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U.S. Airstrikes In Libya Kill Algerian Militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar

An image of Mokhtar Belmokhtar from the U.S. State Department's wanted poster in the Rewards for Justice program. Belmokhtar was a leading figure in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
U.S. Department of State
An image of Mokhtar Belmokhtar from the U.S. State Department's wanted poster in the Rewards for Justice program. Belmokhtar was a leading figure in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Updated at 8:50 p.m. EDT

U.S. airstrikes in Libya have killed Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who led the 2013 attack on an Algerian gas plant that killed at least 38 foreign hostages.

Two Pentagon officials confirm that U.S. airstrikes killed Belmokhtar. The Libyan government also released a statement confirming his death.

Belmokhtar was a leader of al-Qaida's arm in North Africa, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. He was notorious for taking hostages, and was one of the first al-Qaida leaders to use ransoms as a way to raise money.

The 2013 attack he led on the Amenas gas plant in Algeria lasted for four days. The plant was home to more than 700 Algerian workers and more than 100 foreign workers; when militants seized the plant, they freed hundreds of Algerian workers and targeted the foreign hostages specifically.

Algerian forces raided the plant to try to free the hostages; the militants responded by using hostages as human shields. By the end, 38 foreign hostages, including three Americans, were killed.

In the days after the crisis ended, Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for the attack and said, "We did it for al-Qaida."

As NPR's Greg Myre wrote in 2013, Belmokhtar rose to prominence in the 1990s and, in the decade before the Amenas attack, was an elusive figure:

He's believed to have spent most of his time in Algeria's Sahara and has been regarded as one of the top figures in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.

The years of battle cost him one eye, and he is widely known as "Mr. Marlboro" — a reference to his reputation as a cigarette smuggler, which is believed to finance his military operations. ...

Back in 2003, the United Nations Security Council linked Belmokhtar to Osama bin Laden and said that the Algerian was a key figure with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Belmokhtar apparently had a falling out with AQIM and last year established a separate group, the Signed in Blood Battalion.

Algerian courts have sentenced him in absentia three times, including a life-in-prison sentence handed down in 2004.

The U.S. charged Belmokhtar with terrorism in July 2013, and the U.S. offered $5 million for information leading to his arrest.

The Associated Press notes that the airstrikes against Belmokhtar come amid ongoing battles between al-Qaeda militants and militants with the self-declared Islamic State in eastern Libya:

Last week, a senior al-Qaida leader was killed by masked gunman, prompting the group to declare holy war on the local Islamic State affiliate. Clashes between the two groups in the eastern coastal city of Darna killed 11 people.

Libya has been divided between an Islamist-led government backed by militias that seized the capital of Tripoli last August and its elected parliament, which now must convene in the far east of the country.

Militants have taken advantage of the chaos, flowing fighters into the country's vast ungoverned spaces. And as the Islamic State has grown in power, fueled by successes in Iraq and Syria, some al-Qaida fighters have switched loyalties.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston tells our Newscast unit that Belmokhtar and al-Qaida's central leadership had come into conflict in the past, and his own allegiances were unclear. "There was some question as to whether he was developing some sort of alliance with the self-proclaimed Islamic State," she reports.

Dina also says that U.S. officials are still working to determine who else was killed in the strike.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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