French Killing of al Qaeda Leader in Mali is Not a Reason to Celebrate 

France’s efforts combating extremist factions in the Sahel paid off Friday when Paris announced it had killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, al Qaeda’s leader in North Africa. The accomplishment was the result of seven years of searching for the terrorist figurehead, as Reuters reported.

Elusive Leader Found

Droukdel was responsible for leading a militant Islamist takeover of northern Mali in 2012, which prompted French forces to respond. Although his forces were repelled, they were also scattered throughout the Sahel rather than entirely defeated. Many of them also left al Qaeda to join the Islamic State which was surging in power at that time.

Droukdel himself began to focus more on Libya and Tunisia and was speculated to have been hiding in an Algerian mountain range. Last year, 13 French soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash during a counterterrorism operation. Since then, pressure has been mounting on Paris to do something, anything, to give a hint of a victory in the Sahel, where it has casually waged war for six years, all while committing barely more than 5,000 troops.

Sahel Operations Get a Boost

The killing of Droukdel represents France’s justification for continuing its efforts in the Sahel. It is also the result of a rethinking of Paris’ regional strategy. France, alongside regional governments, unified their forces under a single command source in January to better direct counterterrorism operations. 

“On June 3, French army forces, with the support of their local partners, killed the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abdelmalek Droukdel, and several of his closest collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali,” French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly tweeted.

The news is more than the announcement of a strategic victory, but also one of morale. Operations in and around Mali have failed to deliver the kind of results that regional governments wanted. In fact, as Islamic State fighters were driven from Syria, many of them found refuge in Africa. A simple situational analysis would lead some observers to rightfully conclude France and its regional partners have been losing the war in the Sahel. 

Allied forces in Africa have longed for something they can point to as a victory and taking out Droukdel was a considerable one.

Coordinated Effort Pays Off

The operation was the result of several forces coordinating together. The US military provided intelligence that helped guide the mission according to a report from the Washington Post.

“This was a great example of cooperation and partnership to get after a common threat,” said Col. Christopher Karns, spokesman for US Africa Command.

Droukdel was killed at a meeting with other al Qaeda leaders in a river valley of northern Mali, Channel News Asia reported. The location is only 20 kilometres from the Algerian border, giving credence to France’s suspicions that Droukdel was holed up Algeria. 

French troops swarmed the meeting with helicopters and ground troops, destroying a vehicle before fighting turned on the terrorists. Droukdel fell alongside several of his subordinates and one extremist was captured alive, French Col. Frederic Barbry said.

What Will be the Actual Impact of Droukdel’s Death?

Droukdel’s killing, while a victory for morale, will be unlikely to disrupt the broader schemes of terrorism in the region. 

“It’s all very well to neutralize certain leaders,” said Denis Tull, West Africa expert with Paris’ Institute for Strategic Research, “but we’ve seen in other fields that beheading leaders is never enough.”

Conflict in the region extends beyond one group, such as al Qaeda. Several terrorist factions in the region, including the Group to Support Islam and Muslims and the Islamic State, will continue to sow violence, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso. Many of these groups are linked to larger international organisations, but they are more than capable of surviving on their own.

Added Elements that Exacerbate Mali’s Plight

In Mali, there is an added element of public discontent against the government. Even on Friday as Droukdel was eliminated, 20.000 protestors gathered in the capital to protest against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.

Complicating matters further, the US Department of Defense is weighing the option of reducing its Africa footprint. This would include a reduction, if not complete withdrawal, from the Sahel.

France’s killing of Droukdel should not be misconstrued as a sign of victory, but as a call for more aid, more troops, and more support from the international community that has largely turned a blind eye toward the struggle in the Sahel. Eliminating Droukdel was proof that allied states can accomplish goals in the region. However, there is a strong need for a massive troop buildup.

Terrorists continue to prove that the Sahel is theirs to lose. Droukdel’s killing doesn’t change that; he was a large pawn in an even larger game. Without the proper level of troops, French forces will continue to be handicapped as the number of extremists grows. Now is the time for Paris to rededicate itself to its mission in Mali and prove that it has the will to see the mission through to victory. Now is not a time for celebration: not yet.