Violent Clashes and a New Successor in the Wake of Confirmation of Abou Zeid’s Death

The most recent clashes occurred in Gao, in northern MaliUN Map of Mali, wikimedia commons

The most recent clashes occurred in Gao, in northern Mali
UN Map of Mali, wikimedia commons

Towards the end of February, covert operations in Mali’s northern mountains of Ifoghas resulted in the death of around forty terrorists. Rumors have been floating around the Internet about the identity of the bodies. While French authorities have been reluctant to confirm any of these rumors, a month after the attack Paris has finally confirmed the identity of the one of bodies as that of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, leader of the Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM),.

The communiqué from French President François Hollande “confirms in a certain manner that the death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid occurred during combat of the French army in the Adrar [mountains] of Ifoghas in northern Mali at the end of February.”

Known as the “AQIM emir,” the death of Abou Zeid “marked an important step in the struggle against terrorism in Sahel” added the French president. Reluctance to confirm the death was partially in hopes of furthering the destabilization of the region’s terrorist network.

Days after the Elysée’s confirmation, on March 24, new clashes between Islamist fighters and the army occurred in Gao, the largest city in northern Mali. According to Le Monde, the attack was “claimed” by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in Western Africa (MUJWA)—one of the Islamist groups that have been occupying northern Mali with AQIM.

According to several sources, the clashes resulted in the deaths of seven people. “One Malian military, four terrorists, and two civilians were killed Sunday during exchanges of gunfire between the Malian army and Islamists,” an African security source present in the city told the AFP. Gao was once a stronghold of the Islamist movement but was released from occupation in January. In February, turbulence hit the city in the country’s first bombing and was the stage of multiple violent clashes between the Malian and French armies and the well-armed jihadists.

Meanwhile, the head of Algerian television Ennahar, Mohamed Mokkadem, told the press that 34 year-old Algerian national Djamel Okacha has been designated Abou Zeid’s successor and is awaiting confirmation from other AQIM top figures. Okacha, who goes by the pseudonym Abul Hannam Yahia, has long been a key player in the Al-Qaeda presence in the region and has been close to the head of AQIM, Abdelmalek Droukdel.

Additionally, the Islamist group has once again reaffirmed that they have killed one of the French hostages, Philippe Verdon. AQIM added that they were unable to confirm the safety of the other hostages who have been held captured since the end of 2011. In a communiqué, supposedly for the French public, they state, “All the other hostages are safe but we cannot guarantee their survival for reasons due to the attacks brought upon our moudjahidine bases by your army.” Fourteen other hostages continue to be held in West Africa—seven of which are being held specifically by AQIM in Sahel and its affiliates.

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