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. 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 standoff began Saturday 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 show-down, 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 jihadists 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 rationnel 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 Paris is actually delivering arms to the murderous radicals, and is thereby complicit in their slaughter – a rather delirious claim whose reasoning isn’t very 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 indeed does operate for anti-jihadist intelligence gathering in the region – but not at low altitudes over angry crowds. It’s also very unlikely 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 screen grab of a video news report on the confrontation suggests the UAV seen operating in Kaya was a Parrot Anafi USA, which the Paris-based manufacturer last January agreed to supply the French army over the next five years. As ironic coincidence would have it, 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.
Whether Saturday’s incident means French forces are now in need of a replacement Anafi USA drone or not, military brass might be advised to keep their new Parrot UAVs out of Burkina Faso – or anywhere else tots with slingshots are looking to make a name for themselves.