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.