mardi 22 octobre 2019

French Operation Barkhane - Snapshots from a hot day in Timbuktu, Mali (+ update #5)

NB: Translation from French to English of a previously published blogpost (see here for the French version).

The forward operating base (FOB) of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (UNMISMA) in Timbuktu (Central Mali), known as "Super Camp" due to its size, and the adjoining French FOB of the Operation Barkhane, both located near the civilian/military airport, were targeted by a complex and massive attack on April 14, 2018. 

After dozen shots of mortars and rockets from 2pm onwards, 3 VBIEDs (or vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices) painted in UN colors or disguised as Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) vehicles tried to force the French FOB’s entrances (vehicles captured during a previous attack on an Malian base, and for some of them painted with new colors). The aim was to pave the way for an assault by two dozen jihadists from Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (or JNIM, a group linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). Some foot soldiers wore explosive belts, disguised with uniforms from local forces, and wanted to take advantage of the chaotic situation caused by the two first VBIEDs to enter in the FOB despite fortified checkpoints, bastion walls, barbed wires… and cause a chaotic situation. 22 attackers will be identified at the end of the intelligence work during the after action report.

The result of the first VBIED's massive explosion on the entrance of the French FOB, and the VAB armored vehicle visible on the background placed in the middle of the entrance to prevent the passage of other vehicles.

The fight would not end until 6 hours later, after several heroic actions described in part below. Indeed, there are several points to highlight about the response of French armed forces during this harsh day. Usually housing the equivalent of an infantry company with support elements, the French FOB was almost empty that day, with French patrols outside the compound ongoing and long-term operations in the surrounding region (more than 600km to the east). 

The 1st vehicle exploded at the entrance of the French camp at 3pm, and the blast caused the first French casualties (in particular a non-commissioned officer with a serious head injury, see below). A second vehicle was seen on approach, refusing to stop; French soldiers at the entry control check-point shot warning shots, then targeted the vehicle to stop it. For many French soldiers, it was the beginning of a very significant consumption of their FAMAS, SCAR or HK416 rifles magazines to stop the VBIED (see below), that finally be stopped by the heavy return fire. 

In the same time a Nepal-born legionnaire maneuvered a VAB infantry armored vehicle after the first explosion in the middle of the entrance to block access to any other potential VBIEDs, then climbed into the 12.7mm heavy machine gun turret on the right of the driver’s seat to return fire with ammunition strips on another VBIED. While being the target of enemy infantry, and being in an unprotected turret. In fact after the first VBIEDs, several groups of jihadist foot soldiers tried to attack French positions taking advantage of the confusion. At the moment, the defenders are less numerous than the attackers on the frontlines. 

Among the French soldiers present, a dozen legionnaires were on duty at the guard posts (from 13th DBLE, an infantry unit, and 1st REG, a French Foreign Legion engineer regiment). Elements of a HUMINT exploitation team (including a woman) from the 2nd Hussars Regiment (RH) were also present. They quickly reached their combat posts at the FOB’s entrances (while some Blue Helmets are also present nearby). Some used their automatic pistol during the firefight, a handgun used in addition of their principal rifle weapon, in particular after a lack of full magazines for their FAMAS. Those on their combat vests having been used due to the intensity of the firefight. Some of them engaged the enemy at a close distance (less than 20 meters), while the enemy, mobile and in small groups, attacked in several waves. A sniper of the combat group of legionnaires present during the attack, a young legionnaire with less than 2 years of service, was also an important actor of the decisive response. He quickly posted at the top of the water tower overlooking the FOB, and supported very effectively the operations with his decisive shoots and observations made from a point overlooking all the camp. 

Another entrance after a blast, from the UNMISMA FOB, after another VBIED.

A sergeant of the 1st REG was the chief of a group of 8 sappers (the name of French engineers). He recently remembered during an interview that the siren on the rocket approach warning system rang at 2pm, announcing the imminent arrival, and allowing them to return to their concrete shelters. Once the mortar fire was over, the sergeant and his group began the search of unexploded shells to secure them. While they prepared their EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) equipment, they heard gunshots and understand that the Blue Helmets were under attacked. Their action then consisted to block the FOB’s entrance and help to neutralize terrorist groups. Two legionnaires of the 1st REG wounded during the troops in contact are since fully recovered from their injuries, and returned to their units. The group leader sergeant Andeï awarded the French Cross for Military Valor, with a star in bronze (Mention in brigade-level dispatches). The "Croix de la Valeur Militaire" is a military decoration that recognizes an individual bestowed a Mention in Dispatches earned in operations abroad. 

