A few days before the heads of state gathered at the G5 Sahel summit, the head of French intelligence, using a video clip as evidence, indicated that the main jihadist leaders of the Sahel wanted to expand their activities into Côte d'Ivoire and Benin. Was this a communication strategy, an attempt to destabilise the adversary or a way of exerting pressure on France's West African partners?
The statement made by the head of the French General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), did not go unnoticed and it provoked many reactions – most of them concerned – in West Africa. And with good reason. It is not every day that Bernard Émié, makes such a public statement.
On 1 February, at a press conference held alongside Florence Parly, the French minister for the armed forces, and General François Lecointre, the chief of the general staff of the armed forces, Émié spoke about the work of his services in the Sahel. In particular, the head of the DGSE presented a short video of around forty seconds showing, according to him, a meeting between the main leaders of Al Qaeda in the Sahel that had taken place in February 2020.
This video clip features Iyad Ag Ghaly, the head of the Groupe de soutien à l’islam et aux musulmans [Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims] (GSIM), Amadou Koufa, his right-hand man based in Macina, and Abdelmalek Droukdel, the historic leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who was killed on 3 June 2020 during a French operation in northern Mali.
Who filmed it?
Referring to this video, Émié said: “As we now know, the purpose of this meeting was to prepare a series of large-scale attacks against military bases. It was there that Al Qaeda leaders conceived their plans for expansion into the Gulf of Guinea countries. These countries are now targets as well. In order to loosen the stranglehold they are caught in and to expand southwards, terrorists are already financing men who are spreading out to Côte d’Ivoire and Benin.”
According to the director of the French intelligence services, this video was “obtained” thanks to “one of [their] human sources.” “It was filmed by an individual working closely with the terrorist leaders. Obtaining intelligence of this nature is the core business of the DGSE,” he added.
Very quickly, this video raised questions. A communication strategy? Or even, as is said in intelligence jargon, a “psyops”, i.e. an attempt to psychologically destabilise and sow doubt in the enemy? One thing is certain: the images are not stolen. The man who films does so openly, within a small committee of the most powerful leaders of the jihadist organisation, who therefore know perfectly well who captured these images.
If this individual was really one of the DGSE’s sources, he would never have been “burned” in this way – unless, for some reason, he is no longer on active duty and is now beyond the reach of any potential retaliation.
Several specialists believe that the video could instead have been recovered from the computer equipment seized after the French special forces operation that killed Droukdel on 3 June 2020 near Talhandak, north of Tessalit, a few kilometres from the border between Mali and Algeria.
Among the victims of this raid were, in addition to the veteran Algerian jihadist, one of his communication officers. This video, in all likelihood filmed for propaganda purposes, was probably found among his belongings.
A wake-up call or a means of exerting pressure?
One question remains: why is the boss of the French intelligence services, usually so discreet, making this statement now, using a video clip as evidence? These Sahelian jihadist groups’ “expansion project” towards the countries of the Gulf of Guinea is not a novelty, far from it.
As early as March 2016, the attack against the Ivorian seaside resort of Grand-Bassam was a first sign. Then this coastal strategy was confirmed with the kidnapping of two French tourists in northern Benin in May 2019, and especially the attack that killed fourteen Ivorian soldiers in Kafolo, in northern Côte d’Ivoire, in June 2020.
The race to transform
However, the fact that Émié evokes it in this way is interesting. According to the minister of the armed forces, his public intervention alongside Parly and General Lecointre had been planned for a long time. “It is in our interest to be as concrete as possible in defining our enemy in the Sahel,” said the minister’s entourage. “This video is part of our effort to show the reality of the situation, by explaining who these people are and what they do.”
It is also difficult not to make a connection with the heads of state who will gather for another G5 Sahel summit in N’Djamena on 15 February, in which this time President Emmanuel Macron will participate.
In recent weeks, the French president, who in mid-January evoked a possible “adjustment” of his military effort in the region, met most of his Sahelian peers at the Elysée Palace. He reiterated to all of them, as he has done since the Pau summit in January 2020, that he would only continue Operation Barkhane if they provided clear political and military pledges.
In this context, this media outburst by the head of the DGSE regarding a jihadist threat that no longer only affects the Sahel can be seen as a wake-up call, or even as a means of exerting pressure on its West African partners. “In terms of communication, the timing is rather good,” the minister of the armed forces says. “But this statement would have been made anyway, N’Djamena summit or not.