In June 2012 Drone Wars UK discussed a mysterious strike on a convoy of trucks in Northern Mali, and argued that the strikes may have been carried out using an American drone, though this was neither confirmed nor denied by US officials. (Predator drones were known to be flown in the area at that time-ed).
In October 2012 the French government announced that it planned to send unarmed reconnaissance drones, Harfangs from 1/33 Belfort squadron, to aid its military presence in Mali, as its soldiers were fighting an Al-Qaida backed insurgency. In January the government announced that the deployment of the Israeli made drones had taken place. This video of French paratroopers being deployed was taken by a Harfang drone. Harfang drones are from the Heron family of drones produced by IAI of Israel.
In early 2013 Wall Street Journal reported that some military in the US were calling for US armed drone strikes in Mali (but none seem to have happened, at least not with public knowledge-ed).
In February, Le Monde announced that American drones were being used to support French troops in Mali.
In March 2013 the Wall Street Journal reported that US Reaper drones were providing targetting information for French airstrikes against insurgent positions, as many as 60 strikes a week.
Europe 1 reported that a dozen Al Qaeda in Maghreb fighters had been killed by French forces with the help of a surveillance drone on the night of March 4. It was claimed that the strikes killed prominent insurgent Oumar Ould Hamaha.
In April 2013 an American Reaper drone crashed in Mali, due to ‘mechanical failure’. The drone had been one of two based in Niger to provide drone surveillance to support French forces on the ground. These in turn had replaced Predator drones deployed earlier.
In April France said it would buy 12 US Reaper drones to replace its Harfang drones. Reuters reported that the French had found that they had a shortage of drones suited to the conditions and had been using camera-equipped Cessna airplanes for surveillance, which had proved inadequate. (Apparently the US had flown reconnaissance piloted airplanes over Northern Mali for several years previously).
Reuters reported that France had eventually received delivery of two Reaper drones and that those would be operating in Mali by the end of 2013. The Hill reported that the two Reapers were the first of 12 acquired in a deal done with US based General Atomics in June and, incorrectly it seems, that the drones would be armed with US Hellfire missiles. The Hill also reported that the initial two drones, at least, would be operating from a site in Niger. Defence Web reported that the sale of Reaper drones to France had been approved in August 2013, and that a total of 12 drone with four ground stations would be delivered by 2015 or 2016.
In early 2014 the Medium.com published photos of a joint drone base operated by the US and France, located near Niamey, the capital of Niger. The Medium speculated about whether drones from the base would conduct armed attacks, and whether the unarmed French Reapers would be eventually armed. Defense News reported that the first French Reaper flight occurred, in early January, 2014 from the base in Niamey, using US-equipped sensors.
In the first week of March, 2014, France claimed to have killed Omar Ould Hamaha, insurgent leader, using information supplied by a Reaper drones. The same week it was claimed that French forces attacked and killed insurgents at a rocket cache in Mali, with the help of drones.
In July 2014, French President Francois Hollande visited Niamey, and was greeted with a fly-over by French Reaper drone. Later the French military showed off footage of the visit to Hollande, who could pick out members of his entourage. At this point France continued to have two Reapers and one Harfang drone based at their Niamey base. (Three Mirage jets were based in Niger and three Rafale jets in Chad, but it isn’t clear whether the Mirage jets were bases at Niamey). The Bloomberg article detailed some of the business interests that France has in Niger and the region.
Also in July, a French Reaper was the first to spot an Algerian passenger plane that had crashed in Mali.
In September 2014 an article in the Washington Post reported that the US was building another drone base in Niger, at Agadey. The article speculated that the US would discontinue using the joint US-France base at Niamey, though it didn’t say what would happen with the more than 100 US troops deployed there to protect the base.
By late 2014 concerns were being raised about the US base in Agadey, because of local resentment and fears that the based would draw extremist attacks on the town. Concerns were also raised that France and the US were more concerned with securing mineral resources in the region than in fighting terrorism. An FT article also noted growing instability in the region and noted the difficult of France to monitor the situation.
French, Malian, and UN troops were still being attacked and in October French forces intercepted an arms shipment from Libya bound for Malian insurgents.
In early October 2014 French forces destroyed an arms convoy from southeast Libya being sent to insurgents in Niger. The convoy had been followed from Libya by a French Reaper drone. Fox News also reported that French troops supported by US intelligence planned to move north toward the Libyan border. Voice of America reported that both the US and France were marshalling forces further north to cut off growing insurgency in southern Libya.
This article is incomplete, particularly with respect to the large number of airstrikes know to have been carried out in Mali against insurgents, with the help of drones. Any further information or direction to sources gratefully received.