15 Jun 2015

‘Marlboro Man’ Belmokhtar killed – but the jihadi threat is growing

Marlboro Man, the One-Eyed Sheikh, the Prince – Mokhtar Belmokhtar had as many nicknames as he had lives. The French used to call him “the Uncatchable” but it now appears that al-Qaeda’s top man in north Africa has finally met his end. He was not in his home country of Algeria, nor in Mali where French forces failed to kill him in 2013, but in Libya.

The Pentagon said that US aircraft targeted him yesterday – they wouldn’t confirm that he had been killed, but the government nominally in control of eastern Libya said that he was dead. Reports suggest that he was meeting fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Sharia in a farmhouse just outside Ajdabia, near Benghazi.

Belmokhtar’s presence is yet more evidence of how little control the Libyan authorities have. One report suggests that jihadis took their injured to the local hospital where there was a shootout with Libyan forces.

Belmokhtar is most famous for masterminding the attack on the In Amenas gas plant in southern Algeria in January 2013 in which 39 people were killed, including six British nationals and one British resident.

He had just split from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) to found his own group, Those Who Sign In blood.

Belmokhtar fought first in Afghanistan and then with the Islamic Fighting Group in Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s. In the mid-2000s he moved to Mali, where he became a “gangster jihadi”, smuggling cigarettes (hence the “Marboro Man” moniker) and kidnapping for ransom. His group garnered millions of dollars from European governments who paid for the freedom of their nationals. Governments like the British, who did not pay, saw their nationals murdered.

In 2012, he teamed up with Malian jihadis who took control of cities including Timbuktu and Gao, amputating the limbs of suspected thieves, forcing women to wear the veil and destroying ancient mud shrines. In 2013, French forces forced the jihadis out of northern Mali.

Belmokhtar’s presence in Libya shows that the jihadi menace is like a balloon – you squeeze the air out of one part and it moves into another. Mali is no longer an easy environment, because of the presence of UN peacekeepers, but Libya has no central authority or effective armed force. Last week rival jihadis – some loyal to al-Qaeda, others to the Islamic State battled for control of the town of Derna.

Belmokhtar’s death may satisfy the relatives of his victims, but is unlikely to quell the rising jihadi movement in Libya and the region. Frequently, when the US picks off an al-Qaeda leader even more radical replacement rises is his place. Most of the senior members of al-Qaeda have been killed, but the jihadi threat is more acute than ever as IS expands its field of operation across the region.

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