U.S. air strike kills Mokhtar Belmokhtar, jihadi leader in North and West Africa

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TerrorismU.S. air strike kills Mokhtar Belmokhtar, jihadi leader in North and West Africa

Published 16 June 2015

The United States has said that a weekend air strike in Libya killed jihadi leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The al-Qaeda-affiliated Belmokhtar was the mastermind behind the attack on a gas plant in Algeria in 2013 which killed forty hostages. His killing means that after a slow start, the United States has built up impressive intelligence-gathering capabilities in the vast, sparsely populated area which encompasses Libya, Algeria, and Morocco in the north, and the western part of the Sahel region to the south – including Chad, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso. Belmokhtar was loyal to al Qaeda, and in April he made headlines by publicly refusing to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State.

The United States has said that a weekend air strike in Libya killed jihadi leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The al-Qaeda-affiliated Belmokhtar was the mastermind behind the attack on a gas plant in Algeria in 2013 which killed forty hostages.

Saturday’s raid near the town of Adjabiya was carried out by F-15E aircraft using precision-guided munitions. U.S. air force secretary, Deborah Lee James, said that “enormous care” had been taken to avoid harming civilians. “The impact of the raid is still being assessed,” she told reporters at the Paris air show. “I have absolute confidence in our people and the intelligence, but this is not exact science.” She said Belmokhtar had “a long history of terror with al-Qaida affiliates.”

The Washington Post reports that Belmokhtar worked as a link between al-Qaeda “central” in Pakistan and local Islamist movements. Analysts say that his killing means that after a slow start, the United States has built up impressive intelligence-gathering capabilities in the vast, sparsely populated area which encompasses Libya, Algeria, and Morocco in the north, and the western part of the Sahel region to the south – including Chad, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso.

The killing is also an example of the Obama administration’s emphasis on counter-terrorism operations and air strikes rather than direct military involvement on the ground in the fight against terrorism.

Libyan media outlets reported that the U.S. air strike left thirty-three dead and many others wounded. These media reports said that the strike was aimed at a meeting of several high-level al-Qaeda leaders who had gathered for a meeting at a farm owned by a leader of the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia.

Military forces loyal to the internationally recognized Libya government on Sunday attacked a survivors of the U.S. strike when they tried to bring their wounded comrades to the central hospital in Ajdabiya.

The Guardian notes that the Libyan media reported that the United States carried additional air strikes on Monday near the town of Sebha, in the country’s south-west, near a transit route for al-Qaeda out through Niger and Algeria.

The U.S. air strikes were approved by the internationally recognized Libyan government, which sits in the eastern city of Bayda, near Tobruk. The internationally recognized government escaped to Tobruk last August, after the Islamist-dominated Libya Dawn coalition captured the capital Tripoli, where the Islamists have created their own government and parliament.

Only Turkey and Qatar recognize the Libya Dawn government in Tripoli.

Major Mohammed Hegazi, a military spokesman for the Bayda-based government, told the AP that two foreign leaders and a Tunisian fighter were killed in the strike.

Belmokhtar’s life offers a reflection of the violent history of Algeria and the Sahel in the last twenty-five years. An Algerian by birth, Belmokhtar gained recognition as one of the young – and more capable – leaders of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, which launched a vicious war against the Algerian government in 1992, after the government cancelled the second round of the election after it appeared that the Islamists were going to win. The 10-year war cost the lives of between 200,000 and 250,000. He fought in Afghanistan, where he lost an eye, and returned to Algeria to continue the jihadi war. He later joined al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an al Qaeda affiliate, but was kicked out of the group after a falling off with its leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel.

In late 2012 Belmokhtar formed his own jihadi group, al-Mulathamin (the Masked Ones), and insisted that his followers address him as “emir.” The group included many former criminals, which allowed Belmokhtar to launch a broad, and lucrative, campaign of diamond and cigarettes smuggling – earning him the nickname is “Mr Marlboro.” He also engaged in kidnapping for ransom, bringing millions to the group’s coffers.

In April Belmokhtar made headlines by publicly refusing to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State.

Saturday air strike was the first U.S. air strike on targets in Libya since 2011, but the United States has conducted several commando operations in the country. In 2013, Delta commandos captured Anas al-Libiin Triopli. He was blamed for the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa. Last June another commando raid captured Ahmed al-Khattala, now on trial in the United States on charges of killing the U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi in 2012.

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