France captures top Daesh leader in Mali

The French Army General Staff announces the arrest of Oumeya Ould Albakaye in the middle of the withdrawal of troops from the country
Operación Barkhane

AFP/ PASCAL GUYOT  -   A French soldier from Operation Barkhane, a counter-terrorism mission in the Sahel, patrols while a Eurocopter Tiger helicopter (Eurocopter EC665 Tiger) operates a tactical flight in Mali

France on Wednesday announced the capture of Oumeya Ould Albakaye, a prominent leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS), the Daesh affiliate in the Sahel region. The operation has come in the midst of the French army's withdrawal following ongoing friction between Bamako and Paris since Assimi Goita's military junta consolidated power with the second coup d'état in nine months executed in May 2021. 

The arrest of the jihadist leader took place "in the early hours of 11 to 12 June", although the French General Staff waited three days to make the capture public in order to vindicate its military deployment in the country. The news came just 48 hours after Operation Barkhane troops officially handed over the Ménaka base to the Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) after four years at the facility. 

Earlier, Barkhane's forces handed over the Gossi base in the centre of the country to Bamako, and by the end of the summer they will hand over the Gao camp, the last French operations centre in Mali. In this way, Paris will put an end to its presence in the country considered to be "the heart of the Sahel", forced by the new military authority, almost a decade after its 'in extremis' intervention to halt the jihadist advance. 

"Operation Barkhane is carrying out a total withdrawal from Malian territory, which is expected to last throughout the summer," Marta Summers, a lecturer at the Francisco de Vitoria University and researcher at the OIET, told Atalayar. In Summers' opinion, the mission has been insufficient: "It is clear that there are other factors, which possibly do not fall within a traditional security approach, that affect the advance of terrorism in the region. We are talking about weaknesses related to governance or economic development, among others, that lead to a disaffection between the population and the authorities, leaving room for criminal actors such as terrorists or groups related to organised crime".

Albakaye was in Malian territory close to the triple border shared by Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, one of the most dangerous areas in the world defended by Barkhane, where jihadist groups, armed militias and criminal organisations operate. Sources quoted by the newspaper '20 Minutes' confirmed the capture of the EIGS member "during a helicopter intervention in a camp in the Tessit sector", a small town of just 6,000 inhabitants located in Gao. 

"The capture proves once again that French forces and their allies, especially with the support of US intelligence services, are capable of locating and arresting important members of the EIGS, even if they are in a vast remote area such as the border zone of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso," analyst Fabian Landmann told Atalayar. 

The operation to capture Albakaye lasted for weeks and required all kinds of means belonging to Barkhane, from aerial to ground, including field work and intelligence information, according to the version of the French Army General Staff. During the operation, mobile devices, weapons and "numerous resources" belonging to the jihadist organisation, the local branch of Daesh since 2016, were seized. "He was arrested following fighting in the area between the EIGS and JNIM [the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islam and Muslim Support Group]," reports '20 Minutes'. 

Oumeya Ould Albakaye, known as Oumeya 'The Arab' was emerging as the possible successor to Adnan Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi, the former leader of the terrorist organisation neutralised in August 2021 in an operation led by French forces. "He was one of those being considered as a successor, but there was nothing official," says the researcher from the International Observatory for the Study of Terrorism. Albakaye headed the EIGS delegation for the Malian regions of Gourma and Oudalan in Burkina Faso, according to the French army. 

He was responsible for numerous attacks and abuses against the civilian population, according to the French army general staff. Albakaye was also the head of improvised explosive device networks. Operation Barkhane forces will hold the jihadist leader for a few days for interrogation before handing him over to the Malian authorities, according to statements by the French authorities. 

The French General Staff has described as a "success" an operation that "destabilises once again the ISGS leadership in the area of the three borders, which has been significantly weakened by Barkhane between late 2021 and early 2022, particularly with the neutralisation in August 2021 of Adnan abu Walid Al-Sahrawi, head of ISGS". But Landmann argues that for the group "it is only a temporary loss". 

"Albakaye is an important player for the Gourma region, but the impact for the organisation is not likely to be huge," the analyst notes. "Within the EIGS there are established command structures that continue to function normally even without a 'big leader'. The same was true after the last removal of senior members of the ISGS. The question is how a possible successor will be established and what strategy he will then follow."

PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -   The former leader of the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (EIGS) neutralised by French forces, Walid Abu Sarhaoui

"The successor will have to deal with several issues: keeping the group together with its different ethnicities, establishing the right approach to operations and being an accepted leadership figure. Good connections with the 'right' people living in the remote areas are also important. In addition, any new leader will automatically come into the sights of the French, US and other militaries and agencies," Landmann anticipates. 

Summers argues that "the most recent change, organisationally, has been to rename what was hitherto the EIGS as the Islamic State in the Sahel, the EIS, which will operate independently of ISWAP. Therefore, although they have not officially designated a successor to Al-Sahrawi, this shows the importance that Daesh Central attaches to this branch of the group. 

With this operation, France is asserting its military presence in Mali just months before the end of its anti-terrorist campaign in the country. "The military successes of Operation Barkhane have been numerous over the almost ten years of deployment, but this has not been enough to maintain the support of the Malian population and government," stresses the OIET researcher. 

The military junta in Bamako blew up the bridges with Paris and decided to hire Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group to curb the Islamist insurgency. As French troops leave the country, dozens of troops from the Kremlin-linked private military company land in Mali. "Wagner's personnel have been involved in episodes of indiscriminate violence against the populations of neighbouring countries where they have already intervened, as well as massive looting of natural resources. Their arrival will undoubtedly hamper the fight against terrorism in the region, as it is impeding coordination between the various international actors present there," says Summers.