President Emmanuel Macron announced the news on Twitter during the night from Wednesday to Thursday, calling Sahrawi’s death “another major success in our fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel”.
The previous French president, François Hollande, deployed French troops to the sub-Saharan Sahel region in 2013 to prevent jihadists linked with al-Qaeda from taking over Bamako, the capital of Mali. Fifty French soldiers have been killed in the operation, which was initially called Serval, then renamed Barkhane.
“The nation is thinking this evening of all its heroes who died for France in the Sahel in the Serval and Barkhane operations, of the bereaved families, of all its wounded,” Mr Macron tweeted. “Their sacrifice is not in vain. With our African, European, and American partners, we will continue this fight.”
Mr Macron announced in June that Barkhane would be wound down and renamed. French forces are to diminish from 5,000 at present to between 2,500 and 3,000 before the French presidential election next April.
News of Sahrawi’s death may be intended to reassure the governments of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, where France has concentrated its efforts, as well as the US and EU countries who assist the French mission. The US provides intelligence to French forces.
France says Sahrawi personally ordered the August 9th, 2020, attack that killed six French humanitarian workers, their guide and driver. The group is also blamed for an ambush which claimed the lives of four US special forces members and four Nigerians in October 2017, and for a series of attacks on military bases in late 2019. Defence minister Florence Parly said it had been responsible for the deaths of 2,000-3,000 civilians since 2013, “most of them Muslims”.
In the coming months, France will shift emphasis from ground to air operations. “We are not leaving Mali. We are adapting our military operation. Our battle continues,” Ms Parly said in a press conference on Thursday.
Mr Macron did not say when Sahrawi was killed, but Ms Parly said he died in mid-August in an airstrike near the “three frontiers” zone where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. The announcement was delayed until his identity was certain.
The Barkhane force “succeeded in identifying several places where [Sahrawi] might hide, thanks to a long-running intelligence operation and the capture of several combatants close to him”, Ms Parly said. The killing “struck a decisive blow against the command structure of Isis in the Sahel. The ISGS will have a hard time replacing their emir with another figure of his stature. The organisation has been decapitated.”
Sahrawi was born Lahbib Abdi Said in the Western Sahara in 1973. He joined the Algerian-backed Polisaro Front, which demands independence from Morocco for the Western Sahara, before joining a series of Islamist groups.
This is not the first time the French have announced with great fanfare what they call the “neutralisation” of an Islamist leader whom few had previously heard of. One diplomat wondered if the announcement was timed to distract attention from the fact that Australia has cancelled its €56 billion “contract of the century” for 12 French submarines, and will instead buy American.
Mr Macron’s tweet and subsequent statements by Ms Parly evoked memories of US president Barack Obama’s order for the extra-judiciary killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. The announcement occurred only five days after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 atrocities, and one month after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.