In what could be a major strike against al-Qaeda, Chadian soldiers fighting in Mali claim they've killed two prominent members of the terrorist network in Africa, including Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed alleged mastermind behind the kidnapping of a pair of Canadian diplomats in 2008 and a bloody hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in January.
According to senior Chadian government and military officials, Mr. Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, both top militants with the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), were killed in attacks on terrorist bases in Mali's mountainous northern region on Friday and Saturday. No other government is confirming Chad's claims at this time, and many observers note Mr. Belmokhtar's death has been wrongly reported before.
However, if true, their demise would be a significant blow to al-Qaeda in the region. Islamist rebels had conquered much of Mali until a French-led military campaign beat them back in January, pushing the rebels to Adrar des Ifoghas mountains in northeastern Mali, where Mr. Belmokhtar is said to have been killed.
"Both men have extensive knowledge of northern Mali and parts of the broader Sahel and deep social and other connections in northern Mali," Dakar-based analyst Andrew Lebovich told Reuters. "The death of both in such a short amount of time will likely have an impact on militant operations."
Reports of Mr. Belmokhtar's death – one of the world's most wanted jihadists – are being disputed. A militant who wrote on several Islamist forums this weekend posted that Mr. Belmokhtar is "alive and well," according to the SITE Institute, a U.S. group that tracks jihadi forums.
Meanwhile, the general commanding Chadian troops said Sunday he could not yet confirm Mr. Belmokhtar's death, even though his government announced it on Chad's national television a day earlier.
"It's still conditional," General Oumar Bikomo told the New York Times. "I can't confirm it."
Mr. Belmokhtar, 40, cut his teeth as a jihadi warrior in the 1990s in Afghanistan before returning to his native Algeria to back a violent Islamist revolution there. After that failed, he set himself up as a desert bandit, allegedly trafficking in cigarettes, drugs and hostages. He stayed ahead of his growing list of enemies by being constantly on the move in the desolate lands straddling Algeria, Niger, and Mali.
The Washington Post reported last month that U.S. officials debated whether to try and kill Mr. Belmokhtar with a military air strike in 2003, but could never achieve consensus among diplomats, generals and law-enforcement officials about how to best to go after him.
The Canadian government also grappled with how to handle Mr. Belmokhtar and his group of militants. Federal agencies sent dozens of agents to Africa in response to the kidnapping of Robert Fowler and Louis Guay in December, 2008. The two men, then senior Canadian diplomats, were working for the United Nations in Niger when they were snatched by Mr. Belmokhtar's group and brought into the deserts of Mali.
The hostages were freed in April, 2009, part of an apparent ransom payment. Since then, Canada has maintained a military and intelligence presence in the region. The RCMP is also working on a potential prosecution of the terrorist group.
On the weekend, Mr. Fowler expressed cautious optimism at reports of his captor's death.
"While I cannot consider reports of the death of both Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar as anything but good news ... I must temper my enthusiasm by the fact that this is by no means the first time Belmokhtar's death has been reported," Mr. Fowler told Reuters.
It's unclear whether Chad received any Western intelligence or military help in the recent strikes. The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that the U.S. has been widening its role in Mail since Mr. Belmokhtar's henchmen staged a mass kidnapping of foreign workers at an Algerian gas complex. More than 60 people died, including three Americans.
According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. Reaper drones have provided intelligence and targeting information that have led to nearly 60 French airstrikes in Mali the past week alone. It is a shift in strategy by Washington, which initially limited sharing of sensitive intelligence.
The bodies of Mr. Zeid and Mr. Belmokhtar have been buried locally, Chad's Communication Minister, Hassan Sylla, told the Wall Street Journal. The al-Qaeda militants were identified by followers captured by Chadian soldiers, Mr. Sylla said.
If this is the case, it may be possible to prove Chad's claims. Algeria is reportedly analyzing the DNA of other prominent terrorist leaders who have been recently slain in Mali.