French President Francois Hollande announced today that top Islamic extremist leaders, who have been seeking shelter in the northern mountainous region of Mali, have been killed. Meanwhile France suffers a fourth death in Mali. The security situation throughout Mali remains to be volatile. With the recent unconfirmed deaths of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, anyone remaining in the country is highly advised to relocate to the capital city of Bamako as retaliatory attacks throughout the northern region are expected to occur. Companies whose employees remain within Mali should take additional security precautions around company buildings as well as travel routes taken by employees. MS Risk advises those who are travelling in the country to use alternate routes and to not travel at night. Although a number of militants are known to be hiding in the Ifoghas mountains, it is highly likely that a number of rebels are present throughout the northern region and may seek to kidnap westerners as a form of retaliation.
During his visit to Warsaw, Poland for a six-nation European Union defence summit, President Hollande indicated that “the terrorist kingpins have been destroyed” in the Ifoghas mountains. However he declined to comment if key commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar is amongst those key AQIM leaders that have been killed in recent days. Hollande meanwhile has indicated that France will begin to pull its troops out of Mali sometime in April. According to the President, the final phase of the French military intervention “will last through March and from April there will be a decrease in the number of French soldiers in Mali as African forces will take over, supported by the Europeans.” Although initially France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had indicated in early February that French troop numbers in Mali, who now number around 4,000, would decrease as of March, if all goes according to plan, the recent sharp increase of suicide attacks in the former Islamist strongholds, coupled with a general unreadiness of full deployment of African forces, has effectively forced officials in France to maintain their army numbers within the country as the security situation remains too fluid to withdrawal.
Meanwhile France suffered another casualty on Wednesday when a French soldier was killed during fighting against Islamist militants in eastern Mali, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the northern city of Gao. Sergeant Wilfried Pingaud (37) is the fourth French soldier to have died in action. He was a member of the 68th African Artillery Regiment based in Valbonne in southern France. The French soldier died when a group of Islamist fighters attacked French and Malian troops as they were carrying out operations to secure the area. During the attack, a dozen militants were killed while four Malian soldiers were wounded. So far, France has suffered relatively minimal casualties during its operation in Mali which was launched in mid-January. On Saturday, a paratrooper was killed during an operation that was aimed at removing Islamist militants from the Ifoghas mountains. A legionnaire with the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment was killed amidst heavy fighting on February 19 while a helicopter pilot died on the first day of the French military intervention. Although the intervention initially resulted in a quick ousting of the rebels who had previously controlled the northern region of the country, fighting has intensified over the past week as efforts have focused on hunting down the militants who are believed to be in the mountainous region of the country.
After a weekend of increased fighting in the mountainous region of northern Mali, al-Qaeda sources have come forth and confirmed the death of one of the leaders of the organization’s North African wing. The death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid is the most significant success for the French-led operation against Islamist fighters in Mali. Meanwhile the families of those French nationals who are being held in West Africa have voiced their concerns that this recent development will likely leave their relatives at a greater risk. They have called on officials in Paris to bring a halt to the bombings in order to allow for negotiations, aimed at securing their release, to take place.
Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a senior fighter in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was killed last week during a French bombing raid in the Ifoghas mountains. However while an AQIM militant has confirmed the death of Abou Zeid, he has insisted that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose death was announced by the Chadian army on Saturday, is alive and fighting. Although AQIM has formally acknowledged the death of Abou Zeid, the head of France’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, has indicated that it is “probable” that the commander was killed in fighting however until a body is produced, the death will not be confirmed by officials in France. In regards to the death of Belmokhtar, Admiral Guillaud indicated that reports on jihadist internet forums were stating that he may still be alive. Further sources have indicated that some Islamist militants believe that at the time of the raid, Belmokhtar was operating near Gao, hundreds of kilometers south of where Chadian troops were engaged in operations. The validity of these reports have further questioned his death as Belmokhtar has often been seen in Timbuktu and in Gao. A United States official has also indicated that the Obama Administration is currently searching through US intelligence reports in order to locate specific evidence that confirms the death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar. As of Sunday, information that was available to the U.S. included both intelligence that supported and contradicted the claim of his death.
