Paris announced on Friday that Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of al-Qaeda’s North Africa affiliate, was killed in northern Mali by French forces and their partners.
There was no immediate confirmation of his death from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, which has made millions of dollars abducting foreigners for ransom over the years and made large swaths of West Africa too dangerous for aid groups to access.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly tweeted that Droukdel and several of his allies were killed Wednesday, in what would be a major victory for France after years of battling extremists in the Sahel.
Droukdel was not immediately clear how his identity was confirmed by the French.
His reported death comes after French President Emmanuel Macron and the leaders of the G5 Sahel group -- Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad -- launched a new plan in January to fight extremists in the area. France deployed 600 additional soldiers to its Barkhane force, raising the number of troops there to 5,100.
In a March video released by the extremist monitoring group SITE, Droukdel urged governments of the Sahel region to try to end the French military presence, calling the troops “armies of occupation.”
It was not clear how long Droukdel had been in Mali, Algeria’s southern neighbor. For years he was thought to be holed up in the Kabyle region east of the capital of his native Algeria.
He was widely seen as the symbolic leader of al-Qaeda’s North African branch, whose operational center for attacks shifted to northern Mali over the past decade. That led to the French military invasion of the region in 2013 seeking to counter extremist designs on southern Mali and the capital, Bamako.
Droukdel made his reputation as a feared extremist leader in Algeria, which beginning in the early 1990s was convulsed by violence in what the nation now calls the “black decade.” He was sentenced to death in Algeria in 2013 for his involvement in the bombings of a government building and offices of the UN's refugee committee in Algiers that killed 26 people and wounded 177.
According to the UN, Droukdel was an explosives expert and manufactured devices that killed hundreds of civilians in attacks on public places.
A source told AFP that some 500 extremist fighters had been killed or captured by French troops in the region in recent months, among them several leading figures including commanders and recruiters.
Droukdel's death is a symbolic coup for the French, a military source said.
He had remained a threat in the region, capable of financing extremist movements, even though his leadership had been contested, the source added.
His death, and that of other al-Qaeda figures, could leave the group disorganized in the Sahel.
Born in 1971 in a poor neighborhood of Algiers, Droukdel took part in the founding in Algeria of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
Abdelaziz Bouteflika, elected Algerian president in 1999, managed to convince most of the armed groups in the country to lay down their weapons.
The GSPC, however, refused to do so and Droukdel decided to approach al-Qaeda.
Parly identified him as a member of al-Qaeda’s “management committee.” Related anti-terrorist operations in the region also led to the arrest May 19 of a major figure in the ISIS in the Greater Sahara, Mohamed el Mrabat, she said.
She said the operations dealt a “severe blow” to terrorist groups in the region that have been operating for years despite the presence of thousands of French, UN and other African troops.