The chief in charge of this outpost was a captain from the 13th DBLE, who had particularly reviewed defense plans (combat outposts, shooting areas, guards, system of alerts, training...) in the weeks before the attack. Definitely a move in the right direction. When the attack began with the first VBIED, it was 2pm., nap time for everyone in this region due to the weather. The captain then jumped out of his tent (poorly dressed, because it is nap time...), combat boots not laced, helmet quickly put on his head, and combat vest quickly donned… He immediately began to command the defense with a combat group available, and support staff (see below). He was completely dressed only at the end of the attack 6 hours later, after the last adversary was neutralized and that a legionnaire has meanwhile brought him something to wear. Enough action for this true warrior to build a legitimate legend among legionnaires. 

The captain was an atypical profile, a real fighter, and awarded the Cross for Military Valor in September 2019 with a bronze palm, rather rare award because the insignia is linked to a mention in dispatches by the army, the highest echelon of the award. Other legionnaires also awarded after that harsh day (see below and above). Their action under fire was little known until recently, and unfortunately not very well promoted by French authorities. The description was even subject to criticism outside official channels for security operations’ (SECOPS) politics. Things are slowly changing. The event was reported during the last 2019 demonstration capabilities of the French Army's, and promoted as an example of operations carried out by the Army abroad (see the video at 1h13m), in particular for specific issues: fighting spirit, cohesion of a disparate ad hoc detachment, importance of frequent training… 

Update#3: A sergeant currently from the 2nd REP (famous paratroopers regiment of the French Foreign Legion) was recently awarded the Cross for Military Valour Cross, the text of the award allowing to learn more about his action: "Engaged as a group leader within the Battle Group named Altor, distinguished himself particularly during the complex attack, by about a dozne of jihadists, of the camp of Timbuktu. Positioned in defense of the camp and while mortar shells hit the airport compound, was the target of an enemy attempting to infiltrate the defensive system. Caught under heavy fire from automatic weapons, he ordered an effective response and informed his unit commander in a very precise manner, thus enabling him to coordinate all friendly means in the area".

The UNMISMA peacekeepers’ priority in the adjacent camp (including troops from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria or Liberia) was to protect themselves from other indirect fires (mortars, rockets, etc.) that have been fired at the beginning of the attack. And they won't move much from their positions at first. The first reinforcements to arrive were the French support members present in the FOB. Thus, if hussars and legionnaires have been recently awarded (in particular during the Camerone ceremony in 2019 for the latter, the annual celebration of the French Foreign Legion), support elements were awarded Crosses for Military Valor, a more unusual case. 

At least one site major (a chief warrant officer, in charge of the defense and day-to-day organization), an operator for various support missions (catering, refrigeration, air conditioning…), and a cook (both master corporals) issued from French-based military bases thus participated, getting into position ready to respond, carrying out effective counter fires to neutralize at least 2 attackers, carrying out medical extractions under fire, and providing first aid. French wounded soldiers were then treated by the medical structure of the Swedish Blue Helmet reconnaissance unit of the UNMISMA (facility particularly reactive and professional, according to main witnesses), before the French MEDEVAC capabilities arrived. 

"Even the cook fought and used his primary weapon" is one of lessons learned repeated during the pre-projection training to underline the importance of everyone mastering the fundamental capabilities of each soldier. The event is a strong argument for the French armed forces chief of staff (CEMA) when he wants to "remilitarize" support functions (SSA for health support, SEA for fuel support, SID for infrastructures support, SCA for administrative functions...), and not to rely entirely on civilian members or private contractors. "Every soldier is a soldier" remains a mantra that proves its relevance, especially on these isolated posts where everyone is called upon to defend the FOB (guard tours, secure check points, watching the screens of remotely operated weapons…). 

