French strike kills West Africa Islamic State leader behind deaths of 4 U.S. soldiers

A French drone strike killed the leader of the Islamic State group in the Greater Sahara, believed to be the mastermind of attacks in Niger that claimed the lives of four U.S. soldiers in 2017 and six French aid workers last year

French President Emmanuel Macron announced the death of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi overnight calling him “enemy No. 1” in protracted anti-terrorism efforts in the region.

“[Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi], leader of the terrorist group Islamic State in the Greater Sahara was neutralised by French forces,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a tweet on Thursday.

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 U.S. and Niger military personnel.

The August operation, which was months in the making, with drone strikes and commando assaults in a lawless region on the border between Mali and Niger, targeted Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.

“His death deals a decisive blow to the leadership of the Islamic State in the Sahel,” France’s armed forces minister, Florence Parly, told a news conference on Thursday, referring to the arid region south of the Sahara Desert. “They will without a doubt have trouble replacing him.”

The operation from Aug. 17 to Aug. 20 involved cooperation with local and European forces, as well as the U.S. military, she said.

Special forces hit positions based on information from two captured Islamic State members close to Sahrawi. Drones and fighter jets killed about a dozen militants, while 20 soldiers stormed a hideout in a forest near the border, said Gen. Thierry Burkhard, the French army’s chief of staff.

“He was at the origin of massacres and terror,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Thursday on France-Info radio. He urged African governments to fill the void and seize back ground taken by the extremists.

One of two people riding on the back of a motorcycle hit by a drone strike appeared to be the Islamic State leader, he said.

Al-Sahrawi had claimed responsibility for a 2017 attack in Niger that killed four U.S. military personnel and four people with Niger’s military. 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.

Rumors of Sahrawi’s death had circulated for weeks before President Emmanuel Macron’s Twitter announcement late Wednesday that he was “neutralized by French forces.” The Islamic State leader, who was 48, was born in the disputed territory of Western Sahara and became an al-Qaeda ally. He switched allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015 and founded its affiliate in the Sahel region of West Africa.

The affiliate, which operates mainly in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, has targeted U.S. and French military personnel there. In one of its most notable attacks, in October 2017, a U.S. Special Forces team carrying out reconnaissance in Niger was caught in a deadly ambush by militants armed with machine guns, small arms and rockets.

Four U.S. soldiers were killed and two others wounded in the ensuing firefight. At least four Nigerien troops also died. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara was the Trump administration’s primary suspect for the ambush and Sahrawi himself claimed responsibility. The State Department’s Rewards for Justice program offered $5 million for information leading to his capture.

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.

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