France confirms death of top al Qaeda leader Abou Zeid
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French President François Hollande confirmed Saturday that Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a top leader of al Qaeda’s North Africa branch, was killed in a French military operation in northern Mali late last month.
France confirmed the death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid on Saturday, ending weeks of uncertainty over whether one of the most dreaded leaders of al Qaeda’s North African branch was among the militants killed in a military assault in northern Mali last month.
In a statement released on Saturday, French President François Hollande confirmed that Abou Zeid’s death “occurred during combat led by the French military in the Ifoghas Mountains in northern Mali at the end of February”.
The Algerian-born militant was the leader of one of the most hardline brigades – or katibas – of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The French presidential statement released on Saturday noted that “the end of one of the main leaders of AQIM is a milestone in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel” – referring to the remote transitional zone between the Sahara desert and the African savannah.
Reports of Abou Zeid’s death first hit the headlines in his native Algeria late last month, when an Algerian TV station reported that he was among the senior militants killed in an assault in northern Mali.
Days later, Chadian President Idriss Deby said Abou Zeid was killed by Chadian troops, who are part of the French-led international mission in Mali. France launched a military operation in Mali on January 11 to push back militants linked to Abou Zeid and other extremist groups who had imposed harsh Islamic rule in northern Mali.
But France at the time did not immediately confirm reports of his death, awaiting the results of DNA tests.
A ‘tiny, rickety man with a goatee’
A shadowy figure who operated in the badlands of the Sahel, Abou Zeid headed the “Tareq Ibn Ziayd” or “El Fatihine” katiba, one of the most radical AQIM branches responsible for the execution of British tourist Edwin Dyer in 2009 and French aid worker Michel Germaneau in July 2010.
His group is also believed to be behind the 2010 abduction of five French nuclear and construction workers in northern Niger.
Although well known in jihadist circles and by the French and Algerian intelligence services, Abou Zeid was an elusive figure whose life was shrouded in mystery.
Even his name was the subject of much discussion among counter-terrorism experts. While Abou Zeid was his nom de guerre, his other aliases included Mosab Abdelouadoud. His legal name has been the subject of some confusion in the Algerian press, with some reports claiming his real name was Abid Hamadou while others said it was Mohamed Ghedir.
Abou Zeid also had a number of nicknames, including “the emir of the south” – since his katiba dominated the southern belt of the Sahel – and “the little emir” – a reference to his diminutive size.
His unremarkable stature was confirmed by a French aid worker Pierre Camatte, who was kidnapped in Niger in November 2009 and spent three months in AQIM captivity before his February 2010 release. In an interview with the French weekly magazine Jeune Afrique, Camatte described Abou Zeid as a “tiny, rickety man with a goatee in his ‘50s”.
Born in the Algerian town of Touggourt, located about 600 km south of Algiers in the Algerian Sahara, he was a member of FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) - the Algerian Islamic party that was denied an election victory in the early 1990s, triggering the brutal Algerian civil war.
He later joined the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) where he served under another notorious AQIM leader, Mokhtar Belmokthar, before rising up the insurgent ranks.
In January 2012, an Algerian court tried him in absentia, convicting him of belonging to an international terrorist group and sentencing him to life in prison.