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Mali: How France ‘neutralised’ Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the Islamic State’s emir

By Benjamin Roger, Fatoumata Diallo
Posted on Wednesday, 22 September 2021 10:15

French soldiers from Operation Barkhane in Mali, December 2019. Fred Marie/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

After several weeks of uncertainty, President Emmanuel Macron confirmed that French forces had killed Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS). We take a look back to how the French forces managed to achieve this.

Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, designated by France as its main target in the Sahel during the Pau summit in January 2020, was monitored day and night by the intelligence services.

On 16 September, Macron announced that the French forces had “neutralised” the leader of the jihadist group Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS). The president thus put an end to the rumours that had been circulating since August about the death of the man that his fighters had nicknamed ‘the Emir’.

In recent weeks, the noose tightened around Sahrawi. His staff had been weakened by several French operations, which killed some of his closest lieutenants.

Two men on a motorbike

Last July, Abdelhakim al-Sahrawi (his right-hand man) and Issa al-Sahrawi (one of his commanders in Mali) were killed. Other leaders of the organisation were also arrested, such as Abu Dardar and Khattab Al Mauritani. According to a senior French official, these successive blows to the IS-GS led its leader to expose himself more, thereby putting his safety at risk.

Things became clearer from 17 to 22 August. Based on information transmitted by two IS-GS members who were arrested on 14 July, a scouting operation was carried out from 17 to 19 August by soldiers from the Barkhane force – in partnership with their allies from the G5 Sahel, the Takuba force and US forces – in the Dangarous forest, south of Indelimane, within Mali’s Ménaka region.

French intelligence services knew that several senior IS-GS members had planned to meet there, but were not certain whether their leader would be among them. On 17 August, a Reaper drone flew over the target area and hit a motorbike that had two passengers. Abu Walid al-Sahrawi was killed instantly. In the days that followed, a commando of around 20 men was deployed to the ground to continue combing through the Islamist organisation’s camps.

Identifying the body

Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi’s body has not yet been formally identified. It was not until mid-September that the French intelligence services confirmed his death, after listening to communications between jihadist group leaders who are still alive and cross-checking the information with their US counterparts.

France, which has decided to ‘reconfigure’ its military presence in the Sahel, is all the more delighted with this victory as rumours suggest that a contract between the Russian company Wagner and the Malian state is imminent. “If these discussions lead to effective collaboration between Mali and this company, it would be incompatible with the mode of organisation and intervention that we have successfully put in place [in the region],” says French defence minister Florence Parly.

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