Britain has begun a three-year deployment of 300 troops to the west African country of Mali as part of a UN peacekeeping mission, entering a region beset by an increasingly dangerous violent Islamist insurgency.
The UK forces are deploying to Gao, in the east of the country, where militants have repeatedly attacked French, European and local armed forces, including a deadly 2017 suicide attack on a military base that killed more than 50 Malians.
Major General Nick Borton, the chief of staff for operations, said “a combination of violent conflict and unprecedented migration” had led the UK to send ground troops more than 2,500 miles into the country.
Britain has rarely operated militarily in west Africa, leaving the lead to France, the former colonial power. But under Boris Johnson’s leadership, the UK wants to show it can act, in the repeated words of the mission’s commanders “as a force for good”.
Commanders insist the situation is very different from Afghanistan, where Britain volunteered to deploy to the dangerous Helmand region to take the fight to the Taliban in 2006 and where 454 soldiers were killed during combat operations.
This time British forces will form part of Minusma, a UN peacekeeping operation with 14,000 troops from 56 countries. Soldiers will engage in reconnaissance operations ranging tens of kilometres around Gao.
Nevertheless, various al-Qaida groups under the banner of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) operate in the north including Gao, while a rival Isis affiliate, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, draws strength to the south and east.
Both factions have been behind a string of attacks that killed at least 500 civilians last year.
In Mali, the insurgency also intersects with tribal tensions and political instability. In August a military coup saw the ousting of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, following anti-corruption protests.
The intention, Borton says, is not for British forces to engage in counter terror operations but instead “support the political process” – although if necessary British commanders say they will respond if attacked. “We have all the force we need,” a defence source added.
Commanders say they have limited experience of the conditions in Gao, where the temperatures can soar above 40C, and say they expect to spend the first few months “finding their way” as they increase the range of their reconnaissance. But they deny that concerns about the danger of the mission have led them to scale back.
France has been leading a separate seven-year counter terror campaign against al-Qaida and Isis-aligned groups called Operation Barkhane, across west Africa. Two of its soldiers were killed in Mali in September, taking the overall death toll to 44 since 2013.
When Barkhane started in 2013, the then prime minister, David Cameron, ruled out committing British ground forces, although the UK provides three chinook transport helicopters to the European fighters as they hunt the jihadist insurgents.
The UN mandate is otherwise attractive to Britain because it will not operate under an EU banner, ruling out involvement in an EU mission to train Mali’s police.
Experts say the British and other UN peacekeepers are at risk of improvised explosives, ambushes and rocket fire. Earlier this week three French bases were targets of a coordinated rocket attack from al-Qaida groups, although there were no reports of deaths of injuries.
Paul Melly from the foreign policy thinktank Chatham House said: “Minusma is often described the most dangerous peacekeeping mission in the world, although most of the casualties have occurred among those in active conflict, such the Malian military. You only rarely hear of reports of injuries or fatalities in the hi-tech European forces”.