PARIS — The death of a top al-Qaida-linked warlord in combat with French-led troops represents a victory in the battle against jihadists who had a stranglehold on northern Mali. But it is far from the defining blow against a wily enemy that can go underground and regroup to renew itself. Even the fearsome Abou Zeid is replaceable.
A top commander of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Abou Zeid had been in the crosshairs of the French military and their African partners since they moved in to Mali on Jan. 11 to rout radicals seen as a threat to northwest Africa and to Europe. An announcement Saturday by the French president’s office that Abou Zeid’s death in late February has been “definitively confirmed” ends weeks of speculation about his fate.
Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, an Algerian thought to be 47, was a pillar of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s southern realm, responsible for the death of at least two European hostages and a leader of the extremist takeover of northern Mali, which followed a coup d’etat a year ago. He joined a succession of radical insurgency movements in Algeria starting in the early 1990s and became known for his brutality and involvement in high-profile hostage-taking.
President Francois Hollande’s office said the death of Abou Zeid “marks an important step in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel,” the borderlands where the Sahara meets the sub-Saharan jungle, encompassing several nations where radicals are on the rise.
French officials have maintained for weeks that the Abou Zeid was “probably” dead but waited to conduct DNA tests to verify.
But jihadists have shown again and again that they can overcome the death of individual warlords. Even French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said that eliminating leaders “doesn’t solve everything.”
“It’s the entire structure that has to be put down and not this or that leader,” he said in an interview with Le Monde earlier this month.
Al-Qaida rebounded after commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan were killed. Leaders of jihadist movements in Algeria that gave birth to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, were killed and seamlessly replaced. The top AQIM leader in Mali, with the title Emir of the Grand Sahara, Nabil Makloufi, was quickly replaced after being killed last fall in a road accident, according to Matthieu Guidere, an expert on radical Islam who monitors AQIM and other jihadist movements. The new top emir, Yahya El-Hammam, could now step into Abou Zeid’s warlord role, according to one scenario.
Abou Zeid was killed in operations in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains in Mali’s far north, the French statement said. The area where mountains meet the desert was Abou Zeid’s stronghold — and thought to be where he was keeping four French hostages captured two years ago at a uranium mine in Niger. Their fate is unclear.
The French military says the French-led forces have killed hundreds of extremist fighters in the two-month campaign in Mali, and French officials say they have cornered the al-Qaida-linked groups in a patch of northern mountains.
However, even a clear military success by the French and their African partners in Mali would not guarantee that AQIM will die.
While based in northern Algeria, it has proven extremely mobile, latching on to political instability in the region and arming itself with weapons from Libya. AQIM has seeded ties with other radical Islamic movements like the violent Boko Haram in Nigeria. Last week, AQIM put out a call to jihadists throughout northern Africa to join the fronts in Mali and Algeria — or to stay home, and wage a war of preaching in countries like Tunisia or Morocco to turn the tide against “secularists,” according to the SITE Intel Group which monitors jihadist statements.
Interviews with a series of experts on AQIM and other jihadist groups all suggest that a military victory is not the definitive answer to snuffing out jihadist terror, which can change form, move on to new theaters of operation or reignite if the instability it breeds on is not eliminated, too.
“The problem doesn’t go away by eliminating terrorists,” Sajjan Gokel of the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation said in a recent interview. “For every terrorist captured or killed there are at least five other terrorists coming down the assembly line.”
One analyst suggested that Abou Zeid’s death may lead to greater unity among the various al-Qaida-linked factions.
Jean-Paul Rouiller, director of the Geneva Center for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, describes AQIM’s organization as a set of insulated cells under the larger al-Qaida umbrella, which existed independently of each other. The region of Mali — known in the group’s parlance as the “emirate of the Sahara” — was divided between units loyal to Abou Zeid and those loyal to his arch-rival Moktar Belmoktar, who led an attack on a gas plant in Algeria in January that left dozens of foreign hostages dead.
Rouiller said El-Hammam will likely take over control of Abou Zeid’s katibat, or brigade. He said it was Hammam who had acted as the go-between when Abou Zeid wanted to communicate with Belmoktar.
“Especially if Hammam takes over, there could be a chance for a better coordinated relationship with Moktar Belmoktar,” said Rouiller. “I would not be surprised if we see a more united Saharan emirate.”
Chad’s government claimed that Belmoktar was also killed in fighting in northern Mali, but the claim has not been independently verified.
Mystery surrounds the powerful and shadowy figure of Abou Zeid, even regarding his real name. Along with his nom de guerre, Abou Zeid had an alias, Mosab Abdelouadoud, and nicknames, the emir of Timbuktu, the fabled city that became his fief during the 10-month-long occupation of Mali, and the little emir, due to his diminutive size. But the Algerian press has raised questions about his legal identity — Abid Hamadou or Mohamed Ghedir.
He was viewed as a disciplined radical with close ties to the overall AQIM boss, Abdelmalek Droukdel, who oversees operations from his post in northern Algeria.
Abou Zeid fought with a succession of Islamist insurgency movements trying to topple the Algerian state since 1992. He reportedly joined the brutal, and now defunct, Armed Islamic Group that massacred whole villages in northern Algeria, then joined the Salafist Group for Call and Combat that morphed into al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in 2006 under Droukdel’s rule.
An Algerian court tried him in absentia in January 2012, convicting him of belonging to an international terrorist group and sentencing him to life in prison.
Abou Zeid was believed to be the most brutal of the top jihadist leaders in Mali. He held a Frenchman who was executed in July 2010. He’s also been linked to the execution of a British hostage in 2009.
In the Sahara, Abou Zeid’s reputation for brutality toward hostages outdid that of Belmoktar, who in general allowed the foreigners in his care to receive medicine when needed. Rouiller says that an analysis done by his center of proof-of-life videos released by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb suggests that Hammam and another jihadist commander, Targui, are just as brutal toward hostages as was Abou Zeid.
“Based upon the analysis of the video sequences, I don’t think either Hammam or Targui are more humane — the line will not change.”