In addition to action of Blue Helmets (take-off of Salvadoran light attack helicopters, for example, moves of infantry elements from Burkina Faso…), the attack was reported to the Barkhane’s command post (at Gao), and reinforcements sent to the area. At least 2 Mirage 2000 aircraft from Niamey air base brought their observation capabilities from the air, and carried out low shows of presence or shows of force, then joined by a patrol of Tigre attack helicopters from Gao. Running out of fuel so without playtime in the area, the couple of Tigre left the area 10 minutes before the arrival of 3 NH-90 transport helicopters carrying immediate medical evacuation, with doctors, equipment and airborne commandos from the Groupement de Commandos Parachutistes (GCP) to secure landing zone. 

Without air support by close combat attack capacity and guidance from the ground, the crews of NH-90 helicopters improvised a landing area, while being shot at with enemy light weapons. They dropped their teams of GCPs as close as possible to the ongoing fighting. GCPs participated in the search of enemy positions in the area near the camp (the enemy could not penetrate the camp, so terrorist groups began to disperse in the adjacent alleys) and first aid treatments for wounded soldiers. Most critical wounded soldiers were evacuated to Gao air base (with an important military hospital). Some evacuations were carried out by a French CASA tactical transport aircraft a few hours later, when the aircraft also deployed additional commandos as Quick Reaction Force via the runway at Timbuktu airport, which was then secured by Ivorian UNMISMA units. 

The mess hall of the French FOB after an hit by a mortar shell. The first aid facility (also destroyed within the first few minutes) was similar to the tent with some reinforcements, as mentionned below.

First awards for these helicopter crews (including mention in regiment-level dispatches or National Defense Medal with the Gold level) were awarded a year later. Among them, a crew member was more particularly concerned by the difficult mission to establish air-to-ground communications with the ground elements (in particular with a special forces operator) under fire, to determine the best dropping zones least exposed to enemy fires. He received a mention in brigade-level dispatches. An action done in parallel of the deconfliction of aircraft trajectories while a Mirage 2000 aircraft was flying over the area who absolutely wanted to make another low show of force despite the helicopters in the airspace near the action on the ground.

Update #1: It pas also reported by Military Times that a French liaison officer at the UNMISMA's opérationnel center help to coordinate the defense of the camp, and "managed to enlist an infantry company from Ivoire Coast to extract the four Americans and all of the Malian civilians in the bunker", non-US SOF forces (a sailor two soldiers, and an airman) surprised by the attack during a tour outside the camp, part of an U.S. military observer group advising the UN mission. As said by one Americain: "had the French not been there things would have been a lot worse".

Update #2: As an American soldier points out, this episode is also symptomatic of the difficulties sometimes encountered in US-French coordination in the area (illustrated, dramatically, in the ambush of Tongo Tongo in October 2017, see here for this specific point, in French). Since then, communication channels (in real time, not just in planning) did not seem to have been greatly improved, as the American soldiers had the greatest difficulty to get in touch with a French Quick Reaction Force (QRF), even if, French soldiers were very busy at the time in defending the FOB, but also were the closest). The upward and downward flow of information within radio networks have been very complex once again. An US QRF, then being prepared in Bamako (from military elements presents notably within the American embassy) which was preparing to go to the site, more than 1.000km away, would nevertheless not have needed to go to Timbuktu, since the elements of UNMISMA have found the isolated Americans before them.

The forward first aid post of the FOB was completely destroyed by a mortar shell at the beginning of the attack (see below the picture). Despite this, members of the French Army Medical Service (SSA) initially took care of first wounded soldiers with little equipment, in the open air (their tent had been destroyed), before the valuable Swedish aid and the advanced medical facility). French health members managed to keep all wounded soldiers alive, for several hours, despite serious injuries for some of them. 

A Romanian-born military medical assistant (a master corporal) of the French Foreign Legion (from the 1st Foreign Regiment, Regiment étranger or RE) was seriously wounded by assisting other inured comrades, and legitimately awarded during the last Camerone (with a Cross for Military and a bronze palm). He is a miraculous man. Then in a watchtower to defend the post after the first shoots and first aid operations, he was shot in the right eye, and a bullet hit his brain. Today, he is walking again. An interview of him was recently broadcast by the French Foreign Legion’s Facebook homepage. He shows a communicative optimism. He underlines, and thanks, the entire French armed forces health capability (from the ground to France-based hospitals). French specialist surgeons in neurosurgery were flown from France few hours after the attack to perform medical operations on Malian soil, and avoid transport of the injured legionnaire not yet stabilized. 

