28 Feb 2013

Has France killed a top al-Qaeda commander in Mali?

The war in Mali is continuing out of sight, not because most journalists have left the country, but because most of the jihadis have fled to the mountains in the north east, near the border with Algeria. Far from roads and towns, the French bombard them from the air, and occasionally engage them on the ground.

Today Algerian TV reported that Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, whose real name is Mohamed Ghadir, was killed three days ago along with 40 militants in the remote Tigargara area. The French have refused to comment.

Abu Zeid – otherwise known as the Emir of the South – was one of the top three commanders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM), a veteran of the wars in Algeria and Afghanistan who specialised in the kidnap of western hostages for ransom and political effect. He was believed to be direct contact with Osama bin Laden in the years before his death.

Abu Zeid is reported to have made millions from European governments who paid ransoms for hostages.

But he was also highly political. When the British government refused to pay for Edwin Dyer, a hostage seized near Timbuktu in 2009, he demanded instead the release of the terror suspect Abu Qatada, held in a British gaol. The government, of course, refused and Dyer was promptly murdered.

Before the French intervention in Mali, the rivalry within AQIM seems to have been intense.

Mohamed Mokaddem, an author of several books on al-Qaeda, said that Mokhtar Belmokhtar – another leading Algerian in AQIM – regarded Abu Zeid as: “a vulgar smuggler turned jihadist with no legitimacy.”

Both men are believed to have made money from drug smuggling and people trafficking while claiming all their activities for religiously sanctioned.

In a recent video, in which Abu Zeid is demanding ransom from the French government for hostages, we can see his sharp features and grey hair.

Footage from April 2012 (see image above) shows a blurred figure in a yellow robe and turban, commanding Tuareg fighters and jihadis as they entered Timbuktu.

More recently he was sighted in Diabaly, one of the towns the jhadis took just before the French intervention last month.

If Abu Zeid is dead, the French will count it as one of their most important victories in Mali. The problem is that another equally dangerous jihadi may rise to take his place.

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