By John Irish and Michel Rose
Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi was head of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), a jihadist group that broke away from other militants in Mali in 2015 when it pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Since then, ISGS militants have spread into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, carried out hundreds of deadly attacks on civilians and armed forces, and rendered large areas of West Africa’s arid Sahel region ungovernable.
The French government estimates the group is responsible for the deaths of 2,000-3,000 people, mostly Muslims.
Sahrawi targeted U.S. soldiers in a deadly attack in 2017, Macron’s office said. In August 2020, he personally ordered the killing of six French charity workers and their Nigerian driver, it added.
“It’s another major success in our fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel,” Macron said in a post on Twitter late on Wednesday, without disclosing the location of the operation.
The strike was carried out in August by Barkhane, France’s 5,000-strong counter-terrorism mission in Mali, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said in a briefing on Thursday.
It came after militants close to Sahrawi were captured and French forces were able to identify his possible location, she said.
The strike follows others on ISGS’s top ranks, that have been weakened by recent targeted operations that have killed five of its seven top leaders, according to the French defence ministry.
Yet the group remains dangerous and has carried out a series of deadly attacks on civilians, especially in Niger, where casualties have risen sharply this year.
“We have no information on a successor at this stage, but it probably won’t be easy to find a leader who has the same weighting than the one who was killed,” Parly said.
Sahrawi’s death comes at a potential turning point for the French in the Sahel, where they have been fighting Islamist insurgents for nearly 10 years.
With no apparent end in sight, France was frustrated, and Macron said in July the country would soon reshape its forces in the Sahel, ultimately halving its military presence there. (Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Bernadette Baum)