Yahya Abu Hammam, the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s operations in the Sahel. Image from the ANI.
Last weekend, news agencies reported that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb denied reports of the death of Abdel Mejid Abou Zeid, a top al Qaeda commander who served as the deputy to Yahya Abu Hammam. On March 23, France confirmed that Abu Zeid was killed during fighting in Mali. News agencies subsquently claimed that AQIM denied that Abou Zeid was dead, however, based on a statement released by the terror group denying that its emir of the Sahara had been killed. Here is one such report, from Reuters:
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the movement’s North African arm, said French statements that its forces had killed the group’s leader in the Sahara were “blatant fallacy”, a monitoring website said on Saturday.
AQIM, as the group is known, did not name the leader but it appeared to be referring to Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, whose death in Mali in February was confirmed by Paris “with certainty” on March 23.
But a close reading of the statement (which was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group), shows that AQIM never once mentioned Abou Zeid, and instead is disputing claims that Hammam was appointed emir of the Sahara region after Abou Zeid was killed. From the SITE Intelligence Group translation:
The French media outlets distributed among themselves, and the local media echoed, reports about the killing of the emir of the Sahara region, and the installation of the brother commander Yahya Abu al-Hammam, may Allah preserve him, in this position, as a successor.
This is a blatant fallacy by the French President Hollande…
Here is one such report that AQIM is referring to, again from Reuters, on March 24, that makes the claim that Hammam replaced About Zeid [note, I am not picking on Reuters here, other news outlets had reported similar stories, the Reuters articles are the ones I had handy]:
Algerian Djamel Okacha [Hammam] has been named as a new commander in al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), replacing Abdelhamid Abou Zeid who was killed in fighting in northern Mali, Algerian Ennahar TV said on Sunday.
An Algerian security source said Okacha, 34, was very close to AQIM’s leader Abdelmalek Droukdel as both belonged to the Group of Algiers, made up of militants born in the region around the Algerian capital.
In the statement, AQIM goes on to note that Hammam was appointed last year after his predecessor was killed in a car accident. Abou Zeid actually served under Hammam and led one of his brigades. For more information on the relationship between Hammam and Abou Zeid, see LWJ report, US adds senior AQIM commander to terrorist list. Here is an excerpt from the LWJ report, from Feb. 16:
Hammam was named the emir of the Sahel after his predecessor, Nabil Abu Alqama, was killed in a car crash. Upon taking command, Hammam named Abdel Mejid Abou Zeid as his deputy. Zeid leads the Taregh Ibn Ziyad brigade, which operates throughout Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and southern Algeria. Zeid’s brigade is responsible for the beheading of the British hostage Edwin Dyer in May 2009. Algerians, Mauritanians, Malians, and Moroccans are known to fight with both Hammam and Zeid.
Again, AQIM released the statement not to deny the death of Abou Zeid, but to rebut press reports that Hammam was named the emir of the Sahara just last month. To be clear, AQIM has neither confirmed nor denied Abou Zeid’s death, but the French do seem certain he is dead, based on DNA testing.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.