Was al-Qaeda’s Saharan Amir Mokhtar Belmokhtar Killed in the Battle for Gao?

Andrew McGregor

July 12, 2012

Though al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) continues to deny the death of one of its leading amirs in the late June battle for the northern Malian city of Gao, the movement has yet to provide any evidence of the survival of Mokhtar Belmokhtar (a.k.a. Khalid Abu al-Abbas), the amir of AQIM’s Sahara/Sahel-based al-Mulathamin Brigade.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar Outside of Gao

Belmokhtar and his AQIM fighters are reported to have played a central role in leading the takeover of Gao by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), a sub-Saharan AQIM spin-off (Le Républicain [Bamako], June 28; for MUJWA, see Terrorism Monitor, April 6). The clashes were sparked on the night of June 25, when Idrissa Oumarou, a popular local politician and leader of a group dedicated to resisting the rebel occupation of Gao, was killed while riding his motorcycle through a checkpoint run by the largely Tuareg Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) (L’Esssor [Bamako], June 27; Info Matin [Bamako], June 27; L’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], June 27). Youth protests began the next morning with the burning of tires in the streets. As the protest turned violent, it appears that MNLA fighters opened fire on the protesters from rooftops, wounding 12 and possibly killing one or two demonstrators (L’Esssor [Bamako], June 30; Le Combat [Bamako], June 27). At this point MUJWA launched an attack on the MNLA, which succeeded in driving the movement out of the city in which it had shared administration with the Islamists.

Accounts of Belmokhtar’s death during the battle vary only in the details. The AQIM leader was variously reported to have been killed on June 28 by a burst of gunfire to his chest, by a rocket that destroyed his vehicle, or by a rocket to his chest fired by Tuareg leader Colonel Bouna ag Atayub before the latter was himself killed in the fighting. Belmokhtar’s death has since been reported by the MNLA and confirmed by Algerian sources (Toumast Press, June 30; July 2; Ennahar TV [Algiers], June 28; Liberté [Algiers], June 30). An unnamed Mauritanian AQIM commander was also reported killed (Toumast Press, June 30; SIWEL – Agence Kabyle d’information, June 28). The other senior MNLA officer reported killed in the clashes was identified as Colonel Wari, possibly Wari ag Ibrahim, a former National Guard officer and a member of the Idnane Tuareg.

At least 35 people died in the fighting, including those drowned in the Niger River and those who died in hospital afterwards. The MNLA admitted to four dead and 10 wounded, but made the improbable claim of having killed “dozens” of MUJWA fighters (AFP, July 1). Most of the dead appear to have been MNLA fighters, along with a few civilians caught in the deadly crossfire (Le Combat [Bamako], June 29).

However, two days after Belmokhtar’s supposed death, a communiqué regarding the events in Gao issued under his alternate name of Khalid Abu al-Abbas was published by a Mauritanian news agency and later carried by jihadi websites (Agence Nouakchott d’Information. June 30).  In the statement, Belmokhtar describes the deadly force used against protesters by the MNLA and goes on to describe the latter’s subsequent expulsion from Gao, though he is careful to note that the use of force “was limited in time and place,” was not intended as a declaration of war “on any party,” and cannot be interpreted as a conflict between Arabs and Tuareg. None of the events described in the communiqué appear to post-date June 28 and as Belmokhtar’s message appeared in the form of a statement rather than an interview that would verify his continued existence, it does not establish the AQIM amir’s survival past June 28.  

Since expelling the MNLA, the Islamists have been conducting house-to-house searches for MNLA members or sympathizers (RFI, July 3). MUJWA has also issued warnings on local radio that they have laid anti-personnel mines in the bush areas surrounding Gao to force all traffic to use the few roads controlled by the movement and thus prevent re-infiltration of the city by MNLA forces (Le Combat [Bamako], July 3). MUJWA forces in Gao are under the command of the movement’s leader, Hamadou Ould Khairou, a Mauritanian who left AQIM last year to form a new and largely sub-Saharan militant Islamist group. Ould Khairou has been living at the Algerian consulate since his fighters seized the building and abducted seven Algerian diplomats in April and is frequently seen driving the Algerian Consul’s four-wheel drive vehicle in the streets of Gao (Jeune Afrique, July 7).

MUJWA leader Hamada Ould Khairou

Following the MUJWA takeover of Gao on June 27, Islamist reinforcements (mostly Algerian according to the MNLA) began arriving in trucks that night, joining MUJWA forces and some 100 members of Ansar al-Din already in Gao (VOA, June 28; Toumast Press, June 30).  The MNLA reported the destruction on June 29 of a convoy of Islamist reinforcements in the Tarkint region of Gao by a brigade under the command of Colonel Leche ag Didi of the Idnane Tuareg (Toumast Press, June 30). Many of the MNLA’s leaders belong to the Idnane tribe, which has in recent years been engaged in a growing power struggle with the aristocratic Ifogha tribe, to which Islamists like Algabass ag Intalla and Ansar al-Din leader Iyad ag Ghali belong (al-Jazeera, June 11; Info Matin [Bamako], July 4). In some quarters of Mali, the conflict between the rebel groups is seen as a proxy struggle between Algeria, the “secret sponsor” of the MNLA, and Qatar, the “secret sponsor” of the Islamists (L’Aube [Bamako], July 2).

MNLA Secretary General Bilal ag Cherif, who was wounded in the fighting (either by shrapnel or friendly fire), was airlifted to a hospital in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou by a Burkinabe helicopter, apparently under the orders of Burkinabe president Blaise Compaoré, who is hosting negotiations between the northern Mali rebel leaders and the transitional Malian government. According to some reports, Ag Cherif was accompanied by MNLA military commander Colonel Muhammad ag Najim (Le Combat [Bamako], June 29; AFP, June 28). The rest of the Gao-based MNLA appears to have withdrawn to the Gao Region town of Ménaka to regroup (L’Indépendant, June 29).

After taking Gao, the Islamists claimed to have found a “black list” of assassination targets on the computer of Muhammad Jerry Maiga, the vice-chairman of the MNLA’s Azawad transition committee. Among the names allegedly found there was that of Idrissa Oumarou, the politician whose death led to the brief struggle for Gao. MUJWA has since issued a reward of FCFA 3 million and a Land Cruiser for the death or capture of Maiga (Le Combat [Bamako], July 2). After the MUJWA victory, Maiga told French radio that MUJWA has little real strength and would soon be driven out of Gao by the MNLA (RFI, June 28).

A MUJWA spokesman, Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi, claimed his group had taken 40 prisoners as well as two tanks and heavy weapons such as a Grad missile launcher abandoned by the MNLA in the fighting (al-Jazeera, June 29). One Ansar al-Din commander, Umar Ould Hamama, mocked MNLA claims that they would return to Gao after a “tactical withdrawal”: “How can they talk about a counteroffensive when they have left behind them their war arsenal and trucks full of ammunition?” (L’Essor [Bamako], June 29).

Aside from their victory in the spontaneous battle for Gao on June 30, MUJWA also claimed responsibility for an early morning attack the previous day on the regional headquarters of a paramilitary police force in the Algerian town of Ouargla that killed one and wounded three. MUJWA accuses Algeria of encouraging the MNLA to confront the Islamists in northern Mali (AFP, June 29).

This article first appeared in the July 12, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.