Under the unforgiving desert sun: The battle against Mali’s Islamists

A convoy of armoured vehicles rolls through the dusty streets of Gao, a city in northern Mali. The UN banners fly from the roofs and the tanks' guns are ready to fire. Despite the incredible heat, 50 degrees celsius in the shade, the peacekeepers wear nearly 20 kilograms of protective equipment.

The convoy comes to a halt at a small settlement of weathered mud huts. Curious children with runny noses and ragged clothes come running, as soldiers exit their vehicles with a loud "bonjour." One of the soldiers starts up a conversation with the villagers; the others stand guard with their weapons at the ready.

Lieutenant Sebastian R, a UN peacekeeper from Germany, stops to speak with two teenagers about football and school. At the end of the conversation, he asks the question he is most interested in: "What is the security situation like?" The young men shrug their shoulders and bashfully avert their eyes before saying everything is calm at the moment.

In 2012, Gao, with its 100,000 inhabitants, was the capital of the rebel state Azawad. Run to a large extent by various Islamist terrorist groups, it took French intervention in 2013 to stop the insurgents. The Malian government and a handful of rebel groups are still trying to find a peaceful solution, but agreements are continuously undermined by extremists.

The UN peacekeeping force, comprised of more than 11,000 soldiers, is tasked with safeguarding the ceasefire agreement in the northern part of the country. It is the United Nation’s most dangerous operation in Africa; more than 70 peacekeepers have been killed here in the last three years.

While on patrol, the convoy drives past women in colorful robes, families on motorbikes, vegetable stalls, goats and donkey carts. Many residents wave at the passing soldiers.

The convoy makes frequent stops: outside small shops, opposite schools, in front of mosques. They speak with Malians and often exchange phone numbers with those who could provide helpful information in the future.

The peacekeepers’ job is to collect information about security-related matters by talking to residents, aid organisations and officials. They ask questions like: Where do the different ethnic groups live? Where are markets, mosques and gathering places? Where are the factories and generators? Do terrorists ever hide inside the city?

As they go about collecting information, they often face tense and unpleasant moments. They hear rumours of drug trafficking in a new settlement of expensive homes and pass by a pickup truck filled with Tuareg men; one of them holding a loaded Kalashnikov.

"The current security situation is good, but not stable," said team leader Captain Sven F. “About 50 kilometers outside of Gao, it becomes dangerous.”

In the Kidal region, several hundred kilometres further north, soldiers are regularly attacked with explosive devices and mines. In mid-May, five peacekeepers were killed after their vehicle drove over a landmine. Two weeks later, four UN staffers were killed when unknown assailants launched rockets at two UN camps in Gao.

It is explosive expert Lieutenant Colonel Mark H's job to analyze these attacks from "Camp Castor," the security compound where all the peacekeepers are housed.

"We are trying to figure out what kind of explosive bears the signature of which terrorist group," he explained. His findings help the UN adapt its strategy and equipment. "Currently, the terrorists are still inexperienced, but that may change," the Lieutenant Colonel said. "Their equipment is professional.”

The work of the patrol team and the explosives expert is supplemented by a group of intelligence forces. They are trying to infiltrate the terrorist groups and access information about their strategy, planning and financing. The specialists, who are trained in psychology, have a space within the UN camp where they interrogate protected sources, said Sergeant Norbert H.

Last December, despite patrol units, a guarded entrance and a three-meter-high barrier covered in barbed wire, the camp was attacked with rockets. Rockets are the compound's biggest threat as they can be fired from 15 to 20 kilometres away, said Lieutenant Colonel Marc Vogt, the German peacekeeping contingent's commander-in-chief.

Now they are doing everything in their power to prevent similar attacks from happening again, Vogt said.

The information collected by the three reconnaissance units is eventually merged together to provide a more complete picture of the terrorist threat. "We are trying to gather more and more knowns to determine the unknown," Colonel H said.

Last update: Sun, 05/06/2016 - 11:54


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