French strike kills top Islamic State militant in West Africa blamed for deadly attack on aid workers

PARIS — France’s military said Tuesday that it killed an Islamic State-linked militant leader who is believed to have been involved in the murder of six French humanitarian workers in Niger in August 2020.

The French military said the strike was critical to prevent an expanding footprint of the militants, but it comes as France is drawing down its presence in the region — a move that has unsettled West African governments and security analysts.

France’s military named the target of Monday’s strike as Soumana Boura, the leader of a group of dozens of militant fighters in the west of Niger, who was hiding north of the town of Tillaberi.

In a release, the French military said the operation was conducted in coordination with Nigerien authorities, adding that a team of soldiers searched the site of the strike after the killing.

French officials said Boura filmed and publicized the August attack, which was one of the worst incidents targeting European nationals in the region in years. They had attacked a reserve of endangered wildlife in southwest Niger and killed six people, including their driver, as well as a guide.

The French government blames the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara group for the deaths of about 2,000 to 3,000 civilians in the region since 2013. Florence Parly (France’s minister for the armed forces) stated in September that “the large majority were Muslims.”

The attack at the time added to domestic French concerns over the country’s large military presence in the region, where more than 50 French soldiers have died since 2013. In an attempt to address the criticism mounting, Macron announced this summer that Operation Barkhane would be ending. However, not all French soldiers will be withdrawn.

“I do not think that we can take the place of a sovereign people to build their property for them,” Macron said, explaining the drawdown.

France maintains that it still has significant resources deployed near the tri-border area of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, which it deems to be particularly vulnerable and where Monday’s strike took place.

In August, a French drone strike on the border between Mali and Niger killed the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi. He was believed to have been the mastermind of the attack on the French aid workers and of a separate attack that claimed the lives of four U.S. soldiers in 2017.

As of this summer, the United States had about 1,100 troops in West Africa who were mostly tasked with intelligence and logistics.

France still has about 4,800 soldiers stationed across West Africa, focused on curbing insurgencies in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, which largely took root after the collapse of the Libyan government in 2011.

Macron’s drawdown plans envision that the number of French troops there will be halved. Three military bases in Mali have already been closed.

The plans are moving forward despite warnings that large swaths of ungoverned territory already serve as a training and recruiting ground for militant groups.

“What Afghanistan has proven to the world is that American or Western commitment is fragile, if not to say: not to be trusted,” Adam Baczko, a French researcher who has focused on both Afghanistan and Mali, said in August.

Macron has sought to portray his drawdown plans in the region as a “profound transformation” toward a more international mission, more heavily supported by African and European allies — but there have so far been few signs of a significantly greater cross-European engagement in the future.

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