World

French strike likely killed Al-Qaeda ally Belmokhtar: US official

A file undated grab from a video obtained by ANI Mauritanian news agency reportedly shows former Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir Mokhtar Belmokhtar speaking at an undisclosed location. AFP PHOTO / ANI

WASHINGTON: Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of Al-Qaeda's key allies in North Africa, is thought to have been killed in a French airstrike, a U.S. official said Monday.

The official, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, confirmed a report in the Wall Street Journal that U.S. intelligence had helped France target the extremist.

Belmokhtar, notorious commander of an Al-Qaeda-linked faction of the Al-Murabitoun extremist group, has been reported killed on several previous occasions.

But the official told AFP the latest strike is believed finally to have killed the elusive one-eyed militant, known for kidnapping European citizens for ransom.

According to the Wall Street Journal report, citing experts and unnamed officials, the strike reflects closer U.S. and French intelligence cooperation.

Belmokhtar became one of the world's most wanted men in January 2013 after a spectacular assault on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria left at least 38 hostages dead.

This year, his group claimed responsibility for an attack on luxury a hotel in Burkina Faso that killed another 20 people, most of them foreigners.

And reports he had arrived in Libya have fueled concern that extremists will take advantage of the political turmoil there to establish a base of operations.

Washington put a $5 million bounty on the 44-year-old's head, dubbing him the leader of the Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade, also known as the "Signatories in Blood."

In May last year, he insisted Al-Murabitoun remained loyal to Al-Qaeda, despite another of its leaders pledging allegiance ISIS.

Belmokhtar was born on June 1, 1972 in the ancient desert city of Ghardaia, 370 miles (600 kilometers) south of the Algerian capital.

- 'Mister Marlboro' -

In a rare 2007 interview he said he joined the mujahideen rebels fighting the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in 1991 when he was barely 19 years old.

In Afghanistan, he claimed, he lost an eye to shrapnel and had his first contact with the group that became Al-Qaeda, eventually rising to a senior position.

He returned to Algeria in 1993, a year after the Algiers government sparked civil war by cancelling an election that an Islamist party was poised to win.

He joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and thrived thanks to his intimate knowledge of the remote deserts of southern Algeria, northern Mali and Niger.

In 1998 the "Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat" (GSPC) broke from the GIA and Belmokhtar went with them.

Nine years later, GSPC formally adopted the global ideology of Saudi-born extremist kingpin Osama bin Laden and renamed itself Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Belmokhtar was best known as a smuggler, known by some as "Mister Marlboro" for trafficking cigarettes.

But in 2013 he emerged as the hard-line leader of the "Signatories in Blood," blamed for attacks across the Sahara and the Sahel in Algeria, Mali, Chad and Niger.

 

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