British troops have started deploying on the “dangerous” mission to Mali to stop Islamist terrorists crossing Europe’s southern border.

The force of 300 UK troops have started arriving in the West African country as part of the UN’s peacekeeping mission.

The soldiers, primarily drawn from the Light Dragoons and Royal Anglian Regiment, are supported by specialist trades from across the Armed Forces including drone operators, military working dogs and bomb disposal experts.

The UK Task Force will provide a highly specialised reconnaissance capability, conducting patrols of up to many weeks’ duration in the desert region bordering the Sahara desert, to gather intelligence on Islamist terrorists and engage with the local population.

Major General Nick Borton said the mission would be “dangerous” and the troops will be there to “gather and report information to deliver intelligence-led operations”.

He said the deployment, to one of the poorest regions on the planet, will help prevent “migration to Europe’s borders [from] the violent conflict that has destabilised the region”.

Fighters from a local armed group Gatia, and pro-government armed group Mouvement de Salut de lAzawad, patrol around the town of Menaka on November 21, 2020.

Credit: SOULEYMANE AG ANARA/AFP

The UN Mission in Mali is made up of over 14,000 peacekeepers from 56 different countries and works to support peace efforts, protect civilians and promote human rights.

General Borton was keen to stress this is a peacekeeping operation and will not be working directly with the French counter-terrorism operation, also in Mali, that is supported by three RAF Chinook helicopters and around 90 personnel.

The main body of troops arrived on December 2, and all UK personnel will have arrived  within a week to set up the UK Headquarters in Gao, in the north east of the country. 

They will be based in the newly formed Camp Bagnold, which is named after Brigadier Ralph Alger Bagnold, the desert explorer and first Commanding Officer of the British Army’s Long Range Desert Group in the Second World War.

A French armoured vehicle parked outside the French military base at the Malian airport in Gao, March 9, 2013.

Credit: Joe Penney/Reuters

The Sahel region of west Africa has seen a five-fold increase in terrorist violence since 2016.

The al-Qaeda affiliate group, Jam’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) both actively target UN troops in the region. 

Irish, French and Estonian troops have been injured in recent bomb attacks and 24 Malian soldiers were killed in an ambush in June this year.

The biggest threat is from JNIM, who use machine gun attacks from motor bikes or improvised bombs to extend their hold on the region. 

The extremist groups are known to make money from human trafficking by pushing migrants north to the Mediteranean Sea, for onward smuggling acros Europe’s southern border.  

The UK is one of the largest humanitarian donors to the Sahel. In 2020 the UK gave £14.65m in humanitarian aid to Mali and is currently in the process of increasing the size of the embassy to reinforce the UK’s diplomatic strength in the country.

It is not known whether the government’s recent decision to cut foreign aid will impact this deployment. 

The 300 British troops will have completed their deployment by December 8, 2020.

Credit: Capt Jonathan Quicke/Army

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “As a permanent member of the UN Security Council this deployment is a demonstration of our firm commitment to peacekeeping and the importance we place on improving security in the Sahel by protecting local communities.

“Our land forces are the best in the world, and we are one of a small handful of nations able to provide this specialist capability in a challenging environment which will help prevent the spread of conflict across the region.”

The Light Dragoons Taskforce will be the first six-month deployment in a three-year commitment by the UK.