Neil Munshi, west Africa correspondent
The French military said its forces in Mali had killed one of al-Qaeda’s most senior leaders in Africa, Abdelmalek Droukdel, who was one of the architects of a diffuse terror network that has left thousands dead and millions displaced across the western Sahel.
French defence minister Florence Parly announced Droukdel’s death on Friday night, though the terror group has yet to confirm it. The news came as thousands of protesters gathered in Mali’s capital Bamako to protest against the government, which has been unable to quell brutal intercommunal and extremist violence raging across the country’s central region.
“On June 3, the French armed forces, with the support of their partners, neutralised the emir of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel and several of his close associates, in the course of an operation in northern Mali,” Ms Parly wrote on Twitter.
The French have previously announced the deaths of terrorist leaders only for them to later be revealed to be alive. But his death, if confirmed, would mean al-Qaeda has lost one of its most important leaders in Africa.
Droukdel, a 50-year-old Algerian who fought in the Afghanistan civil war, was directly connected to al-Qaeda leadership in the Middle East, communicating regularly with Osama bin Laden, as he built the group’s network in north and west Africa. Col Chris Karns of US Africa Command told the Voice of America that the US had assisted with intelligence and drone surveillance to “fix the target”.
The killing was “definitely a blow to AQIM and certainly degrades their ability to plan and carry out operations,” Col Karns told VOA. The French had been hunting him for seven years as part of Operation Barkhane, a regional campaign that works with the forces of five Sahelian countries.
Droukdel’s impact on the Sahel has been immense. In 2012, he aligned with Tuareg rebel groups to invade and capture northern Mali, a region twice the size of Germany. The French military intervened in 2013 and crushed the insurgency, taking back the north.
But the area has remained unstable ever since, and violence has spread into central Mali and beyond, into neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso, where government control has collapsed across swaths of the country. Governments in coastal states including Ghana and Togo have warned that their remote northern regions, which border Burkina Faso, are increasingly vulnerable to extremist infiltration.
France has maintained a force of more than 5,000 troops in the Sahel, even as its presence has grown increasingly unpopular both in the region and back home, buttressed by a 14,000-troop UN peacekeeping force in Mali and backed by US drone surveillance.
A coalition of jihadi groups known as JNIM, which Droukdel created, has been a driving force behind the spread of violence in the region, with attacks on cafés and restaurants popular with elites and expatriates in Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso. But impoverished villagers across the Sahel have borne the brunt of attacks by JNIM, its affiliates, its Islamic State-linked rivals and the ethnic militias it has aligned with.
Arthur Boutellis, senior adviser at the International Peace Institute, said the death was “a major achievement for France at a moment some were starting to question the impact of its renewed military engagement alongside its Sahelian partners”.
But he said it was unclear what impact it would have on JNIM — whose Malian leader remains at large — or the fight against extremism given that it could also empower its on-again, off-again rival the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
The effects of population growth, climate change, government neglect, abuses from security forces and economic stagnation have created fertile ground for extremist groups to stoke ethnic tension and exploit grievances.
The constant drumbeat of deaths in central Mali in particular helped drive thousands into the streets of Bamako on Friday night, where opposition politicians led calls for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.