Canadian troops could face a terrifying arsenal of rebel-held weapons, from rockets and artillery to shoulder-fired missiles and anti-tank mines, if they are deployed as expected in a peacekeeping operation in the West African nation of Mali.
A report released on Wednesday shows that the terrorist and separatist groups have obtained a wide range of heavy weaponry from government stockpiles in both Mali and Libya, as well as other unknown sources.
The report, published by British-based Conflict Armament Research, also traces the weapons used by the Islamist radicals who killed six Canadians and 24 other civilians in Burkina Faso earlier this year. Their weapons were relatively new Chinese-made assault rifles, which – based on their similar serial numbers – appeared to share the same supplier as Islamic State fighters in Syria, the report says.
Conflict Armament Research is largely financed by the governments of Britain and Germany and the European Union. Its 49-page report is one of the most extensive recent studies of the sources of illicit weapons in West Africa.
The huge range of heavy weapons in Mali could help explain why the Canadian government has been cautious and hesitant in announcing its peacekeeping plans in Africa.
The government announced in August that it will deploy up to 600 soldiers and 150 police officers in "peace and stabilization operations" in Africa, but nearly three months later, it still hasn't revealed the location of the deployment.
Most analysts believe that Mali is the most likely location for the Canadian deployment, although the Canadian troops could eventually be divided among several African locations. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan visited Mali and neighbouring Senegal last week, and his department earlier sent a reconnaissance team to Mali to scout out a possible peacekeeping mission.
Mali has endured civil war and terrorist attacks for much of the past five years. Radical Islamist militias won control of northern Mali in 2012, until they were pushed back by French and Malian forces. Terrorist attacks have continued since then, making Mali the deadliest country in the world for United Nations peacekeepers. More than 100 peacekeepers have been killed there since 2013, including more than 30 this year alone.
Asked about the dangers of a Mali mission, Mr. Sajjan told reporters this week that "radical groups" are a threat to UN peacekeeping missions in many parts of the world.
"Peacekeeping of today is much different from before," he told reporters in Ottawa on Monday. "It's far more complex. … And that's why we want to make sure that we take our time, to make sure that we get all the necessary information on how we can actually reduce the threat."
Before any Canadian troops are deployed, they will get "the right pre-deployment training, the right equipment … and the right rules of engagement to be able to not only defend themselves, but also the civilian population that they're there to protect," Mr. Sajjan said.
The dangers of a Mali mission were sharply highlighted last week when a UN peacekeeper was killed and seven others were injured in an attack on a military convoy in central Mali on the first day of Mr. Sajjan's visit to the country.
The new report by Conflict Armament Research confirms that huge numbers of weapons have been smuggled into Mali from the vast arsenals of Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan dictator who was killed in 2011 after a military intervention by Western countries, including Canada. Those arsenals were "one of the largest and most diverse conventional weapon stockpiles of any African country," the report says.
Weapons from the Gadhafi stockpiles fuelled the 2012 insurgencies in northern Mali and later spread to several other countries in West Africa, even reaching Syria, where they were used by Islamic State forces, the report says.
Among the Libyan weapons obtained by rebels in Mali and neighbouring countries were Russian-made MANPADS (man-portable air defence systems), a shoulder-fired missile that can destroy helicopters and other aircraft. These would be of particular concern to Ottawa, since Canadian tactical helicopters could be deployed in Mali if there is a Canadian peacekeeping mission there.