The most powerful leader of West Africa's growing Al Qaeda insurgency was killed in Mali, according to the French military.
Abdelmalek Droukdal, a 50-year-old Algerian veteran of the Soviet-Afghanistan war, was one of the terror group’s most reliable and resilient allies.
Over the last fifteen years he has been at the forefront of the anarchy slowly spreading across swathes of north and west Africa.
Jihadists under his command have invaded a sovereign nation and launched strikes, bombings and kidnappings from Tunisia and Ivory Coast to Burkina Faso and Benin.
Florence Parly, the French Minister for the Armed Forces, announced his death on Twitter, late on Friday.
“On June 3, the French armed forces, with the support of their partners, neutralised the emir Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Abdelmalek Droukdal and several of his close collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali,” she said.
Parly did not disclose the exact location of the attack. However, experts have suggested the operation took place in northern Mali a few miles from the town of Timiaouine in South West, Algeria.
Wassim Nasr, a French journalist and analyst, said that local sources and recordings indicated that 7 to 8 French helicopters took part in a major operation there on June 3.
A representative of US forces in Africa has said that America provided intelligence and aerial surveillance for the mission.
Al Qaeda has not confirmed Droukdal’s death, so the announcement will be treated with some caution. In 2018, Parly said that French forces had ‘neutralised’ Amadou Kouffa, a jihadist who has stoked horrific ethnic violence in central Mali. Three months later, Kouffa appeared in a video mocking claims that he was dead.
However, if true, Droukdal’s death is a major symbolic blow for Al Qaeda. Droukel represents “one of the long-standing pillars of Algerian jihadism and its spread south,” says Andrew Lebovich from the European Council of Foreign Relations.
In the mid-2000s, Droukdal took control of a ragtag band of Algerian fighters known as the GSPC and joined forces with Al Qaeda to form Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
From 2008, AQIM set about kidnapping and ransoming foreign nationals across the Sahara desert. Desperate western governments paid millions of dollars to get their citizens back. By 2013, AQIM had reportedly banked more than $90m.
When Libya was brought to its knees in 2011 by a civil war and French and UK airstrikes, the contents of Colonel Gaddafi’s vast arsenals flooded south.
Armed with these weapons, AQIM and allied rebel groups swept out of the desert and conquered northern Mali and the famed city of Timbuktu in 2012.
When the jihadists began to advance on Bamako, Mali’s southern capital, thousands of French and Chadian troops drove them out of northern towns in 2013.
But after the initial defeat, the jihadists regrouped, rearmed and spread out across the Sahel region running underneath the Sahara into central Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
Le 3 juin, les forces armées françaises, avec le soutien de leurs partenaires, ont neutralisé l’émir Al-Qaida au Maghreb islamique (AQMI), Abdelmalek Droukdal et plusieurs de ses proches collaborateurs, lors d’une opération dans le nord du Mali.— Florence Parly (@florence_parly) June 5, 2020
A dizzying array of armed groups have emerged since and local forces are struggling to stem a wave of violence which has killed thousands and forced a million to flee in the last year alone.
In 2017, Droukdal’s AQIM joined a powerful Al Qaeda-allied umbrella group, known as Nusrat-al-Islam (JNIM). Over three years, JNIM has launched dozens of attacks across the region and helped to turn the once peaceful state of Burkina Faso into one of the most dangerous places on earth.
However, recently JNIM has reportedly come enormous strain from France’s 5,100-man Sahelian counter-insurgency mission, Operation Barkhane and fights with Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, a rival jihadist organisation allied to Isil in the Middle East.
Britain is supporting the mission with three Chinook heavy-lift helicopters and is set to deploy 250 frontline troops to the UN’s dangerous peacekeeping mission in Mali, later this year.
Droukdel was not just a leader. He was also an expert bomb-maker and his devices are thought to have killed and maimed hundreds of African civilians.