What are British forces doing in Mali?

Deployments have seen British personnel work with international allies to try and stabilise the African country.

Mali in west Africa is one of the world's poorest and most unstable countries.

Forming part of the Sahel region – under continuous threat from poverty, climate change and extremism – Mali itself witnessed a coup in 2020 which overthrew its president and prime minister amid allegations of widespread corruption.

A newly-appointed, civilian leadership, carrying Mali through an 18-month period to new elections, has also had the COVID-19 pandemic to contend with.

Worsening matters on the ground, Islamic extremism from al-Qaeda and other radical splinter organisations pose a visible threat.

The end of UK peacekeeping in South Sudan in 2020 and concern that Mali could become a breeding ground for terror reaching western Europe prompted the deployment of British troops to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country.

Last December, British troops joined MINUSMA (Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), the 18,000-strong peacekeeping mission established in 2013.

The British Army's Long Range Recce Group in Mali (Picture: British Amy).

About 250 personnel, mostly from the Light Dragoons and 2nd Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, are supporting MINUSMA, with the UK's contribution named Operation Newcombe.

Deployed to Gao in the east of Mali, the British task group offers long-range reconnaissance expertise to the 60-nation mission, while a further 50 personnel, including administrators and logisticians, form part of a national support element.

Rather than direct engagement with threats, the troops aim to map out the dangers to remote civilian areas.

The non-combat force conducts long-range reconnaissance patrols to gather intelligence to help the UN better understand how to help the people of Mali.

The task group, which also engages with the local Malian people, includes bomb disposal experts, drone operators and a state-of-the-art medical team. 

Recently, British troops returned from a month-long deep reconnaissance mission in the country, deterring hostile groups and assessing the area of operations.

An RAF Chinook conducts a heavy lifting mission in support of the French-led Operation BARKHANE (Picture: RAF).

The Long Range Recce Group (Mali) (LRRG (M)) covered more than 1,500km and visited more than 60 villages, engaging with and protecting the local population and helping to secure the primary supply route from Gao, the Army said.

Op Newcombe will see three years of six-month operational tours – this initial rotation led by the Light Dragoons is set to be replaced in the summer by a second, which will be led by the Royal Anglian Regiment.

Separately, the RAF has deployed its own force in Mali, with around 100 personnel and three Chinooks supporting a French-led counter-insurgency mission since 2018.

The roughly 5,000-strong Operation BARKHANE, operational since 2014, is aimed at combatting jihadist groups in the area.

While RAF personnel are deployed in non-combat roles to the area, French and Malian forces have conducted several strikes in recent years as part of the mission.

Outside of Gao, a much smaller contingent of British personnel exists in the capital of Bamako, which hosts the headquarters of the UN MINUSMA mission.

Cover image: The Long Range Recce Group in Mali (Picture: British Army).