The Defence Forces’s special forces unit is to cease counter-terrorism operations in Mali this year.
The move would free up the elite soldiers of the Army Ranger Wing (ARW) for possible deployments to other parts of north Africa’s Sahel region, The Irish Times reports, which has seen extensive instability and conflict in recent times.
It is understood that the resulting gap may be filled by conventional Irish Army troops, although no final decision has been made.
The ARW is in Mali as part of a United Nations stabilisation mission in the African nation named Minusma. It is widely considered the most dangerous of the Defence Forces’s overseas missions.
The 13,000-strong mission was established to help stabilise Mali following the Tuareg rebellion in 2012. Irish involvement was first authorised by the Dáil in 2019 for a two-year period, which was later extended until this September.
Up to 14 ARW members are deployed at any one time to Minusma headquarters in the capital Bamako and to the isolated Camp Castor in Gao, some 1,200km away.
From there, they engage in long-range surveillance patrols in areas controlled by Islamic militants seeking to overthrow the Malian government, operating as part of a large German intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance company.
It is understood Defence Forces management consider the role carried out by the ARW, known as human intelligence (Humint), could be carried out by well-trained conventional troops.
The Mali mission has been viewed as valuable from a training and experience point of view, but has also sometimes involved significant risks to troops.
14 German and one Belgian peacekeeper were injured in a suicide bombing on their overnight camp by an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group on June 25th last. Irish troops avoided injury as they were on patrol at the time.
Three members of the ARW suffered minor injuries in February 2020 while on patrol in Gao. It is understood that their armoured vehicle struck a concealed explosive along the roadside.
More than 190 UN peacekeepers have died in the country, including nearly 120 killed by hostile action.
A spokesman for the Defence Forces said the ARW “currently contributes a field human intelligence team to Minusma as part of the German Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Task Force.
“Óglaigh na hÉireann is currently scoping the possibility of replacing the ARW with infantry soldiers from the Army, continuing the Defence Forces commitment to Minusma.”