Abdulmalek Droukdel, the longtime of emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed in a counterterrorism operation in Mali earlier this month, according to French and American officials. AQIM hasn’t publicly confirmed Droukdel’s death, but the Western allies think they got him.
“On June 3, the French armed forces, with the support of their partners, neutralized the emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel and several of his close collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali,” Florence Parly, France’s Minister for the Armed Forces, wrote on Twitter.
The U.S. military subsequently confirmed to the press that it had been involved in the operation. “U.S. Africa Command was able to assist with intelligence and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) support to fix the target,” Col. Chris Karns, spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, told CNN’s Ryan Browne.
Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud) had been AQIM’s emir throughout the al Qaeda branch’s entire existence. He was the leader of the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), an offshoot of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which waged jihad throughout the 1990s before being dissolved. Under Droukdel’s leadership, the GSPC was groomed to become an official branch of al Qaeda. The GSPC was relaunched as AQIM in 2006.
AQIM has served as a regional branch of al Qaeda ever since. In al Qaeda’s global scheme, several groups oversee jihad within their designated geographic regions. The emirs of these groups swear bayat (or an oath of allegiance) to al Qaeda’s overall leader. Thus, Droukdel swore his own personal bayat to Osama bin Laden and then Ayman al-Zawahiri. And under his leadership, AQIM has waged jihad in North and West Africa, the designated areas of its responsibilities.
France’s Parly further identified Droukdel as a member of al Qaeda’s “management committee,” an important observation. This likely means that in addition to serving as the emir of one of al Qaeda’s regional branches, Droukdel also served as part of the organization’s senior management, which oversees matters across regions. Although al Qaeda’s so-called affiliates (really regional branches) are widely thought to be loosely affiliated with the group’s senior management, senior members of those same branches have played dual roles. This cuts against the thesis that al Qaeda’s affiliates are separate entities.
U.S. officials contacted by FDD’s Long War Journal say that al Qaeda established a cross-regional shura council years ago in order to better coordinate policy planning and warfighting. This became an especially important priority after the rise of the Islamic State in 2013 and 2014, as the self-declared caliphate challenged Al Qaeda’s authority among jihadists.
Droukdel remained loyal to Al Qaeda throughout the Islamic State’s challenge. In July 2014, AQIM released a statement rejecting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s claim to be the new caliph and reaffirmed the group’s allegiance directly to Zawahiri. Droukdel maintained his fealty to Zawahiri in the years since then.
AQIM has worked covertly through other groups, including the Ansar al Sharia chapters in Tunisia and Libya, both of which were established in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings. After his death, Abu Iyadh al Tunisi, the emir of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, was identified by AQIM as a member of its shura council. AQIM worked with still other groups as well, including Ansar Dine, which served as al Qaeda’s local front in Mali.
In 2017, AQIM stood up a new al Qaeda branch in West Africa. The group, named the “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims” (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, or JNIM), brought together several pre-existing al Qaeda groups in the region. JNIM is led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a Malian Tuareg who led Ansar Dine. Ghaly announced his own fealty to Droukdel and Zawahiri, as well as Taliban emir Haibatullah Akhundzada, when JNIM was formed. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: Al Qaeda groups reorganize in West Africa.]
Both French and American officials say Droukdel met his demise in Mali. This reflects how AQIM’s operational center of gravity shifted from North to West Africa over time.
AQIM hasn’t officially commented on reports of Droukdel’s demise. Several veterans could potentially take his place, including Abu Ubaidah Yusef al Annabi, the longtime chief of AQIM’s council of notables.
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