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Uncovering the civilian toll of France’s anti-jihadist war in Mali

‘The children who were killed are not jihadists… I demand justice for our children.’

A fighter jet in flight ABACA/Reuters
Handout photo released by the French military shows a Rafale fighter jet refuelling en route to strike targets in northern Mali on 4 February, 2013.

It was a January afternoon when Madabbel Diallo heard fighter jets circling overhead. He paid them no mind: French aircraft regularly hunt jihadists in this part of central Mali. He was attending a wedding, sitting with the groom’s father just outside his village of Bounti, Diallo said, sipping tea with friends and relatives, looking forward to the feast being prepared.

Then came the first devastating explosion, quickly followed by another, and then a third. Shrapnel tore through Diallo’s leg, leaving him bleeding heavily, unable to stand. Dead and mangled bodies – guests at what moments before was a celebration – littered the ground.

  • At a glance: Civilians dispute French casualty claims

  • At least 25 more civilians have been killed by French forces in Mali since 2013 than publicly admitted, based on eyewitness accounts and leaked documents.
  • In one case, the civilian was buried on the spot and no public record of the shooting was filed.
  • The French military’s process for identifying targets and its broader decision-making have been faulted by the UN.
  • UN calls for an independent inquiry into an attack on the village of Bounti, where 19 civilian casualties were confirmed, have been ignored by the French military.
  • Growing local grievances over civilian casualties are boosting jihadist recruitment.

Diallo’s cousin, Mamoudou Diallo, was also caught in the bombing. When he came to his senses, nearly everyone around him was dead. In the evening, Mamoudou recounted, the survivors “picked up heads, arms, and feet and put them into a big hole to bury them”.

French forces are in Mali as part of Operation Barkhane, a 5,100-strong military mission to root out violent jihadists in the Sahel. The conflict in the northern and central regions of Mali has forced 370,000 people from their homes and compounded existing problems of food insecurity, rural poverty, and deadly community tensions.

The French army maintains “about 30” people died in the Bounti attack – it has not provided a more exact number – while the UN peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSMA, has set the toll at 22. France insists all those killed were armed jihadists and denies any wedding took place in Bounti that day. 

Eight survivors interviewed by reporters during a joint investigation by The New Humanitarian and Der Spiegel dispute the military’s account of the Bounti incident.

“There were no jihadists,” Madabbel Diallo said in January by phone from his hospital bed in Douentza, 50 kilometres from Bounti. “No weapons… not even a knife.”

An investigation by MINUSMA came to a similar conclusion in a report released in March: “The group affected by the strike was overwhelmingly composed of civilians who are persons protected against attacks under international law,” it stated.

The French military has admitted to accidentally killing a total of seven civilians in Mali since 2013 – the start of its first deployment in the country. However, based on an examination of allegations collated by the conflict-mapping non-profit Armed Conflict Location & Data Project (ACLED), The New Humanitarian calculates that over 50 civilians were likely killed by French forces between then and now.

About this investigation

This article is the first in a two-part series exploring the humanitarian cost of the anti-jihadist conflict in Mali, and France’s broader military role in the Sahel.

... Jointly reported with Der Spiegel and funded by a grant from IJ4EU, it is based on half a year of investigation and reporting, including travel to Bamako, Mopti, Sevaré, Gao, Gossi, and Timbuktu – as well as the use of satellite imagery and open-sourced data.

The New Humanitarian and Der Spiegel examined nine cases in depth, largely through on-the-ground reporting that included interviewing survivors and witnesses in person, with additional interviews conducted by phone. 

Neither the press office of the French army in Paris nor the Barkhane command in Bamako, Mali, answered the specific questions The New Humanitarian and Der Spiegel repeatedly put to them concerning the civilian deaths involving French forces.

The New Humanitarian independently confirmed 25 civilian deaths in addition to the seven officially acknowledged, a toll more than four times higher than the official French tally. 

One case involved the previously unreported death of a civilian killed by French forces near the village of Tagarangabout in central Mali on 17 May 2020. The man was shot dead as he approached Barkhane soldiers on a motorbike carrying two other passengers. He was buried on the spot – an incident that had been kept secret.

Laws of war

The attack on Bounti by French Mirage fighter jets on 3 January has raised questions over whether Operation Barkhane does everything possible to avoid civilian casualties – especially in its air operations – and if it follows international humanitarian law to hold its forces accountable when things go awry. 

The lack of accountability by France over civilian deaths fuels local anger, Bréma Ely Dicko, an academic and adviser to former Malian prime minister Moctar Ouane, told The New Humanitarian in a phone interview from Bamako last month. He added that this has the potential to build support for the jihadist movements fighting the Malian government and French forces.

“If there had been apologies at least, maybe people could have mourned and moved on,” Dicko told The New Humanitarian. “But this denial is a cause for frustration. Those who have lost brothers, cousins… some will leave it to God, while some will want revenge.”

