Back in 2014 France established a counterterrorism force consisting of 3,000, and later 4,000 French special operations and support personnel to pursue Islamic terrorists that move around in the western Sahel (semi-desert areas of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso). The Sahel is the dry area south of the Sahara Desert that stretches across northern Africa. The key to this counterterror operation was provision of sufficient air transport to quickly move troops to areas where there was an upsurge in Islamic terrorist activity, or to quickly move troops during wide area attacks on Islamic terrorist camps. These air mobility tactics worked. Captured Islamic terrorists as well as intercepted communications revealed that the local al Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups came to consider the French operation a major obstacle and threat.
The French force was equipped with hundreds of armored vehicles, 20 transport and attack helicopters, six jet fighters and three large UAVs. There are also two twin engine C-160 air transports available for use within the Sahel. Supplies and reinforcements are regularly flown in using long-range transports, like the C-17, belonging to NATO allies like the U.S. and Britain. From the beginning the French force included a thousand French troops in Mali and the rest dispersed to other Sahel bases and ready to quickly move anywhere in the region that Islamic terrorist activity had been detected.
The French assessment was that the Sahel was still troubled by thousands of Islamic terrorists and that this situation could not be taken care of quickly. In order to maintain pressure on the Islamic terrorists the French force organized cooperation with troops and police in all the nations covered.
France also tried to get other NATO nations involved, but few were willing to contribute many, or any, troops to the Sahel counterterrorism effort. The Americans had some special operations troops in areas adjacent to Mali and also contributed UAVs and transports. Other NATO nations were persuaded to contribute a small force of four to six helicopters to support the 13,000 African peacekeepers in northern Mali. Each year a new air transport force comes to Mali, along with a few hundred troops to operate and maintain the helicopters. All these Mali peacekeeping operations were largely financed by EU (European Union) nations.
In 2017 France persuaded the EU to finance the UN approved “G5 Sahel Joint Force.” This authorized five (the G5) Sahel nations (Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) to form a separate counterterrorism force. The G5 also received some contributions from the United States.
The idea for this G5 force has been around since 2015 but it was only by the end of 2016 that the countries involved agreed on the details. This included who would provide what in terms of the 5,000 soldiers and police needed and where they would be based. The G5 force would be stationed in three operational areas where troops familiar with local conditions would work. Sahel East consists of troops from Chad and Niger. Sahel Central is staffed by troops from Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso while Sahel West would mainly use troops from Mali and Mauritania. France helped getting some of the G5 force operational by the end of 2017. The G5 Force is part of French plan to shrink and eventually disband the French force that has been in the Sahel since 2013 and reduce the 13,000 strong UN peacekeeper force in northern Mali.
The G5 nations already cooperated by sharing intelligence and providing quick access to their territory by the French force. In addition, the Americans provided satellite and UAV surveillance and other intel services, especially analysis and access to nearly all their data on Islamic terrorist activities in the region.
The Sahel nations have few roads or railroads and air transportation is the main, and most expensive, way to move things around quickly. Air mobility is a major advantage because the Islamic terror groups survive largely by operating a smuggling operation for illegal drugs, weapons and illegal migrants moving north to the Mediterranean coast and then across the sea to Europe. This is a profitable trade as long as you have the trusted, and often armed, personnel in the several countries the smugglers must traverse slowly along the few roads. The Islamic terror groups establish business relationships with locals that includes assurances that there will be no unnecessary attacks on civilians and that jobs will be provided to locals who cooperate. Al Qaeda has come to dominate this smuggling operation because, unlike ISIL, they recognize the need to get along with Moslems, or even non-Moslems, who do not agree with Islamic terrorism. ISIL is more resistant to that sort of thing and only lets up the constant violence when the alternative is elimination of ISIL presence in an area.
All this counterterrorism effort was meant to keep the Islamic terrorists in the Sahel weak and disorganized. So far that has worked, but these groups have been around since 2007, are still in business as gangsters smuggling drugs and illegal migrants north and receiving support from Islamic terrorists in Europe and the Persian Gulf. Islamic terrorists continue to carry out attacks in Mali (mainly the north) and in the G5 states to let the world know that Islamic terrorists were still present, and a threat to them throughout the western Sahel.