Wednesday 17 January 2018

'One-eyed sheikh' didn't die in attack, claims al-Qa'ida

Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Photo: Reuters
Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Photo: Reuters

Richars Spencer in Washington

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the "One-eyed sheikh of the Sahara", survived a US air strike intended to kill him, al-Qa'ida has said.

Two US F15 fighter jets bombed a house where he was thought to be holding a meeting with local jihadists outside the Libyan town of Ajdabiya in the early hours of Sunday morning.

The Libyan government said he had been killed, though the US, in confirming the strike, was more cautious, saying it was assessing intelligence before stating whether he was dead.

Libyan Islamist and jihadi social media forums listed seven local men who had been killed, and detailed their funerals. But they made no mention of Belmokhtar, either to confirm or deny his presence at the house or his death.

But a statement was issued overnight by al-Qa'ida in the Maghreb, the branch of the organisation to which his Al-Murabitoun (The Sentinels) group was loosely affiliated.

"The mujahid commander Khalid Abu al-Abbas is still alive and well, and he wanders and roams in the land of Allah, supporting his allies and vexing his enemies," the statement said, according to the Site monitoring service. Khalid Abu al-Abbas is one of his several aliases.

Jihadist media sometimes suggests leaders are dead - thus enabling them to continue to operate without further attempts on them - but rarely allows a real death to go by without an appropriate eulogy.

The statement does raise as many questions as it answers, however. A statement two days previously reported the raid and that a number of men had been killed but made no mention of Belmokhtar, suggesting either a lack of information or that he was still trying to escape, or that he was hit and seriously injured.

Belmokhtar, an Algerian, was an experienced jihadist who fought in Algeria's civil war and then led attacks on a variety of targets in Saharan states for years.

His most daring was the capture of the In Amenas gas plant in southern Algeria, where his men held hundreds of local and foreign hostages for several days. When the plant was retaken, 38 of the hostages were killed, including six Britons.

A maverick even within al-Qa'ida's ranks, he was accused by the group's leadership of range of organisational failings, and in 2012 led his men out of the official North African branch, al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb.

But he always remained loyal to al-Qa'ida's central leadership and Ayman al-Zawahiri, its head. He rejected the opportunity to join Isil, al-Qa'ida's rival.

A second statement denying his death was issued to a newspaper by Al-Murabitoun itself.

Neither say whether he was at the supposed meeting. It was a gathering of members of Ansar al-Sharia and the Ajdabiya version of the Shura Council, the hardline Islamists who dominate parts of eastern Libya.

Some of them declared allegiance to Isil, and now have a foothold in several parts of the north of the country, but have been driven out of their fiefdom in Derna, their first base, by other Islamists. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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