With the end of Operation Barkhane, French drone strikes in the Sahel are likely to intensify. An open debate in France on the legal, political and security implications of armed drone use is desperately needed.
While France’s Reaper drones were initially used solely for surveillance missions, the country carried out its first drone strike in December 2019 in central Mali, killing seven alleged jihadist fighters. Since then, France has on several occasions deployed drones to carry out air strikes in the region, operated from an airbase in Niamey, Niger. Most recently, President Emmanuel Macron announced that in August a French drone strike in the region on the border between Mali and Niger had killed Islamic State leader Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, believed to be behind the attacks against four US soldiers in 2017 and six French aid workers last year.
Thus far there has been little public debate in France on the use of drones in the context of counterterrorism operations, which continue to be wrapped in secrecy. There is no information made publicly available by the French government about targeting criteria, the identity of victims, and the existence of any investigations into civilian casualties. This became painfully evident by several airstrikes carried out by France in Bounti, Mali in January 2021. While the French government initially claimed these strikes – which were based on intelligence gathered through drone surveillance – had attacked an armed ”terrorist group”, UN investigations that followed concluded the airstrike had hit a wedding party, with 19 civilians killed.
As Operation Barkhane is coming to an end, French troops entered this month into the final phase of their withdrawal from northern Mali. As announced by President Macron, ground forces are expected to be reduced from 5,000 to 3,000 or 2,500 soldiers in 2023 as the Operation will be replaced by a mission with greater reliance on airpower, special forces and collaboration with European and local armies.
While troops on the ground will be halved, France’s use of drones in the Sahel will likely intensify as presence in the air will be maintained with seven fighter jets and six armed drones. The French government also urged the US this summer to provide more intelligence collection with drones, as their own presence is shrinking, yet still relies on air surveillance for ongoing strikes. There is growing pushback in the US, however, from civil society and thinktanks, such as the International Crisis Group, that urge the Biden Administration to clarify its policies on targeted killings in counterterrorism operations in order to strengthen transparency and accountability. Data sharing from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) drone operations with partners that are actively carrying out drone strikes should naturally be part of this discussion, both in the US and Europe.
With fewer boots and intelligence gathering on the ground, the likelihood of mistakes in targeting decisions may only become greater, with potentially deadly consequences for civilians. It is therefore imperative that France hold a public debate on the deployment of drones for counterterrorism purposes, articulate a clear legal and policy position on the extraterritorial use of lethal force, and publicly share information of any investigations into civilian deaths.