By ANGELA CHARLTON and BABA AHMED
PARIS – The leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has died of a drone strike that hit him on a motorcycle last month in southern Mali, during a French-led operation involving the reinforcement of American, European, Malian and Nigerian military forces, the French authorities announced Thursday.
The French government has not disclosed how it identified him as Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, whose group terrorized the region. The claim could not immediately be independently verified.
France said the murder was a major victory against jihadists in Africa and a justification for years of anti-extremist efforts in the Sahel. French government officials described al-Sahraoui as “Enemy No. 1” in the region and accused him of ordering or supervising attacks on American troops, French aid workers and some 2,000 to 3 000 African civilians, mostly Muslims.
Experts called the announcement big and good news for governments combating violent extremists – but warned the ISGS could find a new leader and the threat of jihadist violence remains high.
âAl-Sahrawi’s death is likely to disrupt ISGS operations in the short term. But this is unlikely to permanently cripple the extremist group, âsaid Alexandre Raymakers, senior analyst for Africa at risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.
He called this a “tactical success” for Operation Barkhane, considering that the elimination of Al-Sahrawi had been a top priority for the French military, but noted that despite the loss of several senior leaders over the years. French military operations over the years, the jihadist group has continued to expand its footprint in the Sahel.
“This strengthens our determination to fight terrorism with our partners in the Sahel, with our American and European partners,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly told reporters. âWe will not leave the Sahel.
Intelligence gathered during the capture of ISGS fighters earlier this year allowed France to focus on specific areas where Al-Sahrawi was likely to be hiding, Parly said.
He was on a motorcycle with another person when they were hit by a drone strike in Dangalous Forest near the Nigerien border on August 17, one of several airstrikes in the area in mid-August, a declared the chief of staff of the French army. , Thierry Burkhard.
France then sent a team of 20 special ground forces to the region to verify the identities of those affected and determined that around 10 ISGS members were killed, including Al-Sahraoui, according to Burkhard.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced the death overnight after authorities took the time to verify his identity. According to Macron’s office, al-Sahraoui personally ordered the assassination of six French aid workers and their Nigerien colleagues last year, and his group was behind an attack in 2017 that killed four US soldiers. and four Nigerien soldiers.
His group has also abducted foreigners in the Sahel and is believed to still be detaining American Jeffrey Woodke, who was abducted from his home in Niger in 2016, as well as a German hostage.
“The head of the Islamic State was one of the biggest criminals and (IS) was one of the most violent groups that killed many people in the Sahel,” said Mahamoudou Savadogo, conflict analyst and former officer military in Burkina Faso. He said the death would âoffloadâ local communities and governments in the region.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged African governments to fill the void and reclaim the ground taken by Islamic State extremists.
Rida Lyammouri, a senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Moroccan think tank, called this a “blow to ISGS” but added: “there will be someone who is ready to take over. . The real success is when (the) civilian population is no longer terrorized by this group and others.
French foreign intelligence chief Bernard Emie estimated that several hundred jihadist fighters remained in the region.
Rumors of the militant leader’s death had circulated for weeks in Mali, although authorities in the region have not confirmed it.
The extremist leader was born in the disputed territory of Western Sahara and later joined the Polisario Front. After a stay in Algeria, he traveled to northern Mali where he became an important figure in the group known as MUJAO.
MUJAO was loyal to the regional al-Qaida affiliate. But in 2015, al-Sahrawi released an audio message pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
France, the region’s former colonial power, recently announced that it would reduce its military presence in the region, with plans to withdraw 2,000 troops by early next year.
But Parly insisted France would not pull out entirely, saying the attack was proof that international cooperation in the region is bearing fruit.
She also reiterated her concerns over reports of a possible deployment of Russian mercenaries in Mali. If the Malian government reached such an agreement with the private military company Wagner Group backed by the Kremlin, it would be “totally incompatible” with the counterterrorism strategy in the Sahel which led to the assassination of the head of ISIS, said Parly.
Wagner has been charged with human rights abuses in the Central African Republic and involvement in the conflict in Libya. Russia denies any involvement in Mali.
Ahmed reported from Bamako, Mali. Krista Larson and Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal, and Sam Mednick in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, contributed.