Astonishing media accounts have swirled in recent days of a 13-year old boy from Burkina Faso blasting a French Army surveillance drone from the sky with his trusty slingshot. The thing is, it wasn’t that kind of intelligence-capturing UAV, and as often the case in this meme-addled world, there also seems to be both less and more to the story than most reports let on.
Coverage has multiplied, particularly in francophone media outside of France, since a Saturday standoff between French armed forces traversing Burkina Faso and demonstrators in Kaya, a city to the northeast of the West African nation. For reasons to be noted anon, the large group of people protesting France’s presence and actions in the region-blocked the convoy’s advance through town, causing the troops to fall back into a fenced-in area. During the prolonged and tense showdown, tensions rose to the point where warning shots were fired for the angry throng to back off.
That just made the angry throne angrier.
At some point, stories in a variety of languages say, young Aliou Sawadogo spotted a French army drone gathering intelligence on the crowd, loaded his trusty slingshot with a rock, and smote the aerial spy from the sky so his peers could definitively stomp it out of operation. Thus, a national hero was born amid great joy.
“He’s now nicknamed ‘super sniper’,” wrote Le Monde. “The Burkinabé ‘David’ versus the French drone ‘Goliath,’” thrilled Jeune Afrique, which – not satisfied with the biblical reference – then compared Sawadogo to Gavroche of les Misérables. Still, other reports quoted protestors, tweets, and even t-shirts purportedly produced to hail the exploit describing the downing of the French army drone as a “symbolic” defeat and humiliation of the former colonial power.
It appears the sharp-eyed youngster did indeed bring down a drone, but it still isn’t clear whose it actually was. French authorities haven’t commented on that aspect of the incident. Instead, they focused on working with Burkina Faso authorities to free the convoy so it could finish its intended journey from the Ivory Coast to Niger, where it was to continue its anti-terrorism operations against militias linked to Islamic State.
Yet that activity was precisely what the demonstrators were angry about – albeit in diverse ways. Many accuse the mere presence of French forces as being responsible for strikes by jihadist militias, like the November 14 attack in the northern town Inata that left 53 people dead, including 49 gendarmes. But while those detractors demand France pull its forces and thus remove a principle rationale behind extremist assaults, others insist the troops must stay and do a much better job of protecting them from radical violence. Still, another faction alleges that Paris is actually delivering arms to the murderous radicals and thereby complicit in their slaughter – a rather delirious claim whose reasoning isn’t clear.
Whatever the local perspective happens to be, it’s clearly not a good time to be wearing French camo in Burkina Faso just now. Nor to be a (purported) French army drone.
The continuing confusion about exactly whose drone was slingshotted down may never be fully cleared up, especially amid the not always accurate media reports being produced. Some of those accounts were accompanied by photos of Reaper-like military drones that France does operate for anti-jihadist intelligence gathering in the region – but not at low altitudes over angry crowds. It’s also doubtful such a craft could ever be felled by a rock, no matter how formidable the teen slinging it is.
To blur things further, other articles of the downing ran photos of a smaller drone in flight, then elsewhere featured a shot of an entirely different craft, post-stomping, lying on the ground. Neither was necessary the one central to events in Kaya, with the lack of captions allowing readers to speculate on their own.
So what might it have been? A screengrab (top image) from a video news report on the confrontation in Kaya suggests the UAV involved was a Parrot Anafi USA, shown in Parrot footage below.
And, indeed, last January, Paris-based Parrot agreed to supply the French army with the craft over the next five years. As ironic coincidence would have it, meanwhile, French military authorities just yesterday announced they’d begun receiving a new batch of those Parrot drones, whose 32x zoom using two 4K 21-megapixel cameras can detect human-sized targets up to two kilometers away, with detail accuracy of 13 centimeters.
The only rub is the screen capture of Saturday’s news video is the near-identical twin to an Anafi USA image in DroneDJ’s own image archives dated June 9, 2020. So much for clarity.
But whether Saturday’s incident means French forces actually are now in need of a replacement Anafi USA drone or not, France’s military brass might want to keep their new Parrot UAVs out of Burkina Faso – or anywhere else tots with slingshots are looking to make a name for themselves.
November 25 Update
Thanks to Twitter user Président 2050, more light has been shed on the downed drone. According to a label affixed to what looks to be the felled drone, its owner is the Établissement de communication et de production audiovisuelle de la Défense (ECPAD), the photograph and video agency operating under France’s Defense Ministry.
Though nominally a “public administrative establishment,” ECPAD dispatches what it calls “soldiers of images” to conflict zones or other areas where French armed forces are active. In organizational terms, it’s part of the Defense Ministry. Given that – and the embedded or closely accompanying nature of the work – it’s not difficult to imagine an ECPAD employee being with, or rushing to, French troops in Kaya when the incidents took place.
It would appear, then, that the only question remaining is whether the drone was being flown to film news reporting or capture intelligence video on the protestors when it was rocked from the sky. In this particular case, though, those may not be much different.
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