With the end of the fighting around 7pm (and the explosion shortly before of a 3rd VBIED around 6pm), security operations of the area were carried out during the night and part of the next day, with an active explosive belt discovered the next day on a still alive assailant, acting dead, who wanted to blow himself when French members approached him. He was shot down before he could activate his explosive belt. A fourth unexploded VBIED was also defused by a French EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) team. 
Update#5: The Burkina Faso battalion known as 'Badenya' or 'fraternity' in Bambara (then deployed on mandate number 6) of MINUSMA (or Burkina Faso Battalion 1 - BFA BATT 1) secured the perimeter of the Super Camp that day, along with Swedish soldiers, after repelling a wave of enemies trying to enter the perimeter, according to Erwan de Cherisey's report. A mechanized infantry force of about 800 soldiers, the battalion is normally responsible for securing a large area from Timbuktu to Ber, in addition to Timbuktu camp.

Update#6: According to the report of the Swedish armed forces (then deployed under their 7th mandate), at 2.50pm the warning sirens sounded, the first shells hitting the north of the camp, but not the area where the Swedish contingent was stationed, known as Camp Nobel, although the Swedish soldiers did feel the shockwaves of the first two suicide bombers setting off their belts. The initial fighting took place to the north of Super Camp. The action of the Swedish soldiers was to support the other units in charge of the defence of the camp and to ensure the care of the wounded.

Less than an hour after the start of the attack, the Swedish soldiers were ordered to move to the northern part of the camp where "the situation was still chaotic at the scene of the fighting. But after coordination with units from other nations present, the situation became under control". The Swedish forces also began treating the wounded, who were transported to Camp Nobel for treatment in Swedish medical facilities.

At around 6 p.m., the Swedish military relieved another contingent in their fighting positions, still in the northern part of the camp: "Although the fighting has now decreased in intensity, sporadic shooting can still be observed. A third suicide bomber drives his vehicle towards the camp. The vehicle is targeted by UN units and explodes", causing a very loud explosion.

In the early hours of the next morning, clean-up operations began in the destroyed areas, with the discovery of suicide bombers' systems, unexploded ordnance and the bodies of the attackers. This required extensive demining work, which is always a delicate operation. It was only later in the evening that "all the Swedish units returned to the Swedish part of the Super Camp, known as Camp Nobel, to recuperate", in order to carry out a debriefing of the "two long and intense past days". As a Swedish officer said a few days later: "We take care of each other and at the same time we learn from what happened so that we are better prepared the next time something like this happens". "The courage and discipline of the soldiers enabled the unit to perform well in a difficult situation, with command always guaranteed, and to react and respond well to the attack. This is a very good mark for the training of Swedish soldiers and a sign of the quality of the Swedish unit," says another.

It should be noted that a few French Special Forces of the Task Force Sabre were also present from the first minutes of the attack, without describing their action more than that, but leaping to battle stations as soon as first shots were fired. 

The water tower used by a French sniper as an observation post is also visible, at the bottom right (see above). Picture taken the next day during a visit of high officials to assess the situation.

It is also noteworthy than a French Air Force member, not from a special forces unit was also awarded, a rarer gesture due to the much lower presence of such member at such outposts. He received a Cross for Military Valor. Without having much information about his action, it is possible to note that he came from the EAC2P (escadre aérienne de commandement et de conduite projectable), an unit based near Evreux and an unique French Air Force deployable C2 Air Wing / CIS (Communications and Information Systems) with Control and Command (C2) capabilities, radio communications assets… 

To sum up, about fifteen enemies were killed. They were unable to penetrate the French FOB. 7 to 9 French soldiers were wounded. 1 Burkinabe Blue Helmet was killed in action, and a dozen blue helmets were wounded. Malian civilians suffered minor injuries. The French military members resent will not soon forget this intense event and this chaotic situation. For the legionnaires, an expression is often used: "we did something similar to Camerone, in real life, with our brothers in arms". They reacted, avoided being overwhelmed, and quickly took the initiative again. "You shall not pass!" as said by another famous guy.

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