THE US military says it launched weekend airstrikes targeting, and likely killing, an al-Qaeda-linked militant leader in eastern Libya charged with leading the attack on a gas plant in Algeria in 2013 that killed at least 35 hostages, including three Americans.
An Islamist with ties to Libyan militants, however, said the airstrikes missed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, instead killing four members of a Libyan extremist group the US has linked to the 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
US officials said they were still assessing the results of Saturday’s strike, but Pentagon spokesman Steve Warren said the military believes the strike was successful and hit the target. Neither US officials nor the Libyan government provided proof of Belmokhtar’s death, which likely requires a DNA test or an announcement by Belmokhtar’s group that he was killed.
“I can confirm that the target of last night’s counterterrorism strike in Libya was Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” Mr Warren said on Sunday. “Belmokhtar has a long history of leading terrorist activities as a member of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is the operational leader of the al-Qaeda-associated al-Murabitun organisation in north-west Africa and maintains his personal allegiance to al-Qaeda.”
A US official said two F-15 fighter jets launched multiple 500-pound bombs in the attack.
However, this is not the first time authorities have claimed to have killed Belmokhtar, a militant believed to be 43 who reportedly lost his eye in combat and fought in Afghanistan. He was one of a number of Islamist fighters who have battled Algeria’s government since the 1990s, later joining al-Qaeda.
Intelligence officials say Belmokhtar essentially built a bridge between AQIM and the underworld, creating a system whereby various bands of outlaws now support one another and enroll local youth. He has been linked to terror attacks and the lucrative kidnapping of foreigners in the region. He is also known as Belaouer the One Eyed, Abou al-Abbes and “Mister Marlboro,” the last name a play on the fact he is accused of smuggling contraband cigarettes through the Sahara and the Sahel.
The US filed terrorism charges in 2013 against Belmokhtar in connection with the Algeria attack. Officials have said they believe he remained a threat to US and Western interests. Belmokhtar had just split off from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to start his own franchise.
The Libyan government, in a statement, said the strike targeting Belmokhtar came after consultation with the US so that America could take action against a terror leader there.
One government official in Libya said an airstrike in the north-eastern coastal city of Ajdabiya hit a group of Islamic militants also believed linked to al-Qaeda and that it killed five and wounded more.
He said the group that was wounded later fought the Libyan military that guarded the hospital there, leading to an hours-long battle.
The Islamist said yesterday that Belmokhtar was not at the site of the US airstrike. He said the strike killed four Ansar Shariah members in Ajdabiya, some 530 miles east of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
American officials have linked Ansar Shariah to the September 11, 2012, attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi.
The charges filed against Belmokhtar by federal law enforcement officials in Manhattan included conspiring to support al-Qaeda and use of a weapon of mass destruction.
Additional charges of conspiring to take hostages and discharging a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence carry the death penalty.
At the time, US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a release that Belmokhtar “unleashed a reign of terror years ago, in furtherance of his self-proclaimed goal of waging bloody jihad against the West”.
The airstrike comes as a)l-Qaeda militants in eastern Libya continue to battle with members of the Islamic State, as the warring groups fight over power and resources.