International Aviation Concerns
On 16 March, Air France’s leading pilots union advised its members that they have the right to refuse to fly into Bamako, after the observation and identification of a Pantsir SA-22, a self-propelled radar-guided Russian surface-to-air missile system capable of attacking targets at a 15km-20km range, near Modibo Keita International Airport. The discovery had also prompted the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington to issue warnings to US airlines in late February regarding take-off and landing over Malian airspace – ie, highlighting the threat at all levels, not just below FL260.
Latest National Developments
After nearly 10 years of conflict between the state and Islamist militants, the Malian military conducted another coup d’état in May 2021 (its third in ten years). International sanctions were then imposed on the Malian transitional government in November 2021 for having failed to make any progress towards elections. In response, the junta denied access into Malian airspace for a number of international carriers. At the same time, as Bamako’s relations with Western powers deteriorated, it strengthened its ties with Moscow.
The end of the French-led Operation Barkhane in Mali was planned from July 2021, and the last French soldiers left the country in August 2022. Moving into the diminishing battle space, the Russian private military company Wagner Group first arrived in Mali in December 2021. It was believed to have deployed more than 1,000 combatants to Mali in spring 2022, as well as UAVs
and sophisticated AD systems.
In recent months, Islamist militants have been targeting Wagner Group, UN peacekeeping troops and Malian state military with “kamikaze drones” – UAVs packed with explosives. It appears that the air capabilities of the likes of Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have improved since the announcement of the end of Op Barkhane. Not only that, but ISGS is thought to have used SAM against Wagner Group UAV in July 2022. So the Malian military is likely to have purchased this Russian system as a way to combat and counter-balance this militant capability.
Although it remains unclear, the Malian junta appears to have bought this SAM system directly from the Wagner Group, and it is reasonable to assume that it is receiving training on its use from the company.
The French and US aviation regulators now have three concerns. Firstly, this system in the hands of the Wagner Group is a credible reason for concern. The military company has a record of unprofessional and heavy-handed tactics in other African theatres (including Mozambique and the Central African Republic), and it might engage civilian targets through incompetence or aggression. What is most likely to be foremost in the minds of the Air France decision-makers is that pro-Russian separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 over Ukraine using an air defence system provided by Moscow.
Secondly, there will be concerns about the system being used by the Malian military as well. It does not have a reputation for rigorous competence, and training from Wagner Group will not instil confidence in local airlines. The system itself appears to be vulnerable to misuse, and can lead to blue-on-blue incidents – in September 2022, footage posted on social media by the Russian army appeared to show a Pantsir weapon firing at too shallow an angle and appearing to strike nearby soldiers at just a few hundred metres. In the hands of a poorly-trained military, in which tactical decision-making processes are unclear, any number of targets could be vulnerable from this system.
However, we would all like to think that neither the Malian military nor the Wagner Group would risk striking civilian aircraft, given that this would expose them to retaliation on a global level. The third concern relates to the extent at which the Malian military is struggling in its conflict against the Islamist militants. ISGS is holding territory and steadily moving towards Bamako, capturing settlements as it does so. In this environment, it is very possible that weapons of this nature will fall into the hands of the latter. ISGS militants have already successfully used SAM against UAVs, and it would not take much for them to learn to use the system. A successful attack against a Western airline would give Islamist militants publicity on an almost unprecedented level, boost recruitment across the region, and lead to a terrible number of casualties.
Threat to Travellers
Aircraft in Malian airspace, particularly in the area north of Mopti, are at risk from: small arms fire, indirect fire weapons (mortars and rockets), and air defence systems.
However, the real value of Westerners to jihadists is not in shooting down aircraft, but as targets for kidnapping operations, which can result in publicity and financing.
− Establish pre-arranged itinerary and ensure tracking capability is operable at all stages of travel in Mali.
− Employ the services of a trusted local fixer for security and transport.
− Establish a staff check-in system to give assurance that travellers are safe throughout.
− Use a travel management company with a good global footprint that regularly monitors airline news (particularly regarding safety and delays) and flags up safety, operational and financial issues.
− Consult with an aviation or operations manager who can consider different databases to establish risk levels for airlines.
Northcott Global Solutions provides risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation.
Author: Jamie Thomson, Risk Analyst, Northcott Global Solutions
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