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. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at this terrorist leader whom France had branded its “major enemy” in the Sahel.
Defence Minister Florence Parly said that French military forces had tracked Sahrawi and used a drone to take him out while he was riding his motorbike in August. Sahrawi’s death was a “decisive blow to ISGS and its cohesion”, Parly continued.
The killing was near the “border between Mali and Niger”, said FRANCE 24 jihadism expert Wassim Nasr – noting that this is a “zone of activity of Islamic State group militants”.
“There was no crew sent after the hit to verify who was killed, which means this was an opportunistic hit; a drone was flying in the zone, they targeted a motorbike with two armed people on it,” Nasr said. “So they fitted into the criteria of jihadis in an area of jihadi activity and they were hit.”
France has been fighting jihadist groups in the vast, semi-arid Sahel region just south of the Sahara Desert since 2013 – when Mali asked it to help regain territory seized by Islamist extremists who had hijacked a Tuareg rebellion the previous year.
The French military succeeded in this mission, Operation Serval. It then morphed into a longer-term counter-terrorism campaign, Operation Barkhane. But jihadist insurgencies spread throughout Mali and across the border to Niger and Burkina Faso – despite the presence of some 5,000 French troops under the Barkhane banner.
Sahrawi was designated a “major enemy” of France at a summit meeting with G5 Sahel leaders in January 2020. France estimates the ISGS is responsible for the deaths of 2,000-3,000 people in the region. Sahrawi ordered the killing of six French charity workers and their Nigerian driver in August 2020 – as well as leading an attack that killed four US special forces members and four Nigerien soldiers in 2017.
The jihadist leader’s death “comes after more than 18 months of constant fighting against this branch of the IS group in the Sahel”, Parly said.
‘A veteran jihadist’
Sahrawi was born in the 1970s in Western Sahara, where he fought in the Polisario Front, the armed group aiming to end Moroccan rule over the territory.
The former ISGS leader spent part of his youth in neighbouring Algeria, where he is believed to have been involved in Islamist militant movements that unsuccessfully waged a bitter civil war against the state from 1991 to 2002.
He then got involved in the jihadist militancy in the Sahel, as a member of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which splintered from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2011 while maintaining affiliation to its parent group.
“Sahrawi was a veteran jihadist,” Nasr observed. “He was one of the first to join jihad in the Sahel region.”
After MUJAO seized swathes of territory in northern Mali, Sahrawi became infamous for implementing sharia law as a spokesman for the group in the town of Gao.
MUJAO subsequently joined with other groups to form the al-Mourabitoune group, under the leadership of notorious Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
But the then ISGS leader decided to go it alone – making a pledge of loyalty from al-Mourabitoune to the IS group in 2015, when the Islamist militants were at the height of their power as they ruled over large parts of Syria and Iraq.
Belmokhtar insisted that MUJAO’s allegiance was still with al Qaeda, thereby creating a split between supporters of this stance and other militants who wished to join Sahrawi in aligning themselves with the IS group.
‘It’s a lottery’
In this way, Sahrawi “planted the first seed of the IS group in the Sahel”, Nasr said. “It took the IS group one year to recognise this allegiance, until 2016 – and then it wasn’t until 2019 the IS group started claiming attacks carried out by [Sahrawi’s] men.”
The “ongoing intra-jihadi war” against al Qaeda was a major factor in weakening 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 put it.
The killing of Sahrawi is likely to “weaken” the ISGS, Nasr said. But he cautioned that “even if the leaders of the group are foreigners, the core recruits are from the Fulani population, and they’re still able to recruit amongst the Fulani because of multiple grievances and inter-community conflicts”.
“It’s a lottery in a sense, killing Sahrawi, because we don’t know who’s going to come after him,” Nasr continued. “Is he going to be harsher? Is he going to be smarter?”
Given recent events, France will be especially hopeful that taking out Sahrawi created a turning point in the Sahel conflict: Paris is currently trying to dissuade Mali’s ruling junta from making an agreement with the Russian security group Wagner to bring in 1,000 mercenaries.
Reports of such a deal came in the context of strained relations between Paris and Bamako – following Macron’s announcement in June that France will gradually draw down Operation Barkhane after the Malian military ousted the country’s civilian rulers the previous month, the country’s second coup d’état in the space of a year.