French forces have killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of al-Qaeda’s North Africa affiliate, France’s defence minister announced late Friday, in what would be a major victory for France after years of battling jihadists in the Sahel.
There was no immediate confirmation of his death from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, which has made millions of dollars abducting foreigners for ransom over the years and made large swaths of West Africa too dangerous for aid groups to access.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly tweeted that Droukdel and several of his allies were killed Wednesday in northern Mali by French forces and their partners. It was not immediately clear how his identity was confirmed by the French.
Droukdel, also known by the nom de guerre Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, fought in Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s and rose to prominence as the top emir of the main Algerian insurgency movement in 2004.
He later transformed the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, known as the GSPC, into al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, spreading the movement across Africa’s Sahel region under the umbrella of the global terror network.
Under his leadership, AQIM claimed responsibility for several deadly attacks across Algeria. More recently he had been commanding all the al-Qaeda groups in North Africa and the Sahel, including the JNIM, which has claimed responsibility for devastating attacks on the Malian military and U.N. peacekeepers trying to stabilize the volatile country.
Parly identified him as a member of al-Qaeda’s “management committee.” Related anti-terrorist operations in the region also led to the arrest May 19 of a major figure in the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, Mohamed el Mrabat, she said.
She said the operations dealt a “severe blow” to terrorist groups in the region that have been operating for years despite the presence of thousands of French, United Nations and other African troops.
Since sending troops in 2013 to contain jihadists terrorizing Mali, France has struggled to root out extremism from the region. Earlier this year the French army ramped up operations against extremists from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.