US air strikes in North Africa targeted a group of Al-Qaeda members in Libya on Saturday, allegedly killing Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran leader of Al-Qaeda who had been called “uncatchable” by the French army, CNN has reported.
“Belmokhtar was the intended target of the operation, but no proof of his death has been provided by either government,” a US official told CNN.
A militant with ties to Libyan groups, however, said the air strikes missed Mokhtar Belmokhtar and instead killed four members of a militant group.
Designated as a global terrorist by the US 12 years ago, with a $5 million reward being offered for information concerning him, both the US and France have been hunting Belmokhtar for years.
The strikes were carried out in the vast desert where the borders of Libya, Niger and Algeria meet. Belmokhtar had been directing his group, known as Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), and smuggling operations and attacks from the region.
Belmokhtar allegedly travelled to Libya immediately after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. He is thought to have entered into contact with Libyan militia groups and formed a unit called “Those Who Sign With Blood” with the aim of attacking Western interests in the Sahel and North Africa.
The Al-Qaeda veteran released a 28-minute video in December 2012 and warned Western governments, saying "This is a promise from us that we will fight you in the midst of your countries, and we will attack your interests."
An ambitious attack against a gas facility in eastern Algeria by the Al-Mulathameen Brigade (The Brigade of the Masked Ones), came a month after the release of Belmokhtar’s video. Nearly forty workers, most of them foreigners, were killed in the three-day occupation of the plant.
The attacks were claimed as being in retaliation for Algeria permitting French overflights as part of its military intervention in Mali against AQIM, which at that point had taken over nearly half the country, a spokesman said.
Belmokhtar is also held responsible for the attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi in September 2012, in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
Standing as a legend among Al-Qaeda militants, Belmokhtar was born in 1972. Growing up in the deserts of southern Algeria, he traveled to Afghanistan in 1991 to fight against the country’s communist government. He lost an eye in battle and came back to his hometown as a legend with a new nickname “Belaouar” (the one eyed).
Leading many smuggling operations, Belmokhtar earned his group millions of dollars. He was named “Mr Marlboro” because of cigarette smuggling. In 2008, he kidnapped a Canadian diplomat, Robert Fowler.
Although he was referred to as “Emir of the Sahel” by Abdelmalik Drukdal, the supreme leader of AQIM, Belmokhtar was dismissed because he undertook independent operations despite several warnings, according to AFP.
His activities were too much for Abdelmalik Drukdal, the overall leader of AQIM, who is said to have demoted Belmokhtar in 2012 from his position as "Emir of the Sahel." Citing regional security officials, Agence France Presse reported at the time that Belmokhtar had been dismissed for "continued divisive activities, despite several warnings."