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The leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Adnan Abou Walid al-Sahrawi, was killed by French forces, President Emmanuel Macron announced early on Thursday.
"This is another major success in our fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel," Macron added.
"The nation is thinking tonight of all its heroes who died for France in the Sahel in the Serval and Barkhane operations, of the bereaved families, of all of its wounded," Macron also said. "Their sacrifice is not in vain."
Florence Parly, Minister for the Armed Forces, later told reporters that al-Sahrawi died from injuries incurred following an airstrike carried out in late August.
General Thierry Burkhard, Chief of Staff for the French Army, added that the operation that neutralised al-Sahrawi was carried out from August 17 to 22. It had been organised following the capture in mid-July of several ISGS fighters which had enabled French forces to identify several sites in which he was likely to have holed himself up.
The operation involved special commando forces on the ground as well as aerial forces including fighter jets and drones, he added.
Al-Sahrawi died following a strike on a motorcycle with two passengers. About a dozen other ISGS figures were also neutralised during the operation.
"The death of Adnan Abou Walid al-Sahrawi is a decisive blow to Daesh's leadership in the Sahel but also to its cohesion," Parly emphasised, describing him as "the absolute leader of the ISGS and took all decisions."
She said his death sparked a "deep destructuring" of the terror group as it will "no doubt have difficulties in replacing its emir with a figure of the same stature".
She stressed however that the organisation remains structured around several key figures and remains a threat.
Thousands of deaths
The ISGS is blamed for most of the terrorist attacks in the "tri-border area" straddling Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM) is also active in the area.
Al-Sahrawi had claimed responsibility for a 2017 attack in Niger that killed four U.S. military personnel and four people with Niger’s military. His group also has abducted foreigners in the Sahel and is believed to still be holding American Jeffrey Woodke, who was abducted from his home in Niger in 2016.
He had also ordered the August 2020 attack in Niger in which six French NGO workers and two local colleagues were killed.
According to French estimates, ISGS is responsible for the deaths of between 2,000 and 3,000 civilians since 2013, the vast majority Muslims.
The extremist leader was born in the disputed territory of Western Sahara and later joined the Polisario Front. After spending time in Algeria, he made his way to northern Mali where he became an important figure in the group known as MUJAO that controlled the major northern town of Gao in 2012.
A French-led military operation the following year ousted Islamic extremists from power in Gao and other northern cities, though those elements later regrouped and again carried out attacks.
The French military has been fighting Islamic extremists in the Sahel region where France was once the colonial power since the 2013 intervention in northern Mali. In June, Macron announced that the operation would be scaled down with 2,000 of the 5,000 troops to be withdrawn by early next year.
In the weeks following Macron's announcement, the French army said it killed several high-ranking ISGS figures.
News of al-Sahrawi's death comes as France's global fight against the Islamic State organisation is making headlines in Paris. The key defendant in the 2015 Paris attacks trial said Wednesday that those coordinated killings were in retaliation for French airstrikes on the Islamic State group, calling the deaths of 130 innocent people “nothing personal” as he acknowledged his role for the first time.