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.
On Monday, United States Secretary of State John Kerry defended the capture of an alleged al-Qaeda leader who was apprehended on Saturday during two raids that were carried out by US commandos in Libya and Somalia. The US Secretary of State has indicated that the operations in Libya and Somalia showed that the US would never stop “in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror.”
On Saturday, the Pentagon confirmed that US commandos captured an alleged al-Qaeda leader, Anas al-Libi, who has been suspected of masterminding the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa. His capture was confirmed by his son, Abdullah al-Raghie, who stated that his father was seized by masked gunmen in Tripoli early on Saturday as he was parking outside his house after returning from morning prayers. He has claimed that the Libyan government was implicated in his father’s disappearance, however officials in Tripoli have denied any involvement.
Amidst calls by officials in Libya on Sunday to receive an explanation pertaining to the special forces raid on its territory, US Secretary of State John Kerry defended the capture, stating on Monday that Anas al-Libi was a “legal and appropriate target.” Speaking to the media on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit in Indonesia, the Secretary of State further noted that “with respect to Anas al-Libi, he is a key al-Qaeda figure, and he is a legal and an appropriate target for the US military.” When questioned whether the United States had informed Libya prior to the raid, Kerry refused to confirm or deny, stating only that “we don’t get into the specifics of our communications with a foreign government on any kind of operation of this kind.” The operation to capture Libi has drawn fury from the Libyan government, which has since stated that the operation was unauthorized and that Libi had been kidnapped. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s office has also stated that the Prime Minister has requested full clarification on the raid, stressing that Libya was “keen on prosecuting any Libyan citizen inside Libya.”
According to sources, Anas al-Libi, 49 and whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, was married with a daughter and three sons, one of whom was killed in a battle with pro-Kadhafi forces when the rebels entered Tripoli in October 2011. Libi, a computer specialist, left Libya during the early 1990’s when Kadhafi was cracking down on Islamist groups. During that time, Libi joined Bin Laden’s terror organization in Sudan and would later follow the group to Afghanistan before securing political asylum in Britain in 2000. He is believed to have been one of the masterminds behind the 1998 US embassy attacks, which killed more than 200 people in Kenya and Tanzania. On 7 August 1998, a car bomb explosion outside the American embassy in Nairobi killed 213 people, and wounded 5,000. Almost simultaneously, a truck laden with explosives detonated outside the US mission in Tanzania, killed 11 people and leaving another 70 wounded. Al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility for both attacks. When a US court indicted him in connection with the bombings, he fled to Pakistan. Sources have indicated that he returned to Libya shortly after the outbreak of the revolt against Kadhafi, and probably would have fought against the rebels who ousted the longtime dictator.
Libi has been on the FBI’s most wanted list for more than a decade with a US $5 million (£3.1 m) bounty on his head. The raid to capture him came as Western Intelligence agencies increasingly feared that he had been tasked with forming an al-Qaeda network in Libya. According to a US official, shortly after the raid, Libi was taken to a US Navy warship in the region, where he was being questioned. This was confirmed by the Pentagon, which stated that he was being “lawfully detained under the law of war in a secure location” outside Libya. The operation in Tripoli ended a thirteen-year manhunt for Libi who was one of the last remaining high-level operatives from the core terror network that was established by bin Laden in the 1990‘s. His arrest paves the way for his extradition to New York to face trial.
With authorities and officials in Libya insisting that they were unaware of the US operation, the capture of the senior al-Qaeda militant is definitely an embarrassment for the fledgling government and could result in outrage amongst the country’s Islamist extremists. While authorities in Libya have been struggling to assert control over the countless numbers of militias that emerged during the 2011 uprising against Moamer Kadhafi, many militias have refused to disarm and effectively now control large portions of the country. Some of the militias in question include hardline Islamists who have accused the post-Kadhafi government of being too close to the West. In turn, reactions to his capture in Libya have been mixed, effectively demonstrating the divide in the country amongst Islamists and their secular opponents.
While the operation in Libya achieved its objective, it remains unclear whether the raid on a beachfront villa in southern Somalia was a success.
On Saturday, US commandos carried out an operation to capture one of the leaders of al-Shabaab however unconfirmed reports have indicated that SEAL commandos were forced to withdraw before confirming the kill. Reports have indicated that the mission was aborted after the commandos encountered fierce resistance from al-Shabaab fighters. The operation, which was carried out by members of SEAL Team Six, the same unit that killed Osama Bin Laden, occured Barawe, which is located 180 kilometers (110 miles) south of the capital city of Mogadishu. A US official has identified the militant as Ikrima, a Kenyan of Somali origin, however Washington has yet to formally name the intended target. When asked on Sunday as to whether officials in Somalia had been aware of the raid, Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid stated that “our co-operation with international partners on fighting against terrorism is not a secret.”
In response to the raid, an al-Shabaab military operations spokesman, Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, a fighter was killed during the raid. Al-Shabaab’s commander in the southern Somali port of Barawe, Mohamed Abu Suleiman, also noted that “the enemy of Allah tried to surprise the mujahedeen commanders with a night attack using a military helicopter, but they were taught a lesson and they have failed.” Residents of Barawe reported they were woken by heavy gunfire before dawn prayers and some of them saw commandos, presumed to be from a Western nation, rappelling from a helicopter and attempting to storm a house belonging to a senior al-Shabaab commander. Local media has also reported that two helicopters were involved in the raid. By Saturday morning, residents reported that al-Shabaab militants were heavily deployed on the streets of the town.
The raid comes shortly after al-Shabaab confirmed that it had carried out last month’s attack on the Westgate shopping centre in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, leaving at least sixty-seven people dead. Sources have indicated that while Ikrimah was not linked to that attack, the raid has prompted fears that the target could be planning a similar assault on other Western targets in the region.
Multiple nations currently operation Special Forces in the wider Horn of Africa region, and many have carried out similar missions in the past. In recent years, both US and French Special Forces have carried out raids on coastal targets in Somalia. Last year, US Navy Seals flying at least six military helicopters carried out an operation to rescue two aid workers held by pirates in northern Somalia. Washington has also used drones in Somalia to support the local government and African Union (AU) forces in their battle against al-Shabaab militants. And earlier this year, France carried out an unsuccessful raid to free a French intelligence agent. On 12 January, elite French forces carried out an overnight operation, involving some fifty troops and at least five helicopters, in southern Somalia. Two French commandos were killed and al-Shabaab later reported that it had killed the agent. With minimal information being released pertaining to Saturday’s raid, it currently remains unclear whether either of these countries was involved. Furthermore, Western navies are present in the region, patrolling the seas off Somalia, which has been beset by conflict for more than two decades. While they have been tasked with fighting piracy, in 2009, US Navy commandos attacked and killed an al-Qaeda leader, Kenyan-born Saleh Ali Nabhan, during a daylight raid on Barawe.