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Abdul Malek Droukdel Image Credit: AP

Paris: The French military said Friday that its forces in Mali had killed one of Al Qaida’s longest-serving commanders in Africa, Abdul Malek Droukdel.

There was no immediate confirmation from the terror group, and France has erroneously announced the deaths of Al Qaida commanders in the past. If true, however, the killing would be a setback for the group’s operations in northwestern Africa.

“A very big loss for them,” said Wassim Nasr, a French expert on the terrorist group.

In a statement on Twitter, Defense Minister Florence Parly of France wrote: “On June 3, the French armed forces, with the support of their partners, neutralised the emir of Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdul Malek Droukdel and several of his close associates, in the course of an operation in northern Mali.”

Col. Christopher Karns of US Africa Command said the United States had provided the French with intelligence and surveillance aircraft to help with the mission.

Droukdel, 50, was born in Algeria and fought the Soviets in Afghanistan before returning to his home country in the 1990s to take part in its civil war. A university mathematics graduate and an Islamist, Droukdel rose through the ranks of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a local insurgent group that did little more than carry out gunfights with Algerian soldiers.

By the time he became the group’s commander in 2004, it was all but washed up. Droukdel then sent a secret message to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, Al Qaida’s leader in Iraq.

What followed has been described as the terrorist version of a corporate merger.

Droukdel’s men pledged allegiance to Al Qaida in 2006 and became the network’s most loyal partner in Africa. Instead of skirmishes with Algerian troops, the group began carrying out suicide bombings, hitting targets that made clear their ambitions were no longer local. They included the headquarters of the United Nations in Algiers, which the group destroyed in 2007, killing dozens of people.

Soon, Droukdel’s battalions were operating in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Tunisia and Libya.

The group financed itself by kidnapping foreigners and extracting ransoms from their governments.

Flush with cash in 2012, Droukdel’s foot soldiers, alongside two other rebel groups, invaded northern Mali and succeeded in seizing the country’s northern half.

The French military launched an invasion to take it back in 2013.