(CN) — French troops have killed the leader of the Islamic State group in the Sahara, President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday.
The killing of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi is a key moment in France's long fight against terrorist groups in Western Africa's Sahel region. The United States had placed a $5 million bounty on Sahrawi after his group — the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara — was accused of killing four American soldiers in 2017 in Niger.
In August 2020, Sahrawi was accused of ordering the killing of six French charity workers and two guides at a nature reserve in Niger. His group also carried out attacks on military bases in Mali and Niger.
Macron called the killing “another major success in our fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel.”
French Defense Minister Florence Parly said Sahrawi died after a strike in August by France's Operation Barkhane force, which fights Islamist militants in the Sahel, a vast semiarid region at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert where France once held colonial sway.
Sahrawi was born in the contested territory of Western Sahara in 1973 and joined the Polisario Front, a rebel group fighting for independence from Morocco for the Sahrawi people.
He then joined al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and helped found a Malian Islamist group accused of kidnapping Spanish aid workers in Algeria and Algerian diplomats in 2012. His group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015.
For the past eight years, France has been fighting militant groups in the Sahel region with the goal of bringing stability to its former colonies and protecting its business interests in the region.
France sent troops to Mali in early 2013 upon the request of the Malian government after an insurgency erupted in the poor, desperate and long-neglected northern regions of Mali, where creeping desertification, drought and climate change are making life ever more difficult.
Weapons and jihadists also were pouring into Mali from Libya, which had fallen into civil war after rebel groups supported by the United States and France toppled Muammar Gaddafi.
Alongside the armies of Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, French soldiers have been fighting motorcycle-riding armed groups of jihadists and insurgents. The main groups are affiliated with the Islamic State — such as Boko Haram — and al-Qaida.
In July, Macron announced that France will gradually draw down the number of French troops in the region. Relations between France and Mali's military government are strained, and Paris warned recently that it would pull its troops out of the country if Mali brought in Russian mercenaries.
Besides French troops, the region is patrolled by forces serving on a United Nations peacekeeping mission, and the U.S. provides intelligence and logistics aid to the French.
The objective, French military leaders say, is to prevent jihadists from establishing control of the region. Europe also sees the chaos in the Sahel as a major factor in pushing thousands of people to seek refuge in Europe, a phenomenon that has upended European politics and boosted the rise of xenophobic far-right political parties.
France's military mission also has faced criticism for acting as an imperialistic enterprise and sparked protests in Africa.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. Follow him on Twitter.
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