Mali: TV Can Kill

The family of Sadou Yehia, a Malian villager murdered by Jihadists on 8 February, accuse France 24, a news channel with a large audience in the region, of being responsible for his death. In a sequence shot by a crew accompanying French soldiers and showing how stock breeders are racketed, the man’s face was not blurred out. And yet the dangers involved for anyone who collaborates with—or even talks to—the soldiers of Operation Barkhane have long been known in Mali.

Sadou Yehia, murdered on February 8, 2020
France 24, 13 January 2020

On 12 December 2019, Sadou Yehia, who lived in the village of Lelehoy in the Liptako-Gourma region of Mali gave an interview to a team of France 24 reporters covering a French army operation in that region, which is partly controlled by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). The sequence, which lasts 6′ 39 and may be seen here, was aired on the French news channel, very popular in West Africa, on 13 January. Although wrongly identified as “Sadou Yaya,” the man’s face is shown, perfectly recognisable, while he denounces the jihadists’ ascendancy, especially via the taxes they collect from the breeders: “The water-hole where the animals drink, it’s over there, they spend all day there (…) The whole zone is occupied, even if you go some place else, he’ll find you and you have to pay,” he says. A few seconds later, he is to be seen sitting on a mat with other villagers, all equally recognisable, talking to French soldiers. Three weeks after the sequence was aired, Sadou Yehia was murdered in his village.

According to a member of his family, quoted in the French TV programme, Arrêts sur image, he was abducted by three armed men on 5 February. “They beat up another villager and left him for dead, then they tied up my uncle and took him away forcibly on one of their motor-bikes,” one of his nephews explains. Three days later, “the terrorists” came back to the village, “threw (his) uncle on the ground and shot him twice, once in the chest and once in the armpit,” he adds. He also claims the jihadists came back the following day. “They threatened the villagers and issued an ultimatum: everybody had to leave the village within a month. This was the punishment for having collaborated with Barkhane.” Since then, according to several sources, most of the inhabitants have fled”.

“Anonymisation is illusory”

Sadou Yehia’s family have no doubts: the man was murdered because of that France 24 coverage. On the social networks, many cybernauts, among them professional journalists, researchers, and inhabitants of the area, also blamed the channel. In a press release issued on 12 February, France 24 refuted the accusation: “The long intervals between the shoot, the airing and the murder show that what is hastily offered as a chain of cause and effect is in fact pure guess-work.” And the channel goes on to add, with a degree of arrogance: “In an area where the terrorists know immediately everything about everything, about the presence of soldiers in the villages, about who is talking to them, nothing substantiates the claim that blurring out Sadou Yahia’s face would have made him any safer. In such a context, anonymisation is illusory.”

And it is true enough that in that region, the jihadists don’t need to watch television to know who is doing what and who is talking to whom. They have spies in most of the villages and know in real time where the French soldiers are when they carry out an operation. Yet be that as it may, should the channel feel it has no need to take the usual precautions—blurring out faces and anonymisation—used with most “embedded” coverage made with the French army and generalised for the last several years? Where French soldiers are concerned, only their rank and Christian name are generally mentioned (in the sequence in question, we meet “Sergeant John,” “Captain Julien” and “Captain Romain,” and only the second of these speaks directly to the camera with his face uncovered). Many journalists and specialists of the region were surprised to see a witness exposed thus by the channel: the danger involved for anyone who talks to Barkhane soldiers has long been public knowledge in Mali.

In November 2016, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) posted a horrific video entitled “Traitors 2.” Two men living in the region of Timbuktu confessed having “collaborated” with the French army before being executed in cold blood. The first man, Mohamed Uld Boyhi told how he’ d been approached by a French officer, one “Guillaume,” at the very beginning of Operation Serval in January 2013, and how he had been paid by the French to recruit informers. The other one, Hussein Uld Bady, admitted to having provided information to the French, enabling them to discover weapons caches and to eliminate jihadist fighters.

After which, in an act of repentance, no doubt performed under duress, they urged the people living in that area not to make the same “mistakes”. Then, in front of an audience of motionless villagers, against a desert background, they were executed by firing squad.

That video was meant for anyone in Mali who might have been tempted to provide information to the enemies of the jihadists: the French, but also the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the Malian Armed Forces (FAMA). An earlier video of the same kind, entitled “Traitors,” had already been posted in December 2015. It showed two Malians and one Mauritanian executed for having also collaborated with the French.

“Prevent any collaboration with foreign troops”

In the Timbuktu region, the video was effective. “That is how fear is spread,” a local dignitary explained at the time. “At first nobody paid any attention. But there were more and more executions and each one was followed by a press release, a video or a tract. The objective is obvious: prevent any collaboration with the foreign troops. People are increasingly afraid to talk to the French soldiers or the Blue Helmets, especially in remote villages.”

Since then, the phenomenon has spread to other regions and concerns not only those who help the French army but also those who collaborate with the Malian army, especially in the centre of the country, the Blue Helmets and also the Burkinabe Army in the north of Burkina Faso and the Nigerian army in west Niger. As the months go by, the list of men killed by the jihadists for having provided information to the security forces or simply for having talked with them when they passed through their village, keeps growing longer.

