American military and intelligence officials said today they are attempting to confirm a report from the Chadian military of the death of al Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the alleged mastermind of the deadly attack on an Algerian natural gas facility in January.
If the new report is confirmed, Belmokhtar’s death would be a significant victory against a growing al Qaeda threat in northern Africa.
Belmokhtar’s killing was announced on Chadian national television by armed forces spokesperson Gen. Zacharia Gobongue, who said Chadian troops “operating in northern Mali completely destroyed a terrorist base.”
“The [death] toll included several dead terrorists, including their leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” he said.
However, an unidentified elected official in Mali told The Associated Press he doubted Belmokhtar had actually been killed and said he suspected the Chadian government of pushing the story to ease the loss of dozens of Chadian troops in operations in northern Africa.
Belmokhtar is known as Mr. Marlboro because of the millions he made smuggling cigarettes across the Sahara, but in the last few months the one-eyed terrorist leader has become one of the most sought after terrorists in the world. The attack on the plant near In Amenas in eastern Algeria left dozens of Westerns and at least three Americans dead.
Belmokhtar had formed his own al Qaeda splinter group and announced he would use his wealth to finance more attacks against American and Western interests in the region and beyond.
The U.S. has badly wanted Belmokhtar stopped and actively helped in the search by French and African military units to find him, as well as another top al Qaeda leader who was reported killed yesterday.
After the Chadian announcement, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said Belmokhtar’s death, if confirmed, “would be a hard blow to the collection of jihadists operating across the region that are targeting American diplomats and energy workers.”
Steve Wysocki, a plant worker who survived the attack in In Amenas thanked “military forces from around the world,” especially the Chadian military, for bringing “this terrorist to an expedient justice.”
“My family and I continue to mourn for our friends and colleagues who didn’t make it home and pray for their families,” Wysocki told ABC News.
The CIA has been after Belmokhtar since the early 1990s, Royce’s statement said.
ABC News’ Clayton Sandell contributed to this report.