PARIS — The leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara died of wounds from a drone strike that hit him on a motorcycle last month in southern Mali, in a French-led operation involving backup from U.S., EU, Malian and Nigerien military forces, French authorities said Thursday.
The French government did not disclose how they identified him as Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, whose group has terrorized the region. The claim could not immediately be independently verified.
France declared the killing a major victory against jihadists in Africa and 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 overseeing attacks on U.S. troops, French aid workers and some 2,000-3,000 African civilians – most of them Muslim.
Experts called the announcement big and welcome news for governments struggling against violent extremists — but warned that ISGS could find a new leader, and that the threat of jihadist violence remains high.
“The death of Al-Sahrawi will likely disrupt ISGS operations in the short-term. But it is unlikely to permanently cripple the extremist group,” said Alexandre Raymakers, senior Africa analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft.
He called it a “tactical success” for Operation Barkhane considering Al-Sahrawi’s elimination had been a top priority for the French military, but noted that despite the loss of several senior leaders to French military operations over the years, the jihadist group has continued to expand its footprint 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 gleaned from the capture of ISGS fighters earlier this year allowed France to hone in on specific areas where Al-Sahrawi was likely to hide, Parly said.
He was on a motorcycle with one other person when they were hit by a drone strike in the Dangalous Forest near the Niger border on Aug. 17, one of several airstrikes in the region in mid-August, said the chief of staff of France’s military, Thierry Burkhard.
France then sent a team of 20 special ground forces to the region to verify the identities of those hit, and determined that about 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 aid workers and their Nigerien colleagues last year, and his group was behind a 2017 attack that killed four U.S. troops and and four Niger military personnel.
His group also has abducted 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 a conflict analyst and former military officer in Burkina Faso. He said this death would “unburden” local communities and governments in the region.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged African governments to fill the void and seize back ground taken by the Islamic State extremists.
Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Moroccan think tank, called it a “huge blow for ISGS” but added, “there will be someone who’s ready to take over. The real success is when (the) civilian population is no longer terrorized by this group and others.”
France’s head of foreign intelligence, 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, though 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-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 be reducing its military presence in the region, with plans to withdraw 2,000 troops by early next year.
But Parly insisted that France wouldn’t pull out entirely, saying the attack was proof that the international cooperation in the region is bearing fruit.
She also reiterated concerns about reports of the possible deployment of Russian mercenaries in Mali. If Mali’s government were to reach such a deal with Kremlin-backed private military firm Wagner Group, that would be “totally incompatible” with the anti-terrorism strategy in the Sahel that led to the killing of the Islamic State leader, Parly said.
Wagner has been accused of 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.