“The Jihadists have their snitches”

In Mali alone, Minusma has counted several dozen executions—and their list is certainly incomplete. “The Jihadists are very well informed,” a Tuareg tells us. He himself collaborated with the French and belonged to an anti-terrorist unit of The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA). “In every zone where they operate, they have snitches in all the villages. These let them know everything that’s going on, everything that’s said. If a dignitary is too critical of the jihadists in public, they denounce him. If a man talks to the French when they arrive, they denounce him. It is very difficult to escape their notice.”

According to the UN mission, one of the first attempted executions for “collaboration” to be recorded in Mali dates from the month of March 2014, i.e., a bit more than a year after the start of Operation Serval: in Kidal, two men on a bike opened fire on an NMLA officer who was working with the French. Two months later, in the same town, Sidati Ag Bag, a man in his sixties known to be an informer for the NMLA and the French, was killed in his home by two men who arrived on a bike. Then, in September of that same year, a Tuareg accused of being an informer working for the French, was abducted in front of his home in Zouera, in the Timbuktu region, before being decapitated by elements of Aqmi. In October 2015, Abdallah Ag Mohamed, known as Kanou, head of security for the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CAM), a coalition associating several armed groups, among them the NMLA, was killed in the town of Ber. Others were shot in the head on a busy street or abducted and executed a few days later in front of villagers or out of sight. Each time, the Jhihadists managed to get their message across: “Any man who helps our enemies will pay with his life.”

“France refuses to protect us”

Among the victims of these killings, some were indeed informers in the pay of the French. From the very start of Operation Serval, the army, but also the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure (DGSE) and the Direction du renseignement militaire (DRM) sought to recruit men who could help them hunt down jihadists.”When French soldiers arrive in a camp or a weekly town market, they ask people to come to them with information about the terrorists”, a dignitary from northern Mali who’d settled in Bamako explained in 2016. “They told people how to get in touch with them.” And they promised them money.

This was how Mohamed Uld Boyhi, the man in the video posted by Aqmi, was recruited. “Two or three years ago,” said one of his relatives in 2016,"Mohamed was contacted by a Malian gendarme who put him in touch the French. He received a down payment of 2 million Central African francs [£2,500, $3,250] and a Thuraya satellite phone.” Besides which, he was promised money for each piece of information provided as well as the possibility of freeing relatives if they happened to be arrested.

Other victims of the executions were MNLA fighters carrying out joint operations with French forces. One of them, who had been in direct contact with the DGSE since 2014, said he had lost seven comrades that way. “They were killed off one by one for having worked with the French. I was threatened myself. I preferred to walk away, because France refused to protect us. There were several times when we would have needed protection, but they never answered our calls”, he observed bitterly. And like himself, most of the members of his anti-terrorist unit decided to give up the fight.

“They know everything that goes on here”

And some were just village dignitaries, like Sadou Yehia who accepted the risks involved in welcoming the French soldiers when they arrived, talking with them, and sometimes giving them information. In several villages in Gourma and Liptako, two zones where the French army has carried out many operations in the last months, the jihadists regularly showed up a few days after the French had gone through, abducting or killing those who had talked to them and threatening the other villagers. “They told us that when the French came back, nobody must talk to them and if we were seen talking to them, they’d kill us. They also told us they know everything that goes on here,’” a Gourma dignitary said. “We know the French don’t come here to harm us,” he went on. “And yet that’s what they do indirectly, because they only stay a couple of days, or just a few hours, and when they leave, the Jihadists come back and take it out on anybody who spoke to them”.

The lack of protection given the French army’s “collaborators”—civilians or fighters, regulars or casuals—and the villagers contacted in the field, has long been denounced by the families of people targeted by the jihadists. Some complain of having received no help from France. A spokesperson for Barkhane headquarters at Bamako assures us that steps have been taken concerning the interpreters who accompany the soldiers in the field: their faces are systematically hidden. An army officer added that efforts have been made to limit reprisals.1 But they are obviously inadequate.

That France 24 sequence decried by Sadou Yehia’s family, like many “embedded” reports aired over the past few years, shows the extent to which those who talk to Barkhane soldiers in remote villages are at risk. When they arrive in Lelehoy, which the journalist describes as “a possible logistics hub for the terrorist gangs” the French make absolutely no effort at discretion: their talks with the village elders take place in the open air, under the shade of a tree: anybody can listen in and it is easy to know who is talking and what is said. “The least one could do in such a situation would be to find a discreet location and have those conversations with no one listening. Those are the basic rules”, says a human rights activist accustomed to doing this sort of thing in Niger. At the end of that sequence, the France 24 reporter actually takes the trouble to explain that these villagers “by sharing information with the Barkhane force, have made themselves vulnerable to possible reprisals at the hands of the Jihadists…”

1When asked, the army staff in Paris and the Operation Barkhane staff in N’Djamena did not answer our questions.