An NH90 Caiman military helicopter lands next to a temporary forward operating base during Operation Barkhane in Ndaki, Mali, on July 29, 2019. Benoit Tessier/Reuters

On June 5, France announced that its forces killed Abdelmalek Droukdel and many in his inner circle. Droukdel was the “emir” or leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The attack took place on June 3. France also announced the capture of Mohamed Mrabat, the group commander in Mali of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, who was taken in May. France has said that the operations were carried out with the intelligence and surveillance support of Algeria the United States.

The decapitation strike, killing many in the leadership of AQIM, is a major achievement of France and its partners, and is likely to reduce the terror group’s ability to conduct attacks for the immediate future. It may also reduce domestic criticism in France of the Macron administration about what seems to be an interminable war that resembles U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. But, “decapitation” does not mean defeat. The killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019 has not led to the end of their respective organizations, but rather to new leadership. It should be anticipated that AQIM will similarly find new leadership, albeit after a likely bloody internal struggle, and the Islamic State will find a replacement for Mrabat. 

Jihadi terrorism, whether of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda variety, has roots in a variation of the Salafist revival that seeks a purified Islam and the establishment of a polity based on Islamic law. Further, it reflects local ethnic rivalries and the popular resentment of exploitive post-colonial elites, fed partly by extreme poverty. The death of Droukdel does not mean that these drivers of terrorism are going away.

Abdelmalek Droukdal in a 2007 video. Credit…Intelcenter, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Droukdel’s career is emblematic of the Algerian dimension to terrorism in the western Sahel. Born in 1971, Droukdel was Algerian and well educated, with a degree in mathematics from an Algerian university. He is thought to have first fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s before returning to Algeria. He was an active participant in that country’s civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2002. The war left between 150,000 and 200,000 people dead, and was noteworthy for its brutality. It resulted from an army coup following an Islamist victory in general elections. The army largely prevailed though there was a political settlement accepted by some—though not all—jihadists. Subsequent Algerian governments have pushed residual jihadi groups south into the Sahel, so that jihadi and criminal groups (they often overlap) operating in Mali, Burkina Faso, and elsewhere sometimes have Algerian roots. 

Droukdel continued the fight after the civil war ended in 2002. Highly charismatic and a good speaker, he eventually merged his own group with al-Qaeda. He was sentenced to death in absentia by an Algerian court for three bomb attacks in Algiers in 2007. A munitions expert, he is likely to have introduced suicide bombing in Algeria, from whence it spread to elsewhere in West Africa. He led the 2015 assault on a hotel in Ouagadougou that left 30 dead and 150 injured. He credibly is associated with kidnapping operations in the Western Sahel.