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France said Thursday it had killed Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the Islamic State leader who led the killing of four U.S. servicemen in Niger in 2017 and was the architect of one of the terrorist outfit’s most successful franchises following the group’s loss of its Middle East territories.

“This is another major success in our fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel," French President Emmanuel Macron said, referring to the vast semiarid region south of the Sahara that has become home to some of the world’s most deadly jihadist cells. He didn’t provide details on when or where precisely al-Sahrawi had died.

Sahara-born al-Sahrawi’s career—shifting from local militant groups to al Qaeda and then Islamic State affiliates—tracked the evolution of the jihadist threat in the region. But he was most infamous for leading the 2017 operation that killed four U.S. troops in the Nigerien village of Tongo Tongo, the largest loss of American lives in combat in Africa since the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. Former jihadist comrades said the bearded and black-turbaned militant leader understood the symbolism of that operation: crisscrossing the Sahel on a Honda motorbike carrying a short-barrel machine gun seized from one of the fallen U.S. soldiers.

“It was a trophy," said Husseini Jibril, a former Islamic State operative who met al-Sahrawi before defecting to the Nigerien government in 2020.

Mr. Macron’s claim, if confirmed, would mark a rare bright spot for France’s faltering counterterrorism campaign in the Sahel, begun in 2013 to eject al Qaeda allies from the Malian city of Timbuktu.

France is shrinking its military presence in the Sahel from 5,100 soldiers to between 2,500 and 3,000 under a redeployment of forces Mr. Macron announced in July. The eight-year campaign has mixed support back home and has left 55 French soldiers dead.

“France doesn’t have the vocation, even less the willingness, to stay forever in the Sahel," Mr. Macron said.

About 2,400 civilians were killed in separate attacks in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso last year, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Al-Sahrawi’s group has become the deadliest, accounting for 79% of the fatalities from violence targeting civilians in Niger as of June 2021, ACLED said. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the conflict has displaced about 684,000 people in the region.

Last year, a U.S.-backed French operation killed regional al Qaeda leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, but U.S., French and regional officials have been forced to reverse unconfirmed claims of other top militants’ assassinations, including al-Sahrawi’s deputy, Abdelhakim al-Sahrawi.

Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi hailed from Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that is now a disputed territory controlled by Morocco. He initially worked with the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a guerrilla group seeking independence for Western Sahara, before joining al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and moving to the Sahel, where he fought alongside jihadists who seized Timbuktu.

Then in 2015, he emerged as the head of a new Sahel franchise of Islamic State, which had seized swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. As those Levantine strongholds shrank under the attack of Western coalition forces and their local allies, the Sahel leader rose to prominence, using gruesome violence to carve out a space in a booming criminal economy trading in an array of contraband, from stolen cattle and illicit fuel to narcotics, migrants and wildcatted gold.

The Tongo Tongo killings put a $5 million U.S. government bounty on al-Sahrawi’s head, making him one of the most wanted men in Africa. In his six years as leader of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, or ISGS, the group emerged as a rival to more entrenched al Qaeda affiliates in the region. Al-Sahrawi built the group’s political and financial power, using funds to buy weapons, win the loyalty of local tribesmen and pay fighters and administrators’ wages in the areas it controls.

Under al-Sahrawi, Islamic State fighters launched a string of massacres on local populations in the so-called tri-state border region joining Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. In June, ISGS fighters, many of them child soldiers, killed 130 Burkinabe civilians—the worst terrorist atrocity in the history of a country that has been plunged into extremist violence in recent years—prompting calls to intensify international counterterrorism efforts across West Africa.

Al-Sahrawi also focused his firepower on his former al Qaeda comrades, sending troops, car bombs and suicide bombers into their bases as the two groups battled for supremacy across the Sahel.

Al-Sahrawi’s death would leave another Islamist militant, Iyad Ag Ghaly, in France’s crosshairs. Ghaly’s organization, the Group to Support Islam and Muslims, was behind a 2018 attack on the French Embassy in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. “Clearly today it’s Iyad Ag Ghaly who is the number one priority," Éric Vidaud, France’s top special-forces commander, said in June. “He’s the person we must absolutely capture, or neutralize if that’s not possible, in the coming months."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

 

 

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