c.2013 New York Times News Service
DAKAR, Senegal — Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind of the January seizure of an Algerian gas plant that left dozens of foreign hostages dead, has claimed responsibility for another terrorist attack — the suicide bombings on Thursday in Niger that killed about 30 people, including 24 soldiers and at least six jihadists.
If true, Belmokhtar’s claim would put one of the Sahel’s most hardened militants, whom Chad’s military said in March it had killed in battle, back at the center of the region’s fight against Islamist jihad.
Experts saw no reason to doubt Belmokhtar’s claim, despite the unconfirmed claim by the Chadian military, which said that Belmokhtar had died in the Ifoghas mountain range during the joint French-Chadian campaign against Islamist militants in northern Mali.
Neither France nor Algeria, where Belmokhtar has been a wanted man for years for his role in the 1990s civil war there, ever confirmed Chad’s assertion. No proof was presented of his death, and a fellow militant later denied it in an Internet posting.
The latest claim by Belmokhtar — a veteran of training by al-Qaida in Afghanistan, years of terrorist acts against the Algerians and multiple kidnappings of Westerners in the Sahara — came hours after bomb-laden vehicles ripped through a military installation and a French-owned uranium mine in Niger.
Belmokhtar, who is considered perhaps the most redoubtable of the region’s surviving militants, also played a leading role in the Islamist takeover of northern Mali last year.
The new claim was made on a number of different websites. In one, Belmokhtar himself, using his nom de guerre Khalid Abu al-Abbas, signed a claim on jihadist forums that fighters from his “Those Who Sign with Blood” brigade — the same group that carried out the Algeria attack — blew up the French mine and the Niger base, according to the SITE Monitoring Service, which tracks extremists. The claim was posted by the same user who put out a video of Belmokhtar in December, SITE said, and it asserted that the attacks were in retaliation for purported assertions by Niger to have defeated the jihadists.
“We warn all the countries that are intending to participate in the Crusader campaign on our land, even if in the name of peacekeeping, that we will make you taste the heat of death and wounds in your homelands and among your soldiers,” SITE quoted Belmokhtar as saying.
A purported spokesman for Belmokhtar made a similar claim of responsibility on a Mauritanian news site, Al Akbar, which sometimes receives communiqués from jihadists. The spokesman, Hassen Ould Khlil, told Al Akhbar that the attacks were carried out by the jihadists’ brigade “under the direct supervision of Mokhtar Belmokhtar” and “in perfect coordination” with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, a Qaida offshoot that had earlier claimed responsibility for the attacks.
One expert on the region found the claims of responsibility credible, particularly in the aftermath of the Mali campaign, which dealt a serious blow to the militants.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he orchestrated it,” said Anouar Boukhars, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which is based in Washington. “It was only a matter of time before there was going to be retaliatory strikes,” said Boukhars.
In Thursday’s attack, suicide bombers simultaneously drove explosives-laden vehicles into a military base in the desert town of Agadez and a French uranium mine 150 miles away at Arlit. One civilian was killed in the attack on the mine. French special forces helped the Niger military kill two surviving militants in a firefight early on Friday in Agadez, Niger and French officials said.