Airstrike tar­gets Al Qaeda fig­ure

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By W.J. Hen­ni­gan wil­liam.hen­ni­gan @la­times.com

WASH­ING­TON — Amer­i­can war­planes launched a week­end airstrike in Libya tar­get­ing Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a mer­cu­rial smug­gler and kid­nap­per as­so­ci­ated with Al Qaeda, U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials said Sun­day.

Of­fi­cials were as­sess­ing the re­sults of the strike, which took place Satur­day night. But lo­cal news out­lets quoted mem­bers of Libya’s in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment as say­ing that Belmokhtar had been killed. He is be­lieved to be the ar­chi­tect of a deadly 2013 hostage attack on a nat­u­ral gas fa­cil­ity in Al­ge­ria.

“Belmokhtar has a long his­tory of lead­ing ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties … and main­tains his per­sonal al­le­giance to Al Qaeda,” Pen­tagon spokesman Col. Steve War­ren said in a state­ment. Belmokhtar posed “a con­tin­u­ing threat” to Amer­i­cans, he added.

Few de­tails have been re­leased about the op­er­a­tion, but Belmokhtar had been in the U.S. mil­i­tary’s crosshairs for years.

The French gov­ern­ment had nick­named the Al­ge­rian mil­i­tant “the Uncatchable.”

He was once a com­man­der of Al Qaeda in the Is­lamic Maghreb and fun­neled in­sur­gents into Iraq to battle U.S. forces. He’s also be­lieved to have been be­hind the 2008 kid­nap­ping of Robert Fowler, a for­mer Canadian diplo­mat and United Na- tions en­voy who was held for 130 days.

Belmokhtar later ran his own op­er­a­tions in the Sa­hara re­gion but re­tained smug­gling and other con­nec­tions with Al Qaeda.

In 2013, he was the sus­pected mas­ter­mind of a plot to seize a nat­u­ral gas re­fin­ery in Ame­nas, Al­ge­ria, that led to the deaths of at least 38 for­eign cap­tives from 10 coun­tries, in­clud­ing three Amer­i­cans. The in­tent was to seize for­eign­ers and hold them in Mali for ran­som.

There were 790 work­ers on the site, in­clud­ing 134 for­eign­ers, most of whom were sep­a­rated from the Al­ge­rian work­ers.

The in­ci­dent drew global at­ten­tion for five days, be­gin­ning with an as­sault by mil­i­tants and end­ing when spe­cial forces cap­tured the re­main­ing ex­trem­ists amid booby traps and a land­scape of charred ve­hi­cles and scat­tered, dis­fig­ured bod­ies.

But Belmokhtar slipped away.

If the U.S. mil­i­tary found him in Libya, it would be no­table. The U.S. has been ham­pered in gath­er­ing in­tel­li­gence there since the 2011 civil war that re­sulted in the death of for­mer dic­ta­tor Moam­mar Kadafi.

In light of the vi­o­lence that still rages in the coun­try, the White House closed the U.S. Em­bassy last year and pulled out 160 per­son­nel.

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