French forces kill Al Qaeda-linked commander in Mali

Killing of Ba Ag Moussa is a major boost for the French Barkhane force stationed in the Sahel region

This photograph taken on November 3, 2020 shows the France-led special operations logo for the new Barkhane Task Force Takuba, a multinational military mission in sub-Saharan Africa’s troubled Sahel region made up of soldiers from France, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Sweden, amongst others, and who are due to settle at the military base in Gao, east-southeast of Timbuktu, over the next few weeks. France has led in building support for the new special operations Task Force Takuba, which will comprise of around 500 special forces personnel, that will train, advise, assist and accompany local forces in their fight against Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates in the region. Takuba is expected to be fully operational by the autumn. / AFP / Daphné BENOIT

France announced on Friday that its anti-extremist force in Mali had killed the military commander of an Al Qaeda-aligned group linked to attacks in the region.

The killing of Ba Ag Moussa is a major boost for the thousands-strong French Barkhane force stationed in the Sahel region of Africa for over half a decade in a grinding fight against numerous extremist militant groups who are often also fighting each other.

Symbolically, his death was announced on the five-year anniversary of the November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris by extremist gunmen and suicide bombers that were France's worst ever peacetime atrocity.

Defence Minister Florence Parly hailed the operation involving helicopters and ground troops that "neutralised" Ba Ag Moussa, described as the military commander of the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM).

Ag Moussa, alias Bamoussa, is "believed responsible for several attacks against Malian and international forces", Ms Parly said in a statement.

"He is considered one of the top military jihadists in Mali, in charge in particular of the training of new recruits."

Last June, French forces in Mali killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a rival group to GSIM.

Observers have noted that the killing of Droukdel was a symbolic victory more than anything else as the prominent Algerian militant was no longer involved in ground operations and his death did not change the security situation.

The killing of Ag Moussa, a former soldier in the Mali army who turned to extremism, could be more significant.

According to the Counter-Extremism Project (CEP), he became the operational chief of GISM under its leader Iyad Ag Ghaly in 2017.

The GSIM has become one of the main extremist groups in the Sahel along with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which is also is sworn enemy.

Both are targets of the Barkhane force's operations.

Analysts say that Ag Moussa had been behind deadly attacks that targeted Malian forces but he also enjoyed popularity within his ethnic Touareg community.

Mali is struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency that erupted in 2012 and which has claimed thousands of military and civilian lives since.

Despite the presence of thousands of French and UN troops, the conflict has engulfed the centre of the country and spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

Despite a lengthy deployment that has claimed the lives of more than 50 French troops, analysts say that the force cannot yet claim any lasting victory over extremists in the region.

According to army sources, France is now hoping to cut back its military presence from the current number of 5,100 in the restive region to make room for a stronger European commitment.

Experts say one major vulnerability exploited by extremists is the inability of many governments in the region to secure and supply far-flung territories after a military victory.

To lighten the load, France is hoping for more military support from its European partners through the Takuba Task Force which assists Mali in its fight against extremists.

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