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U.S. not yet ready to say jihadist leader killed in Mali

By CNN Staff
March 3, 2013 -- Updated 2007 GMT (0407 HKT)
The Obama administration is looking for specific evidence that Moktar Belmoktar has been killed.
The Obama administration is looking for specific evidence that Moktar Belmoktar has been killed.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. trying to confirm veteran jihadist was killed during fighting
  • Senior official says information is split on whether Moktar Belmoktar was killed or not
  • Chad military spokesman says Belmoktar was killed during clashes in northwestern Mali
  • He had claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on an Algerian gas facility

(CNN) -- The Obama administration is searching through U.S. intelligence reports to look for specific evidence that confirms veteran jihadist Moktar Belmoktar was killed in a raid by Chad's military in Mali, a senior U.S. official told CNN on Sunday.

"We don't have enough evidence to support the claim" made by Chad, the official said.

But he emphasized that the United States is not dismissing the claim. "We want to have a level of certainty about it before we say it's true, and we are not there yet," the official said.

On Saturday, officials with Chad's armed forces said said its troops in Mali killed Belmoktar, who had claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on an Algerian gas facility.

Belmoktar led a group called Al-Mulathameen Brigade (The Brigade of the Masked Ones), which is associated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

He was killed during clashes in northwestern Mali, Chadian armed forces spokesman Gen. Zacharia Goubongue said in a statement read on state-run television.

As of Sunday, information available to the U.S. includes both intelligence that supports the claim and contradicts it. The U.S. is looking for a "preponderance of evidence" one way or the other, the senior U.S. official, who declined to be named because of the sensitive nature of the information, said.

Possible double blow for al Qaeda

The area where the fighting took place is remote, so the intelligence community is looking at electronic intercepts and calling on people in the region who may have credible information, the source told CNN.

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee cheered the news on Saturday.

"One of the most elusive and deadly terrorists in North Africa has been reportedly killed," Rep. Ed Royce, R-California, said in a statement. "This would be a hard blow to the collection of jihadists operating across the region that are targeting American diplomats and energy workers. French and African forces are helping Malians shed militant Islamist rule."

In January, more than three dozen hostages died in the terrorist seizure of a natural gas facility in eastern Algeria and the subsequent special forces assaults on it, according to that country's prime minister, Abdul Malek Sallal.

Belmoktar had said the attack was in retaliation for Algeria's allowing France to use its airspace to battle Islamist militants in Mali.

But regional analysts believe the operation was too sophisticated to have been planned so quickly, and Sallal said the hostage scheme had been hatched over months.

The veteran jihadist behind the attack in Algeria

Belmoktar, who lost an eye while fighting in Afghanistan in his teens, long had been a target of French counterterrorism forces.

Born in 1972, Belmoktar grew up on the edge of the desert in southern Algeria.

He traveled to Afghanistan in 1991 in his late teens to fight its then-communist government. He returned to Algeria as a hardened fighter with a new nickname "Belaouar" -- the "one-eyed" -- after his battlefield injury, and joined forces with the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in its brutal campaign against the Algerian regime and civilians deemed to be its supporters.

Belmoktar later claimed he met al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in the Sudan in the mid-1990s.

According to Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French scholar who has extensively studied AQIM, Belmoktar rose steadily through the ranks to become the GIA commander for the Sahara.

After a popular backlash against the terrorist group in Algeria, Belmoktar switched allegiance to a spinoff group in 2000 and continued to operate in the sub-Saharan region.

The GIA was the forerunner of AQIM, which still counts many Algerians in its leadership. Belmoktar remained associated with that group -- but was very much his own man, analysts said.

Abdelmalik Drukdal, the overall leader of AQIM, is said to have demoted Belmoktar late last year from his position as "emir of the Sahel." Belmoktar also feuded with a rival commander -- Abdelhamid Abou Zeid -- one of the most violent and radical figures in AQIM. More than most al Qaeda affiliates, AQIM is divided into often competing groups.

To make money, "Belmoktar increasingly engaged in smuggling, earning the popular nickname 'Mr. Marlboro' ... he also was involved in the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and illegal immigrants," Filiu wrote in 2010.

The report of Belmoktar's death comes just one day after a U.S. official said Abou Zeid had been killed by French and Chadian forces.

The president of Chad said Chadian troops killed the commander, while French military sources said earlier that Abou Zeid, a deputy leader of AQIM, was killed in an airstrike in Mali late last month.

Abou Zeid was one of the group's most ruthless commanders, having seized at least a dozen foreigners for ransom. At least two have been killed; several French citizens remain captive.

"He was a senior influential member of AQIM, and his death represents a significant blow to AQIM's efforts to use West Africa, and Mali in particular, as a safe haven," the official, referring to Abou Zeid, told CNN.

CNN's Pierre Meilhan, Tim Lister, Paul Cruickshank, Barbara Starr and Pam Benson contributed to this report.

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