French Authorities Tread Lightly as Others Confirm Death of Al-Qaeda Leader

Newly-created AQIM Touareg brigade whose aim is to control a large area of the Sahel.Photo:

Newly-created AQIM Touareg brigade whose aim is to control a large area of the Sahel.

The cyber world is afloat with rumors. Is Abou Zeid dead? According to Algerian television and Chadian President Idriss Debry, Abou Zeid, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has died in a French military operation along with 42 other al-Qaeda terrorists. French authorities have yet to comment and corroborate that DNA tests confirmed the death of the “AQIM emir”—responsible for several kidnappings of Westerners and the jihadi uprisings in Mali.

The Algerian Ennahar television network published an article on their website titled “The death of the AQIM emir Abou Zeid.” In it, they announce that “a reliable source close to the current military operations in Northern Mali” has confirmed that “French troops stopped three terrorists close to Tigharghar” in Northern Mali and “discovered [the bodies] of 40 terrorists, of whom one was Abou Zeid.”

At a funeral for fallen Chadian soldiers, President Idriss Deby announced to press and opposition leaders, “Chadian forces have killed two jihadist leaders, including Abou Zeid.”  Chadian troops have joined with the French in Operation Serval in northern Mali, which was controlled by Islamic extremists until early January 2013.

DNA tests were carried out in Algeria on two of Abou Zeid’s family members, confirmed by the Algerian daily El Khabar and French radio RFI, in order to compare genetic markers with samples taken from the suspected remains. According to French media M6-MSN’s anonymous source at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “the DNA comparisons performed on the body of the man killed in the Ifoghas [mountains] confirmed that it is, in fact, Abou Zeid.”

French President François Hollande’s administration urges the public to proceed with “extreme caution.” Hollande, who recently announced the “final phase” of Operation Serval, said in a speech on the French intervention in Mali that “information may circulate and I will not confirm it because we need to follow through with the rest of the operation.” French authorities fear that confirmation of the news could greatly endanger the French hostages. Strategically, the death of Abou Zeid seriously undermines the terrorist organizational network in the region that could prove to be to French advantage in the military operation.

Abou Zeid’s first international appearance was in 2003, where he aided Abderrezak Le Para, a leader of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), in the kidnapping of 32 European tourists in southern Algeria. For several years, he went by the pseudonym Adib Hammadou, a name that would appear on a list of AQIM suspected persons falling under UN sanctions.

His true identity—Mohamed Ghadir—was revealed in the proceedings against him and eleven others following the kidnappings of the tourists. Born in 1965 in Debdab, an Algerian town close to the Libyan border, Zeid lived in Algeria for 45 years. There, he fought on behalf of the Islamic Salvation Front (ISF) during the Algerian civil war and became a member of the Armed Islamic Group (AIG) and the GSPC. He rose quickly through the ranks of the organization, which were eventually consolidated into AQIM.

The “emir,” known by his peers as a calm but strict man with gray hair, has always been attached to the historical orthodox line of al-Qaeda, as defined by Osama Bin Laden. These beliefs center around two essential dogmas: the global jihad and the strict and immediate application of Sharia law. In April 2012, Abou Zeid became a highly feared figure in the northern Malian city Timbuktu, where for months, he imposed an extreme form of Sharia law using amputations as punishment on local populations.

Considered one of the more violent leaders, Abou Zeid drew criticism even from the more progressive al-Qaeda leaders—such as the emir Droukdel—who believe that Abou Zeid’s violent tactics are unnecessary, the fight for global jihad is futile, and that all energy should be focused on establishing an Islamic state and preparing populations for an enforced Sharia law.

With headquarters in the Adrar des Iforas mountains, Abou Zeid commanded a katiba (“brigade”) of more than 200 soldiers, called Tareq Ibn Ziyad. The brigade was created seven years ago and has since risen to infamy. He is credited with the kidnapping of at least twenty Westerners in the Sahara within the last five years, which brought AQIM millions of dollars in ransom. He is also considered responsible for the kidnapping of five French nationals, a Togolese, and a Malagasy in northern Nigeria in 2010. He has also estimated to be responsible for the executions of British Edwin Dyer in 2009 and 78 year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneau.

Islamist scholar Mathieu Guidere noted, “his death will reshuffle the Islamist cards in the Sahel region… Several scenarios are possible.” Most of AQIM leaders—save Droukdel—have disaffiliated, due to Abou Zeid’s dogmatic and hard-line ideology, to create their own factions with other outlooks. As the last official al-Qaeda head in the area that followed a strict dogmatic line, Abou Zeid’s death could represent the “end of the AQIM presence in Sahel.” French authorities are proceeding silently and with caution to ensure safety of their captive citizens and military personnel.


  1. […] in Adrar des Ifoghas in North Mali Saturday, March 2 2013, Mokhtar Belmokhtar was pronounced to be amongst those killed.  However, conflicting reports have kept the former Al-Qaeda leader’s death from […]

  2. […] announcement with the possible deaths of two rebel targets from Al-Qaeda’s North African group, Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar.  Neither has yet been confirmed dead with DNA confirmation results […]

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