“I congratulate and thank all those who have enabled and carried out these daring operations, which severely strike these terrorist groups,” tweeted Florence Parly, France’s minister for the armed forces.
Droukdel died with “several of his close collaborators,” she added.
The U.S. military provided intelligence for the mission, said Col. Christopher Karns, a U.S. Africa Command spokesman.
“This was a great example of cooperation and partnership to get after a common threat,” he said in an email.
The announcement came at a particularly tumultuous moment for Mali, which is struggling to contain the world’s fastest-growing Islamist insurgency and the coronavirus at the same time.
Groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State launch routine attacks across the country’s rural north and center, and pandemic-driven lockdowns have wiped out livelihoods in the more populated south.
Thousands of protesters filled the streets of the capital, Bamako, on Friday, calling for the resignation of the president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.
More than 20,000 had gathered by midday, according to a tweet from the U.S. Embassy in Bamako.
Some had taken issue with Mali’s close relationship with France, which once colonized the nation, asserting the European ally has caused more harm than good in the fight against extremists.
France has 5,200 troops in West Africa, the most of any foreign partner and has worked militarily with Mali since the insurgency took root nearly a decade ago. (The U.S. Defense Department said last year that it was considering reducing troops in the region.)
But violence has skyrocketed in recent years, spilling over the border into Niger and Burkina Faso. Attacks have surged by fivefold in the countries since 2016, according to the United Nations. The death toll last year reached 4,000.
Droukdel, the al-Qaeda chief, played a key role in the extremist group’s attempted takeover of Mali in 2012, which was foiled when French forces intervened.
He was believed to be one of the organization’s most seasoned commanders in the semiarid region below the Sahara Desert, where al-Qaeda and the Islamic State — sometimes working in fragile cooperation — seek to expand their influence.
Analysts urged caution after his death announcement.
Another extremist leader in Mali, Amadou Koufa, appeared in a verified video last year mocking reports that French forces had killed him.
“France has said they killed this person or that person and later it turns out they weren’t dead,” said Flore Berger, a research analyst for sub-Saharan Africa at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
In either case, experts say, the battle is far from over.
More than 2,000 al-Qaeda loyalists are estimated to be scattered across West Africa, in addition to hundreds of fighters who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
They continue to stoke conflict between ethnic groups — while offering protection as a recruitment method — and sow distrust in the government, said Emily Estelle, senior analyst at the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
“Droukdel doesn’t need to be present for his plan to move forward,” she said.