The leader of the al Qaeda-linked Movement for Tawhid [Unity] and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) has contradicted reports that wanted jihadist military commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar was killed in Mali in early March. A spokesman for Belmokhtar’s unit also denied he was killed. Belmokhtar, who is said to have direct communications with al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, was reported to have been killed during a joint French and Chadian military operation in a mountainous region in northern Mali.
Hamad el Khairy, the head of the MUJAO’s sharia, or Islamic law, committee, said that reports of Belmokhtar’s death and the deaths of several other top jihadist commanders are “merely unfounded lies” and have “no basis of truth.” Khairy, who was added to the US’s list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists in 2012, made the statement to the Nouakchott News Agency on April 1. The Nouakchott News Agency report was obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Khairy also denied media reports that hundreds of jihadists have been killed since France invaded Mali to halt the takeover of the country by three al Qaeda-linked groups in mid-January.
“What they said about the killing of 600 mujahideen is an unfounded lie,” he said, according to SITE. “What is being said is merely media propaganda.”
Khairy also said that “there is no difference between” al Qaeda and MUJAO, maintaining that “these are just names.”
The spokesman for the al-Mua’qi’oon Biddam, or Those who sign with Blood Brigade, which is commanded by Belmokhtar, also denied that the group’s emir had been killed. Al Hasan Ould Akhlil, who is also known as Julaybib, the spokesman, also contradicted reports that large numbers of the group’s fighters were killed.
The Chadian president and the military have insisted that Belmokhtar was killed in counterterrorism operation in the Ifoghas Mountains in northern Mali on March 2. Pictures were shown that were said to have been the corpse of Belmokhtar. French officials refused to confirm his death, however. On March 23, France did confirm the death of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb commander Abdel Mejid Abou Zeid, who was killed in a raid in the Ifoghas Mountains in late February.
Background on Belmokhtar
Belmokhtar has been tied to jihadists in North Africa and Central Asia. He waged jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s, and fought in Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s with the al Qaeda-linked Armed Islamic Group and its successor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which renamed itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2007. AQIM is al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa.
In 2003, the United Nations designated Belmokhtar as a global terrorist for his activities on behalf of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. He was also convicted in absentia by Algerian courts for criminal acts including terrorism in 2004, 2007, and 2008.
Although Belmokhtar split with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in December 2012, he still conducts joint operations with the group. Belmokhtar later created the al-Mua’qi’oon Biddam, which led the bloody terrorist assault against the In Amenas gas facility in southeastern Algeria in mid-January. Belmokhtar claimed the attack in the name of al Qaeda.
Belmokhtar reports directly to al Qaeda’s central leadership, according to his spokesman. Al Qaeda central tightened its control over AQIM’s hostage operations in late 2010. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Al Qaeda central tightened control over hostage operations].