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France says top al Qaeda commander in Sahel killed

Michele Cattani, AFP | French soldiers from the Opération Barkhane march during celebrations marking Mali's 58th anniversary of independence in Bamako on September 22, 2018.

French forces have killed a top jihadist leader, Yahya Abou El Hamame, in an operation in Mali, Defence Minister Florence Parly said Friday.

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The Algerian, a commander in al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was reputedly responsible for kidnapping a number of Westerners in North and West Africa.

A ministry statement issued in Paris said he was “the mastermind and financer of several attacks”.

El Hamame was killed Thursday when French land and air forces ambushed a column of vehicles he was travelling with north of Timbuktu, Parly said.

A number of other “terrorists” had been “neutralised”, Parly added.

Yahya Abou El Hamame was a nom de guerre, his real name was Djamal Okacha.

El Hamame was believed to be second in command of the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), also known as Nusrat al-Islam, led by Iyad Ag Ghali.

The group was formed by the merger of Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun and El Hamame’s Saharan branch of AQIM.

The operation was announced as Parly, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian were due to visit Mali, where some 4,500 French troops have been deployed since 2014 to reconquer the north of the country after it fell to jihadist fighters.

No Afghan jihadist training

Believed to be in his early 40s, El Hamame was part of a younger generation of senior AQIM figures. Unlike Belmokhtar, he was not trained in the Afghan jihadist camps, nor was he a member of the GIA. But that has not stopped his meteoric rise to AQIM’s top ranks.

In March 2013, he was named as the replacement for Abou Zeid, who was killed in a French military operation in northern Mali, according to Algerian media reports citing Algerian security sources.

Before this appointment, El Hamame served as Abou Zeid’s deputy, during which time he proved to be an able commander and administrator. He was also believed to have excellent knowledge of the southern stretches of the Sahel around northern Mali – a factor that analysts believe led to his promotion as Abou Zeid’s replacement. According to some analysts, El Hamame had good religious training and served as a qadi (judge) in the old GSPC.

During the 1990s civil war, El Hamame served 18 months in an Algerian prison. Following his release, he joined the GSPC and, by the time the group merged with al Qaeda, El Hamame had climbed up the ranks, becoming Abou Zeid’s deputy.

As Abou Zeid’s number two, he is believed to have conducted Germaneau’s execution, a killing that sent shock waves across France.

According to Algerian security sources, El Hamame was involved in the 2005 attack against the Lemgheity military barracks in Mauritania, which killed 17 Mauritanian soldiers. The attack – which occurred before AQIM was founded – marked a turning point for the GSPC since it was the first assault outside Algerian territory. He is also suspected of involvement in the 2009 killing of US aid worker Christopher Leggett, who was shot dead near a school he was heading in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott.

Following the March 2012 military coup in Mali, Mauritanian news organisations reported that El Hamame was operating around the northern Malian city of Timbuktu.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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