The French military vehicle broke down in the unforgiving desert of northern Mali, 80 miles from the nearest base.
Jihadists, bandits and armed villagers all criss-cross the arid plains, and attacks targeting French counter-terrorism forces are common.
This time, however, following a commitment made by Prime Minister Theresa May to President Emmanuel Macron in January, an RAF Chinook airlifted the dust-whipped vehicle and its personnel to safety.
The RAF deployed three helicopters and 120 personnel to Gao, northern Mali, in July, but their presence marks the tip of a much broader British “pivot to the Sahel” — a renewed focus on West and Central Africa’s poorest and most insecure countries.
“We have carried a huge amount of troops and equipment between here and a forward operating base in the north, right up to the Algerian border,” explained Wing Commander Matt Roberts, the most senior British presence on Gao’s French base.
“Britain is still very much committed in security terms to our European partners, and France is an absolute stalwart in that relationship,” he added.
Although the deployment of troops does not serve direct British strategic or economic interests, it is aimed squarely at containing insecurity and limiting illegal migration that might otherwise spill over into Europe, officials and experts told the Sunday Telegraph.
An increase in diplomatic, military and humanitarian assistance to Mali – as well as the opening of new embassies in Chad and Niger – will also help pacify European partners during increasingly bruising Brexit negotiations. Any help with security in the region is a boost in the war against illegal migration already dividing the EU.
The restive Sahel strip hugs the southern Saharan desert. For southern European nations, whose borders are a short hop across North Africa, the deterioration of the Sahel’s security since the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 is especially troubling.
Jihadists exploited a separatist uprising in northern Mali in 2012 to take over key towns and impose hardline sharia law in the north, including Gao, leading to a French military intervention to chase them out in January 2013. But Mali’s army is still inefficient and prone to commit abuses against civilians, and the administration is largely dependent on foreign assistance.
Five years on, the conflict has morphed into a cross-border jihadist insurgency intertwined with armed groups operating profitable smuggling routes for drugs, arms and people.
Around 5,000 French troops operate across the Sahel, and have brought in their tailwind a 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping operation and a European Union training scheme for Mali’s struggling armed forces.
It is into this fray that the RAF has entered, supporting the highly controversial French force known as “Barkhane”, which has faced accusations of killing civilians in airstrikes, and destroying homes in Gao by setting off explosions.
“If the British are going to repeat what the French are doing, it’s better if they stay at home,” the MP for Gao, Ibrahim Dicko, told the Sunday Telegraph, later admitting he was not aware that the RAF were already present in Gao, or that the British role was limited to logistics and transport.
On a recent visit to the city accompanied by the UN peacekeeping mission, The Telegraph found a population living in fear despite a heavy presence of foreign troops.
“We are not living in security here. People pass through the checkpoint and get robbed a kilometre away. We just get by “à la malienne”, that is to say, by ourselves,” complained Oumar Maiga, a tax collector, drinking tea next to a police post.
UN peacekeepers patrol the streets slowly in white armoured vehicles, while Cambodian explosives experts scour the nearby countryside for the homemade bombs that have killed hundreds of soldiers and civilians.
In July, a suicide bomber targeted Barkhane personnel on the outskirts of Gao, killing four civilians and wounding four French soldiers.
“The presence of foreign forces makes things worse,” Maiga added pointedly.
The UN force has suffered particularly badly, losing 104 blue helmets to “malicious acts” since 2013 and earning it the unenviable title of the world’s most deadly active peacekeeping mission.
In rural areas, jihadists circulate freely and schools have stayed shut for years because of the insecurity, depriving a generation of Malian children of an education.
Al-Qaeda and an Islamic State branch operate in Mali, while neighbouring Niger also suffers incursions from those terrorist groups, along with Boko Haram militants in its southeast.
US Special Forces suffered an ambush in Niger last year that left four US personnel dead, though Washington has pledged to maintain support for French-led military operations.
Meanwhile a joint force of five Sahel nations meant to replace the French force is struggling with funding, procuring weapons, and accusations of poor management. Its base was blown up in the town of Sevaré in June.
Mali’s security problems are exacerbated by the presence of armed groups who battle for territory in the north, and whose on-off ceasefire, signed in 2015, is punctuated by accusations of collaboration with jihadists.
“You’re a compliant armed group during the day and at nighttime you’re a terrorist armed group element. The family relationships and ethnic ties a lot of times cross over,” asserted Jayci Jiminez, a US Air Force captain who serves as an intelligence advisor to the UN peacekeeping mission.
For Boubacar Dicko, the Vice-President of Gao’s Chamber of Commerce, and the co-ordinator of pro-government armed group, these actions are about survival in an unforgiving economy.
“If you give a man nothing to eat, he lives by the force of his gun,” he said, gesticulating to friends sat on plastic chairs in the street.
Beyond security support, Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) has also pledged to increase its own aid commitments to provide alternative employment to the criminal and jihadist groups fuelling unrest.
DFID said in a document released in July it was “increasing its engagement in the Sahel as part of increased UK government support to the region,” adding the department was “addressing the root causes of instability and pervasive poverty – which can indirectly increase the risk of violent extremism”.
On her visit to Africa in August, Theresa May pledged £145m million in family planning assistance for Sahel and northern Nigeria, and investment in the Sahel’s Conflict, Security and Stability Fund has already doubled this year to £8.7 million.
Mali and Niger’s average fertility rate is six-seven children per woman, exacerbating a lack of education funding and sky high unemployment.
The future is unclear for several other projects, including funding for the EU military training programme, pending the results of Brexit negotiations.
Mr Maiga, the tax collector in Gao, believes the roots of Mali’s conflicts can be traced back to the dire economic situation of the country’s north.
“Unemployment has got us where we are today. Most young people are unemployed and that aggravates our lack of security,” he said.
Thousands of young people from Mali risk their lives on the smuggling routes through the Sahara, Libya and the Mediterranean every year as a result, and Malians are the sixth largest source of arrivals to Italy by boat, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Back in Bamako, Mali’s capital, Britain’s embassy has already doubled the number of British nationals working there over the last 18 months, and is in the process of selecting property for its embassy and staff housing in Niamey, Niger.
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