BANDIAGARA — The Twin Otter plane flies full speed over the battlefield, though low enough to almost scrape the tops of acacia trees. At one point its wingtips seem dangerously close to smashing into the jagged cliffs. But there's a reason for these maneuvers: The pilot is trying to avoid being shot.
This is Dogon Country, in south-central Mali, but the pilot is French — a "flying ace" from the Poitou territory in northwest France. He's part of a transport squadron assigned to move people and supplies for special-ops commandos, wherever and whenever, and regardless of the conditions or weather. That means arriving on time — always — and landing just about anywhere, even if all there is for a landing strip is a bit of hardened ground.
The squadron has become vital to the French commandos discreetly waging war on terrorism in the Sahel region of Africa, an expansive, rugged zone as big as Europe that stretches from Mauritania to Chad. In this massive land corridor the commandos have had to become like the French corsairs of old. They must be swifter and more resounding than the pirates they stalk. They must subject them to constant pressure, preempt their actions and confine the adversaries to their hideouts.
To this end, they're organized into search parties, moving around for weeks on end the way Britain's SAS (Special Air Service) soldiers used to harass the German Afrikakorps in World War II. Their vehicles drive off road, and at night, the commandos camp, but always on high alert. Their objective is to locate the enemy and guide French troops toward a final assault or decisive intervention to catch or neutralize a Jihadi captain, chieftain or bombmaker.
The plane takes us to an advance base, permanently installed north of the Niger river, where a chopper takes us to a further point. It takes minutes to unload equipment, munitions and supplies from the helicopter and onto our 4x4 vehicles, before the chopper leaves and we head into the desert.
The first mission is to locate a nomad caravan. An information officer, Lt. Olivier, must find an old Tuareg chief able to inform him on a route regularly used by terrorists. These contacts, says Olivier, can provide information on "what will happen in the area" but are by no means the only source of data they use.
The enemies here regularly flout national borders.
Fighting terrorism requires patience and the painstaking gathering of information, which depends in turn on intensive cooperation between the Special Operations Command, or COS, as it's known; other French military services; and even outside allies, since the enemies here regularly flout national borders. Each is a component of the vast security net France cast over the Sahel some years back, when the Salafists dreamed of hoisting their black banner over Bamako, Mali's capital.
For now, troops participating in "Operation Barkhane" have checked any bid to revive a terrorist army able to defy an African state, while a second operation, code-named "Saber," roots out cells and destroys residual militants. COS uses 4,000 soldiers from four different sectors of the French military. Together they boast a versatile set of skills, including hostage liberation, surgical strikes and operations behind enemy lines. Regular French troops aid operations when necessary.
French Mirage fighter jets operate across Africa — Photo: Staff Sgt. David L. Proffitt
Agility, discretion and precaution are key to survival. Capt. Alexis, a patrol officer, concentrates on an observation point that will act as a campsite for the night. Camp is later set up amid "total blackout, no light," as per instructions. All operatives sleep in combat positions designated by Capt. Alexis, with boots on and weapons at hand. A faint buzzing indicates the guards have switched on their thermographic cameras. These detect a man's body heat hundreds of meters of away.
"We are operating in enemy territory, so when we arrive at a campsite like this, we install a 360 degree surveillance system with watch turns, so we can react if enemies should appear within a radius in which we can act," the officer explains. "In that case we would raise camp to pursue, and stop or obstruct them."
To investigate a target, observation patrols first make sure to secure their rearguards. They then approach under camouflage and in absolute silence, surveilling the objective's every move. The goal of a mission like this is precisely to discard rumors and confirm that a tip has indeed led to a valid, operational target. For that, operatives must go right to the edge of a terrorist den.
Thermal cameras register everything, which is then transferred into a secured network and dissected by analysts. Even in the middle of the desert operatives are never alone. Their vehicles have satellite dishes fixed between two machine guns and extra water supplies, allowing constant liaison with COS headquarters.
A precision drop guided by satellite, and a pleasant surprise for the morning.
This tool is a vital thread that allows top commanders to give the green light if a strategic target is found and the mission needs to continue and be supplied. As dawn approaches, after Captain Alexis has completed and sent off his report, a gentle rumble arises from the south. A C-160 transport plane flies over and parachutes a reinforced plastic container within 20 meters of the camp.
It is a precision drop guided by satellite, and a pleasant surprise for the morning. Water bottles, rations and a little extra for breakfast: croissants and raisin buns — for the corsairs of the Sahel, compliments of the flying aces of Poitou.