On the Reported Death of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel

On June 5, France’s Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly announced, “On June 3, French forces, with the support of their partners, neutralized the Emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdal and many of his close collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali.” I would regard this claim as about 90-95% reliable. The French government infamously waxed too confident in late 2018 when claiming to have killed the Malian jihadist leader Amadou Kouffa, who turned up alive in early 2019. However, United States Africa Command or AFRICOM has announced that it has “confirmed Droukdal’s death in an independent assessment.” The journalist Wassim Nasr also reports that an AQIM source confirmed Droukdel’s death. No official eulogy has yet appeared, but again, it seems highly likely that France’s claims are accurate in this instance.

Droukdel (transliterated spellings vary), also known as Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wadud, had been the top leader or emir of AQIM since 2004, when the group was still called the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC). Biographies of Droukdel can be found in various places and they should all be treated with a bit of caution. One detailed biography comes from Jeune Afrique (French). According to this and various other sources, Droukdel was born in 1970 in Meftah, Algeria (map). Embracing jihadism around 1994, Droukdel fought in Algeria’s civil war and ultimately landed in the GSPC. He was a longtime associate of one of the GSPC’s architects, Hasan Hattab, who served as the group’s emir from 1998-2003 before being dethroned in an internal coup; Droukdel was also a protege of Nabil al-Sahrawi/Mustafa Abu Ibrahim, whose death at the hands of Algerian security forces led to Droukdel’s succession. Droukdel played a key role in bringing the GSPC into al-Qaida’s formal orbit, especially between 2003 and 2007, the year the GSPC changed its name to AQIM.

In terms of Droukdel’s public pronouncements, Aaron Zelin has painstakingly compiled many of Droukdel’s statements here, covering the period 2005-2020. For an English-language exposition of the jihadist leader’s views, see Droukdel’s 2008 interview with the New York Times. A 2005, Arabic-language interview he did with the jihadist platform Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad also offers substantial insight into his thinking.

Some key events that occurred during Droukdel’s tenure as AQIM emir include the following:

  • The December 2007 suicide bombings targeting the Constitutional Court and two United Nations buildings in Algiers, Algeria;
  • The rise of a kidnapping economy in the Sahara, especially between 2008 and 2013;
  • The circa October 2011 defection of a breakaway jihadist group whose name is usually translated as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA);
  • The 2011 Arab Spring, which saw efforts by AQIM to insert itself more fully into Tunisia and Libya, although with what I would call only modest and fleeting successes;
  • The approximately June 2012-January 2013 jihadist emirate in northern Mali, in which AQIM was a key player; that project and its attempt at southward expansion triggered France’s ongoing military intervention in Mali;
  • The December 2012 breakaway of key Saharan AQIM field commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, after years of tension with Droukdel and with another Saharan field commander, Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, who died in 2013 during the initial French intervention;
  • The 2014-2015 rise of the Islamic State, which brought a fairly unsuccessful breakaway group from AQIM in northern Algeria called Jund al-Khilafa, and a much longer-lived breakaway group from Belmokhtar’s forces (hence a breakaway from a breakaway of AQIM) that defied Belmokhtar, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and came to be known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara or ISGS;
  • The late 2015 reintegration of Belmokhtar and some of the former MUJWA elements, who by then had formed a joint jihadist unit called al-Murabitun;
  • The 2015-2016 expansion of jihadism into Burkina Faso, with some attacks claimed by AQIM, including the January 2016 attack on the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou;
  • The March 2017 formation of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) as a coalition of AQIM’s Saharan units, al-Murabitun, and multiple units of the Mali-centric jihadist outfit Ansar al-Din (defenders of the faith).

Specifying the precise role that Droukdel as an individual played in these events, however, is difficult. First of all, common sense would seem to indicate that the higher one rises in a jihadist hierarchy, the more one becomes a target for precisely the kind of manhunt that killed Droukdel; the more of a target one becomes, the more precautions a leader is likely to take; and the more precautions that are taken, the more likely it is that decision-making will  be delegated downward as much as possible. Second, the far-flung geographical nature of AQIM’s project, and even of JNIM’s project, also worked against centralized control on Droukdel’s part. Note that the center of gravity for AQIM shifted to Mali and the Sahara-Sahel by 2012 at the latest and probably by the late 2000s, intermittent high-profile attacks in northern Algeria notwithstanding. Third, Droukdel’s control over what happened in the Sahara appears to have been challenged by his subordinates virtually from the beginning of his tenure. Most prominently, missives sent by Droukdel or on Droukdel’s behalf to his Saharan field commanders during the Malian emirate-building project in 2012 have become famous after the Associated Press recovered them in 2013; to me, the letters indicate that Droukdel could not discipline the perennially independent-minded Belmokhtar, or even the ostensibly more loyal Abu Zayd.

