Four months after a U.S. air strike that aimed to kill the alleged kidnapper of two Canadian diplomats, the United States says it still doesn't know whether its target is dead or alive.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed extremist with links to al-Qaeda, was the leader of an Islamist militia that held the Canadian diplomats hostage in the remote desert of northern Mali for 130 days. He also masterminded a hostage-taking attack at an Algerian gas plant in 2013 in which two Canadian hostage-takers were among dozens of people killed.
The RCMP issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Belmokhtar after the kidnapping of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay in 2008, and the United States put a $5-million (U.S.) bounty on his head, but the Pentagon decided not to wait for the unlikely prospect of an arrest. On June 13, it sent two F-15 fighter jets on a mission to kill him.
The jets launched multiple 500-pound bombs on a target in eastern Libya, seeking to assassinate Mr. Belmokhtar, who was believed to be attending a high-level meeting of Libyan jihadists. But today U.S. officials say they aren't sure whether the kidnapper lived or died.
"The United States had essentially carried out a strike in which he was the target, but I'm not in a position at this point to confirm the results of that action," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington this week in response to questions about Mr. Belmokhtar's fate.
Previous reports in the past few months were only "speculating" on the terrorist's death, Mr. Earnest added.
Mr. Belmokhtar, a former Algerian soldier who became a jihadi in Afghanistan and North Africa, was nicknamed "The Uncatchable" because of his frequent escapes. His death has been announced several times in the past few years, yet he always seemed to survive. He has also been sentenced to death or life imprisonment in absentia in trials, yet was never captured.
Other accounts called him "Mr. Marlboro" because of the vast smuggling ring that he operated in the Sahara, trafficking in cigarettes, drugs, diamonds and humans. He reportedly pocketed $1-million in ransom money after the Canadian diplomats were freed and made even bigger profits from other kidnappings of Westerners.
This week, a flurry of reports suggested again that he was dead. The reports, originating at an Algerian television station, were based on an audio message released on social media last weekend by an al-Qaeda spokesman, Hassan Abderraouf, which made a brief reference to Mr. Belmokhtar's death.
But analysts are expressing skepticism about those reports, noting that the message seemed to be recorded in June – before the issuance of a subsequent denial by al-Qaeda officials in North Africa who insisted that he was still alive. Analysts have suggested that the June message might have been based only on rumours. If anything, they say, the message showed that al-Qaeda's leaders in the Middle East are often confused about faraway events in Africa.
Moreover, the Libyan branch of another Islamist militant group, Islamic State, posted photos of Mr. Belmokhtar in August and called him a "wanted man" and an "apostate" for his links to rival Islamist organizations.
If he was already dead, analysts asked, why would Islamic State declare him a "wanted man"? The announcement in August suggested instead that he is still alive, they said.
Mr. Fowler told The Globe and Mail that he did not want to comment on the latest claims. But in earlier interviews, he recalled Mr. Belmokhtar as a one-eyed, bearded zealot with a scarred face who led a band of extremists in an attempt to impose a strict Islamic regime across much of North Africa and West Africa.
"He's not a big man, he's not a strong man, but he was absolutely the undisputed leader," Mr. Fowler said.
"They hate states. It's all about God's dominion on Earth. They don't want a country. They want the world."