France’s war from the sky is likely to intensify. On 10 June, President Emmanuel Macron announced a drawdown of French forces, but rather than leaving entirely, the anti-jihadist effort will rely more on air power, special forces, and collaboration with European and local armies, Macron said.

Under international humanitarian law, armed forces have an obligation to ensure they “are not targeting civilians deliberately, and to ensure that [they] are not causing disproportionate civilian casualties”, Dapo Akande, a lawyer and professor of international law at the University of Oxford, told The New Humanitarian.

If concerns arise over the possible violation of international humanitarian law – also known as the laws of war – then the military has a duty to investigate, an accepted rule applicable in any type of armed conflict

“The position of France is that they have evidence that their strikes are well targeted, but don’t present this evidence,” said Ornella Moderan, head of the Sahel programme at the Institute for Security Studies based in Pretoria, South Africa. “They essentially say ‘take our word for it, and everything will be fine.’ Of course, this isn’t very convincing.” 

Bounti is the best-known recent case of civilian casualties at the hands of French forces. Several others have gone relatively unnoticed, buried in news reports, or haven’t been reported at all.

READ MORE: How France targets ‘terrorists’

The French army has refused to share further details on the decision-making leading to the targeting of the gathering in Bounti – or any other strikes. Yet, this targeting process is central to its obligation under international law to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible.

France and MINUSMA clash on whether there was a wedding in Bounti. But there’s a broader disagreement at play – a struggle over the laws of armed conflict and who can legally be killed.

“The traditional interpretation of international law… authorises states to strike individuals when they take an active part in the conflict,” said Rebecca Mignot-Mahdavi, a researcher at the Asser institute in the Netherlands who studies the French army’s targeting process.

However, since the September 11 attacks on the United States and the so-called “War on Terror”, some states have stretched the interpretation of the law, she explained: “There’s a new version of this concept: You identify individuals who are members of armed groups in order to target them more extensively – both in space and time – not only when they use weapons… It’s a logic of anticipating the threat. That’s how it’s justified.”

The Bounti strike targeted individuals “who were not fighting, but whose characteristics could make one think that they were part of a terrorist armed group”, she explained. “And this, of course, puts the civilian population at much greater risk than the rules of engagement that follow more traditional interpretations of the laws of armed conflict.”

Mignot-Mahdavi noted that her legal analysis is based on information gathered from unofficial sources because – unlike the US military – French forces do not share their interpretation of the law.

An exception to the opaqueness of the French army are the weekly situation reports published by Operation Barkhane. The New Humanitarian has collated the information on airstrikes mentioned in the reports from 2018 to the present to better understand the military's rationale.

We calculated that French aircraft flew a total of nearly 5,000 combat missions – described as “hunting” by Barkhane. But there is additional information on only 104 airstrikes, which the military says led to at least 544 “terrorists” being “neutralised” – the euphemism commonly used by French forces. The involvement of a drone was mentioned in about half the deaths.

In the majority of cases, there are no details on what justified the strike. Where there is an explanation, it is usually vague, such as referring to men in a “suspicious” gathering.

But the reports do at times provide details on what was found after the attacks. Top of the list are motorbikes, mentioned in 45 strikes that led to 244 deaths. Barkhane mentions finding – or seeing – weapons in only 28 attacks.

Motorbikes are the “favourite mode of transportation for jihadists, and so to be riding a motorbike is considered suspect behaviour [by the French military]”, said Yvan Guichaoua, an academic at the University of Kent. “But it’s not because you’re on a motorbike that you’re a terrorist. That’s a kind of inversion of logic.”

According to a French parliamentary report, airstrikes and ground operations in Mali killed 859 people deemed “terrorists” between January 2020 and mid-April 2021.

In the most recent case, on 25 March, five young men died in a single airstrike about 25 kilometres from the village of Talataye, in eastern Mali. According to information unofficially shared with The New Humanitarian by a researcher involved in the investigation at MINUSMA, all of those killed were civilians aged between 16 and 20. 

“One of them was my son,” said Sabidine Ag’Cheikhanoun, speaking to The New Humanitarian over the phone, his voice tightening with emotion. He was among a group of friends that had gone hunting in the bush with their rifles. “The children who were killed are not jihadists,” he insisted. “I demand justice for our children.” 

The French military confirmed that it conducted an airstrike in Talataye, but it said all those killed were jihadists. It provided no further explanation or details – not even a death toll – saying only that three motorbikes had been destroyed. 

“But this denial is a cause for frustration. Those who have lost brothers, cousins… some will leave it to God, while some will want revenge.”

