In the past few days, the French military successfully conducted two key operations in the Sahel, killing one terrorist group leader and capturing another.
French forces killed a senior al-Qaeda leader in an operation in northern Mali near the Algerian border on Wednesday. According to France’s Armed Forces Minister, Florence Parly, they had been hunting the terrorist for seven years.
“On June 3, the French armed forces, with the support of their partners, neutralized the emir al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), Abdelmalek Droukdal and several of his close collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali,” Parly tweeted.
AQIM is one of the oldest al-Qaeda groups and has a long history of operation in North Africa. Droukdal, one of the longest serving terrorist leaders, led the group for more than 15 years. He was one of their most experienced fighters and played a large role in the Islamist takeover of northern Mali before the French launched Operation Barkhane and drove them back.
Droukdal was believed to have been hiding in the mountains of Algeria prior to this operation. AQIM has forces spread out over northern Mali, Algeria, Niger, and Mauritania. The UN said Droukdal was an explosives expert and constructed many devices that killed hundreds of civilians.
The U.S. military assisted the French special operations forces by providing intelligence that helped locate the target.
“U.S. Africa Command was able to assist with intelligence and [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] support to fix the target,” Col. Chris Karns, a spokesman for AFRICOM said.
“This was a great example of cooperation and partnership to get after a common threat,” he added.
AQIM was started in the late 1990s by radical Algerian Islamists. In 2007 they formally pledged their allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The group, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, is based mainly in northern Mali from where it regularly carries out terrorist attacks in the sub-Saharan Sahel region.
The Sahel is a semi-arid zone south of the Sahara that has been wracked by violence and climate change.
AQIM had claimed responsibility for an attack on a hotel and marketplace in Burkina Faso that killed 30 people, mostly Westerners, in 2016.
France also claimed on Friday to have captured a leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) group, which carries out frequent attacks over Niger’s western borders. “On May 19, French forces captured Mohamed el Mrabat, veteran jihadist in the Sahel region and an important cadre in EIGS,” Parly said on Twitter.
Operations against EIGS, “the other great terrorist threat in the region are continuing,” Parly added.
France has over 5,100 troops deployed in the Sahel as part of its anti-jihadist Barkhane force. The French began increasing their numbers into Mali after an Islamist insurgency that erupted in 2012. The insurgency has claimed thousands of military and civilian lives. The insurgency has since been spread to Burkina Faso and Niger.
The French initially deployed 4,500 troops to aid in combating the insurgency. They have since added another 600 troops and have created the Special Operations Task Force Takuba with SOF troops from all over Europe to train, advise, and assist host nation forces.
A French military source said that the French-led coalition has killed over 500 terrorists in the past few months including key leaders.
While the French and their allies have been fighting an uphill battle, the neutralization of two top leaders of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State is a huge boost for the French and the G5 Sahel forces.