She said that the action marked a “significant blow” to the Ansarul group and that the operation “shows once again that terrorist groups cannot act with impunity.”

The defense minister had earlier met with Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou and her Nigerien counterpart Issoufou Katambe before heading to Bamako, said the operation was launched after a drone detected a “very large” motorcycle caravan in the “three borders” area.

The jihadists saw the drone and quickly scurried into a treeline to conceal themselves from the surveillance, but it was too late. The drone joined two scrambled French Mirage jets and they launched missiles that pounded the area and resulted in the “neutralization” of the insurgents, Parly said.

French military spokesman Colonel Frederic Barbry said to media members during a conference call, that the group was “about to attack [an army] position in the region. He added that four terrorists were captured.

Barbry also said that another month-long operation, targeting the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, was ongoing with 3,000 soldiers. They expect to announce the results of that operation shortly, he said.

These operations also coincided with the first operations conducted by the French-led Special Operations Takuba Task Force that consisted of French and Estonian special operations troops working with Malian SOF troops. 

France has coordinated with Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, who have committed to sending Special Forces to Mali to train, advise, and assist in the deployment of Malian SOF troops in an effort to get the security situation in hand. 

The operation was a long sweep of an operational area along the border between Mali and Burkina Faso. The European SOF troops would remain discreetly in the background with the Malian soldiers in the lead. That would build confidence in the people that the Malian soldiers and government were working to make their lives and security better.

Mali has been locked into a bloody insurgency that began with Tuareg separatists in northern Mali in 2012. The Taureg rebellion was then hijacked by jihadist insurgents. After the jihadists met with initial success, France, the former colonial power deployed thousands of troops in 2013. They drove the insurgents deep into the outlying areas of the country but they were able to recover, regroup, and rekindle the fighting. 

The fighting has spread to central Mali, and to neighboring Sahel countries. The insurgents were able to take advantage of the fact that in many of the outlying areas government control and influence is tenuous. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse.

In the entire Sahel region, more than 4.2 million people have been displaced by the violence. A million of those, just in the past year. 

Earlier this year, the situation in Mali had caused thousands of people to mass protests against President Ibrahim Boubacar. The military felt he had lost the ability to govern and ousted him in a military coup on August 18.

The interim government has agreed to hold elections in 18 months. In the meantime, it is trying to end the bloody violence and engage the jihadists in dialogue, something that enjoys the support of the population. Yet, whether or not the jihadists will negotiate in good faith is another factor.