The British contingent to the United Nations mission in Mali (MINUSMA) have been operational now for eight months.
In that time, the 250-strong Task Group have been busy disrupting insurgent activity across the open eastern Malian plains, whilst reassuring the local population, and crucially enabling humanitarian relief and assistance to an area ravaged by violent Islamic State-inspired terrorism since before 2015.
This article was written by Robert Clark and Will Meddings.
Robert Clark is a Defence Policy Associate at the Henry Jackson Society. Prior to this he served in the British Army for 13 years, including tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. Will Meddings is the Commanding Officer of the Long Range Reconnaissance group. A British Army officer in the Royal Anglian Regiment, he has experience of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and across Africa.
The British soldiers, drawn from 2nd Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment and the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, form the Long Range Reconnaissance Group (LRRG), pushing out well beyond the areas where other UN troops can patrol. Here, the British conduct intelligence gathering operations and local population reassurance patrols, deep inside what has up until now been enemy controlled territory.
As part of enabling the humanitarian assistance to the region, the Task Group have recently been involved in facilitating a special UN Human Rights team, investigating suspected war crimes.
On 8 August, between 50-100 Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS) fighters rode into four villages around Outtagouna, close to the Niger and Burkina Faso borders in the south east of the country. Here, the Islamist fighters cordoned off the villages, and began ruthlessly murdering any males over the age of 15. In all, 57 were reported killed, and a dozen more wounded.
As reports of the killings came through, the British launched Operation MAKARA 2. Fortunately, the Task Group were due to patrol the same area, located approximately 150km south of their base in Gao. Launching a day earlier than planned, the 250 British soldiers accelerated the deployment of their specially designed off-road desert vehicles and arrived less than 36 hours after the attacks.
The LRRG stayed on-site for three weeks; they are the only nation who stay out on the ground for longer than a week. During this time, the troops were involved in carefully collecting eye-witness accounts from the local population and physical evidence left by the attackers, as well as providing security. In addition, they hosted an eight person UN Human Rights investigation team, who flew out several days later to conducted crime scene investigation and interview local Malians.
Due to their rapid advance to the area and their presence in the affected villages for several weeks, they were able to provide critical information to support the UN investigation. Its final report will be presented to the UN Security Council and help bring the perpetrators to justice. Furthermore, due to the continued security they provided, they also hosted a field mission from the Civilian Affairs Division, allowing MINUSMA’s community liaison officers to access villages in the area not visited for several years.
Following the return of the investigation team, the Task Group continued patrolling the area at night, deterring any further ISGS activity. Demonstrating the range of capabilities for which the British were originally requested by the UN commander in Mali, the LRRG used their unarmed Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) drones, conducting missions over the towns to identify and prevent further violence.
This light footprint approach, of a British Task Group numbering only 250 personnel, is a perfect demonstration of the tactical, operational, and even strategic level effects which the modern British Army can achieve. Deploying into a contested security environment, a small but professional force can deliver a broad range of highly effective operational missions.
Operation MAKARA 2 has highlighted the determination, versatility and wide range of capabilities the British Army have deployed to southern Mali. It has also demonstrated that a conventionally-deployed Task Group can provide the security needed for indigenous troops to counter insurgents, whilst securing the local population, and ultimately bringing to justice to those who seek to threaten innocent civilians.