Abu Walid, ISIS Leader Thought Responsible for Attack on US Troops, Killed by Drone Strike

Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara militant group (ISGS) and thought to be responsible for attacks on U.S. troops, was killed in a drone strike last month in southern Mali, French authorities said Thursday.

The French-led operation involved backup from U.S., EU, Malian and Nigerian military forces, and hit al-Sahrawi on a motorcycle last month, though his death was not confirmed until now. The French government did not disclose how his identity was verified.

Al-Sahrawi has been accused of ordering or overseeing attacks on U.S. troops, French aid workers and around 2,000 to 3,000 mostly Muslim African civilians. He was described as "enemy No. 1" in the region by the French government, and President Emmanuel Macron called it a "major victory."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

ISIS Insignia
French authorities reported that Abu Walid, leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, was killed in a drone strike last month. Above, a member of the Iraqi forces walks past a mural bearing the logo of the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group in a tunnel that was reportedly used as a training center, on March 1, 2017. Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images

Experts called the announcement big and welcome news for governments struggling against violent extremists—but warned that ISGS could find a new leader, and that the threat of jihadist violence remains high.

"The death of Al-Sahrawi will likely disrupt ISGS operations in the short-term. But it is unlikely to permanently cripple the extremist group," said Alexandre Raymakers, senior Africa analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft.

He called it a "tactical success" for Operation Barkhane considering Al-Sahrawi's elimination had been a top priority for the French military, but noted that despite the loss of several senior leaders to French military operations over the years, the jihadist group has continued to expand its footprint in the Sahel.

"This reinforces our determination to fight terrorism with our partners in the Sahel, with our American and European partners," French Defense Minister Florence Parly told reporters in Paris. "We will not leave the Sahel."

Intelligence gleaned from the capture of ISGS fighters earlier this year allowed France to hone in on specific areas where Al-Sahrawi was likely to hide, Parly said.

He was on a motorcycle with one other person when they were hit by a drone strike in the Dangalous Forest near the Niger border on August 17, one of several airstrikes in the region in mid-August, said the chief of staff of France's military, Thierry Burkhard.

France then sent a team of 20 special ground forces to the region to verify the identities of those hit, and determined that about 10 ISGS members were killed, including Al-Sahrawi, according to Burkhard.

Macron announced the death overnight, after authorities took time to verify his identity. According to Macron's office, al-Sahrawi personally ordered the killing of six French aid workers and their Nigerien colleagues last year, and his group was behind a 2017 attack that killed four U.S. troops and and four Niger military personnel.

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, as well as a German hostage.

"The leader of the Islamic State was one of the biggest criminals and (ISIS) was one of the most violent groups that killed many people in the Sahel," said Mahamoudou Savadogo a conflict analyst and former military officer in Burkina Faso. He said this death would "unburden" local communities and governments in the region.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged African governments to fill the void and seize back ground taken by the Islamic State extremists.

Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Moroccan think tank, called it a "huge blow for ISGS" but added, "there will be someone who's ready to take over. The real success is when (the) civilian population is no longer terrorized by this group and others."

France's head of foreign intelligence, Bernard Emie, estimated that several hundred jihadist fighters remain in the area.

Rumors of the militant leader's death had circulated for weeks in Mali, though authorities in the region had not confirmed it.

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.

MUJAO was loyal to the regional Al-Qaeda affiliate. But in 2015, al-Sahrawi released an audio message pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

France, the region's former colonial power, recently announced that it would be reducing its military presence in the region, with plans to withdraw 2,000 troops by early next year.

But Parly insisted that France wouldn't pull out entirely, saying the attack was proof that the international cooperation in the region is bearing fruit.

She also reiterated concerns about reports of the possible deployment of Russian mercenaries in Mali. If Mali's government were to reach such a deal with Kremlin-backed private military firm Wagner Group, that would be "totally incompatible" with the anti-terrorism strategy in the Sahel that led to the killing of the Islamic State leader, Parly said.

Wagner has been accused of human rights abuses in the Central African Republic and involvement in the conflict in Libya. Russia denies any involvement in Mali.

Abu Walid Poster
French President Emmanuel Macron announced the death of Abu Walid on Wednesday, calling the killing “a major success” for the French military after more than eight years fighting extremists in the Sahel. This undated image provided by Rewards For Justice shows a wanted posted of Abu Walid, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Rewards For Justice via AP