Libya's internationally recognized government in Tobruk issued a statement on June 14 claiming that a U.S. airstrike in Ajdabiya, eastern Libya, had killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a prominent al Qaeda-aligned jihadist.
Belmokhtar has been reported dead several times in the past in both Algeria and Mali and has proved quite elusive. Chadian troops claimed to have killed him in Northern Mali in March 2013, and rumors have swirled that he was poisoned and killed in Libya in March 2015. Because of this history of unfounded claims, it will be important to wait for further confirmation of his death. The Associated Press is reporting that they have been in contact with an anonymous Islamist source in Libya who denied that Belmokhtar had been at the site of the attack in Ajdabiya.
Though Belmokhtar is Algerian by birth, he has operated in much of North Africa's Sahel region from Mauritania to Niger, and there have been multiple reports that he had set up a base of operations in southwestern Libya that included training camps. Belmokhtar is perhaps best known as the author of the January 2013 attack from Libya against the Tigantourine natural gas facility near Ain Amenas, Algeria.
Belmokhtar is a longtime jihadist who traveled to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahideen in 1991 and who allegedly trained at al Qaeda camps in Khaldan and Jalalabad. He has maintained a close ideological link with al Qaeda, and much of the tension after his split from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula appears to be caused by his adoption of the al Qaeda transnational jihadist philosophy as opposed to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's more nationalistic one. Indeed, his group launched the attack on the Ain Amenas plant about a month after splitting from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; the attack targeted international energy interests rather than Algerian security forces.
Belmokhtar's group suffered serious losses in the Algerian government's heavy-handed response to the Ain Amenas attack. Since then, it has maintained a much lower profile, ostensibly to recruit and train new militants to replace its lost strength.
In August 2013, Belmokhtar joined forces with the Malian group Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa to form a new organization called al-Mourabitoun. In May, Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui announced that al-Mourabitoun was joining the Islamic State, but Belmokhtar quickly replied that no such merger had been approved by the group's Shura council, indicating that there might be a split between the Belmokhtar and Sahraoui factions of the group. But Belmokhtar's continued loyalty seemingly gave a boost to the al Qaeda brand of jihadism.
It is unclear what Belmokhtar was doing in Ajdabiya, which is further northeast than his normal operating areas in Libya. Fighting has erupted in Libya between jihadists linked to the Islamic State and those linked with al Qaeda, such as Ansar al-Sharia and the Mujahideen Shura Council. If Belmokhtar was in fact killed in Ajdabiya, it will be interesting to see what the purpose for his visit was and who he was meeting with. Until those things are known, along with confirmation of who was killed, it will be difficult to assess the impact the strike will have on the jihadist dynamics inside Libya and on the global jihadist movement.