American Drones Help French Target Militants in Mali, as Chad Claims Killings
The U.S. is markedly widening its role in the stepped up French-led military campaign against extremists in Mali, providing sensitive intelligence that pinpoints militant targets for attack, U.S. and allied officials disclosed.
U.S. Reaper drones have provided intelligence and targeting information that have led to nearly 60 French airstrikes in the past week alone in a range of mountains the size of Britain, where Western intelligence agencies believe militant leaders are hiding, say French officials.
The operations target top militants, including Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind of January's hostage raid on an Algerian natural gas plant that claimed the lives of at least 38 employees, including three Americans. Chad forces said they killed him on Saturday, a day after saying they had killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, the commander of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's Mali wing.
French, U.S. and Malian officials have not confirmed the deaths of Mr. Belmokhtar or Mr. Zeid, citing a lack of definitive information from the field. But they say the new arrangement with the U.S. has led in recent days to a raised tempo in strikes against al Qaeda-linked groups and their allies some time after the offensive began in January. That is a shift for the U.S., which initially limited intelligence sharing that could pinpoint targets for French strikes.
On Monday, French Army Chief Admiral Edouard Guillaud said Mr. Zeid was likely dead, but couldn't confirm it.
"It is likely, but it is only likely. We can't have any certainty—it would be good news—because we didn't recover the body," Adm. Guillaud said in an interview on the Europe1 radio station.
On whether Mr. Belmokhtar has been killed, Adm. Guillaud urged "extreme caution," as "there is always the risk of being contradicted later by a dated video." He said recent comments on Islamist Internet forums insist that Mr. Belmokhtar is alive.
The elite Chadian unit fighting in Mali was trained by U.S. special operations forces who have been working in Chad, Chadian and U.S. officials said this weekend.
The unarmed U.S. drones played a key role in the recent offensive in which French and Chadian forces succeeded in homing in on and ambushing a group of militants in the Adrar Tigharghar mountains of northern Mali, near the border with Algeria, French officials said.
The U.S. decision to authorize the Pentagon and U.S. spy agencies to feed detailed targeting information directly to French forces came after a lengthy U.S. administration debate over how directly to aid French strikes, according to U.S., French and other Western officials.
The arrangement represents a test of President Barack Obama's new strategy for dealing with the growing terrorist threat in Africa. Instead of sending American ground troops and armed drones to take direct action, the U.S. where possible will try to provide logistical, technical and intelligence support to enable local and regional partners to pull the trigger, officials say.
The approach could be a model for future drone operations in a region where the U.S. has few established air bases of its own, and as a way to limit Washington's role in lethal operations, officials say.
A Western official said the Adrar Tigharghar operation itself, in which the U.S. has provided targeting information to facilitate French and Chadian strikes, was an example of a new counterterrorism strategy of working "by, with and through" local forces and a "rare North Africa success story."
For weeks, U.S. spy agencies and administration lawyers debated whether providing actionable intelligence to the French to facilitate strikes would make the U.S. a "cobelligerent" in a widening conflict with an al Qaeda affiliate that U.S. intelligence agencies don't yet see as a direct threat to the U.S. homeland.
Administration officials initially cited concerns that furnishing actionable intelligence to the French would spur the affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, to start targeting American interests in the region. They were also concerned the move would make the U.S. culpable for lethal operations that it wouldn't control.
Advocates of helping the French locate targets for strikes argued that providing the information was in the U.S. interest because it would bolster a key ally, reduce the risk that the French offensive would drag on and help eliminate militants of increasing concern to the U.S., including Mr. Belmokhtar.
A senior U.S. official said the Americans ultimately decided they weren't cobelligerents because the U.S. was supporting the French rather than joining the campaign.
In recent years, a Joint U.S. Special Operations Task Force in Africa has provided Chad's Special Anti-Terrorism Group, the unit involved in the operations last week that allegedly killed Mr. Belmokhtar and Mr. Zeid, with equipment, training and logistical support, officials say.
American forces didn't accompany the Chadian unit to Mali, U.S. officials said, as Mr. Obama has so far limited the American role to provide intelligence and logistical support.
Chad said it has lost 26 soldiers in the Mali offensive. A senior Chadian government official confirmed that the Special Anti-Terrorism Group deployed last month to Mali and involved in the battle in the Adrar Tigharghar mountains had been trained by U.S. instructors.
"We have a good cooperation with the U.S.," Chadian Minister of Communication Hassan Sylla said.
Under the new arrangement for Mali, unarmed U.S. Reapers scour the deserts and mountains using their sensors to search for so-called patterns of life—communications and movements deemed by the U.S. to be telltale signs of militant activity, officials said.
The Americans then pass the raw video feeds and other real time data to French military and intelligence officers who decide if, how and when to use the information. French fighter planes or ground forces sometimes swoop in to attack. The information is also shared with African forces involved in the French-led campaign, including the Chadians, officials said.
In Pakistan and Yemen, other areas where U.S. has for years conducted counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and its allies, there is no need for manned aircraft because the U.S. uses armed drones, which can both pinpoint targets and strike.
Relying on manned aircraft in Mali raises the time between acquiring a target and firing upon it.
France would like to buy its own fleet of unarmed American Reapers—three to start. U.S. officials said it would take time to approve such a sensitive technology transfer. As a result, French officials have suggested they may turn to Israeli drone makers instead. France's own drones, two of which operate in Mali, are less advanced and can't intercept militant communications as effectively.
The unarmed Reapers now helping the French in Mali are flown out of a base in nearby Niger, which recently signed a security deal with the U.S. that set the stage for the Pentagon to expand its presence in the country.
Current and former intelligence officials compared the cooperation in Mali to the way the U.S. helps Turkey target Kurdish separatist fighters along Turkey's border with Iraq. There, video feeds and other intelligence collected by U.S.-piloted Predator drones are relayed to a joint intelligence center in Ankara, where U.S. analysts sit next to their Turkish counterparts, who in turn can call in airstrikes.
U.S. military and intelligence officials have long held up the fusion center in Ankara as a successful model that could be applied elsewhere to support key allies. But such arrangements have downside risks, as evidenced by a December 2011 Turkish airstrike that killed 34 civilians. A U.S. drone tracked the group before the airstrike.
ADAM ENTOUS in Washington, DAVID GAUTHIER-VILLARS in Paris and DREW HINSHAW in Accra, Ghana