AQIM’s acknowledgement of the death of Abou Zeid comes at time when France’s top military officials have claimed that the intervention, which was launched in January, was beginning to break the back of AQIM and its allies in Mali. The announcement also coincides with increasing appeals put forth by the relatives of four of the French hostages who are being held in the region. Fears that the hostages may have been used as human shields during the bombing raids, or could now be subjected to reprisal executions, have intensified over the past few days as reports pertaining to Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar have emerged.
Abou Zeid was believed to have been holding four French citizens who were kidnapped in Niger in 2010 however Admiral Guilldau has indicated that these reports cannot be confirmed and that France currently has no information on their whereabouts. Although officials in France have avoided directly responding to the hostage families critique of the current strategy, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry has indicated that everything possible was being done in order to secure the freedom of the French nationals.
Although neither Abou Zeid nor Belmokhtar sat at the top of AQIM’s hierarchy, they effectively became two of the most powerful al-Qaeda figures in the sub-Sahara. Both are known to have commanded powerful brigades of fighters who were intensely loyal to them. Several years ago, Abou Zeid was promoted to the position of deputy leadership in the Sahara by AQIM’s Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel out of a concern that Belmokhtar was growing too strong. With Algerian security forces degrading the group within its borders, over the next few years, the Sahel countries – Mali, Mauritania and Niger – would become AQIM’s new center of gravity. However while AQIM was finding itself on new grounds, Droukdel began to struggle to exert control over his southern commanders. He would go on to appoint Jemal Oukacha – also known as Yahay Abou el-Hammam – in an effort to restore his influence. Jemal Oukacha was appointed the overall commander of AQIM in the Sahara last autumn. His appointment resulted in the announcement that Belmokhtar had been relieved of his command. Although Jemal Oukacha has been a jihadist for the past decade, he comes from northern Algeria and over the years, he has struggled to gain the degree of influence that both Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar had attained within AQIM. Both men also counted criminals, corrupt politicians and military officers as their contacts which only enabled them to further their influence and power. Belmokhtar’s response to his demotion of power and status resulted in the formation of a new commando unit which would be responsible for the January 2013 attack on a plant in Algeria. If the deaths of Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid are confirmed, this may allow Droukdel and his deputy, Jemal Oukacha to gain greater control of al-Qaeda’s operations in the Sahara.
Unconfirmed reports have indicated that top al-Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar has been killed by Chadian soldiers in Mali just one day after Chadian President Idris Deby announced that his troops had killed another senior AQIM leader, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, who was killed in the mountainous region of the country. If both of these deaths are confirmed, then this will be a major success for the allied forces in Mali who are nearing the two month mark of the military intervention. Although these deaths will also be seen as a major blow to the al-Qaeda wing, they will likely result in retaliatory attacks in Mali, as well as in Chad as the country’s troops are responsible for his death.
The Chadian army has claimed that they have killed several militants, including Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Although his death has been announced on Chadian state television, officials in Mali and in France have yet to confirm the reports. A statement that was released by Chadian armed forces spokesman General Zacharia Gobongue indicated that “on Saturday March 2 at noon, Chadian armed forces operating in northern Mali completely destroyed a terrorist base…the toll included several dead terrorists, including their leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar.” During the operation, weapons, equipment and sixty vehicles were also seized.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar is a veteran al-Qaeda leader who is suspected of ordering the January 2013 attack on an Algerian gas plant which resulted in the deaths of thirty-seven hostages. His death comes just one day after reports surfaced that Abou Zeid, the second-in-command of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, was killed in Mali on 22 February in the foothills of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains. His death is still to be confirmed by DNA evidence.
Although Chadian President Idriss Deby has announced that a senior al-Qaeda militant has been killed in northern Mali, efforts by the Algerian security services are currently under way in order to confirm the reports that one of the most notorious and ruthless leaders of al-Qaeda’s North African wing has in fact been killed. If these reports are confirmed, it is highly likely that militant rebels in Mali, and possibly in other countries in West Africa, may carry out retaliatory hit-and-run attacks in an attempt to place increased pressure on France to withdraw its military intervention. Likewise, the lives of fifteen French nationals, who are being held hostage by Islamist militants in West Africa are currently in jeopardy as they may be executed in retaliation for his death.
