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Sahel: French forces kill Islamic State leader wanted by US

Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi was wanted for several attacks, including the killing of US soldiers and foreign aid workers
Florence Parly, centre, told a news conference that Sahrawi was 'the one we were looking for, since he was the uncontested, authoritarian leader with no rival' within ISGS (AFP)

France said on Thursday that its troops deployed in the Sahel region of Africa had killed the head of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), who was wanted for deadly attacks on US soldiers and foreign aid workers.

Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi formed ISGS in 2015 after splitting with al-Qaeda linked fighters and pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group, which at that time controlled large swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Sahrawi was "neutralised by French forces", President Emmanuel Macron tweeted early on Thursday.

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"This is another major success in our fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel."

The US had offered a $5m reward for information on the whereabouts of Sahrawi, who was wanted over a 4 October 2017 attack in Niger that killed four US Special Forces and four Nigerien soldiers.

Macron's office said that in August 2020, Sahrawi had personally ordered the killing of six French charity workers and their Nigerien driver.

"The death of Sahrawi is a decisive blow to Daesh (IS) in the Sahel and its cohesion. It will have difficulty replacing its leader with someone of that importance," French Defence Minister Florence Parly told a news conference on Thursday.

Parly said Sahrawi died following a strike by France's Barkhane force, which battles armed groups across the arid expanses of the Sahel in West Africa.

"The attack was carried out a few weeks ago, and today we are certain that it was the number one of ISGS," Parly told RFI radio earlier on Thursday, without identifying where Sahrawi was killed.

Sahrawi was "the one we were looking for, since he was the uncontested, authoritarian leader with no rival" within the group, she said.

"When you take out a key link in the chain, you disrupt and weaken these terrorist groups," she said, adding that the second- and third-in-command of ISGS had been "neutralised" over the spring and summer.

French scaleback

ISGS is blamed for most of the armed attacks taking place in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, AFP reported.

The flashpoint "tri-border" area is frequently targeted by ISGS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM) with deadly attacks on civilians and soldiers.

In late 2019, ISGS carried out a series of largescale attacks against military bases in Mali and Niger.

Sahrawi, a former member of Western Sahara's Polisario Front independence movement, joined al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) and had also co-led Mujao, a Malian Islamist group responsible for kidnapping Spanish aid workers in Algeria and a group of Algerian diplomats in Mali in 2012.

The French military has killed several high-ranking members of ISGS under its strategy of targeting leaders of armed groups since the start of its military intervention in Mali in 2013.

In June, Macron announced a major scaleback of France's Barkhane force in the Sahel, ultimately halving its military presence after more than eight years spent in the vast region, to refocus on counter-terrorism operations and supporting local forces.

"The nation is thinking this evening of all its heroes who died for France in the Sahel in the Serval and Barkhane operations, of the bereaved families, of all its wounded," Macron added in another tweet after Sahrawi was killed. 

"Their sacrifice is not in vain. With our African, European and American partners, we will continue this fight."

Russian mercenaries

The north of Mali fell under the control of armed groups in 2012. Those groups were pushed out of the cities by France's military intervention in 2013.

But Mali, an impoverished and landlocked nation home to at least 20 ethnic groups, continues to face attacks by such groups, as well as intercommunal violence, which often spills over into neighbouring countries. 

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French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Tuesday criticised plans that would bring Russian mercenaries into Mali, saying such a move was "incompatible" with the French military presence in its former colony.

Diplomatic and security sources have told Reuters that a deal is close between Russian private military contractor the Wagner Group and Mali's military government, which took power in a coup in May, for the mercenaries to train the Malian army and provide protection for senior officials.

Asked by lawmakers about the report, Le Drian said: "Wagner is a militia which has shown itself in the past in Syria and Central African Republic to have carried out abuses and all sorts of violations that do not correspond with any solution and so it is incompatible with our presence.

"I am saying this so that it is heard," he added.

A European source who tracks West Africa and a security source in the region told Reuters at least 1,000 mercenaries could be involved in the Wagner Group deal. Two other sources believed the number was lower but did not provide figures.

Four sources told the news agency the Wagner Group would be paid about $11m a month for its services.

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