On numerous occasions over the past ten years, rumours had circulated that he was dead. They were wrong.
But this time, the journey of 50-year-old Abdelmalek Droukdel found its epilogue in northeastern Mali, in Talhandak, about 80 kilometres east of Tessalit and a stone’s throw from the border with Algeria.
Abdelmalek Droukdel, the historic leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed on 3 June during an operation led by the French army.
Recently arrived from Algeria, the jihadi leader was accompanied by several of his relatives, executives of the organization he founded in January 2007.
The operation against the leader of AQIM and his lieutenants was carried out by French special forces, who arrived in the area by helicopter before taking action on the ground. Several other individuals were killed at the same time as Droukdel, but their identities – some of whom may have been other senior AQIM officials – are still being verified.
Several clues contributed to the formal identification of Abdelmalek Droukdel’s body, even though the French military did not use DNA tests. “A whole range of indications allow us to affirm with certainty that it is indeed him,” said a senior French official. Among them was the arrest, during the operation, of a jihadist who formally confirmed his identity to French special forces.
The elimination of the historic leader of AQIM was made possible by a combination of human and technical intelligence gathered by French and American services over the previous few days. “It had been a few weeks since AQIM operatives had been spotted making their way from Algerian territory to northern Mali,” said a source close to the case.
Once this closely monitored group entered Malian territory, orders were given to mount a special forces operation to neutralize it.
French President Emmanuel Macron was kept informed live of the launch of the operation and its results.
The Algerian authorities, for their part, were notified by Paris once the raid was over and Droukdel’s identification was certified. However, the jihadi leader was not mentioned during the recent telephone conversation between the French President and his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
While he was said to be hiding somewhere in eastern Algeria, holed up with his close guard in the dense scrub near the Tunisian border, or sheltered in Libya, Droukdel was shot after he had just crossed the vast Algerian desert to seek refuge in Mali, which has become a sanctuary for Islamist activism.
Why did this hitherto elusive man, who had been lost in the wilderness for at least five years, take the risk of leaving his Algerian stronghold and heading to Mali in the company of several of his organisation’s executives?
Did he and his men intend to take refuge in the desert expanses of the Sahel to flee a country where the activities of terrorist groups have been wiped out? Or was it rather a strategic move to redeploy and reorganize AQIM, at a time when more than 5,000 French soldiers are deployed in the region as part of Operation Barkhane?
Rivalries between jihadist groups
In Mali, several sources cite the arrival of Droukdel on their soil as the reasons behind the clashes between jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda and those who have given allegiance to the Islamic State in the Great Sahara (EIGS).
Since the beginning of the year, these groups have been clashing in central Mali and on the border with Burkina Faso, each trying to strengthen their influence in the region.
The use of intelligence gathered after the French raid could in any case provide some answers to the objective that Abdelmalek Droukdel was pursuing by entering Mali. It could also provide an updated inventory of the state of the jihadist organization, which seems to have completely lost its foothold in Algeria and the Sahel.
A self-proclaimed leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb since January 2007, Abdelmalek Droukdel, 50, was one of the last veterans of Algerian jihadism of the 1990s. His elimination signals the end of a sad line of terrorist leaders who took up arms in the country in the early 1990s. It follows the neutralization or disappearance of other emirs who had worked under the banner of various armed Islamic organizations.
One of its main lieutenants, the Algerian Abou Zeid, was killed in February 2013 during Operation Serval, in the Adrar des Ifoghas, the mountainous massif in the extreme north-east of Mali.
Another emblematic AQIM figure, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was behind the bloody hostage-taking at the Algerian gas site of In Amenas in January 2013, has been missing since the autumn of 2016 and is believed to have been eliminated by a French army strike in Libya.
As for Djamel Okacha, known as Abou Yahya El Hammam, another Algerian AQIM executive close to Droukdel, he was killed in February 2019 in northern Mali by the French army.
The long hunt
The elimination of these AQIM barons, whose common denominator is their past membership of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), has allowe the Malian Iyad Ag Ghaly, the founder of Ansar Eddine, to gradually grow in stature. Droukdel had bet on Ag Ghaly to build support in Mali.
A Tuareg of the Ifogha tribe, Ag Ghaly was promoted by Al-Qaeda and founded the Group in Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM) in March 2017. He is today one of the main jihadist leaders in the Sahel.
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A former GIA bomb-maker, Droukdel had made a name for himself in the summer of 2004 by becoming national emir of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s policy of national reconciliation, which has made it possible to clear up the remaining terrorists, and the Algerian army’s success in the fight against terrorism, forced him to change his strategy by opting for the Al Qaeda banner in 2007.
At the time, Droukdel advocated the same methods as this organisation, resorting in particular to suicide attacks with suicide bombers trained in the maquis of Kabylia.
In Algeria, such attacks targeted the presidential motorcade in 2007, public buildings and police and army barracks.
How was Droukdel able to escape the hunt of the Algerian secret services for at least 15 years? His longevity can be explained first of all by the nature of the terrain where he and his men were deployed: the maquis, caves, and ravines of the Djurdjura mountain ranges in Kabylia offered almost impregnable refuges.
But the kidnapping and beheading of French tourist Hervé Gourdel in September 2013, on the heights of Kabylia, has radically changed the situation. The Algerian army has since then deployed great means to track down and eliminate the group responsible for this attack before “cleaning” the maquis. The permanent deployment of the military in the area then forced Abdelkader Droukdel to flee. It is suspected that he may have found refuge in the east of the country.
His survival is also explained by his extreme caution. Droukdel trusted only a handful of followers: a circle of about twenty people who served as his shields and bodyguards. Some of them probably perished with him.
To avoid being spotted by the means of eavesdropping and surveillance set up by the Algerian army, Abdelmalek Droukdel had virtually banned the use of the telephone and internet. Instructions were passed by word of mouth, by bearer. On 3 June, however, on the border between the Sahara and the Sahel, the jihadist leader’s luck ran out.
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