French troops have reportedly killed a Spanish citizen who was a senior commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the most prolific al-Qaeda-linked groups in Africa. The Spaniard, Abu al-Nur al-Andalusi, 35, was from Melilla, a coastal Spanish enclave in northern Africa, which borders Morocco. Since 2014, al-Nur had operated as a military leader of AQIM, an armed Islamist group that aims to create a caliphate in northern Africa. AQIM emerged in the 1990s out of the brutal Algerian Civil War, which pitted the country’s secular but authoritarian government against a host of Islamist groups, including the Armed Islamic Group, known as GIA. In 1998 a band of GIA members left the group in protest against its indiscriminate killing of civilians, and formed a separate organization, which called itself Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. In2007 the group renamed itself AQIM and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda’s co-founder Osama bin Laden.
Al-Nur was reportedly in charge of a brigade of around two dozen AQIM fighters —most of them Algerians and Moroccans, with the addition of some Libyans. These fighters had been operating in the inhospitable desert north of the Malian city of Timbuktu. Some believe that Al-Nur helped coordinate AQIM’s attacks against Western targets in Mali and Burkina Faso in recent months. Moreover, al-Nur’s brigade has been linked to a daring attack against members of a United Nations peacekeeping force in Mali a few months ago.
Citing sources from Mali, Spanish intelligence expert Salvador Burguet said on Wednesday that al-Nur had been killed in a raid by a team of French commandos. Burguet, who directs the Spanish-based private intelligence company AICS, said the French troops specifically targeted an al-Qaeda meeting held by senior commanders of the organization in northern Mali. But he added that it is not known at this time whether al-Nur was the only AQIM militant killed in the attack. The Reuters news agency, which reported on the story, said it was able to corroborate al-Nur’s death by speaking to two unnamed “security officials in Mali”.
French forces were deployed in Mali in 2003, ostensibly to prevent the rapid rise of Islamist militancy following the collapse of the Libyan government of Muammar al-Gaddafi and the influx of weapons into the area. After the French military deployment, AQIM activities in the country receded. However, scattered groups of AQIM continue to operate in rural areas, and Paris maintains a force of nearly 4,000 troops throughout the country. Reuters said it contacted the French Department of Defense and Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but both agencies declined comment on the Spaniard’s reputed death.