Following the French intervention in Mali in 2013, meanwhile, it seems to me that Ansar al-Din’s founder and JNIM’s current leader, Iyad ag Ghali, has been more important than Droukdel in setting the agenda for jihadist activity in Mali and Burkina Faso, theaters that have become much more important than Algeria for the trajectory of jihadism in northwest Africa. I am far from alone in my assessment of ag Ghali’s importance. If the symbolism of who comes to whom is any indication of relative importance, Droukdel was reportedly in Mali to meet ag Ghali. The analysis here has a few errors (for example, Droukdel succeeded al-Sahrawi as GSPC emir, as noted above, and not Hattab), but nevertheless makes some good points, including the following:

Having lost the battle for northern Algeria, without the support of the population and short on logistical means for pursuing his criminal activities, the terrorist leader resolved, with absolute discretion, to go reach a region acquired by and/or under domination of terrorist groups, the only lair more or less safe for him.

This analysis is, at the very least, plausible – although of course northern Mali did not turn out to be safe for Droukdel. The same piece goes on to say that “an inhabitant of the region, a collaborator of the French forces,” tipped the French off to Droukdel’s presence. Droukdel became vulnerable in part because his own inability to dictate events from afar forced him into the (relative) open. According to this article (French), which also relays the claim that Droukdel was on his way to a meeting, Droukdel was killed eighty kilometers east of Tessalit (map), just outside a village named Talhandak, inside Malian territory but roughly twenty kilometers from the border with Algeria. As Luca Raineri notes in a Twitter thread starting here, meanwhile, the accounts that have come out so far about Droukdel’s death leave a lot of questions – how long was he in Mali? How did he cross the Mali-Algeria border? How did he allow himself to be targeted, apparently unawares, in the deep desert?

Now, who succeeds Droukdel? Some analysts have argued that AQIM will begin to, or continue to, fade: one Algerian paper calls Droukdel “the last of the Algerian terrorist leaders” and describes AQIM as a “hollow shell.” That might be premature, although there are strong arguments that JNIM is now more important than its parent organization, and that with the death of Algerian national and AQIM commander Yahya Abu al-Hammam in February 2019, AQIM’s role even within JNIM has been diminishing. Some analysts have even suggested that AQIM might pledge allegiance to ISIS – I don’t think so, although no one has a crystal ball. More plausibly to me, the BBC’s Mina al-Lami made the case, in a Twitter thread starting here, that top AQIM cleric Yusuf al-Annabi is a likely successor to Droukdel, given his prominence in AQIM messaging over the past few years. My reservation about that line of analysis is that at least in the past, the top GSPC/AQIM leaders came from the ranks of field commanders and people with military/operational roles, rather than from among the group’s clerics. Then again, that pattern is not necessarily relevant now – after all, it has been roughly 16 years since AQIM faced a transition at the top.

France24, meanwhile, notes that the three most prominent jihadists in the Sahel – and, I would say, in northwest Africa as a whole – are now three non-Algerians: ag Ghali (a Malian national), JNIM’s Amadou Kouffa (also a Malian national), and ISGS’ Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi (from Western Sahara/Morocco). Their prominence does not mean that any of them is going to succeed Droukdel as head of AQIM, but it does suggest that Droukdel’s passing symbolizes the reality already mentioned above, namely that the jihadist project inside Algeria has been weak for years now.

In the Sahel, how relevant was Droukdel to events on the ground? The analyst Mathieu Pellerin put it starkly, and well: “You can kill all the jihadist leaders you want, that won’t prevent the children of the hundreds of civilians executed over a year from one day taking up arms to get revenge – be they jihadists, rebels, or others.” The same day that Parly announced Droukdel’s death, there was a massacre in Binédama, Koro District, in the Mopti Region of Mali – and the Malian armed forces stand accused of committing the killings. The incident is a grim reminder that there are drivers in the conflicts in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and elsewhere that go very far beyond the dictates of Droukdel, or any leader for that matter.

Now, if I wake up tomorrow and see that ag Ghali or Kouffa has been killed, I will say it’s a huge deal; and I’m not saying that Droukdel’s death has no relevance (here I am writing nearly 2,000 words about it). But in the absence of clear evidence that Droukdel was micromanaging the conflicts in the Sahel, I see other actors as more important.