In another incident, in February 2020, a spokesperson for the French forces announced they had conducted two airstrikes against “terrorists” near a nomad camp in Tine Alidda, central Mali. According to four witnesses interviewed by The New Humanitarian, the first attack killed an unknown number of people, but it is unclear whether they belonged to an armed group or why they were targeted. 

The next morning, those who had survived were loaded into a pickup to bring them to hospital. The vehicle was targeted by a second strike, which, according to witnesses, killed dozens of civilians who had gathered nearby to bring their cattle to the market. 

“When the strike happened, I was working in the field. It was so close. I threw myself on the ground,” said Ibochka ag Mossa, a farmer in his sixties. “I know 15 people who died that day… They were my neighbours. All of them were herders.”

Recognising a jihadist

Since the French army came to Mali to fight jihadists over eight years ago, the area under Malian government control has steadily shrunk, with armed groups feeding on local grievances – especially over the human rights violations of the Malian army, but also, increasingly, over the French presence, with a series of anti-French demonstrations in Bamako. 

Today, the jihadists operate over more territory than the government. At least 50 French soldiers have died in the conflict, and more than 800 Malian soldiers, according to ACLED data.

French soldiers are trained to respect the “rules of engagement”. They say they are proud of this, albeit sometimes slightly frustrated. “We’re an army that respects the law,” said a captain who wanted to remain anonymous because they weren’t authorised to speak to the media. “I cannot count how many missions we’ve cancelled, or launched too late, because of the laws," she added. “Everything has to be validated through a chain of command.”

French troops are often in Mali for the first time, usually serving stints of three to four months. It’s often difficult to tell the difference between civilians and enemy fighters, several who spoke to The New Humanitarian said. One soldier explained that among the tell-tale signs he relies on to identify jihadists are the short trousers they tend to wear – a sign of piety. “And weapons, of course,” said another. 

Four of the seven civilians the French army has admitted to killing were shot when they failed to stop at checkpoints. No soldier has been prosecuted by the Barkhane command for any civilian deaths, and they are immune from prosecution by the Malian authorities under an agreement between the two countries.

In the previously unreported shooting near the village of Tagarangabout in May last year, the French military admitted to accidentally killing the civilian in an August 2020 letter sent to MINUSMA and leaked to The New Humanitarian. 

A soldier searches a man standing up, his back is to the camera.
Benoit Tessier/REUTERS
A French soldier of the 2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment searches a man during an area control operation in the Gourma region during Operation Barkhane in Ndaki, Mali, 27 July, 2019.

In the official French account of the incident, a soldier opened fire on a motorbike that headed towards a Barkhane unit and failed to stop despite the soldiers’ warnings. The bike was carrying two men and a boy. The driver was shot dead and buried on the spot, while the other man ran away. The child, who was the deceased man’s son, was handed over to government social services. Compensation was later paid by the French military to the father of the victim, again according to the leaked letter.

Barkhane investigated and found its soldiers were not guilty of any criminal offense. The letter indicates that the French military also informed the International Committee of the Red Cross, but the killing was never made public – an example of the lack of transparency that some claim undermines the accountability of French forces.

“The position of France is that they have evidence that their strikes are well targeted, but don’t present this evidence.”

Such accusations of violence against civilians by the French military are not new, said Raphaël Granvaud, a researcher for the French non-profit Survie, which monitors France’s relationships with its former colonies, and who wrote a book on the French army’s presence in Africa.

”Their reaction is nearly always exactly the same,” he told The New Humanitarian. “Firstly, they don’t say anything, hoping that the accusations will remain inaudible, marginal. If they become more weighty, then they promise an internal military investigation … Then, a few months later, when the controversy is a bit forgotten, we learn incidentally that the internal inquiry found nothing and the French military is clean of all suspicions.”

There is a lack of open debate in France on military matters. “France has a culture of opaqueness on all the topics relating to its security,” said Aymeric Elluin, an advocacy officer on arms transfers at Amnesty International France. “The debate on military operations is almost non-existent.”

Deciphering what happened in Bounti

The MINUSMA investigation into what happened in Bounti is the most thorough inquiry yet into the conduct of French military action in Mali, and is damning of its failings – especially the decision-making that led to the strike. 

France insists its strike near the village followed a robust targeting process in line with the “laws of armed conflict”.

According to the French military, one of their US-built Reaper drones had been surveilling the Bounti area for an hour and a half before the attack, tracking a motorbike carrying two men who it said were jihadists.

Jihadist groups are extemely active in Mali’s central region: Two French soldiers were killed in a December 2020 IED attack claimed by al-Qaeda-linked insurgents just 100 kilometres from Bounti. 

The motorbike then joined another group of men near Bounti, who were all “formally identified as terrorists” by the army. Two Mirage 2000 jet fighters were called in and three bombs were dropped on the gathering.

READ MORE: France’s drone wars

To try to find out how strikes are decided in practice, The New Humanitarian travelled to Niamey, the capital of neighbouring Niger, from where the French operate its drones that crisscross Sahelian airspace.

