The assassinated Abou Walid al-Sahrawi, France’s ‘greatest enemy’ in the Sahel

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A French military operation in August killed Adnan Abou Walid al-Sahrawi, the head of the jihadist group Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), it was revealed on Thursday. Jowhartakes a closer look at this terrorist leader whom France had described as “greatest enemy” in the Sahel.

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

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

The killing occurred near the “Mali-Niger border,” said Jowharjihadism expert Wassim Nasr, noting that this is a “zone of activity for militants of the Islamic State group.”

“No team was dispatched after the coup to verify who was killed, which means it was an opportunistic coup; A drone was flying in the area, they targeted a motorcycle with two armed people on it, ”Nasr said. “So they fit the criteria of jihadists in an area of ​​jihadist activity and were attacked.”

‘Constant struggle’

France has been fighting jihadist groups in the vast, semi-arid Sahel region south of the Sahara desert since 2013, when Mali asked it to help regain territory taken by Islamist extremists who had hijacked a Tuareg rebellion the previous year.

The French army was successful in this mission, Operation Serval. It then morphed into a longer-term counterterrorism campaign, Operation Barkhane. But jihadist insurgencies spread through Mali and across the border into Niger and Burkina Faso, despite the presence of some 5,000 French soldiers under the Barkhane flag.

The Saharawi was designated France’s “greatest enemy” at a summit meeting with G5 Sahel leaders in January 2020. France estimates that the ISGS is responsible for the deaths of between 2,000 and 3,000 people in the region. Sahrawi ordered the killing of six French charity workers and their Nigerian driver in August 2020, in addition to leading an attack that killed four US special forces and four Nigerian soldiers in 2017.

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

‘A veteran jihadist’

Saharawi was born in the 1970s in Western Sahara, where he fought in the Polisario Front, the armed group that sought to end Moroccan rule over the territory.

The former ISGS leader spent part of his youth in neighboring Algeria, where he is believed to have been 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 split from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2011 while maintaining affiliation with his group. matrix. .

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

After MUJAO seized swaths of territory in northern Mali, Sahrawi became famous for implementing sharia law as the group’s spokesman in the city of Gao.

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

But the then ISGS leader decided to go it alone, making al-Mourabitoune’s pledge of allegiance to the IS group in 2015, when Islamist militants were at the height of their power while ruling much of Syria and Iraq.

Belmokhtar insisted that MUJAO’s loyalty still lay with Al Qaeda, thus creating a division between supporters of this position and other militants who wished to join the Saharawis in aligning themselves with the IS group.

‘It’s a lottery’

In this way, Saharawi “planted the first seed of the IS group in the Sahel,” Nasr said. “It took the ISIS group a year to recognize this loyalty, until 2016, and then it was not until 2019 that the ISIS group began to claim attacks carried out by [Sahrawi’s] mens.”

The “ongoing intra-jihadist war” against al Qaeda was a major factor in the weakening of the two groups during 2020, Nasr noted. MUJAO has been “at war with Al Qaeda and they did a lot of harm to each other, and this, combined with French and regional military efforts, led to the containment of the IS group in the Sahel,” he said.

The killing of Sahrawis is likely to “weaken” the ISGS, Nasr said. But he warned that “even if the group’s leaders are foreigners, the main recruits are from the Fulani population, and they are still able to recruit among the Fulani due to multiple complaints and conflicts between communities.”

“It’s a lottery in a sense, to kill Sahrawis, because we don’t know who will come after him,” Nasr continued. “Is it going to be harder? Will you be smarter? ”

Given recent events, France will be especially hopeful that eliminating the Sahrawis has created a turning point in the Sahel conflict: Paris is trying to dissuade Mali’s ruling junta from reaching an agreement with the security group Russian Wagner to bring in 1,000 mercenaries.

Reports of such an agreement came in the context of tense relations between Paris and Bamako, following Macron’s announcement in June that France will phase out Operation Barkhane after the Malian army toppled the country’s civilian rulers the previous month. , the second coup in the country. in the space of a year.