France’s intervention in Africa’s Sahel region (often defined as including Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania) against Islamist insurgents (starting with 2013’s Operation Serval, which as of 2014 transitioned into the current Operation Barkhane) has now entered its 7th year. While this intervention has been arguably quite successful in routing jihadist forces, many of its battles have been critically under-reported in much of the world. Africa is thought of by many as a continent plagued by issues solely involving local actors, but that couldn’t be more incorrect. As the insurgencies in the Sahel continue to boil at a low level, soldiers from all over the EU, Asia, and the US continue to deploy to the region in various roles.
Today, we’re speaking to a French soldier from the 27th Mountain Infantry Brigade. He spent time in Chad as well as Niger as a part of Operation Barkhane in 2019, and also performed domestic counter-terror duties in France as part of Operation Sentinelle. The 27th Mountain Infantry Brigade specializes in combat operations in harsh and mountainous environments, and have established themselves as a capable and hard-fighting brigade, leading to their selection to participate in Operation Barkhane. This soldier was kind enough to offer an interview on his time in the Sahel, a perspective rarely seen.
Although the interviewee is anonymous, all photos are from Operation Barkhane, and were kindly donated for this article by @scott_lrt. Check his Instagram out for more great photography of the life of a French soldier.
So first, tell me a bit about your regiment, and what duties/deployments it’s been given recently
Our last deployment was in the Sahel in 2019 with the equivalent of two full companies in Chad, Niger and Mali. We are also deployed for Operation Sentinelle in France all year round. The Battalion is deployed every 2 years normally.
How are these deployments to Africa as well as the Sentinelle duties viewed by most soldiers in your regiment?
The deployments are universally very appreciated and almost every soldier looks forward to it. There is 5 combat companies and only 2 or 3 are deployed at a time, so there is a kind of competition to be reassigned into the ones who go. For Sentinelle it is a bit different, nowadays we go approximately 2 months per year. But in the past it was very very time consuming and the guys were tired and sick of it. It also depends on the location, on some the food or lodging is better than others. Some have an operational tempo that is more exhausting than others. In the end, one of the main arguments for Sentinelle as well as deployments overseas is the extra money.
What’s the difference between the combat loadout soldiers wear when they’re on Sentinelle vs an overseas deployment?
On the soldier it is basically the same: bulletproof vest, rifle, ammo, first-line gear. On Sentinelle we have pepper-spray and a telescopic baton, and we wear the traditional beret (the “Tarte” in our case). On overseas deployments we carry more ammo, a first aid kit, a backpack with water, food, ammo, this kind of stuff. On Sentinelle, everyone is only using an automatic rifle (either HK416 or Famas) but on an overseas deployment you have your special weapon (FN Minimi, Grenade Launcher, MAG, AT4, etc.)
To give you an idea, I weigh around 80kg (176lb). On Sentinelle, I weighed around 100kg (200lb), and on OPEX around 120kg (264lb) without my FN MAG and its ammunition. Also on Sentinelle you must wear standard issue boots and clothes. On an overseas deployment you can wear any shoes and clothes you want as long as it matches the regular French camouflage.
And is the issued equipment liked by soldiers? From an outsiders perspective it appears that the French issued equipment is pretty nice.
It depends. Recently there’s been some improvements. Overall the clothes are pretty durable, but 5-10 years outdated compared to the stuff you find on the market. The bulletproof vests are universally appreciated (even if you always have the 5.11 fanatics who swear it’s shit). Helmet is comfortable. Boots are fine, gloves are shit. But in the end you spend a few hundred euros a year buying stuff for comfort. Like a down jacket that’s actually warm and doesn’t weigh a ton for example. Also in elite units like mine or the Paras we get to have new gear first, especially before deployment.
How has the transition from the FAMAS to the HK 416 been? While the 416 is in many ways a technically superior rifle i’m sure the change wasn’t 100% agreed with.
Well I did all of my boot camp (around 8 months in total) and my first training camps with the FAMAS (the FAMAS F1 and then the Felin) and it was good. The Famas F1 is light, very reliable, and indestructible. But it was outdated. Then when we switched to the HK416, it was universally welcomed. You can add lots of accessories, it’s easier to clean, and easy to use. The short barrel version is a common favorite as the long one can feel bulky. As always people don’t like change but in the end we really like it. Also, all of this debate about the fact that it was not made in France was a civilian debate mostly. Honestly in the army we don’t really care, we’d rather have German HK, Belgian MAG58 and Austrian Glocks than French outdated weapons like the FAMAS, ANF1 and PAMAS
Moving on to your time in Africa, what differences did you see between your time in Chad and Niger?
The mission was totally different. I will not be able to get into all of the details for obvious reasons. But in Chad the mission was only guard duty. So you spent hours days and night in watchtowers or at the gates and it was boring as fuck. The only good side is that it is the biggest French base so the accommodation was great, with air conditioning, TV, and the food is great. Also we could do some cool training with planes and such. In Niger we were only a small group in a “fort” (what Americans would call a Combat Outpost) with way less comfort (sleeping in tents, etc.) but it felt more “in the field”. Mission there was to escort and guard. It was still not the fanciest missions compared to Mali, but it was cool. We were less than 4km (2.5 miles) from the enemy and you could feel it.
How did you feel the overall security situation was in Tchad and Niger during your deployment? Did you feel safe overall or in danger?
