JOHANNESBURG – France's new president has chosen the West African nation of Mali for his first official visit outside Europe. Why? Here's a look at Emmanuel Macron's trip on Friday to France's largest overseas military operation — in a country where multiple extremist groups pose a growing danger to the region.
WHAT'S THE THREAT?
Several jihadist groups remain in northern Mali after occupying the vast region south of the Sahara in 2012, and they have been blamed for deadly attacks in neighboring countries that have alarmed the international community. A French-led military intervention pushed the extremists from their strongholds in 2013, but the fighters continue to target Malian and other military assets with suicide bombings, improvised explosives and kidnappings. In January, a suicide attack on a Mali army camp killed more than 75 people. The U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali has become the deadliest of the U.N.'s current missions worldwide. Most of the extremist groups in the region trace their origins to al-Qaida's North Africa branch.
WHAT IS FRANCE'S MILITARY DOING THERE?
France has led international counter-terrorism efforts in largely francophone West Africa, a role that the U.S. military has recognized and supported. "I have no doubt that the French will continue to make their own decisions in their own best interest and that the terrorists will not enjoy these decisions," U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said during a stop in the East African nation of Djibouti last month.
France's new foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, is best known globally for leading the successful military campaign in Mali as French defense minister. France now has more than 4,000 soldiers in the West African nations of Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania as part of Operation Barkhane, which former French President Francois Hollande said is meant to "wipe out armed terrorist groups" in the Sahel region. The operation, France's largest overseas, began in 2014.
In his first visit after his inauguration, Macron acknowledged the toll on the operation's French forces when he went to a military hospital in a Paris suburb and met with two soldiers injured in Mali last year. At least 19 French soldiers have died in the Sahel region since 2013, the French ambassador to the United Nations said in April.
WHAT IS MACRON DOING IN MALI?
The French president is visiting the eastern city of Gao, home of the permanent French military base in Mali. Gao is also where the deadly attack in January occurred. That attack, claimed by the al-Qaida-linked al-Mourabitoun extremist group, happened just days after Hollande visited the city. Al-Mourabitoun has since merged with the groups Ansar Dine and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to form the Mali-based Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen.