Macron’s Conflict with Droukdel: A deadly finale

  • + France had been fighting Droukdel for over seven years.
  • + Droukdel was killed after a military operation in Mali.
  • + There is a lot left to do for Macron and the G5 Sahel.
Source: Sputnik News/ AFP 2020 / Ludovic Marin

Why did Macron have a conflict with Droukdel?

Answer: Because of France’s past history in the region.

Throughout the past decade, France has gotten itself involved in the terrorist crisis that threatens the Sahel region, especially after Operation Serval. This military intervention dates back to 2013 when François Hollande entered Mali after its President presented a petition in the UN for international military aid in September of 2012. 

The West African nation was facing an enormous inflow of weapons after Gaddafi’s fall, which gave the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) an opportunity to take over northern Mali. This Tuareg terrorist group cooperated with other Islamist groups throughout the takeover, but as their differing goals and methodology confronted them, the NMLA was ousted and the remaining Islamist groups created a fundamentalist quasi-state in northern Mali.

One of these militant groups was al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a Salafi-jihadist group with origins in Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group that merged with Al-Qaeda in 2006. Since then, it has been led by Abdemalek Droudkel. And so, as the UN faced Mali’s petition, it unanimously approved sending African troops and western aid to support the Malian government, but France, through Operation Serval, became the only Western country that actively intervened in the conflict. 

As France got more involved in the conflict, it activated Operation Barkhane in 2014, which has become the country’s largest overseas operation. This military campaign sent more than 5,000 French troops to the Sahel region and counts with an almost $600 million annual budget. While this operation was being activated, the G5 Sahel was created by Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Chad to jointly tackle their terrorism challenges. 

When Emmanuel Macron inherited these past national alliances, and as he worked towards a highly interventionist foreign policy, he pushed forward a UN resolution that permitted and supported the creation of a G5 Sahel Joint Force, an international counter-terrorism alliance. While Droukdel declared France a “primary target” for the terrorist group, Macron established counterterrorism as his primary foreign policy goal. Consequently, Macron stepped into power when, due to past commitments, his country was more involved than ever in the issues of the Sahel region, and when Droukdel’s AQIM was highly eager to retaliate against France’s provocations.

What does Macron want?

Answer: To follow through with his foreign policy goals.

Until the 1960s, France had numerous colonies in the African continent, such as Gambia, Chad, Mali, Togo, Sudan, Gabon, Tunisia, Niger, The Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Algiers. However, even after most of these nations gained their independence, France’s relationship with its past colonies, known as Françafrique, remains of high importance and delicacy. 

Macron has been very vocal about his intentions to “modernize France, revitalize Europe and reshape the world order”, and the most feasible way to do so is by leading the EU in change. This change includes transforming the Françafrique colonialist connotation into a common effort towards his primary foreign policy goal: counterterrorism. 

Besides foreign policy, Macron is aware of the threats that these terrorist groups pose on French soil; since Charlie Hebdo’s attack in 2015, France has been the victim of countless brutal attacks by Islamist groups. Thus, Macron’s aims include the protection of his citizens by dismantling international terrorist organizations like that of Droukdel. There are obvious commercial and political interests for Macron in the African continent but he must intervene in these transnational terrorism issues without raising accusations of neo-colonialism from the countries in question.

France’s high involvement also divides the national public. On the one hand, Macron’s interventionism in the region and his prioritization of counterterrorism is welcomed in a France recently shaken by some of the worst terrorist attacks in Europe. As a response, nationalist parties, who lay blame on high levels of immigration for these attacks, are on the rise. On the other hand, protests in the region against France’s expansionism, and the recent death of 13 French soldiers in Mali, make the French public weary of their country’s commitment with the region.

What did Droudkel want?

Answer: Spreading Sharia-based law across the world through the use of violence.

Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, was a 50-year-old Algerian militant that had been involved in several other extremist groups. He fought the Soviets in Afghanistan before returning to his home country to take part in the civil war of the 1990s. He became commander of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which he merged with al-Qaeda in 2006  to form the AQIM. 

From this point onwards, and following al-Qaeda’s aim to inspire Islamist movements against those perceived to be enemies of Islam, he expanded the terrorist attacks to Tunisia, Libya, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. In 2015, he created an alliance with Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity of Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) to combat French and Malian forces, and two years later he formed the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM). 

In short, Droukdel’s life has turned around his wishes to purify Islam through violent struggle and through the use of anti-western rhetoric – Gilles Kepel’s The Revenge of God in the making. By exploiting the anger, suffering and misunderstanding felt by the Muslim world, Droukdel aimed at reinvigorating the Jihad movement against the West. This hatred is accentuated against France due to its colonial heavyweight and its deep involvement in the counterterrorism efforts. 

What is Macron doing?

Answer: Hitting back. Hard. 

As Macron increased the counterterrorism effort, France faced different reactions by the citizens of the Sahel region with regards to its involvement. Many accept the presence of more than 5,000 French troops and the visible French influence, but others see it as an “insult” and demand their retrieval. Consequently, in January of 2020, after Niger suffered one of the deadliest attacks in years, the G5 Sahel countries and France organized the Pau Summit, in which Macron aimed to “re-legitimize the French operation in the Sahel by sending a strong joint message”. 

Once France was reassured that its presence was desired by the G5 Sahel countries, new and better common milestones were possible. Thus, on the 28th April of 2020, Macron pushed forward a joint declaration by the members of the European Council to reaffirm their commitment to the efforts and to heighten the pressure against terrorism.

And the effort has borne its fruits; on June 3rd of 2020, the French army forces in northern Mali killed Abdemalek Droukdel and several of his closest collaborators. This “major success” was highly welcomed by the leaders of the G5 Sahel and by the European Union, which agreed to send over 100 special forces from countries like Sweden and Estonia to support France’s efforts. 

Nonetheless, it was received with scepticism by the local population; they blame the counter-terrorism forces of executing brutal abuses on civilians. They also accuse France of previous deceit since past French statements assuring the deaths of local warlords were later proven to be false.

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Apparently Macron, but the fight is nowhere near the end.

This military achievement comes as a great success for France; it can prove that its presence in the region is highly efficient and necessary. It is a very hard hit for al-Qaeda, leaving its branch in Maghreb disorganized and without one of the “most senior and durable leaders of AQIM”. As of now, it is not known who will replace Droukdel in his leadership. 

Once the killing was confirmed, Macron launched another coalition of West African and European allies, which will signify more support from European special forces and financial aid from countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. 

However, even though this string of successes is welcomed news in the region, there is a lot left to do. There are more than 2,000 al-Qaeda troops remaining in  West Africa, as well as the numerous fighters recruited by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. And even though AQIM might be wounded at the moment, there is a high risk that it might retaliate very violently; “Droukdel doesn’t need to be present for his plan to move forward”.