Nouakchott — Al-Qaeda fighters from Libya, Algeria and Mauritania died during multiple military raids in Mali over the past fortnight.
"We located a dozen jihadists handling some rockets near an arms cache in the Adrar," the French defence minister announced on Thursday (March 6th).
Reaper drones, along with Chad-based Mirage 2000 fighters and Tiger helicopters from Mali "made it possible to neutralise" the terrorists in the March 4th operation, Jean-Yves Le Drian told Le Figaro.
France recently acquired the two American-made drones. They are based in Niamey, Niger.
The optical resolution of the new unmanned aerial vehicles is superior to the earlier Harfand model, allowing military forces to hone in on their targets.
But the job is far from over.
"Since the launch of Operation Serval, armed groups have become weaker, but they are still active in the region," terrorism expert Sidati Ould Cheikh said. And these groups are being populated by terrorists from the Sahel-Saharan region.
"Islamists, notably from Libya... set up two bases in the north-east," a Malian army source told AFP.
Days before the drone strike on the dozen terrorists in the Adrar, an Algerian AQIM leader in Timbuktu and Kidal was eliminated by French troops, jihadist sources reported.
Redouan Abou el Achbal (aka Aboubakr Benabdellah) was the top al-Qaeda figure in Timbuktu and Kidal.
The same week, Mauritanian AQIM figures Oumar Ould Mohamed Ghoulam (known as Al Ghallawi) and Mohamedou Khoubeib were killed in Timbuktu, Mauritanian website Sahara Media reported.
"The new approach taken by the French forces in the region, which is backed up by the use of drones, should be more effective against the terrorists," security expert Jidou Ould Sidi said.
Experts and government officials agree that the effort must be relentless. The new drones will reportedly do more that target and neutralise terrorists. They will also gather intelligence.
According to the French foreign minister, there is "still a real risk that jihadist groups in the region would re-establish themselves and this makes it necessary to maintain a high level of vigilance".
Northern Mali "may not be a hotbed of terrorism any longer, but it is still far from being pacified", terrorism expert Sidati Ould Cheikh told Magharebia.
"Attacks and harassment occur regularly and are often deadly," he said, noting that in late February near Tessalit, "a French reconnaissance helicopter was hit by terrorists, which proves their capacity to cause harm."
"Ansar al-Din and MUJAO fighters have now returned and are actively spreading propaganda among local communities. In some localities, we are seeing money being handed out to people to win their support," he added.
Ongoing insecurity in northern Mali also troubles the African Union (AU).
The AU representative to Mali called on March 4th for "Sahel nations to step up their security co-operation". The goal, according to Pierre Buyoya, is "to suppress the terrorist threat and contain any risks that it may spread".
"The problems of the Sahel are not restricted to Africa, but concern the whole world," France's defence and national security chief Francis Delon said. Mauritanian analyst Abu Bakr noted, however, that it was difficult for Sahel countries "to cope with security risks individually".
One solution is through enhanced security partnerships, he suggested.
"Because they are sponsored by the armies of the biggest countries in the world," joint military exercises such as Flintlock "enhance the capabilities of Sahel defence forces and support them against any potential terrorist threat", he added.