Initially, its Reaper drones were solely used for surveillance missions, but since 2019 they have been armed with laser-guided missiles. The advantage of drones is that they can stay aloft for far longer than a jet aircraft, allowing them to loiter over a target, as was the case in the Bounti attack.

Colonel Marco (it’s customary for the French military serving abroad to give only their first names) has been a combat pilot for almost three decades, but now flies Reapers. He and his small drone crew are connected remotely with the drone as it flies several thousand metres above the ground. Using a video link, they watch people’s behaviour to determine whether they are “terrorists” or just villagers.

Before a strike can be initiated, the video and the crew’s analysis is forwarded up the chain of command. “Then, depending on the orders we receive, well, we will drop the bomb or not,” said Marco.

These orders can come “very quickly”, but he is convinced that mistakes are unlikely.

“Everything is recorded, archived, and can be analysed,” he told The New Humanitarian. “If there is a problem, this protects us legally.”

But this video is not made available for public scrutiny – and the Bounti footage was not shared with either the UN investigation or French parliamentarians. “Everything is classified as a ‘Defence Secret’,” said Marco.

Florence Parly, the armed forces minister, defended that decision. And she has repeatedly stressed that Bounti was a legitimate target – and that no wedding was taking place. “There were no women and children, men, only men,” she said in an interview in January with France Inter. By and large, the French government has received little challenge to this position in parliament – even though the military has provided no additional information to confirm Parly’s claim.

The MINUSMA team conducted at least 200 interviews, analysed satellite imagery, and visited the site of the strike. They concluded that 19 civilians had been killed in the attack on what was clearly a wedding, alongside three individuals presumed to belong to Katiba Serma, an al-Qaeda-affiliated armed group. 

“I cannot count how many missions we’ve cancelled, or launched too late, because of the laws.”

In total, MINUSMA said there could have been five potential jihadists at the event – attended by around 100 people – two of whom had left by the time the bombs were dropped: A scenario that would make the strike difficult to justify under the principle of proportionality in international law. 

Furthermore, the report explained, the presence of jihadists was not enough reason to target the gathering. “The allegiance or the sporadic support of an individual [to armed groups] is not sufficient to consider them a member of an organised armed group, according to international humanitarian law, nor to establish that he participates directly in the conflict,” it said.

The report also raised doubts over the quality of French decision-making leading to the attack. “It seems hard to believe that in the circumstances (one and a half hours of drone observation) that [the French army] could determine that all the participants in the gathering were members of an organised armed group,” it noted.

Fuelling grievance

The accounts by Madabbel Diallo, Mamoudou, and six other witnesses interviewed by The New Humanitarian tally with the findings of the UN investigation. They also provide further context of what happened that day – and a possible inkling into what went wrong.

The wedding of a young groom from Bounti to a bride from a nearby village was a gender-segregated event because the mixing of men and women is forbidden by “the men from the bush” – the jihadists, said Madabbel Diallo. 

The men had gathered under the shade of trees about a kilometre away from the women who stayed in the village preparing the meal – which could help explain why the event didn’t look like a wedding to the French military watching from the circling drone. 

When Diallo arrived, he sat with other elders not far from a couple of motorbikes. He was categorical that nobody was armed: “Old people don’t like it when they see the youth with weapons,” he told The New Humanitarian.

MINUSMA has urged both the Malian and French governments to launch an independent inquiry. But none of the witnesses from Bounti interviewed by The New Humanitarian said they had been contacted by Barkhane. 

Instead, France has questioned the credibility of the UN report, raising doubts over the “unknown allegiances” of the anonymous testimonies it published. It has even stated that MINUSMA was part of an “information war” against France. 

“We must constantly be on the lookout for these manipulations,” said Général François Lecointre, then the French army’s chief of defence staff, in an interview with the French newspaper Figaro. “Very clearly [the UN report] was an attack against the French army, against Operation Barkhane, against the legitimacy of our commitments.” 

The conflict is a lot more than just an ‘information war’ for Aliou Barry, a 43-year-old farmer who fled Bounti after the airstrike. He brought his family to Sevaré, 180 kilometres away, to join thousands of other people uprooted by the violence in central Mali and seeking refuge.

Barry can’t find work, but he is too afraid to return home. His three children are still affected by what they witnessed, crying out in their sleep for friends that are no longer with them. “If this happened where you live, you wouldn’t stop thinking about it either,” he told The New Humanitarian. 

This investigation was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.

Additional research by Walid Ag Minami, Martin Miski, Logan Williams, Giacomo Zandonini, and collaboration with Bellingcat. 

Edited by Obi Anyadike.

*This article has been ameded, to reflect the correct estimated death toll of Malian solidiers. The figure originally used was 8,000. The correct estimate is 800.

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