For the sake of self-promotion, I should say that I cover these different phases of the GSPC/AQIM’s career, and of Droukdel’s career, in my forthcoming book. The book covers events through 2019 – and now it’s increasingly looking like I’ll need to write an informal epilogue of sorts, covering all that’s happened (and will continue to happen) in 2020. One part of the book deals with debates among Belmokhtar, Abu Zayd, and Droukdel about jihadist strategy – and part of the argument I make is that the jihadist project is ultimately futile (if the aim is to build a long-lasting jihadist state), and that jihadists’ debates with each other often dance around that point. Belmokhtar, Abu Zayd, and Droukdel had very different ideas about how to approach the jihadist project – but now they all appear to be dead, providing a graphic illustration of how futile it all was and is for AQIM, however much the group waxes or wanes at any given moment. Droukdel’s main “accomplishment,” ultimately, was longevity – all other “accomplishments” proved fleeting.

Finally, Droukdel’s killing was not Florence Parly’s only announcement last week. MENASTREAM provides details about France’s announcement that it captured an ISGS commander on May 19 [Update – I’ve removed the post from MENASTREAM at his request, as he received new information. I’m replacing with a post from Parly.]

The Jihadist Merger in Mali and the Sahara

In early March, three jihadist groups in Mali and the Sahara released a video announcing that they have merged into a new group called Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims). The jihadist groups involved are:

  • the northern Malian Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith or, if you prefer, Supporters of Religion),
  • the central Malian Masina Liberation Front (where Masina refers to an early nineteenth-century Muslim polity whose theological outlook has little in common with contemporary jihadism),
  • and the Saharan “emirate” of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), including al-Murabitun Battalion.

The leader of the new group is Iyad Ag Ghali (b. mid-1950s), a Malian national and leader of Ansar al-Din. Ag Ghali’s career has been extremely complex, but one might summarize it crudely in two phases: a career as a relatively mainstream rebel (albeit with growing jihadist ties) until early 2012, and then a career in open jihadism since 2012. Other jihadist commanders appearing in the video are, from the viewer’s left to right:

  • Amadou Kouffa, a Malian national who is leader of the Masina Liberation Front and a long-time associate of Ag Ghali
  • Yahya Abu al-Hammam/Djamel Okacha, an Algerian national who has been emir of AQIM’s Saharan battalions since 2012
  • Al-Hasan al-Ansari, deputy leader of al-Murabitun, AQIM’s most prominent battalion
  • and Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sanhaji, the “judge” of AQIM’s Saharan emirate

Many of the most important points about the video have already been made by Yvan Gichaoua here (French). Key points include the video’s emphasis on global jihadist (rather than local political) themes, and its strong message placing these Saharan groups under Al-Qaida’s banner, with specific pledges of allegiance to al-Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQIM’s overall emir Abd al-Malik Droukdal, and the Taliban’s Mullah Hibatullah. Gichaoua also points to the important fact that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the infamous commander of al-Murabitun, is not in the video, perhaps because he is either dead or incapacitated. Gichaoua also remarks that the physical assemblage of these other leaders is striking in and of itself, given that the point of ongoing counterterrorism operations in the region is to disperse and weaken jihadist groups.

I would add three things:

  1. First, I see this as an administrative reorganization first and foremost. The move does not, it seems, either increase or decrease the number of jihadist fighters in the region. In other words, the groups are not necessarily greater now than the sum of their parts. So I would be skeptical of analyses proclaiming that this “changes the game.” After all, such administrative reorganizations are not new in the Sahara: AQIM has regularly promoted and demoted leaders, battalions have repeatedly broken off and rejoined, etc. Al-Murabitun has been involved in many such reorganizations: it originated as the merger of two breakaway AQIM units, which then subsequently rejoined AQIM. Moreover, Droukdal has had trouble – for years – imposing his will on the Sahara, and this reshuffle will not necessarily change that.
  2. Second, the anti-Islamic State message is not explicit, but neither is it hard to detect in the video. The video opens with the first part of Qur’an 3:103, “Hold firmly to God’s rope together and do not become divided.” That verse has been a key part of the Islamic State’s messaging to jihadis, as the Islamic State proclaims the need for unity. Jihadis pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, including breakaway units of AQIM, have invoked the verse to justify their decision to rally to the Islamic State’s banner. AQIM and its new (old) Saharan leader is making the same argument, except to say that al-Qaida should be the focal point of intra-jihadist unity. In that sense, the video may be aimed partly at defectors from AQIM to Islamic State, with the implication that they should rejoin the fold. That fits with prior AQIM statements, such as a 2016 interview with Abu al-Hammam (dead link, so I won’t post it) which frame the al-Qaida/Islamic State conflict as a kind of family dispute.
  3. Even if the video didn’t concentrate on local politics, the new group undoubtedly will continue attempting to insert itself and its violence in local northern Malian politics. Al-Sanhaji (Arabic) recently released an audio statement threatening the new “joint patrols” in northern Mali. The joint patrols, which I wrote about here, were the target of a major suicide bombing in January. The patrols are an important element of the slow, painful implementation of a 2015 peace accord. Ag Ghali and his allies want peace to fail.