It is an unexpected military success in the Malian theater, where the French army is in the phase of withdrawing from its Barkhane operation. On the night of February 25 to 26, elements of the French special forces killed a high-ranking jihadist leader, Yahia Djouadi, better known by his nom de guerre: Abou Ammar al-Jazairi. After several days of shadowing and its formal identification, the night assault was given on a small camp 100 kilometers north of the city of Timbuktu, east of the locality of Araouane, in northern Mali. A desert area which, according to the French army staff, “is known to be a refuge for groups belonging to AQMI [Al-Qaeda au Maghreb islamique, ndlr] and at JNIM [Groupe de soutien à l’Islam et aux musulmans]“.
Chain of command hit
Supported by two drones and a Tiger combat helicopter, the French soldiers first tried to apprehend Al Jazairi who was accompanied by another man. Startled, the two fighters opened fire on the French forces who retaliated, resulting in their deaths. The reconnaissance which followed the operation made it possible to recover ammunition which was destroyed on the spot. Weapons and equipment were also seized, including two Kalashnikov rifles, a PKM-type submachine gun, magazine pouches, several radios and a dozen mobile phones.
The elimination of Al Jazairi should deal a major blow to the chain of command of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. A historical figure of Algerian jihadism, he became known in 1994 by joining the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), then the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). In 2007, he was appointed emir of the Sahara emirate. According to Héni Nsaibia, researcher at Armed Conflict Location & Event (Acled), “while all operations between 2007 and 2011 can be attributed to his command, it is difficult to discern the depth of his involvement”.
“Loss of military know-how”
According to sources, he participated in the kidnapping of Austrian tourists in February 2008, in southern Tunisia, and in the attack against Mauritanian soldiers in September 2008 in Tourine. In 2015, he was appointed Emir of Aqmi in Libya. Following the neutralization of several executives of his organization, he fled to Mali in 2019 where he was responsible for the financial and logistical coordination of the group as well as the training of combatants. He was also known to be the adviser to Abdelmalek Droukdel, head of Aqmi, eliminated on June 3, 2020 by French forces in Mali.
“His death risks the loss of military know-how that is difficult to replace, continues Héni Nsaibia. Skills, personal networks built over decades.” A blow also dealt to GSIM, branch of Al-Qaeda in Mali, which deprives its chief Iyad Ag Ghali, of major relay in the north of the country. “AQIM no longer has the same strength as before, the historical leaders have been under enormous pressure from French forces since 2013 which intensified further in 2019”, argues Andrew Lebovich, Sahel researcher for the European Council on International Relations (ECFR).
This intervention takes place in a particularly delicate political context. After a diplomatic skirmish between Paris and Bamako, the Malian transitional authorities demanded the departure of the Danish contingent of the Takuba force and expelled the French ambassador to Mali at the end of January. On February 17, Emmanuel Macron announced the end of the French operation Barkhane on Malian soil by the summer. The force should be reorganized in neighboring countries in order to avoid an advance of armed terrorist groups towards the Gulf of Guinea, where French interests are concentrated.
“Monitoring Wagner’s Mercenaries”
Following the rupture of the bilateral missions between French and Malian forces, there remains today a vagueness on the capacities of Barkhane to operate in Mali. According to a source within the French general staff, this neutralization operation was carried out “from Mali and autonomously”. Understand: the Malian army was not kept informed of its organization. Since January, at the request of their new Russian partners, the transitional authorities have defined in the center of Mali, a temporary prohibited zone (ZIT) that French aviation is not allowed to fly over.
According to a security source, “authorities fear that French forces are monitoring the patrols of Wagner mercenaries deployed in the center”. On Friday, the Malian army lost, according to counts, between 27 and 46 soldiers during the attack on the Mondoro camp by a terrorist group. Subject to the ZIT, the French air force did not intervene in this area and was not called to the rescue.
While the last three French bases in Mali should close by July, this coup demonstrates that anti-terrorist operations in the Sahel are not suspended. The position of the staff is unambiguous: “These operations will only stop at the end of our restructuring, when the last French soldier will have left Malian soil.”