The veteran jihadist leader who masterminded the seizing in January by Al Qaeda-linked militants of an Algerian natural gas plant that left more than 30 hostages dead has been killed in northern Mali, according to Chad’s armed forces.
French military officials in Mali said they could not confirm the death, but Libyan intelligence sources say the claim by Chadian army chiefs is accurate.
The death was announced first on Chad’s state television by General Zacharia Gobongue, who said that Chadian armed forces killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar while attacking a terrorist base in the Adrar de Ifhogas mountains in northern Mali. Several other jihadists were also killed in the assault, which was carried out by Chadian soldiers experienced in desert fighting.
His death is seen by analysts as a severe blow for Islamist rebels in Mali, who have retreated to mountain redoubts in the face of a fierce French-led intervention that was launched last year.
On Friday, Mali-based Islamists suffered another setback when Al Qaeda commander Adelhamid Abou Zeid was killed. His death was announced by Chad’s President Idriss Deby, whose soldiers are among the African forces supporting the French in Mali.
This is a very heavy blow to Al Qaeda and the Jihad movement in the Sahel,” says Abdel Bari Atwani, the editor-in-chief of Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper, who has followed for years Belmokhtar’s jihadist career.
“He was the fox of the desert and had huge experience and was the link between the older and younger generations of jihadists. To have him killed at this crucial time will hurt Al Qaeda. But as we have learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, Al Qaeda will bounce back.”
President Deby also cautioned against assuming the fight was all but finished in northern Mali. “The war is not over, even if the enemy have been put to flight,” he said.
Belmokhtar was part pirate and part jihadist. He made a name for himself as far back as the 1990s as a successful cigarette smuggler in the Sahel, earning him the nickname “Marlboro Man.” He was also dubbed “The Uncatchable One.
An Algerian native with a storied two-decade history of armed militancy, Belmokhtar was one of the leading figures of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and commanded a highly effective cell of fighters in north Mali until October, when Yahya Abou El Hamame was appointed over him as AQIM’s “Emir of the Sahel.”
He broke away from the Al Qaeda franchise and formed a new jihadist group called the “Signed in Blood” battalion. Even so, the Algerian-born Belmokhtar remained a steadfast supporter of Al Qaeda, according to Andrew Black, who wrote a study on Belmokhtar for the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington DC-based think-tank.
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