Senior JNIM leader reportedly killed by France

Abu Abdul Rahman al Sanhaji (center) as seen from a JNIM video released in May 2017.

Florence Parly, France’s Minister for the Armed Forces, announced yesterday that French forces killed senior jihadist leader Ali Maychou in an operation inside Mali early last month.

Ali Maychou, a Moroccan-national who was also known as Abu Abdul Rahman al Sanhaji (or al Maghrebi), was described by Parly as the “number two” leader for al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM).

This means that Sanhaji took over the number two spot after Yahya Abu al Hammam, the previous deputy leader of JNIM, was killed by the French in the Timbuktu region earlier this year.

Parly did not confirm where the operation took place, but said that the raid also utilized “Malian forces and American support.” It is not immediately clear in what capacity the US assisted in the mission, though it is likely ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) support was given.

JNIM has not yet commented on Sanhaji’s reported death and French statements have not always been accurate. Last November, Parly and other officials also reported that Amadou Kouffa, another senior leader within JNIM, was killed in a French raid. However, Kouffa reappeared in a video a few months later refuting the French claims.

The US State Department designated Sanhaji in July alongside with former Malian colonel-turned-jihadist Ba Ag Moussa. Sanhaji occupied the role of a the senior Sharia official within JNIM’s ranks and was previously a former judge for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Sahara branch.

State’s designation in July noted that “Maychou has served in a leadership role in JNIM since its inception in 2017; has previously claimed responsibility for an attack on a military camp that housed Malian Armed Forces in Gao, Mali, that killed dozens; and has had a role in operational activities of JNIM.”

Sanhaji was present in JNIM’s founding video sitting next to Iyad Ag Ghaly and Hasan al Ansari, who was killed last year. In subsequent releases, he has been identified as the overall Sharia judge for the group. Sanhaji also directly took part in battles.

Prior to the formation of JNIM, Sanhaji was featured in several videos decrying French forces and inciting local Muslims to violence. He has also appeared in one video where alleged spies were executed by al Qaeda’s men.

Following the Jan. 2017 deadly suicide bombing in Gao, Sanhaji further claimed responsibility in a video released by AQIM.

JNIM has lost several important leaders over the last two years. Despite these losses, however, the jihadist group continues to be a serious threat to security not only in Mali but in the wider Sahel region.

Just last month, it killed dozens of Malian soldiers in central Mali. And in recent months, JNIM has claimed a myriad of operations across Mali and in Burkina Faso.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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