Gurkhas training Mali’s Army against insurgents

‘Sandhurst in the Sahara’ – meet the British troops training Mali’s army

Gurkhas train local soldiers to take on militants behind last week’s Radisson Hotel attack

Article featured on the Telegraph.co.uk

By , Chief foreign correspondent,Koulikoro

Cpl Bhim Gurung, far left, Major Ralph Roylance, centre, and Captain Premkaki Gurung, far right, of the Gurkhas, train Malian troops in Mali

Cpl Bhim Gurung, far left, Major Ralph Roylance, centre, and Captain Premkaki Gurung, far right, of the Gurkhas, train Malian troops in Mali Photo: Will Wintercross/The Telegraph

Legend has it that the town of Koulikoro on Mali’s River Niger is home to an ancient spirit that is the soul of a long-dead warrior. Buried in a nearby valley 700 years ago, he was reincarnated as a serpent who gives spiritual counsel to elders in times of emergency.

Meanwhile, in the sun-baked scrubland down on the valley floor, Major Ralph Roylance is offering survival tips of a rather more practical kind. Together with 20 other soldiers from the 1st Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles, he is training Mali’s army to stand up to the jihadists bent on tearing the country apart.

Last Friday, a week on from the Paris atrocities, gunmen from al-Qaeda stormed the Radisson Hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako, killing 20 foreigners.

Major Ralph Roylance of the Gurkhas, trains Malian troops in MaliMajor Ralph Roylance of the Gurkhas, trains Malian troops in Mali  Photo: Will Wintercross/The Telegraph

The worst terror attack in Mali’s history, it showed how jihadists are still a threat to be reckoned with here, despite the presence of 3,000 French troops who ended al-Qaeda’s takeover of northern Mali two years ago.

If those French troops are ever to go home, however – as France would like, given its worries about security threats closer to home – local forces must first be able to cope on their own.

Hence the European Union-led training course at the old Malian military academy at Koulikoro, just outside Bamako, where Gurkhas are now among more than 400 soldiers from 22 different EU countries.

We teach them that being an officer is not a privilege, but an obligation

“The Malians are very enthusiastic and keen to learn,” said Major Roylance, 31, as a platoon of Malian soldiers crawled along a dusty track digging for landmines. “They’re particularly proud of being trained by Gurkhas and British soldiers.”

The training school sits next to an abandoned township, which locals decamped from years ago after rumours spread that it was haunted by the serpent spirit.

It now makes a perfect venue for counter-insurgency exercises – an African version of Copehill Down on the British army’s exercise range at Salisbury Plain.

The school is often dubbed “Sandhurst in the Sahara”, but a more accurate name would be “Sandhurst in the Sahel” – the name for the vast, semi-arid area of scrub just to the south of the desert, which stretches right across central Africa.

As the point where Africa’s Christian south meets its Muslim north, the Sahel has spawned some of the continent’s most vicious Islamist insurgencies, from Boko Haram in Nigeria through to Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Another common factor is badly-led national armies, whose use of brutality has often been the Islamists’ best recruiting sergeant. In Mali, it helped fuel a separatist rebellion in the north, where an alliance of convenience between Tuareg tribesmen and al-Qaeda militants forced the French intervention in 2013.

Two years on, most Tuaregs have entered peace talks, but to this day, the Malian army still faces a severe guerrilla threat from both Islamist and rebel hardliners, who on Saturday killed three UN peacekeepers in a mortar attack on base in the northern city of Kidal.

To that end, much of the training at Koulikoro is on countering “IEDs”, or improvised explosive devices, a hazard that Major Roylance and his men know well from tours in Afghanistan.

“Don’t just look for threats close by, look up on the brow of the hill,” barks Lance Corporal Bijaya Tamang, as a Malian soldier comes across a half-buried IED. “Come on now, why didn’t you report that back to your commander?”

“Ground sign awareness”, as it is known, involves looking for tripwires, recently-dug ground, and insurgent-placed IED “markers” such as white flags tied in trees next to a road. The flags allow insurgents to know exactly where a buried IED is from a distance, and to detonate it by remote control when a patrol goes past.

Many of the Malian soldiers already have basic tracking skills from upbringings in rural villages, where hunting is still a way of life. But the British soldiers’ knowledge of different IED tricks – which usually reach Africa after being pioneered in the Middle East – is much appreciated.

Major Ralph Roylance of the Gurkhas, trains Malian troops in MaliMajor Ralph Roylance of the Gurkhas, trains Malian troops in Mali  Photo: Will Wintercross/The Telegraph

“I have been hit by IEDs while fighting up in the north,” said Mousa Traore, 43, the Malian unit’s grizzled commander. “First of all you see nothing – and suddenly there’s a massive ‘boom!'”

Equally important, in terms of how to react when attacks on unfold, are the classes in international humanitarian law run back at base.

In the past, Malian forces have often been their own worst enemies when they take casualties, inflicting revenge punishments on nearby villages that drive locals into the insurgents’ arms.

It is the job of barrister David Hammond, an ex-Royal Marine, to convince them otherwise.

“Recently I had a soldier tell me that his wife had been raped and his brother executed by the jihadists,” he said. “He was asking me why he should abide by humanitarian law when the jihadists enjoy impunity. I told him that hard as it was, somebody had to make a stand, and that if international humanitarian law isn’t followed then we are no better than animals.”

For all its emphasis on military tactics, the training mission is also a valuable exercise in “soft power”, given that in countries like Mali, today’s promising young army captain can often be tomorrow’s president – or indeed, coup leader. For that reason, the mission also offers lessons in ethics and leadership to senior officers.

Cpl Bhim Gurung, far left, Major Ralph Roylance, centre, and Captain Premkaki Gurung, far right, of the Gurkhas, train Malian troops in MaliCpl Bhim Gurung, far left, Major Ralph Roylance, centre, and Captain Premkaki Gurung, far right, of the Gurkhas, train Malian troops in Mali  Photo: Will Wintercross/The Telegraph

“We teach them that being an officer is not a privilege, but an obligation,” said Dr Jurgen Haffner, the German commander in overall charge of the mission. “It is not just a case of giving orders, but leading by example.”

Meanwhile, last week’s hostage drama at the Radisson brought it home to both the trainers and the trainees that right now, both Europe and Mali face a common jihadist threat.

That is especially true for Dr Haffner, who has daughters living in the terror-hit cities of Paris and Brussels respectively. “Last weekend we were in all the hotspots at once,” he said.