It was a death foretold: Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed jihadist leader who masterminded the devastating attack against an Algerian natural-gas plant in January, which killed dozens of Western oil workers, was reported to have been killed in a military strike in northern Mali on Saturday, ending in one moment a life dedicated to terrorism and bloodshed.
By Sunday evening, the sole confirmation of Belmokhtar’s death was the announcement on Chad’s government TV service, saying that the military forces of that North African country had killed Belmokhtar in a battle in the rocky mountains of northern Mali bordering Algeria, where jihadists have been on the run for weeks against the French-led military assault. In an interview with TIME on Sunday evening, Ali Zaoui, an Algerian counterterrorism operative who keeps in close contact with Belmokhtar’s parents, said he had been told by tribal leaders in northern Mali that Belmokhtar was indeed dead. “I have confirmed it with the tribal leaders,” he told TIME by phone from Algiers. “Belmokhtar died with two of his top lieutenants.”
French officials on Sunday refused to confirm Belmokhtar’s death, saying that they were waiting for more proof, including the results of DNA samples, which Chad’s commanders say they have taken for testing. Chad’s statement on Sunday came a day after its military announced it had killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, 46, one of the senior leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The announcement on TV said that its forces had “completely destroyed the main jihadist base” in the border mountain area of Ifoghas, “killing several terrorists including leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar.”
Algerian officials on Thursday took DNA samples from two close relatives of Abou Zeid, with a sample passed to them from French forces fighting in northern Mali, according to the independent Algerian newspaper El Khabar.
If the report of Belmokhtar’s death proves true, it would be a fitting end for the Algerian jihadist leader. Born in 1972 in the desert town of Gardaïa, 300 miles south of Algiers, Belmokhtar began his career as a hard-line Islamist fighter at just 19, when he headed to Afghanistan to join the fight against Russian forces there. At the time, Belmokhtar’s father pleaded with Algerian officials not to issue his son a passport. And in the years since, the father cut off Belmokhtar from communication, deeply pained over his terrorism activities, according to Zaoui.
Belmokhtar trained in Afghanistan under Osama bin Laden, then returned home to fight his own country’s military in Algeria’s eight-year civil war, which killed an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people. With its cities battered and terrorized, Algeria’s government finally offered amnesty to Salafi fighters in the early 2000s. But the most radical among them, including Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid, slipped out of Algeria and regrouped as AQIM. They accumulated a war chest worth tens of millions of dollars by kidnapping Western oil workers and tourists around North Africa’s remote Sahel region and demanding vast ransoms from Western governments. They also ran criminal enterprises like drug trafficking and cigarette smuggling, the latter earning Belmokhtar the moniker Mr. Marlboro.
The organization became more lethal after the collapse in October 2011 of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi regime, when AQIM and Tuareg separatists in northern Mali carted large quantities of weaponry out of Libya, allowing them to seize two-thirds of Mali a year ago and eventually leading France to launch bombing raids against the jihadists seven weeks ago and then to storm north through Mali along with small contingents from several African militaries. It was that campaign that inspired Belmokhtar, or so he claimed, to lay siege to Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant on Jan. 16. The attack ended with a fierce Algerian military assault, in which about 38 foreign oil workers, including three Americans and six Britons, were killed.
The attack cemented Belmokhtar’s role as the leading jihadist in the region, who had pulled off Algeria’s equivalent of 9/11 — an attack so devastating that its scale and scope had caught its extensive military and intelligence services off guard. In an interview last month, Algeria’s Minister of Energy and Mines told TIME, “We did not predict this.”
Yet in some ways, the gas-plant attack and the hostage siege also left Belmokhtar vulnerable: it set off a massive international manhunt for him, which involved France nearly doubling its forces on the ground in northern Mali, and the U.S. committing drones to the effort.
The attack in January also appears to have antagonized tribal leaders in northern Mali, who until then had offered critical support to the fighters of Belmokhtar, who had married a local woman from the remote border areas. “They are happy he is dead,” the Algerian counterterrorism operative Zaoui told TIME on Sunday evening. “They were very embarrassed about the In Amenas attack and the fact that he wanted to impose the Shari‘a law also put them against him.”
Despite that, Belmokhtar’s death hardly means the end to AQIM or its allied organizations. Belmokhtar had formed his own organization in December called Signatories in Blood, in what some believe was a power struggle with Abou Zeid. Even with both men dead, AQIM appears to have retained plenty of weaponry and money. “There are terrorists all the time coming up every day,” Mohamed Chafik Mesbah, a retired Algerian military intelligence colonel, said by phone from Algiers on Sunday evening. “Perhaps for the moment the terrorists will need to find a new charismatic figure,” he said. “But there will not be a drastic effect, and anyway, until now, we have only the Chadians’ word for it. They need to present the body.”