Mali: French forces killed ISGS commander involved in Tongo Tongo ambush

Early on the morning of August 26, French forces of operation Barkhane conducted a combined air-ground operation between Infoukaretane and Labouta, about 30km south of Ménaka. Two Mirage 2000 fighter jets carried out an air raid followed by action on the ground by commandos. The operation resulted in the death of a senior commander of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), namely Mohamed “Atinka” Ag Almouner and one of his guard corps. In addition to the nickname “Atinka”, Ag Almouner was referred to as “Le Réseau”, a French word meaning the network.  The member of the guard corps killed has been named as Mouta, the son of a prominent marabout in Infoukaretane. Two civilians including a woman and a child were also killed in the airstrike, the French General Staff of the Armies said that it had opened an investigation because of the civilian fatalities. Two more civilians and a militant were wounded amid the operation, subsequently provided medical care by Barkhane’s medical staff.

Ag Almouner from the Idoguiritane fraction of Dawsahak tribe was one of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi’s most senior lieutenants, identified as having played a leading role in the ambush on October 4, 2017, against a joint force of U.S. Green Berets and the Nigerien army in Tongo Tongo, Niger. An earlier article by the New York Times stated that Ag Almouner was killed in Tongo Tongo, citing American military officials. In the same way, another article by the New York Times stated that the Nigerien ISGS commander, Dando Cheffou “may be in custody”. Ultimately, none of the reports were proven to be correct. Local sources further confirmed that Al Mahmoud “Ikaray” Ag Baye who was a superior commander of Ag Almouner is still alive, in contrast to the U.S. assessment that he also had been killed in the Tongo Tongo ambush.

In late March this year, Nigerien gendarmes on a routine patrol in the small village of Wedi Bangou, Tillabery, arrested a group of men, some of them were armed, the gendarmes blindfolded and lined them up on the ground in the vicinity of the gendarmerie. During the interrogations, a young man caught the attention of the interrogators who suspected it was Ibrahim Ousmane, more commonly known as Dando Cheffou, prompting the Nigeriens to alert the Americans, believing that they finally had got their hands on the American hostage Jeffrey Woodke’s suspected caretaker. However, at the time was Cheffou traveling in a convoy with his senior commander Illiassou Djibo, also known as Petit Chafori, spotted while passing through a hamlet in a valley not far from the Malian border, an area which serves as a base for the ISGS militants.

Between February and early April 2018, ISGS was the target of intense counter-militancy operations spearheaded by Barkhane, aided by a coalition of local militias including the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) and the Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-defence Group (GATIA). However, these operations were followed by a series of mass atrocities in the Mali-Niger borderlands, the violence soon spread to rural Gao, and later to Gourma and Arabanda.

The losses suffered by ISGS have caused a quasi-breakdown in its ranks. On August 11, the Algerian Ministry of National Defense (MDN) announced that Sultan Ould Badi, the commander of ISGS constituent Katiba Salaheddine, had surrendered to the military authorities in Tamanrasset, Algeria. A report by France 24 suggested that Ould Badi had been captured in late June amidst an operation by the Algerian army, although Ould Badi turned himself in within the frame of a negotiated settlement with the Algerian authorities together with three of his associates. Ould Badi and his companions were spotted near Aguelhok in early August while traveling from the Tilemsi Valley toward the Algerian border.