BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — French forces have killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of al-Qaida’s North Africa affiliate, the France’s defense minister announced late Friday, in what would be a major victory for France after years of battling jihadists in the Sahel.
There was no immediate confirmation of his death from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, which has made millions of dollars abducting foreigners for ransom over the years and made large swaths of West Africa too dangerous for aid groups to access.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly tweeted that Droukdel and several of his allies were killed Wednesday in northern Mali by French forces and their partners. It was not immediately clear how his identity was confirmed by the French.
Droukdel’s reported death comes after French President Emmanuel Macron and the leaders of the G5 Sahel group -- Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad -- launched a new plan in January to fight jihadists in the area. France deployed 600 additional soldiers to its Barkhane force, raising the number of troops there to 5,100.
In a March video released by the extremist monitoring group SITE, Droukdel urged governments of the Sahel region to try to end the French military presence, calling the troops “armies of occupation.”
It was not clear how long Droukdel had been in Mali, Algeria’s southern neighbor. For years he was thought to be holed up in the Kabyle region east of the capital of his native Algeria, and many people had questioned why he was never captured by Algerian security forces, which had honed their counter-terrorism skills over the decades.
He was widely seen as the symbolic leader of al Qaida’s North African branch, whose operational center for attacks shifted to northern Mali over the past decade. That led to the French military invasion of the region in 2013 seeking to counter Islamist extremist designs on southern Mali and the capital, Bamako.
Droukdel made his reputation as a feared extremist leader in Algeria, which beginning in the early 1990s was convulsed by violence in what the nation now calls the “black decade.” Droukdel’s al Qaida affiliate had claimed responsibility for numerous deadly suicide bombings in Algeria, including targeting a United Nations building in Algiers in 2007, shattered by a vehicle packed with explosives.
Droukdel, also known by the nom de guerre Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, transformed the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, known as the GSPC, into al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, spreading the movement across Africa’s Sahel region under the umbrella of the global terror network.
More recently he had been commanding all the al-Qaida groups in North Africa and the Sahel, including the JNIM, which has claimed responsibility for devastating attacks on the Malian military and U.N. peacekeepers trying to stabilize the volatile country.
Parly identified him as a member of al-Qaida’s “management committee.” Related anti-terrorist operations in the region also led to the arrest May 19 of a major figure in the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, Mohamed el Mrabat, she said.
She said the operations dealt a “severe blow” to terrorist groups in the region that have been operating for years despite the presence of thousands of French, U.N. and other African troops.
AFRICOM spokesperson Air Force Col. Chris Karns confirmed Saturday that Droukdal was killed, following a U.S. assessment.
“This is significant and reflects the commitment and tremendous support being provided by the French in West Africa," Karns said. "In Africa, it is truly an international effort and this operation demonstrates this fact. This mission is a collective win. US Africa Command was able to assist with intelligence and ISR support to fix the target.”
Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.