MARCH 15, 2015 By ERIC SCHMITT - nytimes.com
NDJAMENA, Chad — Deep in the Sahara, late at night, a Reaper drone silently tracked a six-vehicle convoy crossing the desert into Niger from Libya. Minutes later, French attack planes and helicopter gunships swooped down on the convoy of Qaeda-backed fighters, turning the militant caravan into smoldering wreckage.
The raid last October by French combat aircraft and commandos killed or captured 15 Islamist fighters, and recovered nearly three tons of weapons, including Russian-designed SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles and several hundred anti-tank rockets, all bound for guerrilla operations in Mali, French officials said.
The attack also provided a view of an increasingly violent, multifront campaign that France has joined here in the Sahel, a vast area on the southern flank of the Sahara that stretches from Senegal to Chad. The battle is being waged to combat Al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa and other Islamist extremists in Mali, and more recently to thwart Boko Haram, a violent militancy that is spilling across from Nigeria to attack Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
Last summer, France reorganized its 3,000-member force in West Africa to carry out its counterterrorism fight more effectively in some of the harshest terrain on the planet.