For more than a year and a half, it had been the “priority” target of France and its allies in the Sahel.
Adnan Abou Walid al-Sahraoui, whose death Paris announced, was considered the most intractable jihadist leader in the area.
Information on the death of the leader of the "Islamic State in the Great Sahara" (EIGS) group, between Ménaka, in north-eastern Mali, and the other side of the border with Niger, his main field of action , had been in circulation since August.
It was on the night of Wednesday to Thursday that Paris confirmed that it had been "neutralized by the French forces", during an operation carried out in mid-August, according to the Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly.
Florence Parly: "The leader of the terrorist group of the Islamic State in the Great Sahara succumbed to injuries caused by a strike by the Barkhane force" pic.twitter.com/O2fNlBVp2o
- BFMTV (@BFMTV) September 16, 2021
This man in his forties, with a black beard and turban according to the rare photos known of him, was born in Western Sahara and was a member of the Polisario Front which claims the independence of this region.
After spending part of his youth in Algeria, where he would have joined armed Islamist groups, according to several experts, he participated in the creation in 2011 in northern Mali of the Movement for Uniqueness and Jihad in South Africa. West (Mujao).
Unyielding supporter of corporal punishment
The Mujao became known in particular with the kidnapping in October 2011 of two Spanish aid workers and an Italian woman in a Sahrawi refugee camp near Tindouf, in southwest Algeria.
At the time, Adnan Abou Walid al-Sahraoui himself claimed the payment of a "considerable ransom" of 15 million euros to the Mujao, for their release in July 2012.
The Mujao is part of the jihadist coalition linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqmi), which in March-April 2012 took control of northern Mali.
He was then its spokesperson, based in Gao, the region's main city, where he was remembered as an adamant supporter of the application of Sharia law, in particular corporal punishment.
"If in Gao more than elsewhere the hands of people accused of theft have been cut off, it is because of Abu Walid's instructions," said an elected official from the city, who requested anonymity.
After the launch in 2013 of the French operation Serval which drives out jihadists from cities and towns in northern Mali, the defeated Mujao merged with the Algerian group Mokhtar Belmokhtar, to create the Al-Mourabitoune group.
But in 2015, Adnan Abou Walid al-Sahraoui, reputed to have a more transnational and globalized vision of jihad than most of his Sahelian counterparts, dissented from the Belmokhtar group, still affiliated with Al-Qaeda, to pledge allegiance to the State group. Islamic (IS).
Indifferent to civilian deaths
In 2017, as the groups claiming to be AQIM merged into the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (Jnim, according to the Arabic acronym) led by the Malian Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, he struck a blow. in October with the Tongo Tongo ambush in Niger, in which four American soldiers and four Nigerien soldiers perished.
The group is gaining momentum in this area known as the “three borders”, on the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
Many deadly attacks against Tuareg communities are blamed on the EIGS, which recruits widely among the Fulani and is accused of deliberately involving itself in inter-ethnic tensions.
Specialists and security sources both attribute to Adnan Abou Walid al-Sahraoui a very personalized exercise of command and an apparent indifference to civilian deaths.
A Malian security source describes him as the "absolute master" of EIGS which "did not hesitate to carry out attacks against foreign and Nigerian troops on the border with Mali himself".
Between the end of 2019 and January 2020, a series of attacks attributed mainly to his group against Nigerien, Malian and Burkinabè military camps in the “three borders” area, killed hundreds.
This escalation leads France and the G5 Sahel countries (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad) to designate in January 2020 the EIGS as their “priority enemy”, on which their efforts are focused.
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Despite the losses it suffers, the group persists in its desire to impose an uncompromising vision of Sharia law, sometimes accusing its rivals of lukewarmness in its application. In May, during the weekly market in Tin Hama, near Ansongo (north), members of the EIGS publicly amputated with one hand and one foot three alleged “coupeurs de route”.