The United States says there is no doubt that the long-time leader of a key al-Qaida terror group affiliate in North Africa is dead.
Officials with U.S. Africa Command Saturday confirmed the death of Abdelmalek Droukdel, the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), citing an independent assessment of a June 3 operation led by France.
"This mission is a collective win,” U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) spokesman Colonel Chris Karns told VOA.
"This was a great example of cooperation and partnership to get after a common threat,” he said, praising France’s commitment to fighting both al-Qaida and Islamic State-linked terror groups in Africa.
French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly first announced Droukdel’s death in a series of tweets late Friday.
"On June 3, French army forces, with the support of their local partners, killed the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Abdelmalek Droukdel, and several of his closest collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali," she said.
Le 3 juin, les forces armées françaises, avec le soutien de leurs partenaires, ont neutralisé l’émir Al-Qaida au Maghreb islamique (AQMI), Abdelmalek Droukdal et plusieurs de ses proches collaborateurs, lors d’une opération dans le nord du Mali.— Florence Parly (@florence_parly) June 5, 2020
French forces had been hunting Droukdel, a key figure within North African jihadist circles, for years. Various reports had placed him in Tunisia or the mountains of northern Algeria, although he also had been active in Mali.
The French, along with partner forces, finally caught up to Droukdel this past week with help from the U.S., which provided intelligence and surveillance support to “fix the target,” according to AFRICOM.
The long-time AQIM emir rose to power after starting out as an explosives expert for the Algerian-based Armed Islamic Group (GIA) before assuming control of the group that was to become AQIM in 2004.
U.S. officials designated Droukdel in 2007, blaming him and AQIM for a series of deadly attacks and bombings, including one on a bus belonging to a U.S. company in Algiers and a bombing at the Algerian prime minister’s office and at police facilities that killed 33 people.
Starting in 2011, Droukdel proved support to Ansar Dine, a Malian terror group, and helped it engineer a take-over of parts of Mali until French forces intervened two years later.
U.S. officials said, more recently, Droukdel, had been seeking to expand the amount of territory under his control and increase recruiting while plotting to ramp up attacks across the region.
“This definitely is a blow to AQIM and certainly degrades their ability to plan and carry out operations,” Africa Command’s Chris Karns said.
Even with Droukdel’s death, however, French, U.S. and African officials remain concerned that AQIM and other jihadist terror groups are growing, taking advantage of economic and political turmoil across parts of West Africa and the Sahel.
As part of an effort to counter that, France, along with Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad, created a combined force this past January. Public sentiment has soured, though, and some critics blame French forces for failing to do more to restore stability.
France has about 5,100 troops in the region and has been urging other Western countries to do more.
Already, French officials say European allies have pledged to send 100 special forces to aid in the counterterrorism efforts. And Parly, the French defense minister, promised there will be no let-up.
A separate French operation, on May 19, led to the capture of Mohamed el Mrabat, a veteran jihadist with Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. And more operations are to come.
Les opérations contre l’État islamique au Grand Sahara, l’autre grande menace terroriste dans la région, se poursuivent également. Le 19 mai dernier, les forces armées françaises ont capturé Mohamed el Mrabat, vétéran du djihad au Sahel et cadre important de l’EIGS.— Florence Parly (@florence_parly) June 5, 2020
"Our forces, in cooperation with their local partners ... will continue to track these (terrorists) down without respite," Parly said.
French calls for greater assistance in the fight against terrorism in Africa have been joined by the U.S., though officials in Washington have said they are looking to drawdown the U.S. military in presence in Africa in order to focus more on countering threats posed by powers like Russia and China.
Earlier this year, the U.S. began by withdrawing combat troops stationed in Africa, replacing them with military trainers.
French officials, however, have urged the U.S. to keep some forces in Africa, stressing that some U.S. assets cannot be replaced, including the intelligence and surveillance capabilities that help lead to the death of AQIM’s Droukdel.
Members of the global coalition to defeat IS also have expressed a desire to focus additional efforts in Africa, but planning has been delayed due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
In a communique issued following a virtual meeting Thursday, coalition members promised to move ahead with those efforts, with a focus on “capacity building … upon the request and prior consent of the countries concerned, and be coordinated with existing efforts and initiatives.”