Chadian military officials claim to have killed two leaders associated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but it’s too soon to declare a major victory for counterinsurgency forces in the hinterlands of North and West Africa.
On Friday, Chadian President Idriss Deby said his troops had killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a top-level AQIM commander. On Saturday, military spokesman Zakaria Ngobongue said in a televised address that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the alleged mastermind behind the attack on an Algerian gas plant in January, had also been killed. In that midday military operation, he said, “Chadian armed forces on mission in Mali totally destroyed the principal base of the terrorists and narcotics traffickers in the Ifoghas mountain range.”
If true, this would be a significant victory for Chadian forces, whose seasoned desert fighters make up the strongest contingent of African troops currently working alongside the French to quash an insurgency in northern Mali and the surrounding region.
But in the end, confirmation of the news, which is still lacking, wouldn’t do much to change the nature of the continuing struggle in Sahara. The aftermath of the Malian insurgency and French offensive will be a long and complicated one -- even if two of the most important figures associated with AQIM are no longer there to lead the charge.
Setting the Stage
The Malian insurgency began in late 2011, when a Tuareg militant organization made unprecedented inroads into Malian territory. Those separatist insurgents were followed by Islamist groups that sought to enforce a harsh version of Shariah, or Islamic law, on communities in the sparsely populated territory of northern Mali, an area about the size of France.
The crisis was compounded by a March 2012 coup in the capital city of Bamako, which was perpetrated by a group of mid-ranking army officers.
The Islamist groups built up a base of operations in northern Mali and advanced further south in January of this year, forcing Bamako to call for international assistance. French forces swooped in with airstrikes and combat soldiers beginning Jan. 11, and have since recaptured northern towns including Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
Now, France is drawing down its operation and leaving African troops to handle much of the endgame. For the most part, the Islamist militants have retreated from urban centers and are now operating from mountain hideouts, though they still pose a threat to the cities they retreated from only weeks ago.
AQIM has been active in the region for years, as have Tuareg separatists. Both groups have been empowered recently by an increasingly profitable network of drug smuggling and kidnapping, poor security in Mali, and an overflow of weapons from the 2011 Libyan revolution.
The two leaders reportedly killed by Chadian forces both hailed from Algeria. They rose to prominence during the Algerian Civil War of 1991-2002, which pitted Islamist militants against the authoritarian regime and, eventually, against civilians. The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or GSPC in French, evolved as an offshoot of the main rebel group in the Algerian conflict. As years passed, the GSPC was pushed south and staked its claim to the largely lawless regions of the Sahara and Sahel, linking up with al Qaeda in 2006 and dubbing itself AQIM in 2007.
Abou Zeid and Belmohktar soon gained reputations as skilled and ruthless smugglers and kidnappers; their fundraising abilities were instrumental in helping AQIM become one of the most powerful branches of the global al Qaeda franchise.
The two worked together as leaders of separate units, but found themselves at odds during a recent episode of infighting. This prompted Belmokhtar to start a new group whose name, al-Mouwakiune bi-Dima, can be roughly translated as “Those who Sign with Blood.” That organization was behind the seizure of an Algerian natural gas plant in mid-January. The militants were eventually routed from the facility by Algerian forces, but not before dozens of people -- foreigners and Algerians -- had lost their lives.
Chadian officials now claim that Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid have been killed, but the French -- whose forces are still operating in the region -- are taking those reports with a grain of salt.
It seems fairly likely that Abou Zeid is indeed dead, French Chief of Staff Adm. Edouard Guillaud said during a Monday radio interview. “We don’t have any certainty for the moment,” he added, according to Reuters. “It would be good news.”
But Belmokhtar’s reported demise is a murkier affair; Guillaud said he was “extremely cautious” of that claim. Belmokhtar has been erroneously reported dead on multiple occasions, and at least one jihadist in the region has already claimed that he is still alive, according to the Maryland-based SITE intelligence Group. The strongest proof of his death so far is from a grainy cell phone photograph of a dead body, which was published on Monday by Radio France Internationale.
The Long View
Even if Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid are no more, and even if Chadian forces have indeed decimated a major base of operations for AQIM in the Ifoghas mountains, the struggles in North and West Africa are far from over.
Paris officials are still concerned about the fates of at least seven French nationals that were being held hostage by regional Islamist militants -- it is uncertain whether the Chadian offensive has affected their safety.
As for the broader Islamic militant network in North and West Africa, the deaths, if true, would be a setback -- but not necessarily a game changer. AQIM is an umbrella group with chains of command in place, but Abou Zeid’s and Belmokhtar’s level of influence across the region should not be overstated. The ever-shifting nature of alliances among militant factions would have made it difficult to maintain a directly hierarchical organization. Smaller African-based groups, from Boko Haram in Nigeria to al-Shabaab in Somalia, have roots in local conflicts and have evolved for years without being directed by AQIM’s core leaders.
Furthermore, the Malian conflict, which has turned into a regional struggle, is about much more than a militant insurgency. The region was already plagued by food shortages and poverty, and that has only been worsened by war.
Refugees have fled northern and central Mali in record numbers over the past several months. Hundreds of thousands of Malian men, women and children have been displaced. This very serious humanitarian crisis will persist even in the unlikely event that all militant cells in the area are neutralized.
There are also ethnic conflicts to contend with. In Mali, longstanding tensions exist among the descendants of Berbers, Arabs, black Africans and various subgroups. As counterinsurgency draws down, retaliatory attacks -- often committed by government troops -- have already been reported.
The reported deaths of Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar are clearly significant, especially since the two men led some of AQIM’s deadliest and most profitable battalions. But new commanders could still rise to fill the power vacuums left behind by the two leaders.
A lasting victory against extremism in the region will be achieved not only by targeting high-level militants, but by enhancing governance and political involvement in Mali and surrounding countries, making progress against poverty, and empowering well-trained local security forces to maintain order.
For Bamako and allies, that road will be a long one. Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar are -- or were -- only two of many obstacles on the way to peace and stability.