French President Emmanuel Macron announced last week the murder of the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Adnan Abou Walid Al-Sahrawi, at the hands of French forces. The following day Macron tweeted that Al-Sahrawi “was neutralized by the French Forces. This is another major success in our fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel.” The incident raises critical questions about its significance, and consequences.
Who is Al-Sahrawi?
Lehbib Ould Ali Ould Said Ould Yumani, aka Adnan Abou Walid Al-Sahrawi, was born in the city of Laayoune in the contested area of Western Sahara and fled with his family to refugee camps in Algeria. There, he joined the Polisario Front (a liberation front that strives to liberate the Western Sahara from what it regards as Moroccan colonialism), and received military training within its ranks. Al-Sahrawi graduated from the Mentouri University of Constantine in 1997. Late in 2010, he relocated to northern Mali, where he joined Tareq bin Zaid Brigade affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
In October 2011, he was part of the group that founded the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) [Al-Tawhid wal Jihad], together with Sultan Ould Bady, Ahmed Al-Tilemsi, and Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou. In 2013, MOJWA merged with the Al-Mulathameen group (led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar), giving rise to a new group called Al-Mourabitoun which pledged allegiance to Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
Fissures plagued Al-Mourabitoun in 2015 after Al-Sahrawi had pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi of IS. This allegiance, which was an individual decision of Al-Sahrawi, outraged Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a prominent leader in Al-Mulathameen group, causing split of the group into two factions: a pro-Al-Qaeda faction led by Belmokhtar and a pro-IS faction led by Al-Sahrawi, who then announced split of his group forming ISGS.
Al-Sahrawi’s pledging allegiance to IS can be seen as marking IS’ first physical presence in the Sahel region, where it became active in the three-border region joining Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger and was focused on targeting military and police forces in these countries as well as the French, US, and UN forces in the region. Al-Sahrawi was one of the most wanted terrorists by France and the United States. On 4 October 2019, the United States announced a reward of $5 million for information leading to the location of Al-Sahrawi.
The murder of Al-Sahrawi gave rise to a number of important inferences and conclusions, these being:
I- Implications for ISGS: Some observers argue that the killing of Al-Sahrawi will be a devastating blow to the ISGS. However, a close look at IS’ history and its provinces would reveal that it enjoys resilience, dynamism, and adaptability. On one hand, it handles losses positively in the conviction that “these are battles not a war.” Further, the real problem in the African countries hardest hit by terrorism is that they provide nurturing hospitable environment for terrorist activities, given the spread of extremist ideologies, escalation of political, religious, and ethnic conflicts, vulnerability of borders, and the growing security gap due to modest security and military capabilities. All of these dynamics serve as an incubator for terrorist organizations’ activity enabling them to overcome defeats, expand geographically, and increase their recruitment activity.
II- Al-Qaeda-IS Relations in the Sahel: Before 2020, Al-Qaeda-IS relationship had been exceptional, characterized by coexistence and absence of conflict, given their common goals, shared history, personal connections, and ethnic ties.
However, by the beginning of 2020, the Sahel region witnessed clashes between the two sides which later escalated into fighting and then turned into a full-fledged war. IS was striving to relocate its center of gravity in Africa enabling it to reposition in alternate arenas while Al-Qaeda, in parallel, was to maintain its influence and presence in its key strongholds. Perhaps the killing of numerous terrorist leaders who used to have ties and historical links can be attributed to this escalated tension between Al-Qaeda and IS. This situation will likely have repercussions on the volatile security situation in the Sahel leading to higher levels of violence.
III- Variables affecting Salafi-Jihadism in the Sahel: These include the growing terrorist activity of Al-Qaeda and IS, the increased competition between them whether over influence or militant elements, the splits and internal fissures within groups affiliated with them, and the killing of terrorist leaders in the region, including Adnan Abou Walid Al-Sahrawi, Abdelmalek Droukdel, and Abubakar Shekau.
All of these factors cast a shadow on Salafi-Jihadism map in the region, bringing about a state of fragmentation between these movements in some areas as opposed to identification with one another in other regions.
IX- France’s Strategy in the Sahel. Despite France’s success in neutralizing one of the most dangerous terrorist leaders in the region and the value of this military success to France, this, however, doesn’t preclude confusion of the French strategy. In 2013, France launched Operation Serval in Mali with the aim of stopping the expansion of radical groups in northern Mali, then launched Operation Barkhane in 2014, and managed to carry out violent strikes against terrorist organizations in the region; however, the latter was able to absorb these strikes and worked to expand their geographical presence, thus their threat.
The complicated landscape in the Sahel region and failure of the Malian government to fulfill its commitments related to combating terrorism, urged the French President Emmanuel Macron to announce a change in France’s policy in the region, entailing ending Operation Barkhane and the gradual reduction of the French forces in the Sahel, which would clearly affect its counter-terrorism efforts.
Overall, an effective European strategy in the Sahel region is lacking. While there are numerous European initiatives for intervention, they are generally unclear about their goals and mechanisms, which renders them ineffective on ground, particularly given their exclusive focus on the security aspect while neglecting the development dimension which represents a major challenge to restoration of stability in the region.
In sum, the murder of Adnan Abou Walid Al-Sahrawi is a political success for the French forces. However, France’s “beheading strategy” proved invalid as a tool to terminate terrorism. For instance, after two decades of the so-called “Global War on Terrorism”, Al-Qaeda still exists. Similarly, IS managed to redeploy after the targeting of its prominent leaders. As such, the optimal way to combat terrorism is to address catalysts and drivers that induce individuals to join terrorist organizations. Achieving this will drastically weaken terrorist organizations’ ability to recruit.