TRIPOLI—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 Gen. 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 Abdelhamid Abou Zeid was killed. His death was announced by Chad's President Idriss Déby, 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 Belmokhtar’s jihadist career for years.
“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 Déby 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 D.C.–based think tank.
“In the Sahel the jihadist groups are very fissiparous,” notes Stephen Ellis of the African Studies Center at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands. “They split and re-form regularly only to split again.”
Terrorism analysts believed that Belmokhtar had more than one objective in mind when he ordered his fighters to seize the gas facility in Algeria in January. They think he was trying to boost his own standing among jihadists after his organizational break with al Qaeda, hoping that eventually he would be rewarded with the leadership of AQIM.
One of his associates, Oumar Ould Hamaha, told the Associated Press in the autumn that Belmokhtar wanted to “enlarge his zone of operation throughout the entire Sahara, going from Niger through to Chad and Burkina Faso.”
Born in Ghardaia, Algeria, in 1972, Belmokhtar traveled to Afghanistan as a 19-year-old to join training camps run by jihadists, returning in 1992 to his homeland, where he helped to set up the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) that subsequently merged with al Qaeda.
Jamestown Foundation’s Black says above all Belmokhtar was a shrewd operator who earned his reputation as one of the most daring jihadist-gangster leaders in the Sahara Desert.
Belmokhtar was linked to a string of kidnappings of foreigners in North Africa, including the 2003 kidnapping of 32 European tourists. In 2008 he was behind the kidnapping of two Canadians, one of whom was the former U.N. Niger envoy Robert Fowler.
Belmokhtar’s Saharan activities were helped by his strong links with local Tuaregs—at least two of his four wives are believed to be Tuareg. The kinship connections were useful also for AQIM. His death could well contribute greatly to a further unraveling of the AQIM-Tuareg pact, already under strain from the French intervention.
A wily fighter, earlier this year he was thought to have ordered his men to light cooking fires inside empty houses to trick French warplane pilots into believing they had found his hideout. After striking the pretend camp, French ground forces stormed the houses only to find no sign of Belmokhtar.