MS Risk Blog

Al-Qaeda Leader Believed Killed in Libya…Again

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Pentagon officials have indicated that they believe they hit their target – an al-Qaeda-linked commander who led a deadly attack on Algerian gas facility in 2013. However uncertainty surrounds the US airstrike on eastern Libya, and whether Mokhtar Belmokhtar was actually amongst the militants said to have been killed in the bombing, as al-Qaeda and other militants deny that Mokhtar Belmoktar was killed in the US airstrike.

Libyan officials have reported that Sunday’s airstrikes hit a gathering of militants on a farm outside Ajdabiya, a coastal city located about 850 kilometres (530 miles) east of the capital, Tripoli. A US official has indicated that in the airstrikes, two F-15 fighter jets launched multiple 500-pound bombs, with authorities confirming that there were no US personnel on the ground for the assault. However since these reports emerged, there have been conflicting reports on how many were killed, and whether Belmokhtar was amongst them.

An initial assessment indicates that the bombing that targeted Belmokhtar was successful, with Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, disclosing that “post-strike assessments” were still underway on Monday in order to determine whether the Algerian militant was in fact killed. Maj. Mohammed Hegazi, a military spokesman for Libya’s internationally recognized government based in the eastern region of the country, also disclosed Monday that further tests were needed in order to identify the dead, which numbered at least seventeen. He added that amongst those killed were three foreigners – a Tunisian and two unidentified militants. While Hegazi criticized his own government for rushing to confirm late Sunday that Belmokhtar was amongst the dead, he disclosed that the raid was based on solid intelligence, which indicated that militants forced out of the eastern city of Benghazi by fighting there had taken refuge in Ajdabiya. While both the Libyan and US government are leaning towards Belmokhtar having been killed in the strike, conflicting reports from al-Qaeda and Islamists operating in the region have emerged in recent days.

A Libyan Islamist with ties to militants indicated Monday that the airstrikes missed Belmokhtar but that they had killed four members of a Libyan extremist group that is linked to al-Qaeda, Ansar Shariah, in Ajdabiya. The group has been tied to the 11 September 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Another militant has also reported that Belmokhtar was not at the site of the airstrike. However a news website, which has previously carried statements from Belmokhtar, indicated that he was in Ajdabiya, meeting with affiliates. The Mauritanian website quoted informed sources in Libya stating that six people were killed in the raid and that a Tunisian and Yemeni were wounded.

On Tuesday, Ansar al-Shariah denied that Belmokhtar was killed in the US airstrike. In a statement, the group named seven people it said were killed in the US strike in eastern Libya, however Belmokhtar was not among them, with the statement indicating “no other person was killed.” A second statement released by an umbrella group for militias called the Shura Council of Ajdabiya and its Surroundings also did not list Belmokhtar among the dead.

If officials do confirm Belmokhtar’s death, this would be a major success for US counterterrorism efforts as he is one of the most-wanted militants in the region, with a US $5 million reward for information leading to his capture. However this is not the first time that authorities have claimed to have killed him. He was previously though to have been killed in Mali, however security sources disclosed last year that he had moved to Libya.

Belmokhtar, who is believed to be 43 years old, fought in Afghanistan, where reports emerged that he lost his eye in combat. He was one of a number of fighters who have been battling Algeria’s government since the 1990’s. He later joined al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), before forming his own group, which led the January 2013 attack on Algeria’s Ain Amenas gas complex that killed at least 35 hostages, including three Americans. Reports later emerged that he was in Libya, with US officials believing he was based in the western and southern parts of the country. The US has filed terrorism charges against Belmokhtar in connection to the attack in Algeria, including conspiring to support al-Qaeda, use of a weapon of mass destruction and conspiring to take hostages. Officials maintain that he remains a threat to US and Western interests.

AQAP Confirms Death of Leader

Meanwhile in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has confirmed that Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of the offshoot militant group, has been killed in a US drone strike in Yemen, in what is the heaviest blow to the jihadist network since the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011.

His death was announced by AQAP in an online video, with prominent al-Qaeda militant Khaled Omar Batarfi, a senior member of the group, stating Wuhayshi “was killed in a US drone attack that targeted him along with two other mujahedeen,’ who were also killed. The video statement was dated 15 June. The militant group, which has been behind several plots against Western targets including the deadly attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier this year, indicated that it has named its military chief Qassem al-Rimi as its new leader.

Confirmation of Wuhayshi’s death comes after US officials had earlier reported that they are reviewing intelligence to confirm that he was killed in a CIA drone strike that was carried out on 9 June. Yemeni officials have reported that Wuhayshi was believed to have been killed last week in a raid in the al-Qaeda-held Mukalla, in the southeastern Yemeni province of Hadramawt. A Yemeni official further disclosed that last week, a drone had fired four missiles at three al-Qaeda militants, including an unnamed “leading figure,” near Mukalla port, adding that all three were killed on the spot. Witnesses also reported an explosion that killed three men on the seafront last Friday, adding that al-Qaeda gunmen had quickly cordoned off the area and gathered the remains, leading them to believe that a leader was amongst those killed.

Wuhayshi, a Yemeni believed to have been in his 30’s, travelled to Afghanistan in the late 1990’s where he attended al-Qaeda’s Al-Farouk training camp, and fought alongside Bin Laden. He would later become Bin Laden’s close confidante. As US forces closed in the battle of Tora Bora in late 2011, he escaped to Iran, where he was later arrested and extradited to Yemen, where he was jailed until escaping in February 2006. He became head of AQAP in 2007. US officials have indicated that he built one of the most active al-Qaeda branches, with Washington considering AQAP to be al-Qaeda’s deadliest branch. As well as the Charlie Hebdo attacks, which killed 12 people, AQAP was also behind an attempt to blow up as US commercial airline on Christmas Day 2009.

The US State Department had previously offered a US $10 million (£6.4 million) reward for anyone who could help bring Wuhayshi to justice, adding that he was “responsible for approving targets, recruiting new members, allocating resources to training and attack planning, and tasking others to carry out attacks.”

Since late January 2015, AQAP has lost a number of high profile figures in US strikes, including religious official Harith al-Nadhari, ideologue and spokesman Ibrahim al-Rubaish and religious and military official Nasser al-Ansi, along with several other lower ranking figures.


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