Fugitive jihadist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar is hiding in Libya, from where he plans to mastermind terrorist attacks across Africa’s Sahel region, security sources told AFP on Sunday.
The elusive Islamist, who staged a deadly siege of an Algerian gas plant in January last year, was said to have been killed in northern Mali two months later, although security experts have since expressed doubts over the reports.
“For some time we have had evidence that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of the most dangerous Algerian Islamists, who operated in northern Mali, has gone to Libya to avoid being arrested or killed. From the Libyan territory, he intends to control the entire Sahel,” a Malian security source said.
Belmokhtar’s whereabouts were confirmed by a Nigerian security source, and another source close to MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali.
“Everyone agrees today that he is not dead, that he is still active, but that he has settled for a while in Libya where he is still active,” the MINUSMA source told AFP.
Belmokhtar was a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which, along with other armed Islamist groups, took advantage of a military coup in 2012 to occupy northern Mali before being driven out by French and African troops.
He split from AQIM last year and launched the Signatories in Blood, masterminding a raid of Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant in which 38 hostages were killed in a four-day siege.
The attack was said to have been carried out in retaliation for the French-led military intervention in Mali.
Branded “The Uncatchable”, the one-eyed Islamist is also believed to be behind twin car bombings in Niger in May 2013 that left at least 20 people dead.
The United States designated Belmokhtar’s group as a terrorist organisation in December, and the State Department is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to the Algerian’s capture.
General David Rodriguez, head of the US Africa Command, told reporters in January that Belmokhtar, who cut his teeth fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, was still alive and had the means to stage another attack similar to the Algeria raid.
Belmokhtar was involved in fighting against Chadian forces in Mali’s northeastern Ifoghas mountains and was reported to have been killed in action in March last year.
The reports, however, were never confirmed and Rodriguez said Belmokhtar was “in the middle of the Sahel”, exploiting the porous borders between southwest Libya and northeastern Mali.
He said the US was trying to help Libya and other countries in the region bolster security and counter the threat posed by extremists.
Mali has been the target of a series of attacks claimed by Islamist insurgents loyal to Belmokhtar and other jihadist commanders since France launched its military intervention in January last year.
The residual groups of fighters are no longer able to carry out coordinated assaults, but Malian soldiers are vulnerable to small-scale attacks, by Islamist groups and by separatist rebels from the country’s Tuareg ethnic group.