The assassinated Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, the “major of France

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A French military operation in August killed Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the jihadist group Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS), it was revealed Thursday. FRANCE 24 takes a closer interest in this terrorist leader whom France had qualified as a “major enemy” in the Sahel.

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that the operation was a “major success in the fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel”.

Defense Minister Florence Parly said French military forces tracked down Sahrawi and used a drone to eliminate him while he was riding his motorcycle in August. Saharawi’s death was a “decisive blow for the ISGS and its cohesion,” Parly continued.

The assassination took place near the “border between Mali and Niger,” said FRANCE 24 jihadism expert Wassim Nasr – stressing that it is an “area of ​​activity for militants of the Islamic State group “.

“No crew was sent after the hit to verify who was killed, which means it was an opportunistic hit; a drone was flying in the area, they targeted a motorcycle with two armed people on it, ”Nasr said. “So they met the jihadist criteria in an area of ​​jihadist activity and they were hit.”

“Constant fight”

France has been fighting jihadist groups in the vast semi-arid Sahel region just south of the Sahara Desert since 2013 – when Mali asked it to help reclaim territory seized by Islamist extremists who had hijacked a Tuareg rebellion. ‘last year.

The French army succeeded in this mission, Operation Serval. It then evolved into a longer term counterterrorism campaign, Operation Barkhane. But jihadist insurgencies have spread throughout Mali and across the border to Niger and Burkina Faso – despite the presence of some 5,000 French soldiers under the Barkhane banner.

The Sahrawis were designated France’s “major enemy” during a summit meeting with the leaders of the G5 Sahel in January 2020. France estimates that the ISGS is responsible for the deaths of 2,000 to 3,000 people in the region. region. The Saharawis ordered the murder of six French charity workers and their Nigerian driver in August 2020 – as well as an attack that killed four members of the US special forces and four Nigerian soldiers in 2017.

The death of the jihadist leader “comes after more than 18 months of relentless fighting against this branch of the IS group in the Sahel,” Parly said.

“A jihadist veteran”

Sahrawi was born in the 1970s in Western Sahara, where he fought in the Polisario Front, the armed group aiming to end Moroccan domination over the territory.

The former ISGS leader spent part of his youth in neighboring Algeria, where he was allegedly involved in militant Islamist movements that unsuccessfully waged a bitter civil war against the state from 1991 to 2002.

He then became involved in jihadist militancy in the Sahel, as a member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which broke away from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb ( AQIM) in 2011 while retaining its affiliation to its parent group. .

“Sahrawi was a veteran jihadist,” Nasr observed. “He was one of the first to join the jihad in the Sahel region. “

After MUJAO seized swathes of territory in northern Mali, Sahrawi became infamous for applying Sharia law as the group’s spokesperson in the town of Gao.

MUJAO then joined with other groups to form the al-Mourabitoune group, under the leadership of the famous Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

But the then ISGS chief decided to go it alone – swearing al-Mourabitoune’s loyalty to the IS group in 2015, when Islamist militants were at the height of their power as they ruled over large parts of Syria and Iraq.

Belmokhtar insisted that MUJAO’s allegiance was still to al-Qaeda, thus creating a split between supporters of this position and other activists who wanted to join the Sahrawis by aligning themselves with the IS group.

“It’s a lottery”

In this way, the Sahrawis “planted the first seed of the IS group in the Sahel,” said Nasr. “It took a year for the EI group to recognize this allegiance, until 2016 – and it was not until 2019 that the EI group started claiming the attacks carried out by [Sahrawi’s] Men.”

The “ongoing intra-jihadist war” against al-Qaeda has been a major weakening factor for both groups in 2020, Nasr noted. MUJAO has been “at war with al-Qaeda and they have done each other great harm, and this – combined with French and regional military efforts – led to the IS group being contained in the Sahel,” he said.

The killing of Saharawis is likely to “weaken” the ISGS, Nasr said. But he warned that “even though the group’s leaders are foreigners, the basic recruits are from the Fulani population, and they are still able to recruit from the Fulani due to multiple grievances and inter-community conflicts.”

“It’s a lottery in a way, killing Saharawi, because we don’t know who is going to come after him,” Nasr continued. “Is he going to be harder?” Is he going to be smarter?

Given recent events, France hopes above all that the removal of the Sahrawis has created a turning point in the conflict in the Sahel: Paris is currently trying to dissuade the junta in power in Mali from concluding an agreement with the Russian security group Wagner to bring in 1,000 mercenaries.

Reports of such a deal came against the backdrop of strained relations between Paris and Bamako – following Macron’s announcement in June that France will phase out Operation Barkhane after the Malian army overthrows the country’s civilian rulers the month before, the country’s second coup. within a year.

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