As troops from France and Chad comb through the mountains of northern Mali, picking off Islamist rebels who are hiding out in a region they have long called home, the forces scored a major victory with the killing of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, one of the most important leaders of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
It is considered a significant blow to AQIM because Abou Zeid is perhaps the toughest and most resilient of the al-Qaida leaders in Africa. He was also the most ruthless, as he was blamed for the executions of hostages and earning tens of millions of dollars for AQIM with the kidnapping of Westerners in the Sahara over the last few years.
Abou Zeid was also a formidable recruiter for AQIM, with contacts in many countries throughout the region. As Islamists pushed Sharia law in Mali, Abou Zeid was a major force in pushing Islam in northern Mali. He was recently spotted in Timbuktu, where he was linked to public whippings, amputations, destruction of monuments, banning of music and other leisure activities.
While France would not confirm Abou Zeid’s killing, the Algerian newspaper El Khabar reported that samples from the corpse presumed to be that of Abou Zeid, who was from Algeria, had been sent there for testing against relatives.
Chad’s President Idriss Deby yesterday announced Abou Zeid’s death at the hands of Chadian forces in the mountains of northern Mali.
“It was Chadian forces who killed two jihadi leaders, including Abou Zeid,” Deby told opposition politicians in the presence of journalists, after a funeral ceremony for Chadian soldiers killed in fighting.
He was not obliged to confirm Abou Zeid’s death.
“Terrorist groups have taken refuge and are hiding in an especially difficult zone,” said French President Francois Hollande, who indicated the operation in Mali was in its final stage.
“Information is out there,” he said of the reports of Abou Zeid’s death. “I don’t have to confirm it because we must reach the end of the operation.”
Apparently it was the MNLA Tuareg rebels, who are working with French forces as scouts, who had located Abou Zeid’s fighters and handed over the coordinates for French jets to strike.
“They were hidden in mountain caves and were building bombs for suicide attacks when they were killed,” said Ibrahim Oumar Toure, a mechanic in the northern Malian town of Kidal who worked with Islamist rebels and remains in contact with them.
Abou Zeid was believed to be behind the kidnapping of at least four French citizens in Niger in 2010, which would make his death of special interest to France.
While the French still have some 1,200 soldiers in the region, it is a reduction of several thousand from a few weeks ago.
Chad has about 800, according to the New York Times, and with the death of about 25 Chadian soldiers killed over the past week in clashes with the rebels, Chad’s president is calling on other African nations to relieve the country of some of the burden.
The French-Chad forces are concentrating their efforts on a 15-mile zone in the Adrar des Ifoghas, the rocky, barren mountains at Mali’s Algerian border, Col. Thierry Burkhard, the French military spokesman, told the Times.
“From the beginning this has been the refuge of the region’s terrorist groups,” Burkhard said of the area around Tessalit, a settlement near the Algerian border. “Our objective is to comb through this zone, find the terrorist groups, then neutralize them.”
Burkhard said French forces had killed about 40 jihadists over the last week, while Chadian troops had eliminated about 90. The French said there had been about 60 airstrikes, and about 10 of the jihadists’ vehicles had been destroyed.
“They are hanging on in a very determined fashion,” Burkhard said. “They are not looking to retreat. They want to hang on to their positions. They’ve been implanted in this region for a long time, and they’ve prepared the terrain. They’ve got foxholes, and they’ve got enough weapons to resist over the long term.”