BAMAKO – BAMAKO, MaliFrench forces have killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of al-Qaida’s North Africa affiliate, the France’s defense minister announced late Friday, in what would be a major victory for France after years of battling jihadists in the Sahel.
There was no immediate confirmation of his death from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, which has made millions of dollars abducting foreigners for ransom over the years and made large swaths of West Africa too dangerous for aid groups to access.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly tweeted that Droukdel and several of his allies were killed Wednesday in northern Mali by French forces and their partners. It was not immediately clear how his identity was confirmed by the French.
Droukdel’s reported death comes after French President Emmanuel Macron and the leaders of the G5 Sahel group -- Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad -- launched a new plan in January to fight jihadists in the area. France deployed 600 additional soldiers to its Barkhane force, raising the number of troops there to 5,100.
In a March video released by the extremist monitoring group SITE, Droukdel urged governments of the Sahel region to try to end the French military presence, calling the troops “armies of occupation.”
It was not clear how long Droukdel had been in Mali, Algeria’s southern neighbor. For years he was thought to be holed up in the Kabyle region east of the capital of his native Algeria, and many people had questioned why he was never captured by Algerian security forces, which had honed their counter-terrorism skills over the decades.
He was widely seen as the symbolic leader of al Qaida’s North African branch, whose operational center for attacks shifted to northern Mali over the past decade. That led to the French military invasion of the region in 2013 seeking to counter Islamist extremist designs on southern Mali and the capital, Bamako.
Droukdel made his reputation as a feared extremist leader in Algeria, which beginning in the early 1990s was convulsed by violence in what the nation now calls the “black decade.” Droukdel’s al Qaida affiliate had claimed responsibility for numerous deadly suicide bombings in Algeria, including targeting a United Nations building in Algiers in 2007, shattered by a vehicle packed with explosives.