Late last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that a French airstrike in southern Libya likely killed the jihadist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The reports have been met with some skepticism, given that Belmokhtar has been reported dead numerous times. For example, American authorities believed they had killed Belmokhtar in a June 2015 airstrike in Ajdabiya, northeasterrn Libya (map).
Belmokhtar was born in Ghardaïa, Algeria in 1972. He traveled to Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and then participated in Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s as a member of the Armed Islamic Group (French acronym GIA) and the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC). The GSPC affiliated with al-Qaida in 2006-2007, and Belmokhtar was one of the most senior commanders in the rebranded al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). To a certain extent, he broke away from AQIM from roughly 2012-2015, although his forces were effectively reintegrated into AQIM by late 2015.
It is not easy to determine exactly where the most recent strike occurred. There was a reported airstrike on November 14 on the outskirts of the southern Libyan city of Sabha (map). That strike may have claimed the lives of AQIM’s Abu Talha al-Hassnawi and six others. One wonders whether Belmokhtar was among them – he and al-Hassnawi were reportedly close, and had allegedly been seen together after returning to Sabha from the coastal city of Sirte. Another source (French), however, says that the airstrike occurred in the Bani Walid region (map) south of Tripoli, or in other words in northwestern rather than southern Libya. I favor the first account, but the second is worth considering.
It is possible that Belmokhtar has been using Libya as his main base of operations since the fall of the jihadist territory that AQIM and allied factions controlled in northern Mali in 2012-2013. Although Belmokhtar’s forces have claimed responsibility for major attacks beyond Libya, he has been (accurately or otherwise) sighted there many times since 2013. AQIM is a player in intra-jihadist politics in northeastern Libya and has a presence, although its size is difficult to determine, in southwestern Libya. Regarding the northeast, it is worth noting that when Belmokhtar was targeted in the June 2015 strike on Ajdabiya, he was possibly there to help aid some anti-ISIS jihadis planning to expel ISIS from another northeastern coastal city, Derna. Regarding the southwest, it is worth noting that there are murky connections between AQIM and smugglers in towns such as Sabha and Ubari.
Alongside reports of Belmokhtar’s death, there are reports that one of his wives was arrested in Derna when she went there to give birth. The woman, a Tunisian national, reportedly gave birth in mid-October after Belmokhtar sent her from southern Libya to Derna. She believed at that time that Belmokhtar was alive, although she parted company with him well before the latest reported strike. AQIM (French), for its part, has denied that Belmokhtar has a Tunisian wife at all. But even the rumor of a senior jihadist’s wife being arrested makes me think that wives are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, marrying into local communities can help jihadists forge important ties. But on the other hand, wives can be a security and intelligence risk. I doubt that she provided intelligence that led directly to Belmokhtar’s targeting, but it’s quite possible that she did provide actionable intelligence about other jihadi camps, leaders, etc.
If Belmokhtar is indeed dead, then all the familiar debates about decapitation can be rehearsed. The argument for assassination is that it removes key decision-makers, disrupts organizational cohesion and operational planning, and weakens networks. The argument against assassination is that leaders are often quickly replaced, that organizational fragmentation can be dangerous, and that successors are sometimes more reckless, competent, or brutal than their predecessors. I tend to think the benefits of decapitation are exaggerated; your mileage may vary.