The French Presidency has confirmed that death of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) commander Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, stating that he was killed in fighting in Mali. While this confirmation has ended weeks of speculation about whether one of the group’s leading commanders had been killed, it nevertheless increases fears for the lives and safety of the remaining fourteen French hostages who are being held in captivity in the Sahel region.
The death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a senior figure in AQIM, has been confirmed by France, which noted that DNA samples had made it possible to formally identify him. A statement released by the Elysee Presidential Palace indicated that “the President of the French Republic confirms with certainty the death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid after an offensive by the French army in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains in the north of Mali, at the end of February.” The statement went onto say that the death of “one of the main leaders of AQIM marks an important stage in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel region.”
Last month, officials in Chad had claimed that Chadian forces fighting alongside French troops in northern Mali had killed Abou Zeid on 22 February. Days later, reports surfaced that fellow militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar was also killed in fighting that occurred in the mountainous regions of northern Mali. The fate of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was reportedly killed on 2 March 2013, has yet to be confirmed. Although AQIM formally acknowledged the death of Abou Zeid, officials in France made little comment regarding his death, stating that while it is “probable” that the commander was killed in fighting, the death would not be confirmed by French officials until a body was produced and verification through DNA testing was completed. Speculation mounted that France’s reluctance in confirming the death of Abou Zeid was due to fears that the remaining French hostages may be used as human shields during bombing raid, or that they could be subjected to reprisal executions.
Abou Zeid, who is believed to be 47, was a pillar of AQIM. Considered to be one of the most radical AQIM leaders, he is responsible for the death of at least two European hostages as well as the leader of the extremist takeover of northern Mali in March 2012. In June 2009, his men kidnapped British tourist Edwin Dyer. According to a number of eye witness reports, Abou Zeid personally beheaded the British national.
While the death of Abou Zeid was confirmed by members of AQIM weeks ago, France’s official acknowledgement and confirmation may result in militant rebels in Mali carrying out retaliatory hit-and-run attacks in an attempt to place increased pressure on France to withdraw its military intervention. Likewise, the lives of the French hostages will likely be in jeopardy as they may be executed in retaliation for his death. Unconfirmed reports released earlier this week indicated that a French hostage had been executed in Mali on 10 March 2013. A man claiming to be a spokesman for AQIM stated that Philippe Verdon was “killed on 10 March in response to the French military intervention in the north of Mali.” While there was no mention of his execution being directly linked to the death of Abou Zeid, it is highly likely that today’s confirmation by France may lead to further executions which will undoubtedly be blamed on his death.