The militants seized hundreds of hostages leading to a four-day siege in the
desert. The Algerian army launched an assault on the complex, ending in a
bloodbath on Jan 19.

In a video posted online Belmokhtar later confirmed his involvement in the
attack, describing the siege as a “blessed operation”, and demanding that
France withdraw its troops from Mali.

In the message, recorded before the final stand-off with the Algerian army,
Belmokhtar said the operation was carried out by 40 “jihadists”, including
several Westerners. The raid is thought to have been led by Abdul Rahman
al-Nigeri. Belmokhtar’s death, if confirmed, would be a major blow to
Islamist rebels in northern Mali who have been pushed into their mountain
strongholds by French and African forces. The Algerian-born Belmokhtar,
linked to a string of kidnappings in North Africa in the past decade, had
been dubbed “the uncatchable” by the French.

He is said to have become attracted to Islamism as a teenage schoolboy,
travelling to Afghanistan at the end of the war against the Soviets in the
early 1990s.

This launched him on a two-decade career of Islamic militancy, initially as a
member of Algeria’s Islamic Armed Group (GIA) in the country’s civil war. He
then became a joint founder of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat
(GSPC), which extended its attacks against security forces into countries
along the southern fringe of the Sahara. He lost his left eye while handling
explosives in the 1990s fighting Algerian government troops as head of the
Shahada Katibat [Martyrs Battallion] in the Sahara.

The GSPC later took up the franchise of al-Qaeda’s North Africa wing, under
the name al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Belmokhtar headed one of
two AQIM battalions in Algeria’s southern desert bordering Mali.

Belmokhtar was sentenced by an Algerian court to life imprisonment in absentia
in connection with the killing of 10 Algerian customs agents in 2007.

His reputation as a “gangster-jihadist” involved in arms and cigarette
smuggling earned him the nickname “Mister Malboro” among locals in the

His activities gained him strong links with local Tuareg communities, whose
fighters helped seize parts of Mali.

The alleged death of Belmokhtar came a day after Chad’s president said their
troops killed Abou Zeid, the other main al-Qaeda commander in the region.

In a speech on Friday, Francois Hollande, the French president, said the
operation in Mali was in its final stage.

“Terrorist groups have taken refuge and are hiding in an especially
difficult zone,” he said. “Information is out there. I don’t have
to confirm it because we must reach the end of the operation.”

Al-Qaeda commander behind Algeria gas plant attack ‘killed in Mali’ –
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