This image taken from video provided by the SITE Intel Group made available Thursday Jan. 17, 2013, purports to show militant militia leader Moktar Belmoktar (Photo: AP)
Chad on Sunday claimed its soldiers had killed a second key figure linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrem (AQIM) - the one-eyed Islamist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, thought to be behind the deadly January assault on an Algerian gas plant.
A Chadian army spokesman said he was killed in an operation to root out al Qaeda fighters in the Ifoga mountains in the far north of Mali on Saturday. Neither France nor Algeria had confirmed the claim on Sunday.
Born in 1972 in Ghardaia, Algeria, Belmokhtar was an alumnus of al Qaeda's Afghan training camps at Khalden and Jalalabad as well as a veteran of Algeria's jihadist violence during the 1990s.
In an interview published on a jihadist website, Belmokhtar said he went to Afghanistan in 1989 to train in the terror camps and get combat experience in the Afghan mujihadeen conflict following the 1989 Soviet withdrawal.
He joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which conducted a violent campaign of civilian massacres in its battle against the government during the 90s, sometimes wiping out entire villages.
In 1998, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) broke away from the GIA. Belmokhtar, now also nicknamed "The Uncatchable" by a former French intelligence chief, went with them.
Nine years later, the GSPC formally adopted the jihadist ideology of Osama bin Laden and renamed itself Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Nicknamed laâouar, or one-eyed, after he lost an eye handling explosives, Belmokhtar has been known to have extensive kidnapping and smuggling links, earning him the nickname “Mr. Marlboro”.
According to former UN envoy Robert Fowler, who was kidnapped and held hostage by Belmokhtar’s group for four months, the one-eyed militant was professional, business-like, not given to proselytizing speeches and respected by his men.
But Belmokhtar has faced difficulty rising in official jihadist ranks. In 2003, he was passed over in the GSPC leadership struggle, and when the group announced its allegiance with al Qaeda in 2006 it was AQIM supremo Abdelmalek Droukdel who was declared Emir.
By some accounts, Belmokhtar ran into a similar tussle in late 2012, when Droukdel appointed Yahya Abou El Hammam as emir of the Katibat el Moulathamoune – or The Turbaned Ones in Arabic.
Following the reshuffle, Belmokhtar went on to form a new combat unit, al-Mouwakoune bi-Dimaa (“Those Who Sign with Blood”). The name of the new battalion is a reference to the GIA detachment responsible for the 1994 hijacking of an Air France flight.
On January 16, 2013, when Belmokhtar released a video claiming the Algerian gas plant attack was a response to the French military operation in Mali, it caused considerable confusion in some media reports over whether Belmokhtar’s combat unit was a part of The Turbaned Ones. Some reports even questioned the group’s al Qaeda links.
The spectacular attack on the isolated facility, which was jointly operated by British, US and Norwegian oil companies, ended in a bloodbath, with 38 hostages killed by the time an Algerian raid ended the crisis. Among the victims were 37 foreigners, from Britain, Norway, Japan and other nations.
In reality, the links between different katibas and units are often loose and based on personal ties forged between militants.
There is little doubt though that the various units view themselves as regional arms of al Qaeda central command. Some of the documents retrieved by US Navy Seals at the Abbottabad house where Osama bin Laden was killed revealed extensive correspondence between AQIM and al Qaeda central command leaders.
The report of Belmokhtar's death came after Chad's president said Friday that his forces had killed Abou Zeid, a senior AQIM commander in Mali, a few days earlier.
If the two deaths are confirmed, the French-led military coalition will have eliminated the Sahel region's two historical Al-Qaeda leaders and decapitated the jihadist insurgency in Mali.