Mali massacre: police marksmen had British backing via EU scheme despite Brexit

After the Brexit vote, the British government bypassed parliament to support EU aid for an African police squad that massacred protesters and staged a jailbreak.

11 October 2021
Mali’s anti-terrorist

Mali’s anti-terrorist "Forsat" unit received UK-funded training (Photo: Habibou Kouyate / AFP via Getty)

  • Malian police unit is accused of killing 14 protesters three months after receiving EU training
  • Britain has trained scores of Malian security forces but programme was “temporarily suspended” after military coups
  • Hundreds of UK troops remain in Mali as part of UN peacekeeping mission

Britain supported a €30 million European Union aid package for an armed police unit in Mali that has since killed 14 protesters, Declassified has found.

Foreign Office staff “overrode parliamentary scrutiny” to approve an aid deal that would benefit the unit in December 2017 – 18 months after the Brexit vote.

Alan Duncan, who was a foreign minister at the time, had to apologise to parliament’s European Scrutiny Committee – admitting the deal was “not handled in the correct manner” and that there were “regrettable errors.”

Duncan’s staff had agreed Britain would extend its support for an EU capacity building project known as EUCAP Sahel Mali, which trains security forces in west Africa. Britain contributed approximately 15% of its €30 million annual budget until around January 2019. 

According to an EU document, the project specifically “supported the creation and operationalisation” of Mali’s Force Spéciale Antiterroriste (a Special Anti-Terrorist Force known as Forsat).

While Britain was part-financing EUCAP, 20 Forsat personnel received a ten-day training session on VIP protection in September 2018.

Forsat received further support in April 2020 from a separate military scheme, the EU Training Mission (EUTM) Mali, to which Britain has contributed troops and provided £4 million a year in funding until last May.

EUTM spokesman Major Jakub Simicek refused to tell Declassified whether British troops directly participated in the Forsat training, which lasted for two weeks in Bamako – the capital of Mali.

However, he confirmed that the course had taught 20 Forsat members about “dynamic combat fire using rifle and pistol” and tactics for “counter-terrorism operations in urban environments.”

Although Simicek said the EU training had promoted “full respect of human rights and Rule of Law”, Forsat is accused of shooting dead 14 civilians in Bamako during protests against Mali’s government on 10 July 2020 – just three months after receiving EU training. 

The killings took place while thousands of people took to the streets to demand the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who would soon be deposed in a military coup amid anger – in part – at the prolonged presence of foreign forces in Mali.

Another 154 people were injured in the July 2020 shooting. It caused Mali’s security minister to resign in disgrace and Forsat’s commander Oumar Samake was arrested over the massacre.

However, last month hundreds of his men stormed a prison in Bamako to set him free. He has since been returned to custody.

Mali’s forgotten war on terror

Forsat was set up in response to an Al Qaeda attack on the Radisson Blue hotel in Bamako in 2015. Mali has been rocked by an Islamist insurgency and separatist movements, which have flourished amid instability in the region following the fall of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya.

Major Simicek claimed Forsat was “dedicated to the fight against terrorism and not to crowd control or law enforcement.” He added that EU money has only been spent on training the unit and not financing it directly.

The killings raise questions about the effectiveness of British support for security forces in Mali and other countries around the world that are fighting insurgencies. The UK trained thousands of troops in Afghanistan who quickly surrendered to, or may have joined, the Taliban.

In response to questions by East Lothian MP Kenny MacAskill, defence minister James Heappey told parliament: “Desertion rates amongst Mali’s defence and security forces were high in late 2019, but subsequently appear to have improved.” 

“Desertion rates amongst Mali’s defence and security forces were high”

– Defence minister James Heappey

Heappey said the Ministry of Defence kept “the security situation under regular review” because hundreds of British troops are deployed to Mali as part of a UN peacekeeping mission which relies on support from local troops.

Former Africa minister James Duddridge said the UK “trained around 150 [Malian] security personnel,” costing approximately £850,000 since April 2018. He added: “Following the military coups in August 2020 and May 2021 we temporarily suspended training of the security forces.”

The US stopped its own assistance schemes after the coups and France, the former colonial power, plans to halve its 5,000-strong troop deployment as the military operation becomes increasingly unpopular among the French public and many Malians.

The changing security situation has seen the military regime in Bamako look to support from other powers including Russia, with mercenaries from Moscow’s notorious Wagner group reportedly arriving in Mali in recent days. Britain’s Foreign Office has said it is “deeply concerned” about Wagner Group deploying to Mali, describing the private security firm as “a driver of conflict and capitalises on instability for its own interests.”