He was uncatchable. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the legendary Algerian militant, had eluded attempts to kill or capture him across North Africa and the Sahel for a dozen years, continuing his campaign of kidnapping and guerrilla attacks.
But in June last year, the Joint Special Operations Command, the secretive military outfit tasked with hunting al-Qaeda, believed it had Belmokhtar in its sights as he made his way to a dusty farm outside Ajdabiya, eastern Libya, where a group had assembled for a meeting.
Famously disciplined, Belmokhtar and his associates cloaked their movements and avoided electronic communications – but someone slipped up. When two US F-15 jets unleashed their bombs, they demolished the farmhouse, killing at least five militants.
Eight months on, US military and intelligence agencies remain unsure whether Belmokhtar was killed. “We took a shot, but we could never really confirm his demise,” said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
As President Obama prepares to step down, the uncertainty highlights the sometimes limited intelligence surrounding strikes that have become a hallmark of his response to threats overseas. Mr Obama has sought to minimise troop deployment by employing Special Operations raids and air strikes to target scores of jihadists from South Asia to Africa in recent years.
British jets prepare for air strikes in Syria
British jets prepare for air strikes in Syria
A Tornado jet takes off from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, as RAF Tornado jets carried out the first British bombing runs over Syria
Pilots and ground crew prepare combat aircraft Panavia Tornados at RAF Marham at RAF Marham, UK
A Eurofighter Typhoon jet takes off from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, as RAF Tornado jets carried out the first British bombing runs over Syria
A RAF Tornado arrives at RAF Akrotiri to begin operations in Akrotiri
A Tornado jet ahead of taking off from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, as RAF Tornado jets carried out the first British bombing runs over Syria, the Ministry of Defence has confirmed. The air strikes were carried out within hours of a vote by MPs in the Commons to back extending operations against Isis from neighbouring Iraq
Personnel work on a British Tornado after it returned from a mission at RAF Akrotiri in southern Cyprus
Two RAF Tornado GR4's, both with remaining weapons ordnance, approach RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, as they return to the base after carrying out some of the first British bombing runs over Syria
A RAF Tornado takes off from RAF Akrotiri, on the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus
A Tornado jet leaving RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland
AKA RAF Tornado arrives at RAF Akrotiri to begin operations in Akrotiri, Cyprus. The RAF has sent two further Tornado aircraft and six Typhoons to bolster aircraft now flying sorties to both Iraq and Syria
Civil liberties activists have been pressing for more details. A federal appeals court on Wednesday heard arguments on whether the government should be more transparent about drone strikes, in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Some officials’ reservations over whether Belmokhtar was killed are enough to stop the Obama administration declaring “jackpot” – military jargon for a conclusive hit against a militant target. And there are troubling questions raised about who the strike may have killed in his stead, and how the attack may have affected his followers, who have launched several bloody attacks since.
One former senior official said the remote strikes were one of the few tools the US could use in areas that do not permit an on-the-ground presence. Advocates say precision munitions launched by drones or fighter jets, mean less collateral damage. The official said the problem was that “they are going to take place in ungoverned areas [where] you don’t have a clear partner”.
Jameel Jaffer, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “There’s only so much you can learn from surveillance conducted from 15,000ft, and their human intelligence is very limited in some of the places where they’re carrying out strikes.”
The Belmokhtar strike was the culmination of a long international effort against the man also known as “Mr Marlboro”, “the Uncatchable” and “One-Eyed” for the disfigurement he suffered handling weapons as a young man. Belmokhtar trained in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and fought with an Islamist group in Algeria’s decade-long civil war before joining a group that became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
He financed operations by kidnapping foreigners – including two Westerners working for the UN – for ransom, and was known for prolific smuggling of cigarettes and other goods over the borders of North Africa and the Sahel. He gained local support by marrying into tribes.
Given his stature, intelligence officials thought Belmokhtar would be harder to replace than militants from groups with a deeper bench, such as Isis. It made him an attractive target. In 2003, Washington considered trying to kill him from the air in north Mali, but concerns about the political backlash stopped that. A decade later, his fighters laid siege to a gas plant in Algeria, killing three Americans and six Britons. The charismatic and ambitious Belmokthar, 43, clashed with others in the African al-Qaeda outfit and twice helped form splinter brigades – al-Mulathameen and, more recently, al-Murabitoun.
“We’ve been after this guy for a long time,” a former senior US official said.
Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist group in Algeria, released the names of seven of its militants whom it said died in the US raid, but Belmokhtar was not among them. Several other groups denied Belmokhtar had been killed; AQIM said he was “alive and well”.
Ibrahim Jathran, an influential militia leader in Ajdabiya, said the wounded, known to authorities, were mostly locals and perhaps one Tunisian. “We wish Belmokhtar had been killed, but there’s no proof.” One US intelligence official said he remained “pretty confident” Belmokhtar was dead. “But there is room for error, and he’s a wily character,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he popped back up.”
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