In Chad it felt very very safe. We were pretty far from the action zone of Boko Haram, who were hiding in the Lake Tchad area. Life is almost normal in N’djaména (terrorism wise). In Niger we were pretty close to the terrorists so we were way more careful. We had lots of intel about sleeper cells and bombers in town, and full groups of the enemy were around 4km (2.5 miles) from us.
Did you ever come under fire from terrorists in either country? I’ve heard that often times they’re hesitant to engage French forces because of the obvious fire superiority.
We didn’t, fortunately/unfortunately. One morning we received indirect fire, 3 heavy rockets, but the closest one fell like a few hundred meters from the walls of our outpost. It was not clear if they targeted us or the Nigerien Forces. Anyway, no casualties. Just a good wake up call! Indeed, they would not engage us as they knew the retaliation would be terrible for them. And we never went to poke them either. Local forces and civilians had some attacks in the region though.
How were the Nigerien forces (if you had much interaction with them)?
We saw a lot of their special forces and they really looked well equipped, well trained, and combat proven. Their regular forces are the exact opposite, mismatched gear, poor equipment, looking totally uninvolved in the war in their own country.
How did you observe local civilians feeling about the presence of French/coalition troops?
In Chad they were totally indifferent. Some like the French presence because they know we are here for them, and sometimes they are a bit hostile because we’ve been there for the past 40 years or something, and they do not really understand or feel what good we do. They just see us as new colonizer. But in Niger we are welcomed, in towns and in the remote villages. People wave at us, smile, and have a generally positive attitude towards us. They like to talk and interact with us, and I think that’s because they’ve experienced terrorism first hand and felt the improvement in their lives when the local forces, with the help of the coalition, regained power over the area.
Chad and Niger are Francophone countries, did you notice any cultural similarities to French culture?
Honestly not that much. Maybe a foreigner would but I don’t know. Except for the language. Most of the people there define themselves by their religion or ethnic group more than their country.
Many people outside of France are pretty fascinated with the Legion Etrangere (Foreign Legion), have you had any experience with them?
My dad was in it for 20 years, so I guess I have a good knowledge of it.
I only worked with the 2nd Regiment Etranger de Genie (combat engineers) on exercises, because they are attached to the Mountain Infantry Brigade. They are professionals, real workhorses, but they feel a bit stupid sometimes. The thing I know for sure is that if you take the example of Barkhane, they get shit done. In 2019, no one from my battalion in Niger, Chad, or Mali had contact with the enemy because the officers are in a way too cautious/scared of losing someone out of fear that it would affect their careers. The Legion last winter killed several terrorists in the same regions because the officers and the troops are kind of fanatical about the mission. Also, generals and the public don’t really care when a foreigner gets killed.
To your knowledge, how has Boko Haram (ISWA) adapted to the intervention?
I guess they did. They got their asses kicked with Operation Serval, and they began to understand that they couldn’t win their war with conventional combat when the French army is involved. So they went for more typical guerrilla warfare: attacking soft targets, IEDS, suicide attacks, etc. Plus some of them signed peace treaties with the local governments. Now they are split in hundreds of groups, sometimes fighting each other. They also use anti-government/anti-western propaganda, trying to get the population with them. They utilize the terrain a lot. They use the borders to attack and then retreat into a country where they know the forces won’t be able to follow them. Now the African coalitions have the right to cross the borders without waiting for approval when they are tracking terrorists. They are also going more and more south to Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and even the Ivory Coast lately, because the French forces are not really implanted there yet as the local governments were not really expecting them. They use a terrain that has a denser vegetation to hide from drones and ISR. I think the future of the war against terrorism in Africa will be jungle warfare.
It’s interesting that you say that, do you think the French army is ready to fight a jungle war? I know there’s a dedicated jungle regiment in the Legion as well as a jungle training center in their base in Guyane
It has been proven that jungle war is the worst, especialy for a regular army. The French always kept a real savoir-faire in this type of combat, and perhaps in the future they will do even more training in Guyane, Gabon, and the Ivory Coast. Also, we still have lots of veterans from the operations in the Central African Republic a few years ago where there’s been close combat, not in real jungle, but pretty dense vegetation, with tall grass and such. Typical central African landscape.
What was your experience with foreign militaries during your deployment, and how well do you think the coalition in Africa as a whole is working together?
Honestly I didn’t work much with other armies. We had some Nigerien soldiers with us when we were in the field but that’s it. From what I’ve heard from my friends who were in Mali they are terrible soldiers. Poorly trained, poorly equipped. As far as the coalition, I honestly have no idea how things work between them. France gives tactical and logistical support (intel, airstrikes, etc.).
Many people say that Africa is going to be a new major global battleground against jihadist terrorism, while this is clearly already true to an extent, do you agree with that prediction based on your experiences?
I would agree. The thing is, Islam in general is growing in Africa, be it by force or by choice. Countries that used to be mostly a blend of Christians and animists have more and more Muslims. And, from what I’ve seen, they hate each other. The cultural conflicts that always existed (like between settled farmers and nomadic shepherds) are exacerbated by their different religions, and religious extremism grows on conflicts. I don’t think we’ll see religious “states” like ISIS’s caliphate in Syria and Iraq. But we sure should keep an eye on Somalia, Niger, Libya, Sudan, and Mauritania. The good thing for us is that Africa is a bit too tribal to be federated under one banner, be it the Islamic one or any other. They feel Peul, Tuareg, Hausa, Bambara, etc. before they feel Muslim, so inside conflicts and incapacity to work together would be their weakness. If Islamic extremism grows in Africa, it will feed on lack of education, poverty, secular conflicts between tribes, and defiance against the west, more than real religious convictions.