France reports killing Al Qaeda commander in Mali

The reported aftermath of Bah Ag Moussa’s vehicle in Mali’s northern Menaka region. (Source: Walid Le Berbere)

Florence Parly, France’s Minister for the Armed Forces, reported today that French forces in Mali killed Bah Ag Moussa, a senior leader within al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM).

JNIM itself has not yet officially confirmed this information as of the time of publishing.

In her statement, Parly notes Ag Moussa’s storied history within Mali’s jihadist movements, adding he was “one of the principal deputies” to JNIM’s emir Iyad Ag Ghaly. She also stated that Ag Moussa was currently “in charge of training new recruits” at the time of his purported death.

Parly did not state where the operation took place, but confirmed that it occurred on Nov. 10 and involved “significant intelligence assets” while Ag Moussa was intercepted with “helicopters and ground troops.”

French outlet Le Monde provided additional reporting, adding that at least “15 commandos” were involved in the raid. According to the outlet, the soldiers stopped the vehicle before its occupants opened fire and were then subsequently killed by the military.

Local reporting has indicated that the operation took place in the Tidermene area of Mali’s northern Menaka region. Malian media also reported that two other individuals were reportedly killed alongside Ag Moussa, but these individuals have not been named.

Photos released shortly after the incident appear to show a burned out vehicle in a remote area of Mali’s north.

If Ag Moussa’s death is confirmed, this represents another serious blow to al Qaeda’s efforts in the Sahel. Since defecting from the Malian army in 2012, Ag Moussa has been intimately involved in the jihadist cause against the state.

Background on Bah Ag Moussa

Close to Iyad Ag Ghaly, Ag Moussa was an early member of Ansar Dine, the local Tuareg jihadist group that emerged in late 2011 and was subsequently utilized as a front for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Following the French intervention in Mali in early 2013, Ag Moussa remained in the fold and increasingly took on a litany of more important roles.

For instance, he was likely responsible for several major attacks against Malian bases in central Mali since 2016.

In July 2019, Ag Moussa was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department. In its designation, Treasury noted that the jihadist commander “led a terrorist operation against a Malian Armed Forces base in Dioura, Mali that killed at least 21 Malian soldiers” earlier in the year.

Like Treasury’s statement, local reporting insisted that Moussa led the charge on the base. However, JNIM released its own statement alleging that Amadou Kouffa, the leader of JNIM’s Katibat Macina in central Mali, led the assault.

JNIM’s contention that Kouffa led the attack came at a time when it was refuting allegations made by Parly that French forces had also killed the Fulani commander.

That said, Treasury also noted that Moussa was “responsible for leading attacks in several other localities in northern Mali.”

A month after Treasury’s designation, the United Nations Security Council added Ag Moussa to its own list stating he was the “operational leader” of JNIM.

Other UN documents have further described Ag Moussa’s various roles. For instance, a report from Panel of Experts on Mali from Aug. 2018 noted Ag Moussa was “very active…in the areas of the Wagadou forest and Nampala, on the border with Mauritania, and in Niafounke” and planned military operations in those regions.

The same document added that Ag Moussa was the liaison and in charge of coordinating operations between JNIM’s leadership in northern Mali and Katibat Macina in the country’s central regions. It also stated that he was acting in a recruitment role in central Mali, as well.

A year later, the Panel of Experts reported that Ag Moussa took over the reigns of JNIM’s Katibat Gourma, which the UN referred to as “Katibat AAA” after the units founder, Almansour Ag Alkassoum, who was killed in late 2018.

In this role, the UN states that Ag Moussa was directed by Ag Ghaly to coordinate actions with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) near Hombori and Gossi, both in Mali’s center, against the pro-Bamako Imghad and Allies Self Defense Movement (GATIA).

These coordinated campaigns, in which Ag Moussa reportedly played a large role, were part of wider efforts of coordination between JNIM and ISGS before that relationship broke down late last year.

While this year, the UN reiterated Ag Moussa’s role as a liaison between JNIM’s leadership in northern and central Mali. It is unclear if he has retained the leadership of Katibat Gourma given his new training role as described by Parly.

While Ag Moussa’s death has not yet been confirmed by JNIM, France has killed several important al Qaeda leaders in the Sahel over the past few years. And earlier this year, AQIM’s overall emir, Abdelmalek Droukdel, was also killed by French forces in Mali.

Despite these deaths, however, JNIM continues to be a serious threat to security not only in Mali but in the wider Sahel region overall.

Caleb Weiss is a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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