French troops have gone after militants in Mali, a former French colony. Here, a convoy passes civilians in northern Mali.

Story highlights

French troops conduct an operation in northern Mali, coordinating with Malian forces

They kill Ahmed el Tilemsi, co-founder of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa

A French official says a dozen other militants were with el Tilemsi when he was killed

The U.S. had designated el Tilemsi a terrorist, offered a reward of up to $5 million for him

Paris CNN  — 

French troops killed a senior jihadist leader in northern Mali – a man purportedly behind a number of high-profile attacks and kidnappings, and ambitious and brazen enough that the United States had issued a $5 million reward for him – the French military announced Thursday.

Ahmed el Tilemsi was the military head and co-founder of a jihadist group called the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, one of several jihadist groups active in the region.

The U.S. government designated el Tilemsi a terrorist in December 2012 and offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to him.

He was killed Wednesday night in a French military operation, which was coordinated with Malian forces, in the Gao region in Mali, French military officials said.

“One of the things that proves he was a senior chief (in the group) is that when he got killed … he was accompanied by a dozen (fighters) who were also ensuring his security,” French Defense Ministry spokesman Sacha Mandel said.

About 10 suspected terrorists were “neutralized” – which means killed or taken captive, according to the French military – in the same operation, said Col. Gilles Jaron, another French military spokesman. Mali is a former French colony.

According to the U.S. State Department, el Tilemsi was among the militants who in September 2011 broke off from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – another terrorist group – to form the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.

A month later, the group, also known as MUJWA, abducted three aid workers from a refugee camp in western Algeria. The U.S. government blames the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa for an attack on a police base in Tamanrasset, Algeria, and another in Ouargla, Algeria, as well as the kidnapping of seven Algerian diplomats – incidents that all occurred in 2012.

The State Department described el Tilemsi, a Malian born in 1977, as MUJWA’s military chief, adding that he directly took part in the October 2011 kidnappings in western Algeria.

Before that, as a member of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, he took part in the abduction of two French nationals in the Niger city of Niamey, the U.S. government said.

CNN’s Laura Akhoun reported from Paris, and CNN’s Greg Botelho reported and wrote from Atlanta.