At its peak, they claim one of the greatest successes of France’s deployment in the Sahel region of North Africa – the assassination of the head of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Abdelmalek Droukdel.
The French military, for the first time, provided details on Thursday of how it last week “neutralized” the man he called “the third deputy” to the head of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Officials describe the death of Algerian Droukdel as the result of meticulous intelligence work. This was concluded by a military intervention in broad daylight, some ten kilometers (6.2 miles) from the Algerian border, east of the Malian town of Tessalit.
A source close to the operation said that about fifteen French special forces had been dropped by at least two transport helicopters, as well as a Tiger combat helicopter and a Gazelle multi-purpose helicopter, with a drone in support.
“The capture of Droukdel was not possible,” said the source, who asked not to be named. “The goal is not necessarily to kill,” said the official. But “in combat, men only see rocks”, the combatants cowering behind them. “They don’t know who’s behind the gun. The source added, “This type of individual does not surrender. “
The military does not give details of the exchanges that took place during the operation, simply confirming that the fighting took place closely.
“We knew there was a target of interest in the area for two days. After that, it was all a work of mutual support, between the different sources of intelligence, ”said the source. “It’s about building it,” said the official, without revealing the source of the information but confirming aid from the United States.
Once the target was identified and located, conditions in northern Mali at the start of the rainy season slowed the advance of forces on the ground.
In the operation, an individual was captured and handed over to the Malian authorities after being interrogated by French forces. But soldiers also seized important digital documents, including phones, maps and computers. Analyzing them can help explain what Droukdel, who was generally very discreet, was doing in the region.
“Buried on the premises”
There has been heavy fighting for some time between groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and those of the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (IS-GS). These are “violent” fights with “losses on both sides”, according to the French source.
It was not excluded that this could have prompted Droukdel to be present in the region. “This is a real question,” said the source, hoping that the analysis would further clarify this point.
The IS-GS was designated in January as the number one enemy of the 5,000-strong anti-jihadist force of Barkhane and its G5 allies Sahel, Mauritania, Chad, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso. But ultimately, it was an Al Qaeda figure who was killed in this operation.
“The fact that today we have concentrated a number of our forces on the most virulent and urgent threat has not distracted us from surveillance of other branches,” the source said.
When the operation was finished, the special forces “applied the standards of the armed conflict: enemy combatants were buried at the scene”. Meanwhile, the arrested prisoner “will answer for his actions in court,” the source said.
The official praised the operational efficiency of the French forces on the ground and in the air, saying that they were capable of deploying in an underground situation at full speed at temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).
In military terms, these are “extremely rustic conditions,” the source said.