Al-Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar 'dead and buried' in Libya

Al-Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar 'dead and buried' in Libya
One of the most-wanted militants in North Africa was killed in a French airstrike in Libya, and has been buried outside a desert town, Massinissa Benlakehal exclusively reports.
4 min read
16 December, 2016
Belmokhtar had appeared in several online videos
One of the most senior Al Qaeda operatives in the North African region was buried in Libya's Ubari area on November 25, security sources from the region have told The New Arab.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar died after sustaining serious wounds in a French airstrike on November 15, in the Libyan city of Sabha.

His death had been expected but never confirmed.

"US officials expressed greater confidence that the latest strike, conducted by French aircraft in southern Libya based in part of intelligence feeds from the US earlier this month, likely was successful," the Wall Street Journal reported.

The former leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was in Sabha to buy weapons, in a deal part-funded by a ransom believed to have been paid for the release of a Canadian national and two Italians who were kidnapped in Libya last September, according to The New Arab's security source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Two of Belmokhtar's followers died in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Abu Talha al-Liby, identified by the region's intelligence services as the head of al-Furqan militant brigade, also known as the al-Quds brigade, and 55-year-old Yahia Jouadi, aka Zeydoun Tergui.

Belmokhtar, understood to have been suffering from diabetes for many years, was seriously injured in the attack, but survived long enough to be transported at some point between November 20 and 24 to Ubari, where he died.

His group buried him outside the Saharan desert oasis town, his wife, Fatima, confirmed.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar was known by local media as 'the one eyed' and 'the elusive'

He had survived numerous assassination attempts by US and French forces. Several reports stating his death following previous operations in recent years have proven false.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, known by local media as "the one eyed" and "the elusive" was also known as Khaled Abu al-Abbas and was born in June 1, 1972, in the Algerian province of Ghardaia, 600km south of Algiers.

In 1989, he travelled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets, receiving training with the US-backed mujahidin, before returning to Algeria and eventually becoming leader of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.

In 2007, an Algerian court sentenced him in absentia to death.

'The divergence'

In August 2013, Belmokhtar merged his al-Mulathamun Battalion with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), form al-Mourabitoun ["The Sentinels"].

Al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for a 2013 attack on an Algerian gas plant in In Amenas, in the country's southwest.

The attack led to a hostage situation and the death of 37 people.

But the group was divided and formally split before a May 2015 declaration was issued by Adnan Abou Walid al-Sahraoui, Belmokhtar's successor, pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's Islamic State group.

An audio recording from al-Sahraoui was sent to a Mauritanian news agency that usually carries its statements.

Belmokhtar's splinter group, thought now to comprise only 50 or so fighters, was still capable of atrocities, and in 2016 undertook attacks in Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire targeting tourists.

Read more: The hunt for the one-eyed northern African jihadist

If these latest reports are correct, and Belmokhtar really is dead, the group's leadership will liekly pass to Ben Tahar Houcine, aged 45.

Ben Tahar is an Algerian, originally from the city of Djelfa, west of Algiers. His small group has been weakened due to a lack of finances, while al-Sahraoui's brigade is composed of hundreds of fighters, according to our intelligence source.

Ali Zaoui is a security expert who has been following the rise and fall of these militant groups.

"Belmokhtar's remaining group - a very small number of fighters - is now believed likely to join the Islamic State troops, as they now have a real problem of financing," he told The New Arab.

The group led by al-Sahraoui is understood to have secured enough finance to resume its activity between Libya and Northern Mali, with drug money and arms-trafficking supplying the group's main funding.

According to statistics reported on the Global terrorism index 2016 (GTI) by the Institute for Economics and Peace, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria and Mali, active since 2007, killed 15 people across 11 attacks in 2015, including attacks on members of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

Between 2003 and 2012, AQIM collected nearly $90 million from kidnapping, according to the GTI.

The arms-smuggling trade in Libya is estimated at around $4-15 million annually, while the increased availability of weapons has also strengthened groups operating in Mali, Nigeria and Libya, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Mourabitoun, Ansar Eddine and Ansar al-Sharia.

The oasis city of Ubari is located in the southwest Libyan desert and is an ancestral home of both Tuaregs and Toubous. But in the chaos that has plagued Libya since the fall of longtime dictator Muammar Gadaffi, the ongoing dispute between the groups over territory has weakened the city, allowing the Al Qaeda franchise to find shelter.


Follow Massinissa Benlakehal on Twitter: @mbenlakehal