U.S. Airstrike In Libya Kills Algerian Militant
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There are reports this morning that the leader of al-Qaida's arm in North Africa, a man named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was killed in a United States airstrike in Libya over the weekend. Two Pentagon officials confirmed to NPR that he was killed. The Libyan government released a statement saying he's dead, but he has been reported killed many times in the past only to reemerge. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has been following this story and has the latest for us now. Dina, good morning.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So tell us about this man and how it appears he was killed.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Mokhtar Belmokhtar may be best known for an attack on an Algerian gas plant back in 2013. Hundreds of workers were taken hostage, and that attack lasted for days before Algerian commandos went in. Thirty-eight people were killed and three of them were American. So Belmokhtar has been a wanted man for some time. Pentagon officials say that a single airstrike carried out by an Air Force F-15 killed Belmokhtar in Libya early Sunday morning Libya-time. The Libyan government confirmed his death in a statement last night, but Islamists on the ground are saying this morning that the strike missed him. Now typically U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence officials don't confirm this kind of death until they have DNA evidence from the ground, and I've been told that they don't have the DNA evidence yet.
GREENE: OK, so we'll wait for that final confirmation I guess. But, Dina, what else do we know about him beyond this attack in Algeria? Is he a well-known terrorist?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he was a notorious figure in North Africa. For years, he was considered the leader of al-Qaida's arm there, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM, though he's thought to have nominally split from that group a couple of years ago and formed his own al-Qaida-linked militia.
GREENE: Why would he do that?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, AQIM had this tenuous relationship with the al-Qaida core leadership largely because al-Qaida thought the group was linked too closely to criminal elements. The group made huge amounts of money through ransoms and smuggling and extortion. And Mokhtar Belmokhtar was the first al-Qaida figure to really turn kidnapping and ransom into the main funding mechanism for terrorism, and that's something that really upset the core leadership of al-Qaida. In fact, Belmokhtar was known locally as the Marlboro Man or Mr. Marlboro because he basically controlled the cigarette smuggling business across northern Africa in the Sahel, and that upset al-Qaida's leadership in Pakistan.
GREENE: And obviously his activities have had the United States upset. I mean, they clearly wanted to target him here.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they've known for some time that Belmokhtar was in Libya, and I've been hearing from my contacts that the new concern had been that Belmokhtar, partly because he had a falling out with al-Qaida, was aligning himself with key members of the self-proclaimed Islamic State or ISIS, which has been moving into Libya in the past six months. And the U.S. had been worried that al-Qaida and ISIS were finding common cause in Libya, so that may have been part of the reason why Belmokhtar was a higher-priority target. We understand that there had been aerial surveillance on him, and the U.S. had specifically targeted him. Now, the question is whether the DNA evidence will support the early reports and whether there'll be news that key ISIS figures were killed as well.
GREENE: All right. We've been speaking to NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thanks a lot.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.