Mali Security Update (4 March 2013)March 4, 2013 in Mali
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.