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Malian forces kill Islamic State commander


Mali’s military government says its forces have killed a senior Islamic State commander, Abu Huzeifa, during a joint operation with Burkina Faso and Niger. Huzeifa, who had a $5 million bounty on his head, has been linked to high-profile attacks in Africa’s Sahel region, including the killing of four U.S. soldiers. Some experts say the junta will use this success to justify its stay in power.

Malian authorities said Monday their forces killed Islamic State commander Abu Huzeifa in a security operation in the northern region of Menaka.

Huzeifa, a Moroccan, was wanted for acts of terrorism and the deaths of civilians and security officers, including four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger in 2017.

Oluwole Ojewale is a regional coordinator at the Senegal-based Institute of Security Studies. He said the killing of a terror commander does not equate to the end of terrorism.

"It is always celebrated within the security community and the communities that they have also terrorized. But there's no sufficient evidence to show that maybe those groups begin to decline after the killing of their strategic leaders. But I think it's a symbolic victory, particularly for the military government in Mali in the context of the security rearrangement that has been going on in that region for a while, now they came into power, the taking of Kidal and this particular one," said Ojewale.

The killing comes several weeks after Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger formed a joint force to fight the insurgent groups. The three West African nations are battling terror threats and attacks by groups affiliated with the Islamic State and al-Qaida.

Experts say the killing of a terror group leader rarely changes the attacks against civilians and security forces.

David Otto, head of security and defense analysis with the Geneva Center for Africa Security and Strategic Studies, said the ability of Islamic State to launch more attacks and remain a threat will depend on how Abu Huzeifa ran the group's affairs.

"It depends on the structure or how centralized the leadership was of the Sahel province. So if he had all the power, then of course, it would disrupt at a strategic level and may have some operational impact negative to what the group wants to achieve. But if he were to have commanders that were already in line of succession, then of course it's just going to be a new replacement. Now the problem is that the new man could be more dangerous than himself, but he could also be a much weaker leader," he said.

Attacks by terror groups have killed thousands and displaced more than 500,000 from their homes in the Sahel in recent years. They are also accused of committing human rights violations against the population living in areas under their control.

Just like in Burkina Faso and Niger, Mali’s military overthrew the civilian-led government, accusing it of failing to effectively fight the jihadists.

Political and media freedoms have been shrinking in Mali for years, but Ojewale fears the military junta will use the killing of a commander to further suppress critical voices.

"They can use that to justify their stay in power. There is a constant erosion of civil liberty. Just a few days ago, they are locking the media out, which resulted in a complete blackout. That has happened in Mali, that is happening in Burkina Faso, that is also happening in Niger. The opposition, dissenting voices, cannot express themselves. To the extent to which that is taking place, then we can't give them a thumbs up for whatever they are doing," he said.

Mali’s government ordered French troops to leave the country 2022 and for the U.N. mission to close its mission in the country last year. Meantime, it formed closer relations with the Russian government and the Wagner mercenary group.

Now, with the killing of the IS commander, regional experts say the prospect of the military returning power to a civilian government seems distant.