Chadian President Deby has indicated that the country’s troops killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, one of the main leaders of al-Qaeda’s north African branch on 22 February during fighting in northern Mali. According to reports, Chadian troops confronted a number of jihadists in the mountainous region near Kidal. It has also been reported that the commander was amongst forty militants who were killed near the border with Algeria. Although these reports have yet to be confirmed by officials in France, Algeria or Mali, Washington has indicated that these reports appear to be credible and that they view his death as a serious blow to the al-Qaeda wing.
Algerian security services have taken DNA samples from two of Abou Zeid’s relatives in order to compare them with the body which reportedly belongs to him. If the testing comes back positive, the killing of Abou Zeid, a longtime militant who has been linked with a number of kidnappings and executions of Westerns, would be a major success for French forces. However it is highly likely that his death will also come with increased retaliatory attacks in Mali and possibly in Chad. The killing of this high-leveled militant will no doubtedly spark a number of hit-and-run attacks throughout Mali. Any citizens remaining in the country are advised to relocate to Bamako and avoid the main former strongholds, including Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Citizens in Chad should also remain vigilant as retaliatory attacks may be staged in that country in the coming days and weeks.
Abou Zeid, a 46-year-old whose real name is Mohamed Ghedir, was often seen in the cities of Gao and Timbuktu after Islamists took control of northern Mali last year. An Algerian born near the border with Libya, Abou Zeid is a former smuggler who embraced radical Islam in the 1990’s and who became one of AQIM’s key leaders. He is suspected of being behind a series of brutal kidnappings in several countries, including British national Edwin Dyer, who was abducted in Niger and executed in 2009, and a 78-year-old French aid worker Michel Germaneau, who was executed in 2010. Abou Zeid is believed to be holding a number of Western hostages, including four French citizens who were kidnapped in Niger in 2010. If his death is confirmed by Algerian authorities, then the lives of those French hostages may be in jeopardy as they may be executed in retaliation for his death. Similarly the well being of a French family who was recently kidnapped in northern Cameroon and taken over to Nigeria may also be at risk. Although the group holding the family hostage is not directly linked to the militants in Mali, their execution may be used to issue a warning to France to halt the military intervention in Mali.
Abou Zeid is thought to have about 200 seasoned fighters under his command, mainly comprised of Algerians, Mauritanians and Malians, who are well equipped and highly mobile. Last year, an Algiers court sentenced Abou Zeid in absentia to life in prison for having formed an international armed group implicated in the kidnapping of foreigners. Five other members of his family were jailed for ten years each. He is seen as a true religious fanatic and more uncompromising than some other leaders of north African armed Islamist groups, such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind behind the January attack on an Algerian natural gas facility which left thirty seven foreign hostages dead.
A car bomb has exploded in Kidal, killing seven and wounding eleven. The bombing is the second attack in less than a week, as Islamist rebels increase a guerrilla campaign in Northern Mali. Kidal is situated near the Ifogha Mountains, which have become a safe haven for Al Qaeda-linked fighters.
A local government official, speaking anonymously, said the attack occurred on the road leading to Menaka, a town near the Niger border. “Everybody is afraid here in Kidal. The car bomb came from the centre of Kidal. That’s scary; we don’t know how many other car bombs are waiting in there.” A Malian source stated that three other vehicles were destroyed in the attack.
The attack targeted a checkpoint manned by the secular Taureg group, MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad). The MNLA was initially aligned with Mali’s Islamist groups, but issued a statement on 24 January in which they “rejected all forms of extremism and terrorism and was committed to fighting them.” The group called for a peaceful solution to the Mali crisis, and currently backs the French-led offensive to drive the Islamists from the region.
French troops seized control of Kidal’s airport last month. Since then, the MNLA has taken control of the town with the assistance of French and Chadian troops. Though Islamist rebels have been driven out of Kidal, they have regrouped and began to launch guerrilla style hit-and-run attacks against pro-government forces. On 21 February, a car bomb attack killed two MNLA fighters as well as a suicide bomber in Kidal. The next day, a car bomb detonated in the Mali Mali-Algeria border town of In Khalil, killing five.
Both attacks last week were claimed by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), a splinter group from AQIM.