France said Thursday it killed Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the Islamic State who led the killing of four US soldiers in Niger in 2017 and the architect of one of the most successful franchises after losing the Middle East the terrorist group was territories.
“This is another great success in our fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel,” said the French President
said, referring to the vast semi-arid region south of the Sahara, home to some of the deadliest jihadist cells in the world.
The career of Sahara-born al-Sahrawi – switching from local militant groups to al-Qaeda and then to members of the Islamic State – has followed the development of the jihadist threat in the region. But he was most notorious for leading the 2017 ambush that killed four US troops in the Nigerien village of Tongo Tongo, the greatest loss of American lives fighting in Africa since the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, former jihadist comrades said , the bearded and black- The turbaned militant leader understood the symbolism of this operation: he crossed the Sahel on a Honda motorcycle carrying a short-barreled machine gun that was confiscated from one of the fallen US soldiers.
“It was a trophy, ”said Husseini Jibril, a former Islamic State activist who met al-Sahrawi before defeating the Nigerien government in 2020.
The French claim, which has yet to be confirmed by Islamic State, would be a rare ray of hope for France’s halting anti-terror campaign in the Sahel, which began in 2013 to drive al-Qaeda allies out of the Malian city of Timbuktu.
US American and European security officials, however, said the jihadists had a reservoir of capable local commanders who could fill the void and were unlikely to provide significant support to Washington’s anti-terrorist strategy, including providing drone surveillance and military training.
“It could delay the jihadists’ progress by six months, but not much more,” said a European official.
France is reducing its military presence in the Sahel from 5,100 soldiers to 2,500 to 3,000 as part of a redeployment, which Macron announced in July. The eight-year campaign has mixed support at home and has killed 55 French soldiers.
“France has no calling, much less willingness to stay in the Sahel forever,” said Macron.
According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, around 2,400 civilians were killed in various attacks in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso last year. Al-Sahrawi’s group has become the deadliest group, accounting for 79% of deaths from violence against non-combatants in Niger in June 2021, according to ACLED, and the French government has blamed the group for killing up to 3,000 civilians since 2015, according to the High Commissioner for Refugees Nations estimates the conflict in the region displaced around 684,000 people.
Last year, a US-backed French operation killed regional al-Qaeda leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, but US, French and regional officials were forced to reverse unsubstantiated claims about the murder of other top militants. The death of
the fundamentalist warlord who turned Boko Haram from an obscure radical sect into a jihadist army was announced at least three times before it was finally confirmed in May this year. French and Sahel officials said the announcement of al-Sahrawi’s death was withheld until checks confirmed he was killed.
Al-Sahrawi was from Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that is now disputed territory under the Control of Morocco is. He first worked with the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a guerrilla group that sought the independence of Western Sahara before joining al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and moving to the Sahel, where he fought alongside jihadists. who conquered Timbuktu.
In 2015 he became the head of a new Sahel zone of the Islamic State, which had conquered large areas in Syria and Iraq. As these Levantine strongholds dwindled under the attack of Western coalition forces and their local allies, the Islamic State began expanding into Africa and as far as Afghanistan, where 13 US soldiers were killed in a fatal attack last month.
That The Islamic State franchise in the Sahel “had very close ties with its mothership in the Middle East” for propaganda, military training and bombing, said the President of Niger
in a recent interview.
Al-Sahrawi made her name locally by using cruel violence to create a place in a booming criminal economy that trades in a range of contraband, from stolen cattle and illegal fuel to narcotics, migrants and wild gold. Mr. Bazoum stressed that the group was both mercenary and ideological: “They are just young shepherds who have found a way to do better,” he said.
The killings in Tongo Tongo began with al-Sahrawi $ 5 million on head bounty, making him one of the most wanted men in Africa. During his six years as leader of the Greater Sahara Islamic State (ISGS), the group acted as a rival to more solid al-Qaeda members in the region. Al-Sahrawi built the group’s political and financial power by using funds to buy weapons, gain the loyalty of local tribesmen, and pay the wages of fighters and administrators in the areas it controls.
Under Al-Sahrawi fighters of the Islamic State carried out a series of massacres of the local population in the so-called three-state border region between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. In June, suspected ISGS fighters, including many child soldiers, killed 130 Burkinabe civilians – the worst terrorist atrocity in the history of a country plunged into extremist violence in recent years.
Hunted by several Western governments, al- Sahraui elusive by constantly moving through vast geography. At a secret meeting with Mr Jibril, the defector of Islamic State, the jihadist leader arrived on a Honda motorcycle, surrounded by only three escorts, and stood under a hastily erected rainproof tarpaulin. “I am the head of the Islamic State in Mali and as far as Niger,” he announced. “I’m the one in charge of the Katibas [Islamic State Battalions].” A Sahel counter-terrorism official who persecuted him said he had never used a cell phone and had relied on a narrow cadre of mainly Western Saharan supporters to communicate with the outside world.
Al-Sahrawi also had big expansion plans. After commissioning Mr Jibril with the purchase of Nigerian refined products and rustling Malian cattle, he offered him the opportunity to set up branches in Ghana or Benin – two countries on the African Atlantic coast where his Sahara group had not yet established a foothold .
However, the jihadist leader has been increasingly targeted by France after personally ordering the killing of six French charities and their Nigerian driver, French Defense Minister Florence Parly said.
In mid-August, two arrested jihadists prepared places where al-Sahrawi often hid, the French Ministry of Defense said. On August 17, a France-operated Reaper drone with a novel laser-guided bomb killed two motorcyclists in a dense forest in Mali’s part of the three-state border areas, said General Thierry Burkhard, France’s chief of staff. One of them later was al-Sahraui, said the French general.
After al-Sahraui is dead, French officials say they are now “aggressively” trying to neutralize Iyad Ag Ghaly, a local al-Qaida Leader whose group in support of Islam and Muslims was behind an attack on the French embassy in Ouagadougou, capital of 2018, Burkina Faso. “Today Iyad Ag Ghaly is clearly the top priority,” said Éric Vidaud, France’s chief special forces commander, in June. “He is the person we absolutely need to capture or neutralize in the coming months if that is not possible.”
For Mr. Jibril, the roots that led to his hiring remained – a lack of economic development and government presence in of the rural Sahel – unchanged. “If my area had been better economically … I would have turned down your offer,” he said.
Fixes & reinforcements
According to the French Ministry of Defense, two arrested jihadists announced possible locations of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi in mid-August. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that this information was provided by mid-July.