PARIS (AP) – The Islamic State leader in the Greater Sahara died of injuries from a drone attack that struck him on a motorcycle last month in southern Mali in a French-led operation involving reinforcements. from the United States, the EU, Mali and Nigeria. military forces, French authorities said Thursday.
The French government did not reveal how they identified him as Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, whose group has terrorized the region. The claim could not be immediately independently verified.
France declared the massacre a great victory against jihadists in Africa and a justification for years of anti-extremist efforts in the Sahel. French government officials described al-Sahrawi as “enemy No. 1” in the region, and accused him of ordering or supervising attacks against US troops, French humanitarian workers and between 2,000 and 3,000 African civilians, most of them Muslims.
Experts called the announcement great news and good news for governments fighting violent extremists, but warned that ISGS could find a new leader and that the threat of jihadist violence remains high.
“Al-Sahrawi’s death will likely disrupt ISGS operations in the short term. But it is unlikely to permanently paralyze the extremist group, ”said Alexandre Raymakers, senior Africa analyst at risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.
He called it a “tactical success” for Operation Barkhane considering that the elimination of Al-Sahrawi had been a priority for the French army, but noted that despite the loss of several high-ranking leaders in French military operations throughout Over the years, the jihadist group has continued to expand its presence in the Sahel.
“This reinforces our determination to fight terrorism with our partners in the Sahel, with our American and European partners,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly told reporters in Paris. “We will not leave the Sahel.”
Intelligence gained from the capture of ISGS fighters earlier this year allowed France to focus on specific areas where Al-Sahrawi is likely to be hiding, Parly said.
He was on a motorcycle with another person when they were hit by a drone strike in the Dangalous forest near the Nigerian border on Aug. 17, one of several airstrikes in the region in mid-August, the chief of staff said. of the army of France. , 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 some 10 ISGS members were killed, including Al-Sahrawi, according to Burkhard.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced the death overnight after authorities took time to verify his identity. According to Macron’s office, al-Sahrawi personally ordered the killing of six French humanitarian workers and their Nigerian colleagues last year, and his group was behind a 2017 attack that killed four US soldiers and four Nigerian military personnel.
His group has also kidnapped foreigners in the Sahel and is believed to still be holding American Jeffrey Woodke, who was abducted from his home in Niger in 2016, as well as a German hostage.
“The leader 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 military officer in Burkina Faso. He said this death would “relieve” the local communities and the governments of the region.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged African governments to fill the void and regain ground taken by Islamic State extremists.
Rida Lyammouri, senior researcher at the Policy Center for the New South, a Moroccan think tank, called it a “major blow to ISGS” but added: “There will be someone who is ready to take over. Real success is when ( el) the civilian population is no longer terrified by this group and others. “
France’s foreign intelligence chief Bernard Emie estimated that several hundred jihadist fighters remain in the area.
Rumors of the militant leader’s death had circulated for weeks in Mali, although authorities in the region had not confirmed it.
The extremist leader was born in the disputed territory of Western Sahara and later joined the Polisario Front. After spending time in Algeria, he made his way to northern Mali, where he became an important figure in the group known as MUJAO.
MUJAO was loyal to the regional al-Qaeda 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 soldiers early next year.
But Parly insisted that France would not fully withdraw, saying the attack was proof that international cooperation in the region is paying off.
He also reiterated his concern over reports of the possible deployment of Russian mercenaries in Mali. If the Malian government were to strike such an agreement with the Kremlin-backed private military company Wagner Group, it would be “totally incompatible” with the counterterrorism strategy in the Sahel that led to the assassination of the Islamic State leader, Parly said.
Wagner has been accused of human rights abuses in the Central African Republic and of 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.