In an interview conducted for the podcast Le Collimateur (podcast of the Strategic Research Institute of the French Military School (IRSEM)), on April 9, 2021, drone pilot Lieutenant-Colonel Romain gives an account of one of the first French armed drone operations, carried out from the Niamey air base in Niger in early 2020. After about two years of French use of armed drones in the Sahel, the analysis of this document is of major interest, as Lieutenant-Colonel Romain discloses many elements of France’s method of target selection.
His testimony, transcribed here, and which we quote in this short analysis, focuses on the first mission carried out with his crew. The mission was composed of two steps. The first step consisted of surveillance “to find the enemy”, before it led to the second step: the strike. A few hundred kilometers from the base, the remotely piloted aircraft flew over the Liptako area, situated on the border between Mali and Niger. The crew see “a small clue on the screen”: two people on a moped. They follow their “intuition” and decide to track them. Soon, the moped approaches an area where French soldiers are deployed on the ground, which the drone operator describes as “a bit curious”. The motorcycle stops in a hamlet. A man goes to fetch some equipment from a hut and then starts to run. The crew finds this behavior surprising and suspicious. The moped, joined by a second one, sets off again. But the motorcycles are now heading in the opposite direction to the French troops, “as if they had picked up some stuff and then went back the other way, having picked up what they didn’t want to show the French troops”. The lieutenant-colonel adds in his testimony that this analysis of the situation was “only a guess”. Then, following an accident in the sand, the mopeds stop, and the image operator identifies a weapon. The crew considers the presence of this weapon “the cherry on the cake, , […] [as], given the area and all these elements, [it allows them to] say that [they] have reasonable assurance that these are enemies” (See dialogue from Q7 to Q13). A few minutes later, the military command monitoring the operation from a base in Chad orders the destruction of the target (after what appears to be a short observation time, as the drone operator notes that the average duration of surveillance operations leading to drone targeting is four hours (response to Q28)).
This story resonates with a strike conducted about a year ago by the French army in the village of Bounti on the 3rd of January 2021. In this operation, the targets had been selected by French forces following data collection through drone surveillance. The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), however, concluded that those killed were involved in wedding celebrations at the time of the strike and were, for the majority, civilians.
The interview with the drone operator supports a view already expressed at the time of the Bounti strike: that France’s target selection process is problematic. MINUSMA and scholars who analyzed the process of target selection that led to the Bounti strike concluded that it was based on behavioral and contextual elements concerning the targets and their location, indicating a threat, and not on their tangible and observed participation in hostilities. Warfare as threat anticipation, the analysis went, implies a high risk of error and exacerbates the danger for the civilian population, thus raising the question of the compatibility of this target selection process with international humanitarian law.
The drone strike story, told by the operator lieutenant-colonel in charge of the strike, confirms the hypothesis that France has been conducting signature strikes in the Sahel. Signature strikes, which first appeared in the American landscape of the “war on terror”, are emblematic of a war by “risk analysis”, or by anticipation. They can be defined as the targeting of individuals whose identity is unknown but for whom certain contextual or behavioral elements (other than a witnessed direct participation in hostilities) suggest that they belong to an armed terrorist group.
In the interview, the lieutenant-colonel states that he feels “deeply responsible for the respect of international law”. Yet his testimony reveals violations of international humanitarian law (IHL).
The operation reveals a mode of target selection that identifies individuals as belonging to a terrorist group based on elements that can include, for example, the apparent age and sex of the targets, their behaviour, geolocation and their carrying of weapons. For almost a decade, the Sahel has been a conflict zone between terrorist groups and state armies. It also hosts self-defense groups (who are not jihadist groups and may not even qualify as organized non-state armed groups in the sense of international humanitarian law). In this context, the carrying of weapons, even among the civilian population, cannot be sufficient to legitimize a strike under international law. Yet, in the story we are told, the weapon is the decisive element for the drone operator and his crew to determine that they are following “enemies”. This mismatch between the sociological reality on the ground and the analysis of the Barkhane forces was also highlighted by MINUSMA regarding the Bounti strike in Mali in January 2021: “Targeting based on such elements would be incompatible with international humanitarian law and would result in depriving civilians, particularly men, of protection from attack in violation of the principle of distinction.”
Similarly, the drone operator refers to the principle of “reasonable assurance” which, in his view, legitimizes a strike if there is a sufficient body of evidence (see response to Q11). Such a principle, which is not a legal but a policy principle, and its implementation in the context of anticipatory warfare, undermines the principles of distinction (between civilians and combatants) and precaution (seeking to avoid collateral damage) as recognized under IHL. Can one claim to take sufficient and necessary precautions to ensure that civilians are spared when a target is selected based on contextual elements, which do not include tangible proof of the individual’s lasting integration into an organized non-state armed group opposed to the state in an armed conflict?
The majority of scholarly work and case law on the question, as well as the MINUSMA report, confirms that anticipatory target identification that is not based on observed direct participation of an individual in hostilities, or at least of the individual’s lasting integration into the armed wing of an enemy group, is not compatible with existing norms of IHL. The concept of ‘direct participation in hostilities’ (DPH) prohibits the use of force against civilians when they are not directly participating in “combat”. Even if one were to follow the more contested notion of “continuous combat function” (CCF), which allows for strikes outside of moments of combat, it would be necessary to demonstrate the individual’s sustained integration into the armed wing of an organized non-state armed group. It is difficult to see how a moped ride, a hurried walk and the carrying of weapons in a violent region where many groups co-exist was sufficient for the Barkhane forces to confirm the targeted individual’s sustained integration into an enemy group, and – in the Lieutenant-Colonel’s words – “ensured that the target [was] military” (see response to Q13).
Read together with the Bounti episode, as well as statements by the Ministry of the Armed Forces, declaring to perform a “behavioural analysis” when selecting targets ( and thus doing so by anticipation), this account of a strike presented as the usual modus operandi is worrying. In the Sahel, the populations are increasingly vulnerable. Although France will soon have been involved in the Sahel for a decade, the French Ministry of the Armed Forces has still not clarified its rules of engagement in the region and its interpretation of the applicable norms. One year after the Bounti strike, where to date victims’ families have neither been contacted nor received compensation, this would be a crucial step in reducing the local population’s feeling of mistrust towards the forces that claim to protect them.
Written by M. Drevet, L. Mieusset, R. Mignot-Mahdavi, C. Pinel and A. Yehiel. Magali Drevet, Léonard Mieusset, Claire Pinel and Aure Yehiel are PGT students at the University of Grenoble Alpes working on the French intervention in the Sahel as part of a Law Clinic led by Dr Rebecca Mignot-Mahdavi. Dr Rebecca Mignot-Mahdavi is Lecturer in International Law at the University of Manchester and Managing Editor of the Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law.
An English translation of the transcribed testimony can be found here.