Algerian Yahya Abu al-Hammam, a senior commander in Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) was killed in a special operation led by French forces. Yahya Abu al-Hammam ranked number two in the organization behind the Malian Tuareg Iyad Ag Ghaly.

The assassination was conducted by French soldiers from the task force Operation Barkhane, an anti-insurgent operation in Africa’s Sahel region that started in August, 2014. It includes a 3,000-strong French force, with permanent headquarters in N’Djamena the capital of Chad.

French soldiers kill al-Quaeda Malian leader Yahya Abu al-Hammam
Yahya Abu al-Hammam, born Djamel Okacha, a U.S.- and U.N.-designated terrorist and al-Qaeda (Counter Extremist Project)

JNIM is a militant terror organization operating in the Sahel and West Africa. It’s the official branch of al-Qaeda in Mali, formed by the merger of Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, al-Mourabitoun, and the Saharan branch.

Limited information about the operation–including where the operation took place–led to speculations on the al-Qaeda leader’s whereabouts. Certainly this will come as a huge blow to al-Qaeda and a strong loss for Iyad Ag Ghaly.

“The man was the number two of the jihadist alliance led by the Malian Tuareg Iyad Ag Ghaly, the ‘Support Group for Islam and Muslims’ (GSIM), and ‘head of the Emirate of Timbuktu,'” according to a statement issued by the office of the French Minister of Armies, Florence Parly. “He was the leader of one of the main terrorist armed groups operating in the Sahel, and the designer and the financier of numerous attacks against the common values ​​and interests that we share and defend with the G5 Sahel countries: Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad. In this operation associating land and air means, the commandos of Barkhane neutralized several terrorists,” the statement said.

Here’s my analysis. While there’s limited information about the operation, a few details in the report and indications from the region plus historical factors bring me to my verdict. I conclude that Yahya Abu al-Hammam was killed in Ubari Libya–and the recent airstrike there was French!

Ubari is politically run and protected by the Tuareg community. Iyad Ag Ghaly is a former Tuareg warlord with influence in the region and followers in Libya. The city has a history of supporting  al-Qaeda fighters including Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the man who coordinated the Algerian gas plant attack.

I would find it unlikely that an al-Qaeda number two remained in Mali. Given the substantial presence of French and foreign troops, it would be a high risk factor for al-Qaeda to leave its leaders in Mali. This makes me think they they handle the organization from outside of Mali. Ubari would be an ideal location, as it shares the same tribal and religious qualities, plus historical connection.

The Libyan National Army was recently involved in a clearance operation in the Ubari. Is it that far-fetched to say Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar may have tipped off the French to the location of al-Hammam? After all, Haftar’s party doesn’t have any ties to the U.S. or Libya’s Government of National Accord. This could have been a bargaining chip for support from the French as powers in Libya shift right now.

The historical connection between Libya and Mali is the Tuareg people. They’ve operated throughout the region  for over 100 years, enjoying borderless lines. This is one the significant obstacles Western forces encounter when trying to deal with terrorism in the area. Most of the radical groups use the Tuareg people to carry them around the Sahel unnoticed. They can move al-Qaeda leadership from Libya to Burkina Faso with no western agency ever learning about it.

This is one of the few times that a senior member of al-Qaeda leadership in the region was killed. Do I think the French got lucky? No. As I mentioned above, I believe a tip-off of reliable value provided al-Hammam’s location.