France's Defense Ministry announced Wednesday that the country's special forces killed four Islamist militants in northern Mali in a nighttime raid last weekend. Among the dead were two "major terrorist chiefs" — the senior al Qaeda commanders Amada Ag Hama and Ibrahim Ag Inawalen. The remaining two were reportedly their bodyguards.
Amada Ag Hama — better known as Abdelkrim al-Targui, or Abdelkrim the Tuareg — was a high-ranking member of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terror organization's North African branch. The French government held him responsible for the abduction and subsequent killing of RFI journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon in 2013.
Targui had also been linked to the kidnapping of three other Frenchmen, including Michel Germaneau, killed in July 2010; Philippe Verdon, who was executed in 2013; and Serge Lazarevic, who was freed by the French in December 2014 after the release of imprisoned AQIM militants.
He is thecousinof Iyad Ag Ghaly, the commander of the Islamist outfit Ansar Dine, another al-Qaeda linked militant group active in Mali. His killing has been trumpeted as a major blow at insurgents in the region.
"He was at the foundation of everything," a Malian official in Kidal told the New York Times on condition of anonymity. "This is a big strike against the group. They are paying a big price."
Ibrahim Ag Inawalen, known by the name "Bana," was a former officer of the Malian army who deserted in 2006 and became a member of Ansar Dine. He was believed to have been in charge of liaison between Ansar Dine and AQIM. He was also responsible for the group's religious police force, according to the French radio station Europe 1.
France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Targui and Bana were among the senior commanders who took control of northern Mali in 2012. In January 2013, an unprecedented attack by Islamist forces on the south of the country triggered Operation Serval, a French military intervention that halted the jihadist advance and helped the Malian government regain control of the northern town of Gao.
After Operation Serval ended in last July, France redeployed its troops as part of Operation Barkhane, an anti-Islamist military campaign undertaken across Africa's Sahel region — a semi-arid belt south of the Sahara Desert that includes Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, and Burkina-Faso.
Terrorist groups in northern Mali havefocusedon kidnapping Europeans for ransom as a means of financing their organizations.
Though the United States and the UKrefuseto pay money to win the release of their nationals, France and other European countries are known for paying ransoms. While the official line is that France does not pay ransoms for the release of hostages, contrary reports have surfaced in recent years, and the financial incentive partly explains why Islamist militants in the region have targeted the French.
Serge Lazarevic was seized from his hotel room in northern Mali in November 2011. He was held for three years and eventually freed near Kidal last December. France has denied paying a ransom for his release, but the former hostage has told reporters that he believes he was exchanged "for money."
Lazarevic spent several months in captivity with Dutch hostage Sjaak Rijke, who was freed in April by French commandoes stationed in Mali as part of Operation Barkhane, after being held for more than three years in the brutal desert environment.
The French geologist Philippe Verdon, also captured with Lazarevic, is said to have been shot dead in 2013 by Targui's men when he tried to alert a French aircraft of his whereabouts by using a mirror, according to a senior negotiator who spoke to the Times.
RFI has linked Targui to another hostage situation, in which four French Areva nuclear group employees were released in Arlit, Niger, in October 2013, in exchange for a 20 million euro ransom, which was equivalent to $27 million at the time.
Michel Germaneau was also kidnapped in neighboring Niger in 2010, but was killed three months later. The former AQIM chief Abou Zeid had tasked Targui with holding the 78-year-old French aid worker hostage. Those who tried to negotiate Germaneau's release believe that Targui is likely responsible for executing the Frenchman.
RFI journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon were killed on November 2, 2013, just a few a few hours after they were captured by Targui's men. An investigation by the Paris prosecutor found that the two reporters were killed after the truck transporting them broke down. The militants then called Targui to ask what they should do, and he allegedly ordered them to kill the hostages, a senior Malian intelligence official told the Times.
A few days after their murder, Targui contacted the Sahara Médias news agency to claim responsibility for the killings.